Wednesday, December 26, 2007

老照片 - the story behind the old photographs

老照片–Lao Zhao Pian - is the title of a series of books published by Shantung PublicaLtion – 山东画报出版社 . It has been 10 years past since it first went to print in 1997. I bought my first copy in June 1998 老照片 - 第二辑, and at S$3.25 (RMB6.50), which was relatively cheap for a book of 130 odd pages and a good read.

The theme of the book is the story behind the old photographs, mainly contributed by the- 老百姓 -laobaixing - the common folks. Variously it has been described as recording the 野史 – yeshi - literary the history of the wilderness. Compared to the 正史 – zheng shi - which is the official history, 野史 – yeshi – is the unofficial history of the era. It is a record of personal history – the personal history with the family as the backdrop – and against the great historical events that unfolded in China then.

The bulk of the stories are from that era of China from the founding of New China in 1949 until the later half of 1970’s with– 改革开放- gaige kaifang – Deng’s reform and opening up to the outside world.

Many of the stories that happened during the period from 1966 to 1976 were comtemporous with Jung Chang’s - Wild Swan, or Nien Cheng’s – Life & Death in Shanghai. It is said that during the ten year period of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution – 无产阶级文化大革命 – the Chinese shut their doors tight and crazily beat each other up - 关起门来自己打自己 –
guanqi men lai zijida ziji .
The book gave a good glimpse of life behind the Bamboo Curtain then. With Communist China backing the insurgents in this part of the world, there was limited contact with China then.

Many of the family links from the pre-Communist China had been cut off, and communication with the villages or relative back there was reduced to the occasional letters from China.

舅舅那一代的故事 - tale from uncle’s generation

The old photographs that I grew up with of China were those of my two uncles from the maternal side. They were born in Ipoh, and studied in the local Yuk Choy Chinese school until they ‘return’ to China in the 1950/s in their youthful years.

This picture was taken in Beijing in 1955, and posted to eldest aunt - mum's sister - , most probably when they had a reunion in the capital.

 The younger of the two uncle’s – 二舅- Erjiu – 2nd uncle returned to China in 1954, while the elder uncle – 大舅- Dajiu - returned to China three years or so earlier soon after the founding of New China – 新中国。

It was two years before I was born when the photo was taken. With the stories from mum of her brothers, the picture had been a part of my childhood memory.  It had sub-consciously or otherwise shape my curiosity and  fondness for China then.

During dinner time, mum would relate the stories of her brothers.  She told us that 2nd uncle, did not tell anyone that he was going back to China, until the very last day he was to leave. His trip was sponsored by his schoolmates.

And mum would also tell of Dad’s youngest brother who left for China around that time. He said that Dad escorted uncle till Singapore. While on the last leg, Dad tried again to persuade him to stay and to follow him back to Ipoh, and not to go on the journey. However, he went.

What I had heard of was that, it was a period of conscription to join national service in the late 1940/s or early 1950/s and many of the youths who did not want to serve in the colonial army, decided to pack their bags to go to China.

Perhaps it was not so much a return to the land of their birth, for they were the 2nd or 3rd generation overseas Chinese, and were born in the South Seas – 南洋 - Nanyang

For those who were educated in the Chinese medium schools, the cultural & ideological factors was an important elements that shaped their decisions, as it coincided then with the call from the New China to the overseas Chinese to help build a strong and prosperous ‘motherland’.

It was time for the -  Romance of  the New China . It must have been a great draw for the youth then to return to China then, for even with much persuasion they refused to stay behind but to pursue their dreams in helping to build a New China.

And this dream would only be realized after 30 odd years or so later, after going thro many trials and tribulations, and they in their old age.

However, not long after they arrived, the New China would be embroiled in countless political campaigns, starting with the Great Leap Forward – 大跃进, the Anti-Rightist movement -反右派运动, and the Cultural Revolution. And the series of Lao Zhao Pian, 老照片- would provide the reader with glimpses of life in China first hand from those periods.


1. The most current edition June 2007 - found in the local bookstore – 长河书局 – Changhe Bookstore 桥南路 – South Bridge Road - - is priced at S$4.00 (RMB10.00). . However with the new of the price of paper and newsprint skyrocketing, books from China will no longer be as cheap, and of relatively good quality print. Over the past 15 years the profusion of books, and the quality of improvement of its publication has been awesome an astounding.

2. Dajiu graduated from 政法大学,北京 - Zhengfa Daxue, Beijing, while Erjiu went to study geology at Wuhan University. We met up with Erjiu on a trip to Beijing in 1995. Dajiu is residing in Hainan Island with his family.

While on a visit to Singapore a few years back, Erjiu remembered while stopping by in Singapore en-route to China in 1954, he went for a movie at the Odeon cinema.

3. An early photograph taken most probably during the pre war years in Ipoh, in the late 1930/s or 1940. Erjiu was born in 1936, and he was probably 12 or 13 years old then.

ed 20120717


Monday, November 26, 2007

吉宁街是哪一条街? Was it Cross Street or Chulia Street?

This small envelope measures no more than 3 ½” X 2½” and is brown with age. It was an envelope for keeping negative and photograph. By the reckoning of the date written at the back of the photograph inside it, it’s 68 years old.

Other than it was an old envelope, what drew my attention to it was the address and words on it – it tells a story of another age and another time.

I was also drawn to the address of the photography shop printed on the envelope, and prompted me do so some searching and investigative work - in the library and at the street corners!

The shop’s English name was written as: Fee Fee Photographic Store. It stated that it was an: Agency for all kinds of Camera for Profession and Amateurs. Photographic goods and chemicals can be obtained from us at very moderate prices Our enlarging, developing and printing works are under the supervision of the experts. And with: Satisfaction Guaranteed.

However, it did not give its address, which instead was written in the Chinese print.

非非摄影社 (Fei Fei Yingshe – Fei Fei Photographic Studio )
星洲大坡吉宁街一百六十号 (Xingzhou Dapo Ji Ning Jie 160 hao)

The interesting part of the address is - 吉宁街 – Ji Ling Jie (Pinyin) , and where about is this street. Could this be the former Kling Street, I wonder. For Ji Ning Jie is pronounced as Kiat Leng Koi (Hokkien) or Gut Ling Gai ( Cantonese) , which is the dialect terms for Kling.

Not being native born, and when I moved here, many of the old streets were already gone, I did not have an inkling where this street was or is. I knew that Chulia Street was once called Kling Street. Could this shop be then located in Chualia Street, I wonder.

This reproduction of a 1862 map of the town map of Singapore clearly showed that stretch of Chulia Street named as Kling Street. When the word Kling came to take on a derogatory reference to the Southern Indians convicts, it was renamed Chulia, which is the North Indian term for Kalinga. In another map dated 1929, Kling Street had been changed to Chualia Street.

However, while on a Sunday walk I came across this plate - put up by the National Heritage Board and the Singapore Tourism Bureau - at the junction of South Bridge Road and Cross Street which states that - Cross Street was once known as Kiat Leng Kia Kio (Hokkien ) - Gut Ling Zai Gai (Cantonese) - 吉宁仔街 - after the ethnic Indian that used to be concentrated here in the 1800/s.

Though Kiat Leng Kia Koi was left out in the Chinese translation on the plate, the Japanese translation had the word -吉宁仔街- written in Chinese characters. The word - 仔 – kia (Hokkien) or zai (Cantonese variously means - boy, kid or youngster.

Could this Kiat Leng Kia Koi – 吉宁仔街- be the same – 吉宁街- Kiat Leng Koi - where Fei Fei Photographic Store was once located, i.e. at No.160, Cross Street.

.And probably - 吉宁街 – Kiat Leng Koi - was the written Chinese term for the more colloquial sounding 吉宁仔街 – Kiat Leng Kia Koi.

Or is it that - 吉宁仔街 - Kiat Leng Kia Koi - was Cross Street, while 吉宁街 – Kiat Leng Koi - was Chulia Street?


1. My take would be the photographic store would be located closer to this part of the town nearer to Amoy Street and South Bridge Road, as the print on the envelope indicated that it catered more to a Chinese clientele.

2. What price to develop, print and enlarge a photograph in pre-war Singapore?

Size Developing Printing

3 ¼” X 2 ¼” $0.20 Cents per roll $0.04 each
4½”X 2½ ” $0.25 Cents per roll $0.06 each
5½” X3¼” $0.40 Cents per roll $0.10 each


5½”X3¼” $0.15 cents each
6½”X4 ¾” $0.30 cents each
8½”X6½” $0.70 cents each
10”X12” $1.30 cents each

3. This envelope had been kept in the drawer as long as I could remember and had the photograph of dad taken in Singapore when he was on the 1940 high school excursion to- Xingzhou – 星州.

a) Singapore - A guide to Buildings, Streets, Places by Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Times Book International, 1988.

b) The maps are found in the National Library, hung on the walls in the private collection section.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

the graduating class of 1940 – an excursion to Singapore

Old photographs:

In the June of 1940, a group of students from Ipoh Yuk Choy Secondary School - 育才中学 -l went on a excursion to Singapore. This was the graduating class of the 1940 cohort. The students were 16 years old, going by how old dad was then. He was among the 27 students and their form master. Of the 20 odd pictures that were from the vacation many of them were faded and worn. Nevertheless the few photographs that were salvaged from the ‘archeological dig’ thro the old album were in relative viewable condition and with much of the subject preserved.

The photographs appearing here were re-taken using a digital camera. They could have been better captured if it were digitally scan.

These old photographs gave an interesting glimpse of the place and the time then – they have a story waiting to be told - of a group of youths from Ipoh on vacation to Singapore - 67 years ago.

Backdrop – 1940:

This graduating class would probably have been the last of the pre World War II batch of student taking a school excursion from Ipoh to Singapore.

The war had broken out in Europe in the September 1939 less than a year ago. Over at the east, the Sino-Japanese War had seen many ferocious battles being fought since 1937. However, judging from these pictures the sign of an impending war that would come to the shores of Malaya and Singapore was nowhere visible.

Many of their parents would have left China in their younger days in the early 1900/s in search of a better living in Nanyang -南洋- the South Seas, and they had traveled to British Malaya and via Singapore and subsequently settled in Ipoh – a relatively new up-country town compared to the port cities of the Straits Settlements such as Singapore and Penang.

The 1930/s in which these youths grew up was a period of relatively economic prosperity for Ipoh. The tin canning industry had brought a new found economic boom to town. Located in the center of the Kinta valley, Ipoh was the administrative and business center serving the outlying tin mining districts. The parents of these youths would be involved directly or in-directly with the tin mining industry. They would be the sons of the tin miners or those engaged in the supporting industries, such as providing logs and timbers to the open cast mines, and Ipoh was the town that tin built.

To these youths other than Penang in the north, Singapore would be the other big city that they would long to visit. From Ipoh it would have been a journey of 12 hours odd by the FMS railway.

The planter’s hat :

Interestingly one could see that many of the students were carrying a planter’s hat. The broad brim hat would provide a welcome shade to the tropical sun. It seems that the hat was part of the fashion statement then. It was probably made popular by the colonial masters who together with their khaki uniform would be the standard attire in this part of the empire in the first half of the 20th century. Even the form master in his smart white suit and tie was carrying one.

From the photograph one could see that over their white short sleeve shirt, the students wore the Sun Yat Sen jacket – 中山装 - as their uniform. The attire was made popular by Sun Yat Sen -the revolutionary leader who overthrew the Imperial Qing and established the Republic of China in 1911.

Impending war:

What were uppermost in the minds of these youths then? Being a student from the Chinese medium school, upon graduation many would ended up to help with their family’s business, or be employed in the Chinese run biz , or perhaps even venture into their own tin mining biz. Maybe a few of them would have thought of furthering their studies to China, had it had not been for the war there.

However, in less that a year and a half after their vacation, the war came suddenly upon them. Many of their dreams would have been shattered and it was misery and suffering for the next 3 years and 8 months.

Looking back to the June of 1940 - the vacation that they spend with their fellow schoolmates in Singapore would perhaps had been one of the most memorable experience of their youth.


1. Order of photographs - from top right, clockwise:

a. in front of Raffles Museum
b. at Haw Par Villa - group photgraph,taken on 20-6-1940
c. at Haw Par Villa - rock pavillion
d. at Yang Zheng Xue Xiao -养正学校 - (Yang Zheng School)
-the triangular flag reads : Perak Yuk Choy Secondary School Visiting Group - 霹雳 育才中学参观团
e. at th Botanic Garden by the bridge
f. at the Botanic Garden by the tree, 21-6-1940

2. June 1940 or July 1940

The were two set of dates written at the back of the photographs. One set of dates was in June, and another set, which seemed a different handwriting, was in July.

Some of the photographs have the date written in pencil from 17.7.1940 to 23.7.1970. These dates were written together with the names in Chinese. The 17.7.1940 date was on a photograph of a bridge in Kuala Lumpur, though the picture of Kuala Lumpur Museum was dated 20.6.1940
The photographs with the dates written in ink were in English, and the date was date 20-6-1940.

I’ve taken the dates written in ink as the actual date of the vacation to Singapore, noting that June being be more commonly appearing month of in the photographs. (back of the group photograh taken at Haw Par Villa)

The probably stopped over in Kuala Lumpur as there were two photographs of scenery from Kuala Lumpur mentioned above.

Of the places visited in Singapore & the notes at the back of the photographs, mainly with pencil and in Chinese:
Botanic Garden, 植物园
Har Par Villa, - 虎跑别墅
Raffles Museum – 博物院
Hong Deng Matou (Clifford Pier) – 红灯码头
A-La-Bo Hua Yuan (garden which in Chinese was called the Arabia Garden – 亚拉伯花园
Yin Xin Xue Xiao nei ( probably school in Fo Association)
Hua Chiao Zhong Xue Chian Men -华侨中学前门
Yang Zheng Xue Xiao – 养正学校
Duan Meng Xue Xiao Chian Men - 端蒙学校前门
Shui Can Xue Xiao ( Marine Academy) – 水产学校

2. Yuk Choy High School

It’s now one of the major independent Chinese Schools in Malaysia - located in Ipoh.

记: Menglembu/Perak


Saturday, September 22, 2007

chinese character & the japanese – a quest for yamato identity

As it is obvious from the title of the book in Japanese, it is about kanji –汉字- the Chinese characters and – Japanese people. It is an interesting read for those who are studying Japanese, and want to gain a greater depth on how kanji has came to endear itself to the Japanese Language, and why the Japanese then wished it purged.

The Japanese and kanji is a case of a - love and hate - relationship. The author puts it as a mis-mated marriage - kusare en -腐sare 缘. It was a mis-match because the two languages are from two distinct language family. However, the Japanese will have to live with this troublesome burden -– yakkai jyuumotsu – for better or for worse, as the author concludes in the final chapter.

Kanji was first adopted by the Japanese a thousand hundred odd years ago. For the greater part of the period it was deeply revered by the Japanese. It was the language of the Sage – 孔子- koshiKungzhi - Confucius. The royalty and the samurai class learned kanji and were connoisseurs of Tang/Sung poems. From the begining, kanji was mainly taught to the male. For kanji denoted strength, -full-bodied and complete when compared with the kana (hiragana and katakana).

While the gentlemen & the samurai wrote in kanji, the ladies in the court wrote in kana. The development of kana came about early in the written form as there was a need for a syllabary symbol to denote the sound of the Japanese language. Variously kana was derived from part of a Chinese character - be it from kanji written in the cursive stroke or from an abbreviated part of the kanji character that has the similar sound phonetically.

A very famous work written in kana was - The Tale of Genji – Genji monogatari – 源氏物语 – a very long romance story of some fifty-four chapters that took place in the Heian court from the 10th to 11th century. The author was said to be a court lady by the name of – Murasaki Shikibu.
Kana – 假名 – literary means a temporary, interim character. The author advocates that kana should be written in the kana form and never to write it in kanji. For 假 – ka - could also mean unauthorized. It is demeaning to call a Japanese invention, more precisely a uniquely Japanese rendition of the kanji – an interim character. This puts kana inferior to Kanji, and the author abhors such a foolish adoration of kanji.

Because of the heavy adoption of kanji over the thousand odd hundred years, the author thinks that it has stifled the development of the original Japanese language – the Yamato language - 大和语 – yamato go .

Due to this concern, and perphas to make up for the lost time he strongly advocates that where ever possible the Japanese people should write in kana, and refrain from using kanji. Only in cases where the kana caused ambiguity should one then resort to using kanji. Even, if it make the written language long and clumsy – use kana! It is the true identity of the Japanese language.

The fact that the Yamato language will always be in its infancy stage of development was highlighted in the book. It was because of the impact with a more advanced civilization from China. It resulted in the Japanese adopting and importing many of the abstract thoughts in its Chinese form, and had stifled the development of the native language.

As an example - the terms such as weather--气象-kishyoo, or season- 季节-kisetsu - are derived originally from Chinese. Such terms that describes an abstract phenomena usually do not have an equivalent term in the Yamato language . However those things that one could see, such as : ame – rain, yuki – snow, kaminari – thunder, or haru – spring, natsu – summer are original Yamato terms & the Japanese have a name for them.

These terms to could be depicted in kanji with a - on yomi –音读 – or pronunciation rendered in Chinese, namely – u - 雨-rain, setsu - 雪, rai-雷 –thunder, shun-春-spring, ka-夏-summer.

Thus Japanese is an amalgamation of Yamato language + Chinese terms, and in its more recent history, many many English & Western terms and phases have also been adopted into it. This is especially so from the Meiji period (1867-1910). The more recently adopted western terms are known as – gairai go –外来语- wai lai yu - foreign terms.

Because the Chinese kanji has a much longer history of interaction with the Japanese language and is closely knitted into it, it is no longer considered – gairai -外来– foreign. Thus even if it is very much an integrated part of the Japanese language, the Japanese is very much aware that kanji is a borrowed language & it is 'an outsider' .

It has been a mis-match marriage all these thousand of years for the two langugaes. An error or history perhaps, as the author certainly thinks that it was a lousy fit, a - kusare en.

During the Meiji period and henceforth when Japan modernized many of western concepts in the field of law, economy, science and technology were translated into the Japanese language using kanji. Perhaps, due to this inundation of knowledge, and that the fact that the Japanese had to continue to use a language from a civilization in her sunset years, had made the Japanese all the more eager to call for the abandonment of kanji - and replace it with a modern language - the English phonetic or even French alphabet.

Had it succeeded, Japanese perhaps would look like the written Vietnamese now - an alphabetically written language - whit a total chop from its historical roots.

Thus, kanji has in a sense put the Yamato language into an inferior position, and the author strongly resents this. He wants the Japanese people to purge it from their sub-consciousness and to re-instate the Yamato language to its right of place in the Japanese Language.

He calls for the promotion of the use of kana in written Japanese. Kana should be the writing of choice - even if makes the sentence long, clumsy and wordy – for that is the Yamato language. However, he is resigned to the fate that the Japanese will forever be intertwined with kanji.

Postcript –

1) shina - 支那

The term 支那 -shina - is liberally used in the book in place of 汉- Han - to decribe things Chinese, such as :

支那文字 – shina moji - Kanji or Chinese characters
支那人 – shina jin – for Chinese – the Han Chinese specifically
支那文化 - shina bunka – Chinese culture
支那思想 – shina shisoo – Chinese thoughts

When I asked a young man from mainland China if he knew the word - 支那 – zhi na – in Chinese, he retorted & replied, ‘Of course, I know. It’s a bad word. It’s so bad’.

The term - shina - 支那 – has a historic legacy as being used as deceitful term for China, especially during the WWII years. Instead of 中国 - chuugoku - this term would be used. It is derived from the western term for China – the country of the Chin – 秦 – Chine or Sino.

It was a book written for the Japanese, and the term seems to have been used to boost the nationalistic ego and racial supremacy.

b) Quotes - p238
‘ Thus, the use of kanji however cannot be restricted. If the use of Chinese characters were to be restricted, the fact will be that the language itself will then be limited, and the Japanese language will then be impoverished.

It is not to advocate the restriction of Chinese characters, but by all means where possible not to use it. As an example, avoid such style of writing as in [止meru]. One does not know whether it is [yameru] or [tomeru] If it is [yameru], then should be written as [yameru], and [tomeru], then as [tomeru] ‘ .


a) Kanji to Nihon jin - Chinese Characters & the Japanese people
高岛俊男, 文艺春秋 - Takashima Toshio, Bungei Shunshu 2001; 10th reprint in 2002.

the author a graduated from the Post-graduate school of Tokyo University in Chinese Language and Chinese Studies.

He is a writer and regularly contributes essay to the Japanese Weekly - Shukan Bunshun - 周刊文春. Among his other books are –李白杜甫- ‘Li Bai & Du Fu’, 水浒传日本人 - The Water Margin and the Japanese, 三国志 群众 - The glittering mass from the Romance of the Three Kingdom. He is a member of the National Language Review Committee. - 国语审议会

b) The chapters -

Chapter One: The Chinese Characters final came
1. the problem with [katei ]
2. The only written word in the world
3. Han-Language (Chinese Language ) – what language is it
4. The clumsiness of the Japanese language

Chapter Two; The Japanese have the Chinese Characters processed thus
1. What is kun yomi
2. The identity of Japanese Language
3. The so called foolishness of adoration of Chinese Characters

Chapter Three: Post Meiji Era
1. The flood of new words
2. The translated words – Japanese and Chinese
3. The inverted up-side down / convoluted language – Japanese
4. [history] & [progress]

Chapter Four: Forty years of the National Language reformation
1. The campaign to discontinue the use of Chinese characters
2. What was this – National Language Reformation
4. The form of the characters in Toyo Kanji
3. 新村出- indignation

Chapter Five: A troublesome burden

4) Japanese Book News

Japanese Book News is published quarterly by the Japan Foundation to make available to overseas readers up-to-date information on new books and recent topics of Japan’s publishing culture

2007.8.11/Sat – Sunny
Roppongi – 六本木- Aoyama Book Centre ( )
In the bookstore wrapper. This bookstore is close by Roppongi Hills.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

of tokyo banana & turtle house – a japan summer

August in Tokyo is hot and the day temperature soaring to 35C is not uncommon. Without a breeze to cool the mid-summer heat, the humidity is stifling, and one would sweat easily outdoor. Despite the unpleasant weather, a summer vacation could be full of excitement & fun .

By noon, it was Tokyo, and this holiday not at all planned. I had just wanted to go some where for the National Day holiday break. Cos of the busy work schedule, I missed to book the mileage pass ticket in advanced and ended up paying a USD 75 dollar for the ticket at the airport that morning, instead of USD15 if one had booked it a month or more in advance. Nevetheless, the 5 day stay in Tokyo was a bargain, and it was decided on the spur of the moment. It was in fact faster to reach Tokyo than to hopped on to the bus and go back to the home in Ipoh. Tokyo perhaps is one of the other home-towns.

Just as once many years ago when I first visited Taipei, the customer officer at the airport would greet me with – ni hui lai le - 你回来了– though he knew that I was carrying a foreign passport,visiting Tokyo brings on a sense of – okaeri - O 归 ri - a return .

Snippets -

Tokyo Banana & omiyage

First taste of Tokyo Banana was a present from a Japanese businessman. It is a sponge cake with banana paste filling, taste is good with a nice nanaf banana flavor. The cake is in a shape of a banana, individually wrapped. The package wrapper is in banana yellow color, and the design & the wording exude modernity, invoking a sense of nostalgia for the home. The bananas are decorated in bow tie, and it has a cute slogan written in English:

'People gather to TOKYO from here and there with memories of their home.
And then, TOKYO gets the every one home town. TOKYO BANANA'

Bringing along a present - omiyage - is a custom commonly practiced in Japan – be it with the businessman visiting his client or someone returning home after a visit to the city or visiting friends.

This stall selling Tokyo Banana is located at the Tokyo Station. And one of easily close to nearly 50 or more different omiyage stalls in the station – selling different type of cakes and cookies from the tradition sweet red bean jelly – yookan - 羊羹, rice crackers & to this modern invention. A box of eight Tokyo Banana is at Y1000 (S$13.00), and it is - 大人气 – dai ninki –meaning a hot sell. In Chinese it reads as - da renqi - meaning showing great sign of life! For 人气 – literary is human breath, or a sign of life!

Tokyo train station is one of the busiest stations in the metropolis together with Shinjuku station. The daily human flow easily surpasses a million commuters! A 0.1% of the commuters buying a box of Tokyo banana would amount to $130K taking in a day – just by selling bananas!

Catch the Tokyo trend - instead of the traditional rice crackers from Asakusa - bring home some Tokyo bananas on your next trip to Tokyo. You can get it at the Narita Airport, too.

Kameya restaurant –Japanese name & color concept

This traditional Japanese is located near to the Ueno station. It offers shashimi, unagi – eel, etc and other seasonal fare. The name of the restaurant - Kameya - 龟屋 - is perfectly fine and normal to a Japanese. And with the noren – (a cloth partition over the door way ) it is as Japanese as you could have it. However, when the two characters are read in Chinese – gui wu - the meaning of the words hits you differently altogether! 龟 - gui – meaning tortoise or turtle, & and 屋 - wu – means house.

The - ya -屋- in Japanese could mean a shop or a store, and this the same ya - as in Takashimaya - 高岛屋 – which most Singaporean would recognize with the popular shopping mall at Orchard Road.

With the two little turtle painted on the noren, one could have thought that this restaurant is selling turtle dishes or even turtle soup. If it is, and if one knows Chinese, one would be puzzled as to why it chose to use the word gui wu -龟屋. It could have used a more refined term for turtle - namely -山瑞 - shan rui. The 汉字- hanzi– Chinese characters for : 山– shan - meaning mountain, and - 瑞 – rui – meaning a good omen. Thus 山瑞 - shan rui – could mean delicacy from the mountain, and this term is used commonly in Singapore by the shops selling turtle soup.

The name -龟屋 – gui wu - could not have been a worse name for a restaurant in Chinese. For the word -龟 – gui – in Chinese could also mean a pimp! My goodness me, the restaurant would than mean a - house of pimp!

Further more – on the shop front decoration - of a white cloth draped over the door way – this would be utterly taboo in Chinese custom and feng shui – 风水-tradition. For white would be most inauspicious, when red brings fortune and luck. I wonder if one could find a a similarly named and decorated Japanese restaurant in Singapore.

Well, it’s business as usual for this restaurant in Ueno- and so much for the cultural shock - the food is superb to the taste bud and delightful to the eyes! Have a go at it when you are in Tokyo. It's about 2 mins walk from the Ueno station along Showa dori Street in the direction of Okachimachi station.

Snap shots

1. Cultural pursuit
Date: 10Aug/Fri
Time: 9:30am
Venue: Ueno - Tokyo National Museum

An exhition on the travel of Buddhism from India to Japan. Statue of Buddha from the Gandhara period, around 200AD. The Greek influnce is most visible in the fold of the robes. The Greco-Buddhist art is a hallmark of Gandhara - an ancient kindom located at where eastern Afghanistan & Northern Pakistan is.

( )

Entrace fee to the museum is Y600 or S$7.80. There are commentary notes in English, Chinese and Korean.

2. Shitamachi

Date: 10Aug/Fri
Time: 4:40pm
Venue: Sumida River

Asahi Beer HQ - the building is modeled after a beer mug with foam at the top. Sumida River with near to Asakusa is located on the older part of Tokya - the so-called : shitamachi or downtown.

3.Tokyo Bay

Date : 11Aug/Sat
Time: 12:30pm
Venue: Decks Tokyo - Odaiba
The folks are down on the beach in the mid-afternoon sun to secure a place to watch the fireworks in the evening. The Rainbow Bridge spanning the bay provides an awesome view over the metropolis skyline.

4. Latin summer on the hills

Date: 11Aug/Sat
Time: 4:30pm
Venue: Roppongi Hills

Roppongi Hills - the chic & in-place - with a Latin American summer theme

5. Traditonal marriage

Date : 12Aug/Sat
Time : 12:30pm
Venue : Meiji Shrine - 明治神宫 - meiji jinggu

tradtioal japan in its splendouur - the wedding processions were a surpise bonus to the visitors who had to walk about 20 minutes from the Harajuku Station along a tree lined path that provided a welcome shade to the hot afternoon sun.

6. Summer street festival

Date : 12Aug/Sun
Time : 4:30pm
Venue : Shinjuku

Summer is festival time in Tokyo – fireworks with 120,000shots and last for an hour; samba festival in Ueno, or the bon odori – akin to the hungry ghost festival in locally but with fun and fair, and group dancing around a drum beat accompanied with traditional folk songs

7. Budding artist

Date : 13Aug/Mon
Time : 1:50pm
Venue : Tokyo Station

A young artist at work – he started painting by the road side from 8am & the noon temp was 35C!

Postscript -

a)  回 & 归

回 - hui (Chinese) - return, go back, e.g 回乡 – hui xiang - return home or balik kampung
归 - gui – or kaeru (Japanese) - to go back to , to return - to one’s home or place of origin

The ‘O’ in ‘okaeri’ – is an honorific prefix to indicate respect.

b) Gift giving season

Summer is one of the two gift exchange season in Japan: namely - 中元 - ochyugen. The other one is towards the year end - 岁末-oseibo. At this time of the year the big departmental stores in Tokyo will offer expensive and nicely pack present especially of food, such as fruits, noodles and even cooking oil. A Japanese melon packed in a velvet box is not uncommon to be priced closed to Y10,000 ie. S$130.00

c) Tokyo Banana website


Monday, August 06, 2007

the summer of 81 @ lake biwa

Aug 06 is a special day to the Japanese, and each year on this day, the whole nation will turn her attention to the memorial Peace Park in Hiroshima. For on this fateful day 62 years ago, the B52 Anola Gay released the bomb at 8:15am on that fateful morning, and wiped out nearly 200,00 souls in an instant. The bomb ended WWII in the Far East.

Leafing thro the photo album, I found that I was at another place. Instead of at Hiroshima, my first summer holiday in Japan was in Lake Biwa.

Date : 06Aug1981
Place : Takashima Station, Biwa Lake
Fr left : Huang Zhijun, Yang Kairong, Zhu Ze, k3, Eryu Shiji, Zhu Yixing,Dr Huang Guangwu

This picture was taken 26 years ago to the day at the railway station near Lake Biwa, Japan. It was a summer vacation to the biggest lake in Japan and with a group of students from China, and their Japanese female friend.

I had arrived in Osaka four months earlier, and was staying in the same foreign student dormitory as them, in the in the new campus ground of the Osaka University of Foreign Studies (OUFS), located at Aobadai, Minoo, on the outskirt of Osaka city.

Of the five Chinese students, four were graduate students majoring in the Japanese Language and Japanese studies. Of the four three were from the Shanghai University of Foreign Studies, and the 4th student from the North-East Region. Variously they had been in OUFS for 2 to 3 years, and were one of the first batch of students sent by the government of the PRC to Japan, with Deng’s policy of opening up to the outside world – 改革开放 - gaige kaifang - in 1978.

The fifth student was a medical doctor, a bare-foot doctor I believe for that. He came for his immersion in a medical hospital in Japan, and had similarly gone to the OUFS for the 6 month intensive Japanese course. This Dr Huang, was my neighbor in the dormitory. He spoke Mandarin with a Guangxi slang.

What was distinct about him I thought was that his mannerism and image was more akin to that of a farmer from the rural area than one would have associated with a doctor that had gone thro tertiary education and training. China then, was just beginning to shake off her communist ideology and the doctor was probably selected probably due to his ideological credentials.

The Chinese students were all able cook, and in the evening would meet in the kitchen to prepare dinner. We would talk in Mandarin, and interspersed with Japanese in between. The fact that I was able to speak Mandarin had helped in the mingling with them, and from them to learn Mandarin.

Their female Japanese friend was studying Chinese in China, and was back in Japan for vacation. She was introduced to the Chinese students by her lecturer in China. Her parents had lived in China before the Pacific War and possibility cos of this link with China, she had gone on to study Chinese. There was among the Japanese, a minority whose parents was born in China and had lived there before the War. China was just opening up then, and many of these Japanese had goodwill towards their poor and big neighbor.

The documentary - the Silk Road - by NHK that was shown on Japanese TV a year or so earlier was such a big hit in the country, that it generated a tourism boom to China. The theme music was by Kitaro. Due to his long hair, Kitaro was banned from performing in Singapore.

During my secondary school years, I had read of the suffering of the children of Hiroshima who had survived the bomb. However during my stay in Japan, I did not make it to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. After Osaka, I went on to Tokyo, and it took me further away from western Japan, to the eastern Kanto region.


a) the photograph - in Chinese:

地点:高岛 站, 琵琶湖
从左:黄志军,杨凯荣, 朱泽,笔者,儿玉十纪,朱一星,黄光武


Saturday, July 28, 2007

kanji -漢字 – hanji – 汉字 - two birds with a han


If one reads only English, one would think that this is purely a Japanese-English Dictionary.

If one reads only Chinese, one would think that this is a Chinese-English Dictionary.

If one reads English and Chinese one would at first glance thought that it could have been a mistake in the title – for how could a Chinese-English Dictionary, as read from the Chinese words, be called a Japanese-English Dictionary, in English.

And perhaps this would what most bi-lingual Singaporeans would have thought.

However, the catch is in the word ‘Character’. For, ‘Character’ refers to kanji - 漢字- in Japanese - 汉字 – hanzi – that is the Han or Chinese Character, in written Chinese.

Being a bi-lingual, and able to read Chinese, would give you more than just the Chinese language alone. With a strong foundation in written Chinese, one is also half way into the Japanese language. Though one may not be able to pronounce it in Japanese, however one would have known the written meaning.

As reading the Japanese (or Chinese ) title of the dictionary would testify, if one knows Chinese, one would have known that it is the - Newest Edition of Han-English Dictionary, i.e. a Han Character – English Dictionary, which carries the same meaning in Chinese or in Japanese.

最新漢英辞典 is pronounced as:

saishin kan-ei jiten - in Japanese
zhuixin han-ying chidian – in Chinese

How many Kanji characters are there in the Japanese language, you may ask.

In 1946, the Japanese Government listed a list of 1,850 ‘Current Characters’ - Toyo Kanji – 通用漢字 - with the recommendation that publishers and writers confine themselves to these characters.

All in there are 1,850 commonly used Kanji Characters in the Japanese language, and there are possibly 3,000 to 5, 000 commonly use hanji in the Chinese written language.

So, for those of you in the wildness struggling to learn the ‘Mother’ tongue - if the economic value of the language does not entice you to persevere with it – do not be dishearted, that idea that you are half way thro in learning the Japanese language, might perhaps do the trick to boost you on.

For, if you travel to Japan, you will be able to identify many of the characters in the signboards which will aid you making your way around. You can even engage a Japanese in ‘pen talk’ i.e.笔谈 – histudanbitan i.e. conversation thro writing Chinese characters.

So, ‘To study Chinese’ – would be written in Japanese as:

中国语 no 勉强 - chugoku go no benkyoo


But the two characters - 勉强 - has taken on a different meaning & connotation in the two languages, since the Japanese adopted it into the Japanese language a thousand two hundred odd years and more.

For :

勉强 - benkyoo suru – to study in Japanese ,
勉强 - mianqiang – as an adverb in Chinese has various meanings, namely i) to do one’s best despite difficulty or lack of experience or ii) reluctantly, grudgingly iii) inadequate, unconvincing, farfetched iv) barely enough.

In Chinese to study is : 学习 - xuexi. It is pronounced as as gakushyu –in Japanese – though it connotes a higher level of study, and delving into research.

Perhaps that’s what most of the Singaporeans students are facing when they study Chinese, they -勉强中国语 – mian qiang Zhongguo yu. They are struggling with their Chinese Language! It describes it well in Japanese.

Well, kanji -漢字and hanzi - 汉字- is not so similar after all, ne.


1)  漢 or 汉
The two characters are the same in Chinese, with one written in the simplified stroke – down from 14 strokes to 5 stokes. In pinyin - han - pronounced in the 4th tone.

Japanese have maintained the traditional standard Chinese character.


The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary - 最新漢英辞典 - by Andrew Nathaniei Nelson, Phd. D published by Charles E Tuttle Company, 1978

Purchased at:

Marican & Sons (M) Sdn Bhd, Podium G5 DBS Building, No 5 Shenton Way Singapore -1
Tel: 221-4037
Date: 13.September.1980,
Price: $64.80


Sunday, July 22, 2007

the kereta that no longer runs on local ayer

Date: 8Jul/Sunday
Time: 9:30pm
Place: Junction of Smith Street – Trengganu Street

Was making my way to the MRT station and while passing thro the junction of Smith and Trengganu Streets, bumped into the street performance and stopped to watch. . Had thought that it was a Cantonese Opera but it wasn’t. The singing was in the Beijing Opera style.

It was a short act from the script - Jin Pingmei – 金瓶梅 - with Wu Song (the hero who killed a tiger with his bare hands) - 武松- Pan Jin Liang- – 潘金莲(the loose sister-n-law of Wu Song ) and Ximen Qing ( rich philander) – 西门庆-in appearance. The drunken screen of Wu Song gulping down huge jars of wine, was superbly acted, and the fighting of with Xiemen Qing was acted with such acrobatic skills and force that it could have broken the make shift stage into pieces, brought applause from the small but mainly tourist audience.

It was a weekend event to rejuvenate the nigh live in China town, possibly organized by the local community club or the STPB. Much has been said about Kereta Ayer having lost its true character, and the Beijing opera in the street certainly had further added on to it – maybe not so much visually, but certainly acoustically.

When I first arrived in Singapore in the late 1980’s, and when I felt a little homesick, I would make my way down to China town. Then, you still find the old styled Cantonese dim sum restaurant - such as Tai Tong dim sum restaurant in Mosque Street -大东海记 . These restaurants had big huge mirrors both sides of the walls, where the menu was written, and a bill of $2.70 would be sung out by the attendant to the cashier as, 二两 礼拜, and in Cantonese – yiliong leibai - literary two tales and a Sunday. 2 tales for two dollars and Sunday, a seven meaning 70 cts.

The Da Dong Restaurant – 大东酒楼 - at the junction of Smith and Trengganu Streets – with the same name Chinese name though as the former TaiTong Restaurant – is not the real McCoy any longer. The attendants for one could do not speak Cantonese – which used to define Kereta Ayer. Without the atmosphere and the familiar sound, the dim sum in this new restaurant does not seem to taste as good and as delicious.

With Kereta Ayer in constant make that which is a part of its unique heritage is visually much altered on its main streets. Not far from Yu Yan Sang Medical Hall –余仁生 - along South Bridge Road, there is now a Tong Ren Tang – 同仁堂 - medical hall from Beijing. A brand new temple styled in Tang architecture which is more at home in Xian - 西安 , or Kyoto, than in this tropical island, just came about.

A Taiwanese style tea salon, a Sichuan hot pot restaurant - is found next to the to the local hawker fare in Smith Street; Chinese cuisine from the North-eastern Provinces such as Heilongjiang, & Shanghainese noodles. And well, a German sausage stall near to Sago Street has definitely added an international flavor to the potpourri of Chinese oriental selection.

Much that I could remember of Chinatown in the past 15 to 20 years odd since I first came has gone – for better or for worse. And for the local folks who are born and bred here, what more has make way for the new and is lost forever, one could get a glimpse of it in the Chinatown heritage museum in Pagoda Street.

It was the ‘Cantonese’ character that use to bring me to Kereta Ayer, as that was the place where I would go to when I wanted to have a taste, feel and hear - of hometown.

A ) Kereta Ayer – 牛车水 – ngau che sooi (Cantonese ) – niu che shui (Hanyu pinyin)

Kereta Ayer – or Bullock Cart Water is the local name for Chinatown. Kereta is the Malay word for a vehicle or a cart. Ayer is water. History has it in the early days of the Singapore, bullock cart would be used to transport water to this place, and thus it was called Kereta Ayer.

However I would like to think that the Ayer – as in - 水 - sooi - or water in Cantonese - is to mean a thoroughfare or a street. A busy street in Cantonese could be called a sooi – I think。

Thus - 牛车水 – ngau che sooi - is a thoroughfare jammed packed with bullock carts. And it so happened that these bullock carts were carrying jars of water to sell to the local population.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

of nihongo one point lesson & a gift from fukuoka

It was probably in 1970 when I first started to learn my first Japanese sentence – kore wa nan desu ka – literary – This is what? It was the year of the Osaka World Exposition. Third Brother went to Tokyo to participate in the Asian Youth Football Tournament, and he came back with a English text teaching rudimentary Japanese.

However that was not the first Japanese Language text book that I came across. In my childhood days in the old house I was often curious of what was written in an old thin book with drawings of kids, and animals and in stiff funny characters. I learnt that it was a Japanese text book from the Japanese Occupation ( 1942-1945) . Other than the then the old banana bank notes, this was the other archeological remain from the War years.

The book was written in Katakana and meant as an educational text book to teach Japanese. A few years back I saw another Japanese Language text book from the Occupation era at the defunct Singapore History Museum, at River Point. (The text book is most probably still packed among the boxes which we shifted to another house later in the 1980/s. I would do an archeological again when I balik kampong and if I could find it again).

It was thro Radio Japan, that I was first indicted into a formal Japanese lesson – with text and pronunciation and a native Japanese teacher from the air wave. Shortwave radio listening or DX-ing - was my hobby and my window to the world in my boyhood days, and Radio Japan was my favorite station. While my From One classmates were following the Bee Gees & Sam Hui in the 1970/s I was tuned in to the Japanese pop and enka - 演歌-charts, Aki Yashiro, Masao Ken, Sawada Kenji and the likes.

Later I got a pen-pal from Japan thro the station. She was from Kyushu, in southern Japan. We corresponded in English and kept in contact for close to ten years. We exchanged photographs and she taught me a phrase of two of Japanese. The dictionary in the photograph was a gift from her. I still recall how elated I was when I got it in the mail. It’s dated - 17/3/75, from Fujiko Mizusaki, 水崎富士子。

In 1981, when I first went to Japan for my post graduate study, I was posted to the Osaka University of Foreign Studies for a six month Japanese course. She informed me that she had a friend studying in the same college. I did not meet up with her friend nor did I make a trip to Fukuoka to meet up with her. By then, she was already married.

1. Enka - 演歌
You have the country and western and the blues in the western music, and enka is a genre of music, variously know as the blues of Japan. The tune is melodious and often with a touch of melancholy & nostalgia. The song sings of jilted & lost love, a longing for the warmth of mummy's bosom or the fireplace of the furusato – 故乡- in the north covered in deep snow.

The Japanese would tell you that these enka songs have such deep and unexpressed sentiments in the lyrics and melody that is so uniquely Japanese that only a Japanese born and bred in Japan would be able to feel for it. Much of the Hokkien Karaoke songs are music of this enka genre.

The most well know enka is probably Kitaguni no Haru – 北国no 春 , rendered by Masao Sen – 千 昌夫 , in the late 1970/s or early 1980s. The lyrics starts with - Shiraka ao zora, minami no kaze - 白桦 清空南风 - translated literary as - White birch, clear blue sky and southern breeze. The title is - Spring in the Northern Hometown. It was a hit across the Far East. Its Mandarin, rendition is entitled - 榕树下 – Rongshu xia .

Shiraka - in Japanese is white birch – a commonly found tree in the colder parts of Japan in the mountains and the northern region.

Rongshu - in Chinese is Banyan tree – an equally romantic tree, for an exotic up market holiday resort was named as such, cos the founder and his wife dated among the trees on an island.

2. Japanese names here are written in the order that the Japanese would write and read them, i.e. Masao Sen, or Abe Shinzo, instead of Sen Masao or Shinzo Abe, the western rendition.

3. While searching for enka in goolge, found this interesting web-site on Japan. If you are into museums in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and the Japanese countryside, do pop in:

4. You can catch singer Masao Sen & Kitaguni no Haru - in Youtube :


Saturday, June 30, 2007

of oyako donburi & anpan – eating meat & age of enlightenment

A week or more ago, Channel 8 just finished the documentary series on its Wed 10:30pm slot of the documentary series made by CCTV – The Rise of Great Nation -大国崛起 – Daguo jueqi. One of the reasons this documentary made headlines the world over was because it presented a very refreshing perspective on how the Chinese intelligentsia viewed the rise of the other nations over the past 500years - with a unbiased , non-nationalistic and objective focus.

The 7th episode – 百年维新 – A Hundred Year of Reform - narrated the rise of Japan . It started with the appearance of the four American black ships lead by Admiral Perry at Yokosuka Bay - 横须贺 - in 1853 that forced opened the door of this isolated island nation, the restoration of political power to the Emperor after a lapsed of 600year rule by the Shogunate, and thence the raise of modern Japan to the present day economic superpower.

An liner in the documentary that mentioned that the Emperor Meji fist lead the population in eating beef - made me to recall this article on how the Japanese started to eating meat.

What we know now as authentic Japanese food did not have as such long and regal beginning as the Korean Palace cooking or the Chinese food culture. Sukiyaki, tempura, teppanyaki, ramen were foreign import. The Japanese started to eat meat only from 1872, for they had been a vegetarian nation for the previous 1,200 years by government decree.

Here then is the translation of the article on how the Japanese first started on eating meat :-

Oyako don – needless to say as everyone knows - is a dish where the chicken cube cooked with egg is laid on top of a bowl filled with rice.

When pork replaces chicken, and cooked with egg, this donburi it is called ta-nin-don -他人don . The naming of these two dishes comes about sort of a matter of factly. Well, how would the donburi be called when it is beef with egg? In the Kanto region, it is called the – kai-ka don - 开化don - Enlightened donburi. Why was it named as such?

When Japan entered the Meiji Period (1868-1912) , the Western system, technology, thoughts and lifestyle became popular. (quote from the textbook used in primary school social study ). This is so called the Age of Enlightenment ( the enlightenment of civilization). In such places as Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama the people cut off their topknot and put on Western attire and increasing number of people took to eating beef. ( ref: 前揭教科书).

Hamburger and Beef-donburi shops are found at every nook and corner nowadays. Eating beef has become a very intimate part of our existence. However, it was not so long ago that the Japanese first started to eat beef. In 1872 (Meiji 5th year) , the Meiji government abolished the edict on a ban of meat eating which had been in force continuously for a thousand two hundred years. Beef eating then started together with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment.

Bye to way, when the government edict t on forbidding meat eating was abolished, the fact was that the citizen did not happily devoured meat. Due to the influence of Buddhism, it was thought that meat was unclean. And there is such a gossip –

In the Motomachi area of Yokohama, there was a person named Nakagawaya K ( 中川屋 嘉兵卫) who started a shop selling beef to foreigners. Nakagawaya informed Fukuzawa Yukichi (福泽论吉)- “From now onwards, it will be an age where everyone will eat beef’. He also opened a shop in Tokyo.

However, it was no mean a task to slaughter a cow then. The area was cordoned off with ropes tied to 4 bamboo & gohei - 御敝 (notation: white paper cutting used in Shinto religious rites ) were hung around it . After the meat had been removed, the bones and organs were buried in the ground and sutra chanted over it (reference: 桶口清之 - 梅干 to 日本刀 – Umeboshi to Nihon katana (Chu) Yodensha - ). This was how things were then, and meat eating did not spread as easily to the wider population.

Emperor Meiji then came on at this juncture. For the sake of the Age of Enlightenment, he took upon the initiative to eating meat. Emperor Meiji disliked meat. As there were many occasions to dine with the Westerners, he could not abstain from eating meat. In order to set an example to his citizens, it was said the he bitterly took on to eating meat.

Among the other kinds of Western food which made their appearance during the Age of Enlightenment there was one which Emperor Meiji took a liking to. It was ice-cream.

During the Age of Enlightenment, bakeries gradually started their trade. However, it almost had no business at the beginning. It did not suit the taste of the Japanese who had over the centuries been used to eating rice. And out of it came anpan – a hybrid of bread an manju. Anpan was an invention of the Japanese during the Meiji period. The Japanese has since time antiquity adapted things foreign to make it suit to them. From the first Western food that stared with meat eating in the Age of Enlightenment, the Japanese have since reformed the food to suit to their taste and it has since spread among the populace.

This type of changes in the cultural life of the Japanese will be discussed over the next seventeen episodes.

Photograph: eating beef nabe dish (reference: Kodansha – History of A Century of the Meiji Era ) .”

References :

1) Taihen data, nikusyoku no hajime, - On eating meat - Oh! What a troublesome start.

Kyokasho ga oshienai rekishi – 2 , Nobukatsu Fujioka, JUYUSYUGISHIKANKENKYUKAI, 2005 - History that is not taught in the school textbook – 2 .

Artice first published in Sankei Shinbun Chokan - Sankei Newspaper morning daily. The Sankei newspaper is known for its nationalist, extreme right view. On the translation - E&OE.

2) The Rise of Great Nation -大国崛起 – Daguo jueqi, CCTV

- A 12 episode documentary by CCTV & discussion on the web -;;


Friday, June 22, 2007

the wedding - eerto, modern desu-ka, western desu-ka

Date : 16th June, 2007, SATURDAY
Time : 12:30pm

Was walking past the CHIJMES Hall and saw a wedding crowd, and thought it was a local wedding. However on getting nearer it was not English that I heard but a familiar tongue. On closer look, the mannerism of the folks had a certain uniqueness that distinguished and identified them – the orderliness of the crowd as they line in front of the new couple while the groom was delivering a thank-you speech on the steps of the church hall, the little nod of their head as the listen, the way the ladies carried their handbag with the arm upright instead of across the chest and the way that they covered their mouth with their fingers as they giggled.

Just as one would be able to pick out our own kind while traveling overseas when we hear Singlish, one seems to be able to discern that the crowd here was uniquely Japanese.

The bride and groom though, were not in the traditional wedding kimono, they were dressed smartly in the western wedding gown and made a perfect match.

Among the gathering were two middle aged couples. They were probably the parents of the bridge and groom, here to attending the wedding of their children. The attire of the gentlemen further indicated that this wasn’t a wedding of a local couple. Though the coat and tie is becoming the de rigueur attire, never mind if it is unsuited to the hot and humid climatic condition, one would hardly see someone wearing a morning coat to a local wedding.

For, the gentlemen were in morning coat, vest & cravat, and it brought to mind the Ascot in the movie My Fair Lady. The morning coat or cutaway stood out with its long tailcoat. It is not uncommon for the parents of the bridge and groom to wear the morning coat during the wedding ceremony in Japan. It is also a formal wear in other occasions too.

When ever a new cabinet is formed, the Prime Minster of the day would assemble his members for a group photograph on the grand stairway of the Diet, with the ministers in morning coat and tie. The latest of such group photograph was that of the Abe cabinet.

It was from the age of Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) -Meiji Ishin 明治维新 - that the Japanese went with a single minded aim to emulate and learn from the West – be it in technology, political systems and in fashion.

While the Chinese needed a revolution, that of 1911 that overthrew the Qing Dynasty – 清朝- (1644-1912) to enforce the cutting off of the pig tail among the masses ( though it stated off as a symbol of subservience to the Manchu rulers, it became an object of endearment ) , the Samurai clan, - led in adoption of western fashion, some thirty years earlier.

(The samurai belongs to the bushi - 武士 – the elite among the 4 classes of the feudal society 士农工商 - warriors, farmers, craftsmen, and traders - and with the merchat class at the bottom of social hierarchy) .

The samurai took the lead in cropping off their status symbol – the chonmage (丁髷, ちょんまげ) – the topknot head dress that is still worn by the Sumo wrestlers today - and adopted Victorian and Edwardian high fashion. Morning dress coat, tall hat and spotting a moustache came into vogue in the Japanese society.

However, beneath this symbols of westernization – in attire and technology, the Japanese have always pride themselves that they have adopted only the outer trappings of the west, by in sprit and in soul, they have retained their uniquely Japanese character. The Yamato Spirit – 大和魂 – Yamato Damashii. – is still very much alive and kicking among them. Well, as they say in Japan – we are modern but not western.

As a student in Japan, we used to comment and compare the Japanese and her society with the rest of the East Asian societies. We used to joked that while the Japanese was modernized they were not westernized. And comparatively the Filipino seemed westernized but not very modernized.

This makes one to ponder - what kind of society are we becoming on this little island. We are westernized, maybe too westernized perhaps. Do we already have amongst us a class that is westernized but not modernized? Or perhaps as they would liken it to . . a banana. Much that is uniquely our culture and tradition has been eroded and faded, sigh!


1) Morning coat;

2) Chongmage;


Thursday, May 31, 2007

no, that at south bridge road is not a kabuki-za

This picture was taken on Saturday night 19May, 8:45pm , on the night of street light up.

This building, located at the junction of South Bridge Road and Sago Lane - the BTRT S– 佛牙寺龙华院 - will soon adorn the tourist brochures of the Singapore for the master said -that you have not been to Singapore if you had not visited this place.

Well, to a Japanese tourist, his or her first impression could be – is it a Kabuki-Za? For its unique traditional architecture & location, smack in the city center, will bring to mind a Kabuki-Za (歌舞伎座) or a kabuki theatre. In Tokyo, the Kabuki-Za is located not too far from the Ginza shopping mall, at the Tukiji district (the better known tourist site in Tsukiji is the wholesale fish market – the biggest in the world), while in Kyoto it is the Minami-Za Kabuki theatre.

And for the local couple that was standing beside me on that night of the lighting up ceremony I over heard the husband saying to the wife – How ingenious the Japanese are in their architectural design. Look at the intricately style wooded beams. Indeed it looks very ‘Japanese’ for that. If one has seen the Heian Shrine (平安宫)in Kyoto (京都) or some of the ostentatiously painted crimson torii gates, it looks uncannily Japanese in style and color scheme.

Well, to be an easily recognizable tourist attraction, it boards well to be visually unique, and vibrant in color and style.

It brings to mind another temple and tourist site - the Chi Nin Nunnery (慈宁庵) in Hong Kong. Located at Diamond Hill, it too adopted the Tang architectural style - with the horse mane roof as a trademark of that era. The color scheme of this temple complex is much more subdue, and reflective perhaps of original Tang color.

For temples, and a Buddhist one at that, one would have it that it takes a more subdue and less glaring color scheme, that would be more soothing to the mind and less evoking to the senses. The red and crimson would have been left to the palaces of the emperors,

However, this building is more than a temple, it is also a masterpiece of Chinese Tang architecture, albeit with a fusion of temple and palace traditions – with the bodhisattvas inter-mixing with the flying dragons.

The tiles that covered the roof are from Nara (奈良) Japan. The label on the tiles red – naikyu Yamato Kawara - 大和瓦- dento no gijutsu o ikashita, jishin, taifu ni tsuyoi - translated as: long lasting Yamato Kawara tiles, a living traditional craft , able to withstand earthquake and taifuyu. The hopes and prayers of the believers are written on these tiles.

Taking about Nara – it was established in 701A.D as the fist capital of Japan. The city is modeled after Changan (长安) the capital of the Tang Dynasty -(618-907AD) – present day Xian (西安). The most prominent landmark in Nara is the Todaiji Temple (东大寺). Built in 752AD along Tang architectural style, it housed the Daibutsu, the biggest Buddha statue in Japan. For the past 1,300years it has been the center of Buddhist learning and culture.

The new landmark in Chinatown could easily be the most expensive single temple building in Singapore, and housed the most expensive – in terms of monetary term – Buddha stature on the island. Never mind that the fusion of Japlish-Tang architectural style and that is is incongruous with its environment. And that it is not styled after the local temple complex tradition which our forefathers brought with them from southern China. It is however a reflection of the continued influence of Tang soft culture and a landmark of our time in this globalize city.

As the Todaiji Temple in Nara has with stood the ravages of war, typhoon and earthquake thro the millenium, may this too long as long. Be it also known as far and wide not only for its rich imagery, but also as a citadel for reflection and meditation, and a center for the advancement of thoughts and leanings for the faith.

In the hustle and bustle of the pomp and pageantry of its opening ceremony, one hears the sound of the temple bell – echoing ever softly and gently . . . for it has been ringing for the past 2551 years, when the wheel was first set into motion.


1. Lianhe Zaobao dated 6Jul07 -

联合早报 2007-7-6 , 言论版 – 热点话题 – 万丙炎

也谈佛牙舍利 - 世界上只有两颗佛牙已经是广大佛教徒的共识。在此,笔者倒是建议本地佛牙以‘佛牙影骨’也未必不可。

Forum page of Lianhe Zhaobao, in a column on titled ‘Hot Topic’ by Wan Binyan

The column titled – Also talk about Buddha sarira. In it mentioned that it is a common knowledge among the word wide Buddhist community that there are only two pieces of Buddha tooth. It may not be impossible if the local Buddha Tooth be called - 佛牙影骨 - Foyayinggu - (i.e a copy of the Buddha tooth) , the author proposed.

The article stated that the two pieces of Buddha tooth which have historical records that could be traced to the Sakyamuni Buddha, and also mentioned in the sutra are located in the temples in Sri Lanka and Beijing, one each respectively.


1) Chi Nin Nunnery – Hong Kong

2) Heian shrine – Kyoto
The Japansese capital moved from Nara to Kyoto in
Heian-kyo in Kyoto is the capital of ancient Japan during the Heian Period (A.D794. -A.D1192).

3) Todaiji – Nara

4) Nara National Museum
Exhibition – Saidai-ji shutsudo kawara (Roof Tiles Excavated at Saidai-ji Temple)Nara period, 8th century, Two tilesNara National Cultural Properties Research Institute;

5) Kabuki-za (歌舞伎座) – Tokyo
It is the principal theater in Tokyo for the traditional kabuki drama form. It opened in 1889 during the Meiji-era.;;


Saturday, May 19, 2007

A tale of two poetry books & the search for cultural identity

Browsing thro the book shelf one lazy Sunday morning and nothing better to do, I did a little stock taking and count of the books that I have bought over the past 25 years and more. What came out as quiet a surprise was that the theme of the books has consistently been on culture, history, politics, biography, and the one country that these books hark back to is China – be the books in English, Japanese or Chinese.

What tale has these two books on the Chinese poet Du Fu ( 杜甫) got to tell – of the journey in the search for ‘self’ and cultural identity?

The book on the right in Japanese was bought at the Tokodai Seikyo – Student Co-op Bookstore - at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (TIT) on 15Feb 1983. The title reads -‘Chinese Famous Poetry 5 - The Wandering Poet DuFu, which in Japanese reads - Chugoku no Meishi 5 - Pyoohaku no shijin – Toho.

The book in English on the same Tang Poet Du Fu, title ‘A Little Primer of Tu Fu’ by David Hawkes, was purchased at the now defunct Sogo Department Store at Raffles City, Kinokuniya bookstore on 10Nov1990.

I bought the former while studying in the Japan, and the latter, after I came to Singapore a year or so odd.

Rewinding back to 1981, when I first arrived in Japan. She was the rising superpower that seemed poised to over the US. Less than a year after I arrived, Dr M the new PM of Malaysia, advocated the ‘Look East Policy’ – to learn from the East. And it was particularly towards Japan - to emulate her exemplary work ethics and drive, and learn from her modern industry and technology. The Japanese economy was thrusting head on with a new found vigor in the aftermath of the oil crisis of the 1970/s. For the politician, entrepreneurs & the shakers and movers of the economy, the book written by Eric Vogel’– Japan as No One - was a must read. There were no lack of books on Japan and its rise then, as just as now there is no lack of choice on books of China.

Though China in 1978 had declared her new policy of change & opening up – 改革开放, gaige kaifang, it was still a pretty closed country in the early eighties. People had strated to make visits to the country. In between lectures the Japanese professor who had traveled to China, would tell us tales about the country and her society. It was a first hand narration of the communist country and her cities, and I looked forward to those stories. It was a pretty poor country, and the people were very frugal. For what I have heard from my folks who have traveled to China, was the pre-1949 society of our rural village. I read the book - ‘China: Alive in the bitter Sea’- 苦海求生 - by Fox Butterfield. Despite the hardship, poverty and the harsh political reality, the people had a tenacity & resilience for survival, I remember he wrote.

The first six months of my stay in Japan was at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies (OUFS) studying Japanese. After lecture, I would head straight to the library to borrow the video tapes and watch the trial of the Gang of Four- 四人帮 – Si Ren Bang. I recall Mao’s wife – Madame Jiang Qing 江青– taking her defiant stand in court and the spectators laughed at her comments:

– I was just a dog by the side of Chairman Mao. When he asked me to bite who, I will bite who.

- You all were no where around, when your Old Mum me was fighting the revolution .

There at OUFS I met the first batches of Chinese Government scholars, and subsequently at TIT, there were more who came and did their research. Many of these scholars were in the forties, and had missed out on their college education cos of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Their dressing were like their proletariat cousins that one could now see in North Korea - simple and plain, and a number were wearing the traditional cloth shoes.

We stayed in the same dormitory and traveled to college together in the same train during the morning rush hour. In between we would chat about China, and me trying to fill in the gaps on what I could learn of the country.

They would hint of the amazement on the profusion of goods in Japan, and how well the stores were stocked up, while keeping their pride. I mentioned that looking back to China long history these past 140 odd years or so of backwardness, was a bleep, and that the 21st Century would be a Pacific Age. Since then, what a difference the past 25 years have made!

Coming back to the finding of ‘self’, it was a constant search to understand one’s culture and roots that seems to be the mission and interest in what one did. Where did the ancestors come from? As an ethnic Hakka –客家 – i.e. Guest People for that - this group of people has constantly migrated in history for the past two thousand years or so. The ancestors we from the Northern Plains of China, and cos of war, and while escaping the invasion of the Mongols and Tartars, they landed in the hills of Guangdong province. Subsequently due to war and hardship again, they migrated to the Nanyang - 南洋 - in the 2nd half of the 19th century.

Identification and ethnicity will always be with oneself, and all the stronger in me, maybe because, I am trying to cover ground on something, Was it because, all my siblings were educated in Chinese and me the odd one out who was put into an English medium school that made me to want to learn Chinese? Was it because of the social environment that I grew up in that make me yearn for the cultural linkage? Well there don’t seem to be a definitive answer to these questions, , and often one did things driven by our sub-conscience.

Reading Tang Poetry is a manifestation of this search for cultural identity & self。 This search is found in the bookshelves on the books that I bought. It has been a journey that I embarked on all these years, and will continue to do so. We'll it's also about history, and culture. .


1) 中国no 名诗5 – 漂泊no 诗人 杜甫 - 译注者 小野忍, 小山正孝,佐藤保 – 平凡社 1983; Chugoku no Meishi 5 - Pyoohaku no Shijin Toho, Heibon Sya 1983. Chinese Famous Poetry 5 - The Wandering Poet DuFu, - Translation with notes by Ono Shinobu, Oyama Masataka, Sato Tamotsu; Publisher : Heibon sya , 1983

The receipt of the book in Japanese right reads:

Tokyo Institute of Technology Student Co-op Book Section
Telephone: 726-1111 extension 2398
15 Feb 83

The price tag of the book is Y1,400 (about S$17.50 current rate). It was discounted 10% at Y140, and the actual price that I paid was Y1,260. I paid with a Y10,000 note, and the change was Y8,740.

2) A Little Primer by Tu Fu by David Hawkes, Oxford University Press 1967, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1990 , Renditions Paperbacks.

3) Tu Fu 杜甫- 712-770AD

Du Fu (in pinyin) was lauded as the ‘Sage of Poetry’ & one of the most famous poets who lived during the height of the Tang Dynasty (618-960 AD) .

‘His poems reflect in broad scope and profound depth the features of the times and are a comprehensive expression of all the best of preceding poets and an opening up of the way to later poets, hence meriting the praise of being ‘epic poetry’. ’
唐诗三百新译 -300 Tang Poems, A New Translation , The Commercial Press Ltd, 1987.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007


没用过中文来写博客,在这五一假日的早上,下了场晨雨没出门, 就留在家练习练习中文吧。


虽然岛国没有四季,只是有雨旱两个不什么分明的季节,这个时侯刚好是进入了季节风向更转的时期, 风向是从屋子的前面吹进来。到了风转从后窗吹来时,就知道又快要到年底了,那时候的风是从东北朝向马来群岛来。


这里的马来群岛也是千百年来东西文明的交叉点。 特别是欧洲大陆地战舰和传教士还没到来前,这个地区已是海上丝绸之路必经之地。来自阿拉伯,印度,中国唐山 的船只都停留在这里做生意,而从中带来了亚洲三大文明和本群岛马来文明的

说到唐山, 十年前, 刚好是亚洲金融风暴发生的那一年, 和家父们一起初次回到祖辈们的故里探访。翻看旧照片,看到了这张拍摄到这个神气的小孩儿的照片。


雁洋, 叶剑英故居前, 小孩, 叶年广,五岁。 25.12.97

那位坐在小踏车,举起右手,笑眯眯挥着手,两指子做个‘胜利’ 手号的
小弟弟 是住在叶家祖屋。记得这个小孩很聪明,问他几岁叫什么名,他很灵活地回答了。他现在应该是个十五岁的年青小伙子吧。那小姑娘呢,是和他一起玩的邻居。

雁洋离祖辈故里松口镇不远,到梅州得要经过这个镇, 所以就趁着机会参观了叶帅的故居。

说到叶剑英,中国人也许就会想起 他命令逮捕‘四人帮’的故事。前不久观看了‘文化大革命始末 (1966-1976)’的光碟, 里面有一段是讲述叶帅和 他的故里雁洋。听父亲说,叶家也有亲人在马国霹雳州家乡怡保,万里望。

祖辈们以前下番到南洋,是从粤北的客家山区经由梅江接韩江到汕头转乘帆船靠着这个 吹向亚洲南部和印度洋的季风而来地。他们在星州上岸,然而由陆地北上霹州的近打谷锡矿山而到去。

1。 从小学到大专一直以来都是念英文,没有正式的上过华校。反而,在日本留学时还有上过日语课程。 中文写错了字,或用错了词,请多多指导。

2。有了电脑,写中文觉得比以前没电脑,中文软件时,来的方便得多。以前不晓得写的字 必须查字典。 但是, 用电脑书写只要能汉语拼音把字念出就可查出字来了。 但汉语基础不好,常会用错字,词。


4. A first attempt to write in Chinese – a thought on the morning monsoon rain and the visit to the ancestral village ten years ago.

09.May.2007 - translated into English:

from the cool morning breeze and to reminiscing the visit ten years ago to the ancestral village

I’ve not written a blog in Chinese before, and in this May Day morning, after a morning rain, did venture out but stayed home to practice my Chinese.

A cool breeze is coming from the front window, and for the past three four days, the south-westerly Sumatran wind brought with it the rain the cooled the hot sultry day.

Although the island nation does not have the four seasons, it has a rainy and dry season which is not that clearly defined. It is now the transitional period of the trade wind, and the wind direction is coming in from the front window. When the wind starts to come in from the window at the back of the house, you know that its towards year end. The wind direction will then blow from the north-east towards the Malay Archipelago.

In the days of the sailing ship, and when Cheng Ho travel to the western seas he depended on these Trade Winds to take him on his voyages. (note: according to the Chinese record, Cheng Ho’s voyages are described as travels to the Western Sea , and he reached as far as African coast across the Arabian Sea). In summer the wind blows from the south-west and in winter it is from the north-east. And the island nation Lion City is located in the center of the sea lane from South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.

The Malay Archipelago has been at the cross-road of the eastern and western civilizations for thousand of years. And way before the arrival of the man-of-war and the missionaries from Europe, this region was part of the Silk Route of the Sea. Ships from Arabia, India and China or Tangshan met here to trade. And with it, came the interaction and development of cultures of the Malay and the three great civilizations.

Talking about Tangshan - 唐山 , it was exactly ten years ago in the year of the Asian financial meltdown , that I first visited my ancestral town with dad. On looking thro the old photographs, I came across this picture of the lively little boy.

It was written in the back of the photo:

Yanyang , former dwelling of Ye Jianying, little kid, Yap Nian-guong (note: Hakka pronunciation ), age 5. 25Dec97.

The little boy on the bicycle with his right hand raised, and with a cool smile waving a ‘V’ sign lived in the Ye-叶- family ancestral home ( 叶: is pronounced as Yap in Hakka). I remember him as a bright kid , and when I asked his name and age he smartly replied. He should be a fine young man by now. The little girl who was playing with him was his neighbor.

As Yanyang - 雁洋- was not far from our ancestral town Songkou -松口, and as it was on the way to Meizhou- 梅州 - we took the opportunity to stop at there and visit the former home of Marshall Ye.

On mentioning Ye Jianying-叶剑英-the Chinese will recall the story of his decree to arrest the ‘Gang of Four’. Not long ago, I watched a DVD on the ‘Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – From its Beginning to its End’, and in it has an episode of the Marshall and his home town – Yanyang. Heard from Dad that the Ye family has relatives in Perak State in Ipoh-Menglembu area.

When the ancestors migrated to the South Seas, they traveled from the hilly Hakka district of North-eastern Guangdong Province, riding down the Mei Jiang 梅江- which then joins the Han River - 韩江 – to reach Swatou -汕头. From here, they waited for the Trade Winds to sail to south. They disembark in Singapore, and from there the wend up-country by road to Perak, and the tin mines in the Kinta Valley.

(Added note: Ye Jianying wa one of the ten famous Generals on New China. He was instrumental in bringing the down fall of he Gang of Four with Mao’s wife Jiang Qing as the head, and the end to the Cultural Revolution. With that came the come back and rise of Deng Xiaoping, and the opening up of China to the modern world, embracing socialism with Chinese characteristic. And as they say, the rest was then history…)


1. Have not studied Chinese formally in school before, and was educated in English form primary to college. On the contrary, had attended formal Japanese lesson while studying in Japan. If there are any wrong words or mistaken phrase, pls guide and correct.

2. With a computer, it is much easier to write Chinese. With computer and the Chinese software, one just need to learn the pinyin system in order to be able to bring out the work and chose which is the correct one, and thus need not to use the dictionary. However my Chinese foundation is weak, and often tend to use the wrong word or phrase.

3. Singapore’s education is with English and mother tongue as its foundation. Ethnic Chinese will learn bi-lingual English and Chinese. However, many of the ethnic Chinese have English as their mother tongue. The decline of the dialects – Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese, is akin to the destruction of the old buildings – block by block being torn down. The city landscape is being renewed, and the language of the people is continuously changing. If you want to listen to dialect you need to travel to the towns and villages in Malaysia.