Sunday, October 28, 2012

Community dinner at a Taoist temple

The temple: The building is transient; the people are constant
You may remember that a few weeks ago, I went to a wine and mooncake pairing event in Chinatown. While I was there, I met a number of people from the community, including a local public relations firm.  Two of the firm members, Cheah and Victor, extended an invitation for me to attend a community dinner in honor of a Taoist temple. Naturally, I accepted!

I know very little about Taoism, but was sure to read up on this ancient Eastern religion and philosophy before the event.  My hosts also explained many things to me during my stay. Here are my impressions.

Traditional alter awash in LED light
The first thing to strike me was a visual explosion of light and color. The temple itself is more of a term for a people with a belief system that renders them a community, rather than an actual building. Following this tradition of community dinners, the temple is constructed for one day. Followers flock from miles away - sometimes as far away as neighboring countries - to worship, dine and socialize together. There is a startling combination of ancient and modern, as this picture illustrates: the traditional alter is replete with offerings to the gods including rice, fruit and incense and it is bathed in the glow of blue LED lights. In the background, you can see the back of an enormous speaker and flat screen system, broadcasting music, dances and rituals including body piercing.

If colors could become animate, then the colors of this place were alive. Red was the most present of the colors, being one of the most religiously significant. Four enormous dragons seemed to float in the air above me, each one of a color and orientation to represent one of the four directions and corresponding elements.

The second thing to strike my senses was the density of the air. The air was thick with incense and candle smoke. Another aroma was on the air, though - that of food! I was about to learn exactly how important food was to the community. I was shown the kitchen area of the temple - a huge outdoor cooking station - and saw plates of food lined up for distribution to the tables. I was awed by the sheer quantity of food on these plates, to be served family-style to each table. Then, I learned that there were seven more courses in equal size, as eight is an auspicious number. Eight courses?! I was beginning to fill up after Course 2! 

My third impression was of the incredibly open and friendly atmosphere. To be perfectly honest, I was not sure what to expect for a community dinner at a temple. I brought a shawl and sweater with me, with the expectation that I may be asked to cover my shoulders or head. However, everyone "came as they were," dressed from their days of work or study. The overall revelry was also of a very open nature. Beer flowed like water, smoking was openly permitted and as the night wore on, conversations and laughter became even more vivacious and merry than had already been! I felt overwhelmingly welcomed, with people I had only just met taking it upon themselves to explain to me, one of the only non-locals among hundreds of attendees, the significance of this dish, the meaning of that symbol, the importance of that rite ...or the reason that bag of rice just sold at auction for over $8,000?

Incense and offerings to deities, marked with red bands
to avoid confusion with the rest of the bounty of food.
For one of the main entertainments of the evening was an auction to benefit the temple. Gifts were given in exchange for items merely token in nature, like the aforementioned bag of rice. Some items were more significant, such as carved statues and paintings. These were loaned to temple members, who would keep them in their homes for a year. At the end of the year, they would return the items, along with a large sum of money that was their gift to the temple.

I finally left the event around 10:30pm, knowing that I had work to be done the next day. Cheah informed me that the dinner would go well into the evening, possibly not ending until midnight or later. This was a truly wonderful experience for me, and one I felt privileged to be invited to. Certainly one of my most memorable nights in Singapore!

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Nozomi, Tetsuji and me at Il Cielo
This past week, my family friends from Japan visited me here in Singapore. I hadn't realized how much I was missing family until my "Japanese Mom (Nozomi) and Japanese Dad (Tetsuji)" spent time with me. After a fantastic lunch at their hotel, we went to SIM where they sat in on one of my classes.  Afterward, we enjoyed a terrific dinner together on Orchard Road.
250 km (155 miles) between my apartment in Singapore and Melaka

The following day was Nozomi's birthday! We went up to Melaka, Malaysia for the day. Melaka is an old city that was once a Portuguese settlement. It's an interesting blend of old and new, Portuguese and Malaysian, Buddhist and Muslim. We traveled about two and a half hours north of Singapore and visited a number of museums, churches, palaces and temples. It was a significant experience for me to experience the variance in culture and lifestyle that was no different in distance and border-crossing than it would be to drive from Buffalo to Toronto.

Malaysia is a developing country. It is richly infused in history and a culture that reflects the influence of many nations, religions and peoples. Some parts of Malaysia reminded me distinctly of the central Mexican towns and villages I've visited in my travels. Those towns too were strongly shaped by the indigenous societies within them, the conquering powers that had risen and fallen over time and the strong religious heritage and pride in preserving the past.

The next day, we fulfilled Tetsuji's hope to have breakfast with the orangutans at the Singapore Zoo! I'm planning to make a return trip to this zoo, as there is SO much to see and do there! We took the MRT from there to Marina Bay Sands, where we dodged the rain by enjoying a wonderful brunch at TWG, complete with tea, scones, juice, entrĂ©e and dessert!

A height comparison created by yours truly to give some perspective
We took the River Cruise and ended the day with tea and mooncake at my apartment at Fraser Suites. 

On our final day together, we took a "spin" on the Singapore Flyer! Rising to a height of 541 feet, it is the tallest Ferris Wheel in the world! The views were fantastic and only once (right at the very tippy-top) did I feel a little tense. You might say this was a "high" point of the weekend! 

At the end of our four days together, we had seen amazing sights, traveled to wonderful destinations, and eaten some truly fantastic meals. But it was the companionship of loved ones that really "recharged my batteries" the most!

Coming up: More new experiences! Watch for these and other highlights:
  • Monsoon season
  • Macarons and other pastry-shop lovelies
  • A rare invitation to a anniversary celebration of a Taoist temple
  • Classroom life at SIM

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Tale of Two Weekends

Each one a story :: Lit from within and glowing :: Shining souls take flight
As if to show me how fast my time in Singapore is going, the weekend before last went by before I knew it. I had full intentions to update my blog on Monday... Then Tuesday... Wednesday... Thursday... Wait - what do you mean it's Monday again? 

Which brings us to Tuesday!  So here are the highlights of the last two weeks in Singapore.

A beautiful view of the old and new
Lazy River Friday ~ On Friday I decided to return to Marina Bay Sands to check out the River Cruise. So after a yummy lunch of falafel, (which I've missed, as a Buffalonian!) I purchased my ticket and enjoyed 40 minutes of beautiful river breeze and views of Singapore that I could get from no other perspective.

Open House at SIM ~ On Saturday I headed over to SIM for an Open House for prospective students and their parents. I was excited to have the opportunity to give a brief presentation on the Communication program and meet with the attendees  as it provided an interesting look at the program from their perspective.

My first impressions of Chinatown: One picture wouldn't suffice!
Dim Sum Sunday ~ The next day, I joined my friends for a trip to Chinatown for dim sum at Yum Cha! What an experience! Bamboo baskets of dumplings, pastries, noodles... food of every type imaginable. It would be hard to choose a favorite item... but if you really pushed me, I'd have to go with the coconut tarts! A repeat visit is GOING to happen.

Samy's Curry ~ On Wednesday we all went out for dinner at an Indian restaurant called Samy's Curry near Holland Village. While the food was spicier than I expected (my experience, turns out, has been mostly with northern-style Indian food, and southeast Indian food is a whole new world!) the ambiance and companionship - and garlic naan! - was terrific.

A wonderful evening!
More Adventures in Chinatown ~ On Friday, I returned to Chinatown with the sole aim of wandering. The Mid-Autumn Festival to me will forever be symbolized by the beautiful strings of bright lanterns of all sizes, shapes and colors. Also in abundance are mooncakes - sweet, confection-filled cakes imprinted with Chinese symbols for good fortune.

Mid-Autumn Festival ~ That evening, I returned to Fraser Suites to attend a Mid-Autumn Festival right here at the poolside. I was presented with a lit lantern and enjoyed delicious food while mingling with other guests.

Gracious hosts - and
check out that spread!
Wine & Mooncake ~ The next day, I headed back to Chinatown to attend a wine and mooncake pairing event. This unconventional idea was the brainstorm of the new Chinatown Visitor Centre to bridge traditional and contemporary customs. This delightful, casual event gave me a chance to meet new people, enjoy delicious wine AND indulge in sliver after sliver of mooncake!
Mooncake with traditional lotus
paste and salted egg yolk

Which brings me around to another week! My classes are going really well - in fact, I'll be giving students their midterm a week from today! It's hard to believe I'm already at the mid-point of the semester!  What new adventures wait around the corner? We shall see!

How many visits?