Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

It's Chinese New Year!  Although the first day of the new year was on Sunday, the holiday actually lasts for several weeks.  Those Chinese know how to party.  A common greeting for the new year is "gong xi fa cai", which literally means "wishing you enlarge your wealth", or, as a looser translation, "wishing you a prosperous new year". 

There are a lot of traditions that go along with Chinese New Year.  Like, really a lot.  Maybe it just seems like a lot to me because they're all new, but it seems like western holidays such as Christmas are much simpler.  Here, in no particular order, are some of the traditions that I've learned about CNY.  Cleaning should be done before the new year, as cleaning in the first days of the new year is seen as "sweeping out the good luck".  In the spirit of consumerism, it's good to buy new things before the new year, especially new housewares or clothes that you can show off during the holidays.  It's best if the new clothes are red, as red represents prosperity in Chinese culture.  These new clothes can be shown off during they many visits that you must make to extended family and friends during the first two weeks of the new year.  It's also a good idea to bring gifts when you go on these visits.  Gifts are always given in an even number  - odd numbers are considered unlucky.  The number four is especially bad because it sounds like the Mandarin word for "death"!  The number eight is especially lucky because it sounds like the words for "prosper" or "wealth".  Married people also give their unmarried family members or friends hong bao, which are red envelopes containing cash.

What do these visits consist of?  From what I can gather, mostly eating.  Mandarin oranges are a popular item, because they look like gold coins.  A popular dish here is called "yu sheng", which means "raw fish".  Apparently it is not found in China, only Singapore and Malaysia.  Yu sheng is a salad of raw fish with lots of vegetables and random seasonings.  Each ingredient has a special meaning.  Once the salad is assembled, all the guests begin to toss the salad with chopsticks, while repeating aloud their wishes for a prosperous and happy new year.  The height of the tossing indicates the degree to which the wishes will be fulfilled, so guests are expected to toss the salad very high!  Sounds like a messy process.  Finally, there are a lot of desserts to eat.  All the stores in Chinatown have been selling lots of little cookies - however most of the ones that I have tried taste quite dry and flavorless to me.  Pineapple and egg tarts are also popular.  Most popular, though, are Taiwanese mochi products.  There are many different varieties of these products - from the typical mochi with a soft rice flour shell with filling in the middle (peanut, green tea, red bean, yam, etc) to "mochi jellies" that are pretty much just firm jello with fruit in the middle.  These are delicious!  I am definitely going to miss their presence in the stores after the new year season is over.

On Saturday night, I met up with a couple of my friends to check out the CNY celebrations that were taking place down by the Singapore riverfront.  There was a huge carnival with rides, food, and lots of entertainment.  There was a large area with lots of animatronic, light-up animals displays.  There was a prominent tiger display, since this year is the year of the tiger.
Besides the tigers, there were displays of the animals representing all of the other years in the Chinese calender (I think there are 12 total).  I thought the monkey was especially cute:   

There were all sorts of other crazy statues and displays, like this peacock,
which is you looked closely, was made out of spoons and plates!
(Sorry if some of the pictures are a bit blurry.  My camera doesn't do very well at night.)
There was also this dragon, who was made entirely out of sugar!
The main event was this guy, although I'm not sure what/who he was supposed to be.  He threw glitter down into the crowd.
However, my favorite exhibit was entitled "Panda Joyland".  The pandas in the exhibit were not what I would call "joyous".  In fact, they were downright depressing.  Between the forlorn expressions on their little faces to the overwhelming scruffiness of their fur, they most definitely fell into the "sad panda" category.  Observe:
Why does this panda have two other pandas strapped to the back of it's bicycle?  Very meta.
These two are enough to put a frown on anyone's face.

Well, a happy Chinese New Year and Gong Xi Fa Cai to all!  Also, happy Valentine's Day, that other, far lamer, holiday that also happened over the weekend.  Oh yeah, and President's Day.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Singapore Farms

No, that title is in fact not an oxymoron.  Last weekend, my friend Elizabeth (another Fulbrighter) and I visited several farms located in the Kranji region in the north of Singapore.  There are actually quite a few farms in the this area, and there's a convenient shuttle bus that drops passengers off at most of them.  We thought that this sounded like a nice opportunity to get away from the city a bit, so, armed with sunscreen and bug repellent, we set off.

The first farm we visited was an organic fruit and vegetable farm called Bollywood Farms.  This farm was completely awesome! 

The owner of the farm, Ivy, greeted us as we arrived and immediately tried to set one or both of us up with another young (male) visitor.  Then, she proceeded to give us her opinions on Singapore and the world in general.  Her conclusion: "too many stupid women and too many greedy men".  According to my friend Natasha, who is my go-to lady about all things Singapore, Ivy is a very controversial and outspoken figure in Singapore (OK, it doesn't really take much to be controversial here).  She used to be the president of the Singapore Netball Association, and, according to her website "she is remembered for her stinging observations about the state of sporting affairs [in Singapore]".  Now, she has become a leader in the sustainability movement in Singapore by advocating for organic lifestyles and local food production.  All in all, a really awesome lady. 

The farm grows all kinds of different fruits and vegetables.  They are apparently the largest banana producer in Singapore.
We saw dragonfruit vines - I had no idea that it grew on this type of plant. 
Also, we encountered a friendly lizard!
After a wander around the farm, we decided to eat some lunch in the cafe, called Poison Ivy.  Elizabeth and I both ordered banana curry, since it sounded so interesting!  It turned out to be really, really tasty.  The bananas were more like plantains than the bananas that we normally eat - if they hadn't told me they were bananas I probably would have thought that they were potatoes.  The curry sauce was super delicious and perfectly spicy.  We finished off the meal with some jackfruit cake.  Since I had heard that the jackfruit was related to the famous durian, I had been too scared to try it in the past.  However, Elizabeth persuaded me, and the cake was quite good after all.

The next farm on our list was called Hay Dairies.  I was expecting to see smelly cows, but this dairy actually turned out to be a goat farm.  Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to get up close and personal with the goats.  Here are a few of them:
There were also some cute baby goats.
I guess that the goats were kept on those platforms to keep out various tropical pests such as rats and snakes.  But, I found myself wishing that they had some nice green fields in which to roam free.  Elizabeth and I tried some chocolate goat milk (the milk was chocolate, not the goats (mmm, chocolate goats)), but it just tasted like regular milk, but thinner.

Last on our farm tour was the Jurong Frog and Fish Farm.  I guess I hadn't realized that there was such a market for frog in Singapore!  Later that day, however, I did notice "fresh frog" being sold at the local grocery store.  Anyways, this farm raised American Bullfrogs, and lots of them.
The frogs were all croaking in unison and the noise was incredibly loud.  The frogs by my house in Selah tend to make a delicate chirping noise, but this croaking was much louder and deeper.  At first we thought it was some kind of machinery or something - it was hard to believe that all the noise was actually coming from the frogs.  After looking around the farm and trying to feed the frogs (they were completely unmoved by my offers of dog food), we sampled our last dish of the day: frog legs!
Fried frog legs with spicy ketchup.  Mostly it just tasted like chicken, with more bones.

Overall, our farm visits made for a really fun day.  It was really nice to get out of the city, as living in such a dense city is driving me mildly crazy.  I felt like we weren't even in Singapore anymore - no high rise public housing flats in sight!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Last Saturday was the Hindu holiday of Thaipusam.  Ever since I heard about it several months ago, I have been looking forward to witnessing this holiday.  Why was I so excited for this?  Well, to celebrate Thaipusam, devotees pierce themselves with various hooks and spikes and then walk several miles in the hot Singapore sun.  Extreme!  Witnessing Thaipusam on Saturday was all that I had hoped for and more.  Here's one of many pictures that I took:

In trying to figure out the legends behind Thaipusam, I discovered that there are actually several different explanations for the holiday traditions.  Most agree that the festival celebrates the birthday of Murugan, a Hindu god that is especially popular with the Tamils of southern India (this group also makes up the majority of Indians in Singapore).  Wikipedia says that Thaipusam commemorates the creation of Murugan by Shiva to aid the Asura forces in their war again the Devas.  However, this website has many other possible back stories, including tales of hill-stealing, eavesdropping, and demons.  Sorry, I'm feeling lazy tonight, so if you want to read them all, just follow the link.

In Singapore, Thaipusam was celebrated with a procession between two of the main Hindu temples.  My friends and I visited the temple at the start of the procession to check out the festivities.  When we arrived in mid-morning, the temple was packed full of devotees and tourists.  Each devotee who was going to march in the procession had several helpers.  Anyone who is going to participate in the holiday has to undergo special purification rituals and fasting.  The large spiked cages are called kavadis and are held in place with lots of long spikes that are woven into the flesh.  Here you can see a helper weaving in the spikes:

Many of the kavadis were huge and incredibly ornate.  Apparently, a few years ago, some of them got so out of hand that they are now restricted to a certain height.

 Besides the kavadis, many devotees also wore bells, oranges, or jars of milk that were held on with spikes.  Here you can see them putting the bells on this man's legs:

Sometimes the kavadi-wearers had attendants that marched with them.  They mostly carried jars of milk on their heads. 

The craziest that we saw was this guy - he had a huge spike through both cheeks and was pulling an wheeled altar using huge hooks on his back!

Inside the temple, there was a festive atmosphere.  There were several different bands playing percussion and wind music.

There were also various shrines and altars set up, and a large area for serving food.

So, all in all a very interesting holiday!