Singapore – Thaipusam Festival

Singapore 2004
Gong Xi Fa Cai

Arriving at Singapore’s Changi Airport is sssooo uplifting: it is easy to forget how tired you really are or the trials of the preceding days. There is always an atmosphere of comfort and ease within the terminal, and no airport ever ushers you through with such efficiency, speed and lack of suspicion. Welcome. Welcome again.

Year Of The Monkey Singapore

Returning off a long flight from Europe, we arrived on the eve of Chinese New Year but were not able to stay up for the China Town celebrations. Thankfully, the celebrations continued on for another 15 days and we were able to experience it all. The government had just lifted a 30 year ban on fireworks and the festivities went off, literally, with a bang. Well, actually, they prefer to let off thousands of crackers at a time, so it is more of a ‘sustained crackle’! The Lion Dance Teams were performing all over town every day, and it appears to be of a competitive nature. The teams are trucked – banners flying and drums beating, to various shopping complexes to strut their stuff: very energetic, gymnastic, colourful and noisy with drums, cymbals and gongs beating loudly. Not comprehending its significance, I can only take so much of it.

Mandarins (the fruit) are symbolic of good fortune and prosperity, and are consumed by the ton at this time of the year. Our hotel generously ensured we were well supplied with them every day. I think they like us – we stay longer than most guests anyway and keep returning. We have found once again that the food served up in the Food Centres or “Halls” are of incredible value and quality. We can both eat and drink (a large beer and a fresh juice or soft drink) for less than $S10, the beer costing more than one meal. The concentrated regional diversity of the cuisine, the range and affordability of fresh tropical fruits (often peeled and sliced ready for eating), the abundant and fascinating deserts, cakes and sweets make this place a foodies paradise. This time around we noticed that even more of these centres have been built, they are prolific – good for the consumers but harder for the vendors I’d say. One can only eat so much however, and the rest of our time in Singapore was taken up with simply being visitors.

We frequently miss country’s Festivals by visiting at the wrong time of the year – but in Singapore our timing was perfect.

During the Chinese New Year period they also celebrate the multiculturalism of the country with the Chingay Parade. This was held down town in Orchard Road and we caught the full dress rehearsal on the Friday night. It was stunning: very impressive. Of course, we had forgotten to bring the camera. The floats were the best made and most gaudy I had ever seen. The costumes – some traditional tribal, some weirdly theatrical – were gorgeous. The cultural music and dance was outstanding. There was the Lion Dance again from the Chinese, but with the added attraction of a long, whirling and twisting serpent. I was surprised at the number of resident races represented. The Japanese, the women looking beautiful in their kimonos, had a large contingent. There were the South Africans jogging along to a pulsing tribal beat, Sri Lankans, Koreans, Taiwanese, Malaysians, Indians, Filipinos, Indonesians, Americans (doing aerobic type things – I think they are big in the Health Gym business here), a West Indian contingent, a Scottish band, Brazilians who had me bobbing up and down to their infectious drum beats. Various Chinese regional groups were represented and the local Singaporean youth had made up costumes and instruments from junk, producing good rhythms. There were colourful giants and stilt walkers: it was a blast. Fantastic.

Singapore - Little India Thaipusam

To top it off, the day before we flew out just happened to be the occasion of the Hindu Festival of Thaipusam. This is an annual show of faith by the Hindu Indians and is spectacular and colourful. We wandered into Little India (the Indian equivalent of Chinatown) early in the day and combined eating and shopping with watching this dramatic passing parade. The Indian women, always vibrant in their colourful saris, were attendant on the men who were the main participants, and were giving out rose water flavoured milk and soft drinks to the passing crowds. One by one the devotees, wearing a saffron or red coloured sarong made their painful way down Serangoon Road from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Street – a distance of 4 kilometres.

Singapore - Thaipusan Festival 2004

Some penitents simply wore limes hooked into their bare chests, some an array of tiny silver vessels hooked into their backs. Others carried Kavadis; these can vary in shape and size. The more elaborate ones consist of dozens of thin metal skewers mounted on a metal frame – some larger than others. These frames are bedecked with flowers, tinsel, pictures of deities and interwoven with peacock feathers. The multitudes of skewers are anchored by piercing the devotee’s chest, back and stomach. Many had their arms, foreheads and cheeks also pierced – and most had a skewer vertically through their poked out tongue. There was also one walking on wooden shoes with about 100 nails poking up through the soles (we had seen these on display earlier). This man was walking very slowly with the aid of a walking stick, and helpers were pouring water on his feet at regular intervals. The devotees are accompanied by a cheering crowd of supporters chanting prayers and singing devotional songs. Quite a dramatic festival – and all this in the humid fug that encompasses little old Singapore.

Singapore Thaipusam Little India

The manager at the Business Centre where we chose to work on the internet is a tiny man. I mean, he is under 5 feet tall! A more friendly and helpful person you couldn’t get (not that friendliness and helpfulness are rare commodities in Singapore). He is a lovely man, but gee he is small. Back at our hotel after an internet stint, I had a close look at his business card: J Wee. BSc. Well, how appropriate can you get? Reflecting on another common definition of ‘wee’, Rachel expressed the hope that I wouldn’t “take the piss out of him” about his name . . .

We have become a bit travel weary – we couldn’t be bothered going up into Malaysia as we had a sense that there was unlikely to be anything radically different or novel in there – or in any other surrounding country. Having experienced the diverse cultures of India, Morocco, a bit of Malaysia, Spain, Portugal, Greece…. and having no interest in experiencing the lifestyles of the impoverished and hard-done-by tribals in the deepest Amazon rain forest or African jungle – we just needed to get back to our comfort zone in little old New Zealand, where for one thing the plumbing and sewage systems do work (they do in Singapore too), where we can roam freely without fear of arrest, where we comprehend the language and the system, where we have all our useful possessions at our fingertips (you miss that sometimes), where it may be a trifle dull in comparison but it is not difficult to amuse oneself – and it is free (well, not exactly, but …). So we are happy here at ‘home’ – for now. South America does beckon though…