USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Singapore’
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.

Folk speech
general
Humor
Riddle

Zhao

Shine

一个日本人,

yi ge ri ben ren

One Japanese Man

站在门口,

zhan zai men kou

Standing at the doorway

拿着一把刀,

na zhe yi ba dao

Holding a knife

杀了四个人。

sha le si ge ren

He kills four people

 

This was learned by my informant when she was growing up in Singapore in school, when she was about ten or eleven years of age. While she can’t quite recall who she learnt it from, she said it was rather useful for learning characters in Chinese.  It is in essence a word riddle, in which the bottom four lines would be told to the other person and the other person would try to guess what the word was.

Even though there is supposedly nothing meant by the content (morbid as it is), it is just there because it fits the word. However, when my informant was growing up during the 1950s and 60s in Singapore there was a great deal of resentment against the Japanese for WWII. The words of this riddle could originate as a subtle form of anti-Japanese rebellion or statement for the brutal acts that they performed in Singapore and most of South East and East Asia.

During World War II, it was very common for Japanese soldiers to enter houses indiscriminately and slaughter whole families for numerous trumped up charges, like being Chinese, or having a wife that the soldier found mildly attractive or even looking at them wrong. Therefore this might be a reflection of not only this anti-Japanese sentiment but also oppositional culture.

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
Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

Chinese Naming Superstitions

The older Chinese tended to nickname their children after animals and give their boys, a girl’s name or a girl a boy’s name.

My informant knew about this custom because his older sister was given a boy’s name to ensure that the next child would be a son. His sister was born in the 1940s, and he learned about it in the 1950s when he was very young.

There are many reasons for this. In the past, people used to name their children after animals to avoid the demons from taking their children away because they would get confused when the parents would call them animals in hopes that the spirits would take the animals instead. Another reason is that the spirits would think that there was something wrong with the children if they’re called names for the other gender. Often though, Chinese families would call their older girls (especially families with no boys) by boy names in the hopes the next child would be a boy.

This is because, boys are very important for more traditional Chinese families. In the past, the daughters would become part of the family they marry, but the son would remain, carry on the family name and take charge of the farm and parents.

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