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.

Customs
Earth cycle
Festival
general
Material
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Red Packets (红包 or 利市)

During Chinese New Year, children are given red packets filled with money. In the past, the red packets were placed under the pillow for good luck in the New Year and to ward off evil spirits from invading the dreams. The money inside of the packets is always an even number like 8, 10, and 20 because good luck comes in pairs. The packets are red because red is a lucky number.  Only unmarried people can receive these and only married people can distribute it, regardless of age.

                  My informant has been receiving these packets since birth and was required to pass these out in Singapore since the 1960s. Most people in Chinese communities all over the world practice this particular custom. Most Chinese kids see it as a way to get money during the New Year season.  To get one of these red packets, kids need to greet their elders with auspicious phrases and wishing them good luck.

                  This is not just limited to the Chinese, but there are many other countries that have variations of this custom as well. The Malays also give money after Ramadan, during Hari Raya, but in green packet with odd numbers. The Vietnamese giver something similar to these red packets and the Japanese have white packets with the names of the receiver written on the outside. It’s interesting how customs like this are spread all throughout Asia because it is an example of diffusion and adopting customs.

Customs
general
Initiations
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Singaporean Chinese Wedding

When the groom and his entourage comes to the brides home to collect the bride, the bridesmaids lock the front door and refuse to allow the groom or his groomsmen entry to pick up the bride until they pay a small sum. Usually, the amount of money paid is an auspicious number, like 88 or 888 or 999. The haggling is usually done between the groomsmen and the bridesmaid, and the bride and groom themselves hardly ever participate in this exchange.

                  This was first introduced to my informant at her cousin’s wedding when she was about eight during the sixties. It is not known to my informant whether all Chinese perform this particular custom or just Chinese in the Singapore/Malayan peninsula.

                  The numbers are ‘lucky’ or auspicious because of what these numbers sound like in Chinese. For example, the number 8 in Chinese sounds like the word for strike it rich, while the number 9, bears phonetic similarities to the word for a long period of time. Therefore , it starts the wedding ceremony off with a good start.

                  Customarily this is to ensure a happy start to the wedding because with the exchange of money, this is the ‘modern’ version of ‘purchasing’ the bride from one family and bringing her into another. Even though this tradition is rarely seen nowadays, as Church weddings and Western culture is pervading more of the lives of younger Chinese.

Game
general

Five Stones

A childhood game, played primarily by girls with five small cloth ‘stones’ that are either filled with sands or beans. Game involves throwing and catching the ‘stones’ while not touch the other. There are five stages to this games, the first stage is when you take one stone and throw it up in the air while snatching one on the ground without touching any of the other stones, and then catch the one that you threw up in the air. If you touched any other  ‘stone’ or missed the falling ‘stone’ you’d lose your turn. This goes on till the fifth round, which you have all five in your hand and you toss all five in the air, flip your hand and catch it on the back of your hand.  Additionally, with two or more people, the other player gets to choose the ‘stone’ that you need to throw up in the air.

 

My informant started playing this game when she was about six, growing up in Singapore during the early sixties. She played this game mainly because it was what girls that age did during that time, the boys played their games and the girls played theirs.

There are variations on the rules depending on what school you went to and who you played with and they are mostly about which hand to play with after the first whole round and the fifth stage. While there are websites and it is documented how to play, most people learn to play from their classmates and their parents.

While this game is relatively old, they still play this game today in schools. Even though it isn’t as widespread as it was in the past. One of the reasons why this game is so popular is due to the fact that it is convenient to carry around and it would not be confiscated by the teachers if they are caught playing in school, unlike video games.

Folk speech
general
Humor

Singaporean Joke Acronyms

Acronyms :

SBS

Singapore Bus Service

Side-By-Side

SDU

Social Development Unit

Single, Desperate, Ugly

MRT

Mass Rapid Transit

Mad Rush to Train

SAF

Singapore Armed Forces

Serve And Forget

PAP

People’s Action Party

Pay and Pay

PUB

Public Utilities Board

Pay Until Bankrupt

LTA

Land Transport Authority

Long Tio Ah (Crash)

 

These were a few acronyms that my informant heard from one of his ex-classmates from high school. The middle column is the correct versions of these abbreviations. While there are more than just these few, these are just the ones that he could remember off the top of his head. While this might not mean much to the average non-Singaporean, to most Singaporeans this would be rather amusing as it fits the stereotypes of the particular government function, according to my informant.

These are not meant to offend anyone, but just to poke fun at the establishment a little. If you have not noticed, all of those listed above are government owned or governmental establishments. The government in Singapore is also one of its largest employers and therefore most people are beholden to the government. Like people everywhere though, they enjoy making fun of their government and this is meant to do so.

general
Legends
Myths
Narrative
Tales /märchen

How Red Hill (Bukit Merah) Got its Name

A long time ago, in the annals of Malayan history, when Singapore was merely a little sleepy fishing village, there was a bloody event that stained the soil of the (present day) Red Hill red with blood. In these early years, fish that had sharp, sword like mouths used to swim up to the shore and attack fishermen, making it unable for them to venture out and fish. Nobody had any idea what to do, the Sultan tried ordering soldiers to attack, but these attempts only made attacks more frequent and causing the soldiers themselves more harm than the fish.

Then one day, a young boy,  who lived on the hill came up with a solution. He advised the Sultan to use banana tree trunks as a wall to ward off the attacks, as the fishes mouth would get stuck in the tree and they can kill the fish more easily.  This plan worked very well, and the fish eventually stopped attacking.

However, the boy became a hero in the eyes of the villages and the Sultan became threatened by him, growing paranoid that the villagers might want this young boy to become the next ruler and overthrow him. His paranoia increased day by day, until one day, he ordered a small squad of his elite guards to assassinate the boy in his sleep. That night, the head of the this team took out his kris (wavy blade dagger) and stabbed the boy in the heart. Killing him instantly.

The blood that flowed out would not stop gushing out of the wound, this scared the soldiers and they ran away as fast as possible. This young boy’s blood coated the hill that he lived. None of the villagers knew who ordered the boy kill, but that it was a tragic event, and to commemorate this event, they called the hill Bukit Merah (Red Hill) to remember this boy by.

My informant was informed of this legend when he was a boy in Singapore during the 1990s. This was told to him by one of his older cousins at a family reunion, when they were watching a TV special on the origin of place names in Singapore. He suspected it was partially to scare the living daylights out of him, but nevertheless, it stuck. Because of the story though, he went to look up the actual reason what made the soil on that hill red, and it was because of the soil type on that hill tended to have a reddish hue to it.

Fishermen in rural villages are not the most rational or scientific of people, and the most likely reason for the name would be that as the soil, without any plants or crops growing on it would look like blood soaked soil to these uneducated villagers in the early part of the last millennium. Therefore naming the place, Red Hill or Bukit Merah.

There are many versions of this story. In some versions, like this one, the species of fish attacking the village is unknown, others name it as swordfish and some call it Gar fish. In another version of this story, the boy does not die and it the blood coming out was the blood of the earth from a homunculus which, a witch created to throw off the guards from actually killing the boy.

Earth cycle
general
Legends
Narrative

Why the rat is the first animal in the Chinese Zodiac (为什么老鼠在十二生肖里排第一)

从前,玉皇大帝举行一个比赛来决定十二生肖的顺序排列, 那天早上谁先到皇宫就排那位。 每一个年会有一个不同的动物。消息宣布的时候,第一个听到的是老鼠。老鼠知道自己个子小,没机会用自己的体量来赢,所以他就想出一个能赢得办法。

比赛那天早上,他就到牛的家问他,可不可以坐在他的背上载他到皇宫去。牛答应了,老鼠就爬到他的头顶上。但,因为牛虽然大,不是世界最聪明的动物,过了不久,牛忘记老鼠坐在他的头顶上。

一到皇宫前,老鼠就跳下牛的头, 成为第一个动物来到皇宫。牛果然不开心,但没别的办法,只能默默的接受第二位。

A long time ago, the Jade emperor decided to have a race to see who was going to be the twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac. The first twelve who reached the Jade Emperor’s place would be the members of the Chinese zodiac in that order. The first person to hear about the news was the Rat. Since the Rat was small, he knew that there was no way he would win without outside help and began to formulate a plan.

On the day of the competition, he went to the house of the Bull, because firstly, most creatures were scared of the Bull and it wasn’t smart like the tiger, horse or dragon, who would know what it was thinking and the Bull lived nearest the Place. He asked the Bull, if he could hitch a ride to the palace and the Bull agreed. Since the Bull wasn’t the brightest of animals, he forgot that the rat was riding on his head halfway through the race.

Once at the palace, the rat jumped through the air and was the first animal to enter the palace and won the race. Naturally, the Bull was not pleased with this development, but he had no other choice than to accept his place at number two.

 

This was told to my informant during a Chinese New Year celebration when she was in primary school during the year of the Rat. It tends to be a story to tell children about the reasons behind the placements of the Chinese zodiac and why such a small animals is placed first. Like most legends, there are multiple versions floating around the world. Some are because the Rat defeated the elephant by going into its ear and other stories discuss the reasons why the Cat is not in the Chinese Zodiac

Unlike the western zodiac where it follows the signs in the sky, the Chinese zodiac rotates every twelve years with an animal representing each year. Each year is supposed to be prosperous for doing different things, luckier years for having children or getting married are the Dragon and Pig years. The Dragon because it is a symbol for intelligence and strength, while the Pig is a sign of wealth and prosperity in the Chinese culture. On the other hand, the rat is supposed to be a cunning and quick witted animal

This is an example also, to teach children that might does not always win, but the smart and the cunning usually end up on the top. Teaching children not to underestimate things because of their size, but evaluate carefully and not be rash.

general
Legends
Myths
Narrative

Guan Yu and Hua Tuo (关羽和华佗)

在三国年代,关羽,一位蜀国将军在大战时候, 被一个沾满了毒的箭被射在左臂,无药可救。原因是关羽不限离开战场半步,毒已经流入骨头吸不出来。但那时都有一位神医, 名叫华佗。没其他办法,蜀国的将军请华佗来救关羽的一臂和一命。

华佗一看伤口就便告诉关羽必须开手术要开肉刮骨。华佗问他要不要把他麻醉一下。 关羽说他不怕痛,这样就可以开始了。

华佗来自前关羽跟一位官,马良, 下棋。动手术的时候,旁边的观众听到刀刮骨头的时候都受不了。但关羽不停的下棋,喝酒,有时候还笑, 好像不痛的样子。几分钟之后,刮完了。华佗就便缝关伤口,缝完了,关羽称华佗的医术无比,臂也不痛了。工作做完了,华佗就默默离开。

During the period of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu, a prominent general in the Shu army was poisoned by a poisoned arrow in his left arm during battle. The army doctors could find no way to treat it, in part due to the fact that Guan Yu refused to leave the battlefield and the poisoned had seeped into the bone. However, there was also a very famous physician that lived during that time by the name of Hua Tuo. Left with no other recourse, the other generals invited Hua Tuo to look at Guan Yu’s arm.

After examining his arm, Hua Tuo told Guan Yu that he needed to operate and asked if he needed or wanted to be anesthetized during this operation as it was very painful. The operation included scraping the poison off the bone and this was unbearable for most people. Guan Yu just laughed and told Hua Tuo to just go ahead because he was not scared of a little pain.

While this was going on, Guan Yu was playing chess with another official from the country of Shu by the name of Ma Liang. During the whole operation, not once did Guan Yu complain of the pain, even though everyone around him cringed at the sound of the knife scraping bone. Moments later, the operation was over and Guan Yu praised Hua Tuo’s skills, but Hua Tuo refused to accept any reward and left as suddenly as he came.

 

This story was told to my informant by his father when he was a young child growing up in China during the 1950s. According to my informant, this story is part of a very famous saga about a time of discord in history. However, he says that this particular legend is most likely not true because, while Guan Yu did receive an arm wound such as this, it was the right arm and not the left. Additionally, by the time this injury occurred, the doctor mentioned in this tale was killed twelve years prior due to the paranoia of the ruler of another kingdom.

The period that this is set in is very real. There were three countries that were warring over control of China after the Han dynasty. Guan Yu was part of the Kingdom of Shu and the other two countries were Wei and Wu. The stories of these times were eventually written down and compiled in a book called, Romance of the Three Kingdoms or 三国演义。

However, this story is still very interesting and is still passed down from generation to generation. Firstly, because it is an interesting story, but also to prove to toughness of the Chinese people and how wonderful Chinese medicine was before Hua Tuo was killed and all his works burnt. Hua Tuo was actually (after his death) known as the “God of Medicine” and his name is used to call brilliant doctors these days.

 

Annotation: Can be found in羅貫中. 三国演义 . China: 中华书局: 2005

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