USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Singapore’
Folk speech

Bo Tah Bo Lampa

Proverb: Bo tah bo lampa

Phonetic Translation: Boe tah boe lam pah

Translation: If you don’t chug, you have no balls

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US, but originally from Singapore. This piece of folk speech was told to me by the informant in a college dorm room.

Background: This informant is from Singapore, where the drinking age is 18. Because of this, he has gone to clubs and other places with his friends to drink. While out drinking at one of these clubs for the first time, his friends shouted this over and over while they were drinking, essentially telling each other to keep going over. He personally likes this piece of folk speech because or its origins. It did not arise in Singapore initially, but rather has roots in Cantonese bars.

Analysis: The first thing that struck me about this phrase was that, despite the informant identifying it as mainly Singaporean, its origin is in fact in Canton. Though Singapore is a mainly Malay-speaking region, this phrase has replaced other, native sayings. Furthermore, this phrase is an awesome view into how many pieces of folklore formed. In this case, Singapore and Canton share strong trade ties and relatively close geographic locations. That, coupled with the maritime nature of the two regions, meant that sailors temporarily onshore, as well as passengers, were most likely the ones to make the phrase well known. Personally, I think the phrase is crude, especially when translated to English, but still, I can see why it spread easily. Phonetically, it’s an easy and fun phrase.

Festival
Holidays
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Hungry Ghost Festival — Singapore

Interview Extract:

informant: “So in Singapore, around August or September, I forget which month but somewhere there, we have this festival sort of, called the Hungry Ghost Festival. And it’s where all our deadancestors come alive again for a day, but we sort of like, celebrate it for a whole week kinda. And what we do is we buy lots of paper money…it’s like square paper with a gold leaf…impression on it, and we’ll fold it into shapes, like ingots. It’s kinda like origami. And this represents money, which we’ll dump into bins that everyone has. Not like every person, but like, every apartment complex or every house. Like any public complex or space, we’ll dump the paper money shapes there.”

Me: “What does the money signify, or rather, why would it be necessary on the day the dead come back?”

Informant: “Oh, well in Singapore, when someone dies, you’ll burn paper money for them, sorta like to send them off with good fortune and wealth. And we do the same thing for like, when our ancestors come back.”

Me: “I see. So what else do you. You celebrate for a whole week?”

Informant: “Yeah. We’ll burn incense, have lots of food. Like there’s cakes, oranges, eggs…boiled eggs, I don’t really know why, but boiled ones, and rice and fruits, and just like, donations or offerings. It’s for the dead. And it’s really one day but we have the preparation last a while and there’s concerts and performances too.”

Me: “It’s a bit like Halloween or Day of the Dead celebrations.”

Informant: “Yeah, kinda. You have something similar here. But ours isn’t focused on like, creepiness so much.”

Analysis:

The Hungry Ghost Festival is indeed like Halloween, a day in which past spirits are recognized, but it is also much more like the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, where past ancestors are treated with respect and given offerings. The ghosts don’t seem to pose any danger to the people celebrating, and are in fact welcomed since these are the old ancestors of families. The donations and offerings are there as signs of respect and a way to ensure comforts of passed family members. The fact that there are performances and concerts, as well as a whole community effort to make the paper money shapes, demonstrates that this is a bonding festival, bringing people together.

My informant was very eager when talking about this festival. She especially seemed to enjoy paper ingots that she would make and that the whole apartments would collect. It is a very neighborly tradition, and brings not only families close, but communities. The ancestors’ ghosts become a communal experience, instead of just focusing on personal ties. Everyone participates in buying the special paper, folding it, and collecting it, also showing that this festival is extremely inclusive, and unlike Halloween, does not limit who can join based on age.

Had my informant been back in Singapore this past year during the festival, I’m sure she would have joined in on the celebrations. It seems like a tradition heavily embedded into South Chinese culture, emphasizing money and food, the basic things needed to provide comfort and security. Evidently, it is a kindness to bestow these things to those in the afterlife as well as the living.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Magic

僵尸 (Jiang Shi)

These are more commonly known as Chinese Zombies. Unlike the western concept of Zombies, these do not go around looking for human flesh. Instead, these are often the minions of magicians or sorcerers that do their bidding. However, like their western counterparts, they have no will of their own. Jiang shi tend not to be able to walk, but hop with their arms outstretched perpendicular from their bodies.  For cadavers to become jiang shi, the magician needs to paste a talisman with a spell on the forehead of the corpse. No one knows how these talismans are created. Supposedly, there are two ways to ‘kill’ these creatures, one of which is to destroy the talisman pasted on their foreheads, but this is excruciatingly difficult as these creature are more than twice as strong as a normal human and impervious to most weapons. The other way to destroy them is to kill their creators. It is recommended, instead, to throw glutinous rice at them. The rice is known to hurt them and therefore slow them down. It is not known why this happens but it does.

                  This creature was made known to my informant when he was growing up in China. He does not quite recall where he heard it from. However, these creatures are not just confined to China, as my informant has heard a version of these creatures when he arrived in Singapore as well. It is assumed that most countries with Chinese would have these creatures as they are made from corpses, and all you’d need to know is the talisman making ritual.

The magicians that create these are usually from the Taoist traditions. Strangely enough, there is no devil in this situation. Unlike most western and Latin American ghouls and creatures, no hint of Christianity has appeared in this particular piece of folklore. In fact, this black magic is based in the dark-side of things and the unnatural.

Chinese mythology does have demons and the devil, but they just balance each other out. A binary opposition because of the yin-yang, light-dark, everything has an opposite in nature. There are good magicians as well, but they draw on a different source of power in nature.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Tales /märchen

Pontianak

Found throughout South East Asia, this is a female monster that appears at first glance to be a beautiful woman with long black hair. On closer examination though, she has sharp fangs and razor like claws.  Unlike most female monsters that only target males, the Pontianak kills and is rather indiscriminate in her choice of victims, though there seems to be a preference for pregnant females and men. Depending on her choice of victims, males tend to have their bodies drained of blood. Whereas, pregnant women usually have their unborn fetuses ripped from their bodies before the Pontianak eats the unborn baby and drains the mother of all her blood. There is no know way to subdue the Pontianak other than not to stop for her, as her preferred location tends to be on highways and abandoned roads late at night.

                  My informant first heard of this particular breed of monster was at a campfire when he was about 15 years old. The Pontianak is a classic horror story told to scare people from travelling alone at night. However, there are real stories of encounters with this monster. Often, they are in a taxi and they pass by a beautiful woman on the side of the road wearing a sarong kebaya and when they pass by, they usually see the pale face, sharp teeth and claws that characterize the Pontianak. Those fortunate enough to live though seeing a Pontianak are few and far between.

                  Like most creatures like this, they are often the center of many a horror film. According to my informant, there are at least 3 movies that involve the Pontianak; however, none of them were made in English but in Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia. This is because this is a creature, primarily in Malay folklore and this extends to both Malaysia and Indonesia. There are variations on the Pontianak in the other South East Asian countries, but the Pontianak spans at least three countries on that area of the continent.

                  This can be viewed as a variation of the vengeful female demon/creature in most folklore. While there is various speculation on her origins, for in some, she is the embodiment mother’s who have died due to either childbirth or a miscarriage and she is the bitter result because she cannot stand other people having children when she couldn’t. In other tales, she is what happened to a scorned woman whose fiancé betrays her for someone else and she kills herself in response.

Folk Beliefs
general
Myths
Narrative

How Singapore was Founded

A long time ago, before much of history was recorded down, there lived a young prince of Sumatra. His name was Sang Nila Utama. He was searching for a place that would be suitable for a new city, however to no avail. Sang Nila Utama set sail for the Riau Islands and was welcomed by their Queen.

One day while out hunting, he spotted a deer, but it disappeared far too quickly for him to catch. He climbed up a large rock in hopes of finding more game, but instead he spotted another island nearby. Never seeing the island before, he asked one of his advisors what the island was called. The advisor told him that it was the island of Temasek. Always seeking new places to explore, Sang Nila Utama decided to venture out to that new found isle.

However, while out at sea, the boat they were in started filling up with water! They were sinking fast. To delay this, they started throwing everything heavy overboard, but still, no success. Until, one of his closest friends told him to throw his crown overboard as well. Seeing that there was no other recourse, he did so. And the storm stopped.

Landing safely as what is now known as the Singapore River, he started to hunt, as this was a new place with (hopefully)more game. During this time, a quick flash ran past him and he decided to give chase. After a while, it stopped and looked at him. It was nothing like the Prince had ever seen before.  Asking his friends what it was, he was told that it was most likely a lion.

Taking this as a sign, Sang Nila Utama set up a city at this spot. He declared that this island was not named Temasek any longer. But it was to be called Singapura (Singa is the word for lion and pura is the word for city) or Lion City for the great sight that he saw. He ruled this land for many years and is supposedly buried at present day Fort Canning Park.

 

 

My informant first heard this story when he was around the age of eight from his tuition teacher during the school holidays. He really did not think very much of this story and was one of the few folklore tales that he had recalled from his youth.  However, he felt that, like all tales, there was probably a grain of truth in it, as Malay annals do recall a King named Sri Tri Buana, also called Sang Nila Utama that ruled Singapore or Singapura for a few decades.

However, it is rather unlikely that the prince had seen an actual lion in Singapore, because Singapore is located in the tropics, and the natural habitats of lions tend not to be in tropical rainforests. It was more likely that the animal the prince saw was a tiger because until the early nineteen hundreds, Singapore was home to many tigers. They became extinct due to overhunting as the British offered rewards for every tiger killed, and that quickly decimated the Singaporean tiger population.

Like most legends, most of this story is likely to be embellishment that was tacked on later in time as it sounded better.  It is highly unlikely that there was a sudden storm that arose that threatened to sink the ship or that he threw his crown overboard. The most likely occurrence was either it was added on later in time or his crown dropped overboard and they needed to fabricate a ‘good’ omen to make it sound better.

However, due to this story, the lion is Singapore’s national animal and is a large symbol for most of the people who live and visit the island country.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic

Toyol

This is a familiar or an imp type creature. The Toyol is a spirit that is invoked by a bomoh (Malayan witch doctor) from a dead foetus. These people who possess a Toyol  usually use them to do mischief, like steal money and sabotaging people. As these are children spirits, they are not very intelligent and are easily distracted by toys and things they can play with. People who have these creatures usually have an urn in their home with the dead foetus with embalming fluid in their homes. However, it is said that you cannot get rid of a Toyol once you have one and it is passed down from generation to generation. To keep these creatures happy, you have to feed it a few drops of your blood once a day and give it offerings of toys and a lot of attention. Supposedly, these are able to be seen without having the evil/magic eye and look similar to House Elves in Harry Potter.

                  My informant was informed of this when she was growing up in Singapore in the 1990s. This was something that she heard while at Primary five camp at her school at Camp Christine, which was rumored to be haunted. So, as kids are wont to do, they shared scary ghost stories in their beds and one of her classmates told her this story.

There are many variations of this particular creature as well. One of which is that the person can buy these spirits from the bomohs, in others people have to create them. A variation says that people can get rid of them by throwing the urn into the sea, or burying them with the proper rites and respect.  Also, feeding a Toyol in one version, has to be fed from blood from the owners big toe, in another it requires fresh rooster blood.

                  As superstitious beliefs run rampant over most of the countries with people that are mostly uneducated and have strong beliefs in Black Magic and the woods. This was also a convenient excuse for things going missing and bad luck. However, while there is no concrete evidence for anything supernatural, according to my friend, there have been reports of sightings of these creatures.

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

井底之蛙,不知天高地厚

Jing di zhi wa, bu zhi tian gao di hou

Well bottom’s frog, no know sky high earth thick

The frog at the bottom of the well, has no comprehension of the vastness of the world.

My informant learned this particular proverb in the 1960’s. During this time, my informant was a ten year old child growing up in the village of Putian, in the Fujian county in Mainland China. He was taught this as a child while in school, and their teacher told this to their entire class. This proverb means that those that grow comfortable and cocky with their little place on Earth really shouldn’t because there are so many things that they do not know out there.

As with most Chinese proverbs, there is a story that goes with it. However, my informant could not recall most of it off the top of his head other than the fact that it involved a frog living in a well talking to a sea turtle that was looking down the well at it.

In Chinese culture, animals often embody values or have values that are normally associated with them. My informant did not elaborate on the qualities of the frog, but sea turtles and turtles in general, are held in much esteem by the ancient Chinese.  The sea turtle in particular embodies wisdom, patience and longevity. All of which are qualities that the Chinese prize.  Therefore, from this, we can assume that the frog is supposed to embody bluster and ignorance. This proverb then, not only implies the limited nature of human knowledge but also the fact that that is nothing to be proud about.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends

Orang Minyak or “Oily Man”

This is a male creature, commonly shaped as a human. As can be inferred from his name, he is covered from head to toe in black oil. Sometimes, he is described as naked and sometimes he’s wearing a black pair of swimming trunks. In many stories, he plays a significant roles as a rapist that only targets virgins. There is some dispute over his origins though, it is unclear whether or not he is of human origin or is a creature from the spirit world. Some speculate that the Orang Minyak is the result of a spurned lover that has powers due to his solicitation of either a bomoh (Malayan Witch Doctor) or a contract with a creature from the spiritual world. The Orang Minyak is commonly found in Malayan folklore with appearances made in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

This knowledge was imparted to my informant when she was on a school camping trip at the tender age of 16 in Singapore in the late nineteen sixties.  The Orang Minyak is commonly one of the perpetrators and has been blamed for many rapes especially in the 1960s, early nineteen seventies, even though the reports have been few and far between since the 2000s.  According to my informant, the more superstitious Malay students would wear sweaty shirts to give the appearance of someone who had just been with a man.

Strangely enough, while the Orang Minyak has always been part of Malay folklore, there was a surprising amount of hype produced after a series of movies about the Orang Minyak were produced in the 1960s. Before this, there was an occasional sighting and crime committed by the Orang Minyak, however, there was a sudden onslaught of cases and sightings of the Orang Minyak after the movies came out. This prompts many to question if the Orang Minyak became a convenient cover-up for many rapists and rape cases.

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

守株待兔, 不劳而获

Shou zhu dai tu, bu lao er huo

Protect tree wait rabbit, no work and gain

Don’t wait for the rabbit to dash its head against a tree, to gain without work

This was first learnt by my informant when he was a young boy in Putian, a small village in the province of Fujian. He assumes that this is to teach children that there are no rewards without hard work as the likely hood of a rabbit dashing its head against a tree is very small. This discourages laziness in the hopes that the child would work hard and accomplish great things in the future.

In fact, according to my informant, there was a back story involved with this proverb as well. While he did not tell me the whole story, the gist of it was that a farmer was out one day looking for food, when suddenly, a rabbit ran into the tree in front of him and died. The farmer was so happy to have food that night that he kept venturing out to the same tree in the hope that another rabbit would perform the same feat. Day after day, the farmer kept going out and the rabbit never came. Eventually, this happy tale ends with the farmer starving to death.

In the past, much of the Chinese economy was agricultural based, and even now, most of China is very dependent on farming and fishing. To many of them, to follow a blind hope such as this, instead of cultivating the crops that they had at home is just foolishness. The Chinese also prize hard work and just rewards a lot more than luck. For example, from the Tang dynasty onward, hardworking scholars could become court officials if they did well at the examinations in the capital. Therefore, it can be inferred that this proverb was to encourage young children that there are no rewards in slacking and the results of laziness can often be dire.

Annotation: Huaxia.com.  http://www.huaxia.com/wh/jdgs/cydg/00096705.html 24 April 2007

Customs
Festival
Foodways
general
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

月饼 (Mooncakes)

During the Mid-Autumn festival, it is customary to eat mooncakes (月饼) while drinking tea and admiring the moon. Mooncakes are essentially pastries that are filled with lotus seed paste, red bean paste or mung bean paste and a salted duck egg yolk. It is said to originate during one of the dynasties to ensure that a secret message to coordinate a rebellion were hidden as a message in the mooncakes.

                  This was practiced by my informant ever since he could eat solid food. It has been part of Chinese culture since at least the Yuan dynasty. However, this practice has been becoming less frequent due to the fact that one of the essential ingredients to making traditional mooncakes is lard; and in today’s health conscious society not many people would like to eat something so very fattening.

                  Even though mooncakes are a very traditional sort of food, it has begun to change in the last couple of years. Now, there are all sorts of mooncakes made with all sorts of flavors and materials. In Asia, Hagen Daaz sells chocolate coated, ice cream filled mooncakes and in recent years, there have been snow-skin mooncakes with the outer ‘skin’ being made out of glutinous rice paste.

                  It is interesting that the mooncakes have changed so much in the recent days with the introduction of more varieties in fillings and crusts. There are even mooncakes for the heart healthy because as mentioned above, many people now don’t want to eat fattening mooncakes.

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