Tuesday, December 30, 2008

a coffee to call home - 舊街場白咖啡 - white coffee a-la-carte Old Town

Despite the news of economic gloom, this trip home seems that there is something stirring in the air in Ipoh - it is getting back into life again, albeit the city center. After having hollowed out the past decade or more, the stranded developments in the city center are back into completion, and with new projects beginning piling works.

Overlooking the Kinta River not far from the St Michael Institution, there is a row of newly opened chic Riverfront café. The internationally acclaimed super star daughter of Ipoh – Michelle - was the guest-of-honour for the opening. (The other famous daughter is Sybil Kathigasu – a war heroine during the Japanese occupation). Next to it a new hotel complex is getting into works.

Closer to the older section of the Old Town, and overlooking Ipoh Padang at the Lawyer’s row – a row of pre-war shop /cum office buildings - a few modern restaurants – i.e not your usual coffee shop style eateries - are up with decent good biz during lunch break.

Well, you still have the every green eatery - the likes of the Old town White Coffee -舊街場白咖啡 – gau gai cheong bak kafe (Cantonese) jiu jia chang bai kafei- (pinyin) -and the chicken hor fun – 河粉– rice noodles.

The Old Town white coffee label has leaped into Malaysia’s coffee billboard big time. With its fragrantly thick coffee with a chocolaty flavor, the die hearts Ipoh-rians would never a second have a second thought on their choice of the cuppa – be it UCC or Starbucks coffee.

Unlike the Singapore Katong Laksa along Easst Coast Road which has a few claimants and self-declared pioneers, the true blue Old Town White coffee is clearly identifiable to the corner coffee shop on this side of the road closer to the little India of Ipoh Old Town – the Kedai Kopi Sin Yoon Loong - 新源隆茶室- Sin Yoon Loong Coffee Shop.

Not so very long ago, a few many years back where - during the Chinese New Year festive mart at Kereta Ayer Chinatown – I was pleasantly surprised to be offered a tiny cup of the Ipoh Old Town White Coffee. Unlike the Ipoh Hor Fun, or even the Menglembu Groundnut, Old Town white coffee was a very local production and a localized name then.

Since then, as they said the rest was history. The Old Town While Coffee is getting to rival the Ipoh hor fun as the de-facto brand of Ipoh.

The Old Town White Coffee label has lent its name to a chain of coffee outlets in shopping complexes and popular joins in the cities. Like the Killiney Road Coffee or Toast - is a modern version of the traditional coffee shop.

The spark & inspiration to these local version of the café outlet would perhaps be the American coffee chain – with modern management and setting but offering a local taste and flavor.

It’s the 21st century version of the local coffee shop culture with each promoting its signature drink and specialty dish. Another modern twist of the café would be the - Hong Kong Cha Chan Tiang- 香港茶餐廰- with its never-to-miss milk tea.

Whatever the names of these modern local café outlet is – perhaps the name that would outlast it all would be the café that I saw in Ipoh , Jusco: It’s name in Chinese character is: ( well, haven’t I told you to learn Chinese, for you will miss much if you don’t)

- gong si gong fei

Which literary means a place for a gentleman (or a gentlewoman) to chit and chat while having a cuppa.

Well, what ever it is the name to be, Kedai Kopi Sin Yoon Loong – the establishment in Ipoh Old Town - will continue to serve the unending stream of Ipoh-rians , as it has done so for the past 60 odd years and more - come what may

Postscript –

1. Well, now and then the entrepreneurial Ipoh-rians will throw up a nation wide food-ie craze. Close to two decades or so back – Ipoh style western steak pioneered by Leong Foo – generated an almost nation, if not a Perak-state wide steak craze. It originated some where in the Ipoh Garden eatery where the ex-wrestler ventured into food.

2. Perhaps we have not met for over 25 odd years or more. We were once in the same class in primary school in ACS Ipoh. He is now running the coffee shop together with his brothers, and the 3rd generation Wong of Hainanese stock-海南人-, and got to know that his mum is a Hakka -客家人。

The coffee shop biz was pioneered by the Hainanese during colonial times. And as in Singapore and rest of the Peninsula Malay – in the early days, coffee shop biz was run by Hainanese.

A Hainanese and a Hakka mix was - perhaps unique to and a product of Ipoh. For in Ipoh – the majority of the early settlers were Hakkas, with a mix of Cantonese, while the Hokkien and Teochew were the minority ethic group

Being founded as a tin-mining town, Ipoh was where the migrant Hakkas congregated. The early Hakkas ventured from their homeland as miners. And the hills and mountains of Ipoh, remained them of the homeland in the mountainous areas of North-east Guangdong – 广东省-south China.

3. 講士講啡

Or in Chinese PRC, with simplified strokes : 讲士讲啡- jiang shi jiang fei – in pinyin

gong si gong fei – is rendered in Cantonese –the lingua franca among the ethnic Chinese in Ipoh.
It is to mean:
A gentleman having a conversation in a Café or about Cafe
With the 啡 – fei - from - 咖啡 – kafei – coffee

Or the pun:

讲是讲非 – jiang shi jiang fei - to chit & chat of the right and wrong.

For : 是非 – shi fei – means right and wrong.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

out of the blue - what's your hallmark ?

1. the town painted blue
Having read of its opening in the ST, I ventured in search of the Baba House one Sunday morning. As I seldom had a good reason to wander westward of Chinatown - Ngau Chair Sooi - 牛车水- and being unfamiliar with the places, I was a little lost in my direction where this house was located.

The house is located in the far west of Neil road, adjoining Kampong Bharu Road at Blair Plain. Other than the Baba House, I was also pleasantly surprised to find an estate of conservation Straits Eclectic houses. In my many weekend strolls in Chinatown to take in the sights of this unique brand of local straits architectural style, in the shophouses, the clan associations in Ann Siang Hill & Kiong Siak Road, it did not occur to me that a piece of history is neatly tucked way in this area.

The blue color of this house seems familiar, I thought. It’s a deep blue color tending towards violet. Oh yea, it‘s indigo. Some ten years back, while on a visit to Penang, I’ve seen this color in another century old mansion. It’s the Cheong Fatt Tse (CFT) Mansion, located in Leith Street. I got to know of this house in the 3rd Hakka forum held in Singapore in 1996. CFT Mansion has since been converted into a boutique hotel.

Wondering, why blue, I did a google on – straits house, color blue & CFT Mansion, and found the answer in the entry on CFT Mansion – in wikipedia:


The distinctive blue colour of the mansion is the result of mixing lime with natural blue dye made from the Indigo plant. The blue was very popular in the Colonial period and the dye was imported from India. The lime wash was very effective in a tropical weather as it absorbed moisture and cooled the house.
However the blue is a colour of death in Chinese culture and the practice was never introduced in
Hong Kong. The house was originally painted white in the time of the owner, and the indigo was applied much later.


The early settlements in the Straits in Penang, Malacca and Singapore were supposedly a townscape of blue colored buildings. However, considering that the Baba & Nyonya of old were as deeply steep in customs and traditions, with many pantang larang (taboo’s) it makes me also to think after reading this quote, would not the blue a taboo color too for the Peranakan.

Perhaps, the color blue chosen for the Baba House is our 21st century interpretation of what the houses and townscape was like then in the colonial period a hundred or more odd years ago in the Straits Settlement. It is a reflection of the color of a past era, rather than the actual color of the House of Wee. It could perhaps have been painted in a more auspicious hue, such as pastel red or maroon.

(CFT Mansion - Penang : photograph taken: 12Dec1998)

Unlike the linked Straits shop, the CFT mansion was build as a standalone complex. Perhaps because of its Hakka roots, it was very much simpler in style, and plainer in its overall ornamentation. In contrast to the southern Min-nan (Fujian) architectural style found typically in the Chinese temple architecture, where the roof is curved and heavily embellished with auspicious symbols and scenes from folklore, the CFT mansion has a much straighter line reflecting perhaps of elements of northern China architectural style – where the Hakka’s migrated from.

Talking about a standalone type Chinese style mansion, there is still one & only remaining on the island – the House of Tan Yeok Nee, located at the junction of Penang Road and Clemenceau Ave. After its make over as the Graduate school of the University of Chicago, this house is painted a pastel yellow. It's was build in a much earlier the period around, 1865-85, and a true blue Min-nan style Chinese townhouse. But it now sits oddly alone, incongruous with a backdrop of modern structures.

Had the city center been preserved of its pre-war townscape and many of the old architecture, perhaps the Lion City would have been in the map of UNESCO Heritage city, too. However that is left now of the city are pockets of old hardware that hardly have a discernable link to past.

2. Hallmark -堂号

Well, so much of the blue, I was next drawn to the two big golden characters hung above the main door of the Baba House.

Considering that this was the house of the Wee –黄 - Huang (pinyin) – shouldn’t these two characters be - Jiangxia - 江夏, rather than - Zhongsheng - 种 盛 . For the - 堂号 – tanghao - literally hall mark - of the surname Wee is - 江夏 - Jiangxia. The family name instead is written on the lantern hung on the left side of the porch – 黄府 - Huang fu – House of the Huang.

江夏 - Jiangxia - refers to the place where the Huang clan originated, and it refers to a geographical location, usually located in the northern plains of China in the prefectures of - Shansi, Gansu and Hebei – 山西,甘肃,河北省. This was the - zhongyuan - 中原 – the Central Plain – irrigated by the Yellow River – 黄河 - and its tributaries, and supposedly the cradle of the Chinese civilization.

In the Europe, it would have been the coat of arms, while in Japan the Samurai family would has their unique – 纹章 – monshyoo - family crest. However, in China, with a strong Confucian influence of revering one’s roots, respect for education, and abhorring feud, there was never the evolvement of a family crest that identified with the militaristic. .

As such, according to the Chinese tradition, each family would have their family hall mark reflecting the place where their progenitor originated. The name – tanghao - could be translated as the - mark of the ancestral hall. When the Chinese migrated to the South Seas – the Nanyang – 南洋 - they brought along this tradition with them.

Other than using a geographical location the tanghao could also be in the form of a motto or part of a wise saying left to posterity by a venerable ancestors, to inculcate virtue, scholarship or righteousness, etc among their posterities.

As to why - Zhongsheng –种 盛 - for this house of the Wee, it is probably named along the line of a family motto and one has to refer to their family genealogy. Zhong –种 - literally means seed or progeny and - sheng –盛 - flourishing, prosperity, or abundance. Perhaps, the venerable ancestors would wish for the clan to multiply and prosper.

What’s left of the hallmark?

Wondering how widely still is the practice of hanging the tanghoa prominently in front of their house still retained – I did a walk around the estate, and in Emerald hill, and Joo Chiat, on a little survey. Alas I could barely find more than a handful of houses that still continue with this tradition.

When the early immigrants that migrated to colonial Singapore & in the Peninsula, it was a common practice for those who have made it – and owning a house to prominently displace their hall mark in front of their house. It was to - 光宗耀祖 - guangzong yaozu – literary - to brighten one’s clan and to illuminate one’s ancestors, and to remind them of their roots.

To find your roots - some of the common tang hao - are:

陇西 – 李 - Longxi – Li (pinyin) – Lee (dialect)
西河 – 林 - Xihe - Lin – Lim
延陵 - 吴 – Yanling - Wu - Goh, Ng
太原 – 王 - Taiyuan - Wang –Ong
滎阳 – 郑 – Xinyang – Zheng - Chang, Chung

This house located in Emerald Hill, has the tanghoa as - 沛國– Peiguo . And its family surname is supposedly a Zhu– 朱 – Choo (in dialect ) meaning vermilion. It’s illustrious lineage would include the founder of the Ming dynasty – 明朝 ( 1368-1644 ) Zhu Yuanzhang - 朱元璋.

Other than in the form of a plaque, I found one with the tang hao written in crimson on two big lanterns hung from the verandah. It reads – 清河 – Qinghe - and the family surname should most probably be – Zhang - 张 - Teo ( in Hokkien) .

Perhaps this tradition of hanging the tanghao in front of one’s house is a tradition unique among the migrants. In the visit to the ancestral village in China many years back, I did not observe each home has a tang hoa hung on its doorway. However, each village would have their ancestral temples where members of the same surname would gather to venerate their ancestors – and each village would have sizeable members with the same surname. The tanghao is set at the ancestral hall.

Leaving behind their ancestral village, and wandering to the South Sea – 南洋 – the early migrants were usually a mix lot of different surnames, but from the same district of same dialect group.

In the foreign land, they would first and foremost gather to form clan associations of a certain dialect group or district. Subsequently, with sufficiently sizeable numbers, they would form clans of similar surnames – though not necessary from the same district or village.

For the individuals who lived dispersed on a foreign land, they took to identifying themselves by displaying their tanghao in front of each of their own house. Be it the grand mansion of the smart migrant who made it big, or the hardworking & thrifty migrant who made it good to build their first house of timber and attap roof, traditions ran deep, and they would proudly display their venerable tanghao - always to remind them of their roots.

This photograph is from my hometown in Menglembu. The tanghao tradition is kept pretty much alive in the old houses in the rural areas. It reads - 晋阳 –Jinyang – and the surname of the family is probably - 唐 –Tang.

Alas, be it here or there, one hardly could find this tradition being practised in the homes in the new housing estates and apartment blocks. It is no longer cool to display such archaic plaque - especially in front of one’s chic house.

Well, so much for the hallmark, and a bye-bye to another traditional practice...

Reference: -

1. Streets of George Town, Penang.

An illustrated guide to Penang’s City Streets & Historic attractions
Khoo Su Nin - 2nd edition 1994. First published in 1993.

Flipping thro this book and comparing it to the book, entitled:

Singapores 100 historic places, (National Heritage Board – first published 2002),

-one could not help but be amazed at how much the two cities have in common – physically. In the street names – you have or had it here, they have and still have it there, Armenian Street, Chulia Street, the clan associations, the Straits Eclectic shophouses/houses – architecturally so similar, and uniquely of the Straits.

The Singapore Street Directory (Edition 1988) - was the first that I bought when I first arrived in Singapore had Farquhar Street. However, a check in the Singapore Street Directory (New 2002 Edition) this street name is gone. It was located behind the New Seven Storey Hotel, parallel to Rochor Road. This hotel will disappear too in the new edition of the street directory.

2. Chinese surname

A good lead into the origin of the Chinese surname is found in wikipedia. However a more detail and indepth explanation of the tanghao is found in Baidu – the Chinese web seacher . However you need to read Chinese to understand the contents.


In Wikipedia

3. The Peranakan Association -


4. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion - the Blue House

At the turn of the 20th century Penang, this Leith Street was supposedly the Hakka Millionaire Row’, with a concentration of wealthy Hakka migrants, and among them Cheong Fatt Tse. He was one of the pioneer Nanyang industrialist, and was once appointed the Consul- General in Singapore, of the Qing Court



5. Singapore – A guide to Buildings, Streets, Places
Norman Edwards & Peter Kayes, Times Book International 1988

Addendum - 2008.Dec.30

Saw this at the Sri Maju long distant bus head office terminal in Ipoh.
四知堂 - Hall of the Four Know
The bus terminal is the former mansion of the Yeoh Family – 杨 – the Yang Clan.

Why the ‘four knows’ - 四知 – shi zhi?

Legend had it that during the Eastern Han -东汉Dynasty – close to 2000 years ago. An official Yang was bribed to keep mum, by a governor, and that no one would know of the incident.
However the upright Official Yang replied -天知,地知,我知,你知 .
- meaning : heaven knows, earth knows, I know and you know.
To commemorate the up-righteousness and integrity of this predecessor, and as a teaching to their descendants, the Four Know became the tanghao - hall mark - of the Yang clan.


Friday, October 03, 2008

a sip of autumn - rangoon road

It was in October, a Sunday morning last year, along Rangoon Road hunting for the bak kut teh - 肉骨茶 - rougu cha - shop made in-famous by the visit of HKG governor , I chanced upon this row of un-occupied houses.

Perhaps the clear blue sky and the bright morning sunlight did the tick of enhancing the old charm of these houses, and brought about a mosaic of colors. Moreover, the thin cluster of bamboo trees in front of the yellow house embellished the scene with a classic poetic look. For a while I thought autumn was in air, even in tropical Singapore!

Well, these old houses – the so named Straits town house or the Straits shop houses- is old charm Singapore, which I always find endearing, and uniquely of this part of the world. Pockets of them are still found on the island and whenever I see them in their best of light in the Sunday morning or evening walks, I will never failure to whip our my camera, and capture their beauty.

A year has passed since, & time to go for another sip of the tea and tuck in to the succulently fragrant pork ribs dip in deep dark sauce. And check it out if the autumn scenery is still there.

Considering that the area is a hot spot for boutique apartments, perhaps these houses being not under heritage protection should be razed to the ground by now, and the piece of autumn in the tropics is forever memory.

Well, perhaps not, since the dizzying prediction of the SGX hitting a 4K point by that year end, it has gone on a free slide with the pandemic from the america. That, should save the autumn sonata for a while ..

Reference -

a ) Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut teh - 黄亚细肉骨茶


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

a postcard from beijing

The postcard was stamped 1984.09.30,北京(Beijing). It had a brief message written in Japanese which reads:


Genki desu.
Kokkeisetu ga tanoshimi!
10/30 Pekin nite
Utan koto

I’m fine.
Looking forward to the National Day Celebration
10/30, in Beijing
From Utan,

In the haste of writing the postcard, he had mistaken it to be already in Oct, and had signed it off as 10/30 or Oct 30. For the next day was Oct 1, China’s 35th National Day Celebration.

Utan was his self-styled name that he gave himself. We were in the same research laboratory at university in Japan, and he was one of the closer friends among the lab mates. He was an undergraduate then, and I was towards the final year of my study when he joined the lab.

Utan was hairy for Japanese, and as he was coaching tennis, he was tanned and had a dark complexion. Coupled with his longish facial structure, and the fact that I was from the south where Orang Utan is a native; he jokingly gave himself this pet name. When I left Japan in the April of 1984, we continued to correspond for some years, sending each other festive greeting cards, and he would sign off with this pet name.

In that year, Utan was in the contingent of 3,000 Japanese youth. The invitation to the Japanese was extended by the President of China, Hu Yaobang,, when he was on a state visit to Japan in 1983, and with the intent of promoting understanding and friendship between the two nations.

The 1984 National Day celebration was a historic event, as it was the first major National Day celebration after the end of the Cultural Revolution. . Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening up – 改革开放- gaige kaifang - was into it’s 6th year, and the country was making steady but careful steps into market socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The National Day celebration of that year was a milestone, and a coming out party of sort to put aside the self-isolation policy of the old communist regime and to bury the misery of 10 years of internal fights – 无产阶级文化大革命 – wuchanjiejie wenhua dageming - of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution.

It’s 24 years, since this postcard came from Beijing, and this is the 30th year of the reform policy. Needless to say more, the face of China has changed beyond recognition, and the geo-political order East Asia, has undergone a silent transformation.

In the early 1980/s, the books on the shelves were - Ezra Vogel, Japan as Number One (written in 1979) , and ‘China, Alive in the Bitter Sea – by Fox Butterfield (1982). These were the two books I remember reading during my student years in Japan.

Fast forward to 2008 - how the world has changed. It is no less a year to remember with news out of Beijing.

Hardly has the warmth of the torch cooled off, with the promise of - one world one dream, 一个世界, 一个梦想 – yigezhijie, yigemengxiang - from the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the world suddenly found itself in the melamine nightmare.

However, for Utan, it started much earlier in Japan – it was with the gyoza - 饺子- jiaozi -(flour dumplings with filling such as minced meat with vegetables), contaminated with insecticide.

Perhaps Utan could relate it well to what they have go thro too, but on ten fold the scale and affecting not only the country but the world at large, with the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, it came with the Minamata.

Well, perhaps that's part of the vicissitudes of - the rise of a nation – just as in life ...

Postscript -

1. Oct 1 - it’s a Hari Raya Puasa holiday in the Lion City.

The local newspaper has an analogy that - what the Beijing 2008 Olympics had done to Beijing, the F1 Grand Prix has equally done to the city state, i.e the prestige that it brought. The night race has transformed the city literary overnight in the eyes of the world is the jewel in the F1 crown that rivals Monaco!

Was it perhaps to justify for the investment poured in to get the venue ready, despite news of financial gloom and doom.

Reference :

1. Disclosing the "1984 secret"

The Beijing News (Chinese): Disclosing the secrets of 3,000 Japanese young people visiting China in 1984

During Hu Yaobang's 1983 state visit to Japan, he invited 3,000 young Japanese to visit China. The Beijing News looks back at that visit and reveals that one-third of those visitors now head Sino-Japanese Friendship Associations

2. Minamata disease


Friday, September 26, 2008



一大早的清晨, 摊主的一位老头正在开档,陆陆续续的把那些旧画老古董摆出来。看见有一大堆的旧书,我就走过去看看有些什么好书。蹲了下来三翻四找的去挑,问了问摊主一本多少钱,他回答通通每本一元。那算是便宜了,记得不久前在桥南路-Cross Road 交叉路口店铺后巷的另一个旧货摊,那位老头开价五元的一本旧书自己都愿化,这次可要买多几本了。

从书堆中就挑选了几本有文学为题材, 在上世纪七十年代末,八十年代中国出版的三四本旧书。

为什么选择这些老书呢? 也许会问到,

也许那些书出版的年代 对我来说是个很有意义的年代。那刚好是我离老家到吉隆坡上大学念书, 然后又到日本国留学的一段时间。那个时候也 刚刚好是赶上中国大陆改革开放的年头。从这些旧书中就会联想起 近三十年前的往日旧事。


也许家中姐哥们都受华文教育而我是一人单独唯一念英文为主的学校,从小就觉得排在哥姐的交谈以外。 家中所看的报纸电影明星杂志,如《南洋商报》,《南国电影》都是中文刊物。而童年小时候又常听到亲属们在唐山中国的故事,所以在那个在生长的年月中, 虽然在学校向西方英文语言所学,但是回到家的环境都是靠着东方而望的。也许就是这样潜意识中受到了音响 ,-寻言找根 就化成了一个念头。


近年来所买的书本,阅读散文之类的刊物都是中文版。 写的日记,也在用中文为主。

记得留学日本国的三年间,和家里通信都是用中文写字。幸好,日本国通用汉字,买了本北京外国语学院编辑,商务印书馆香港分行出版的《中英词典》,就查这本词典,从大阪外国语大学的校园内留学生宿舍里给家人写下我的第一封中文信。那是1981年的5月份, 初到日本的第一个月。


1981年的中国,刚是改革开放政策实行了的三个年头。 1978年邓小平到吉隆坡来访, 刚好在吉隆坡年大学。 如果没有记错,他来访的不久之前吧,是越南总理的先到来。



从在大阪外国语大学的中国留学生们的谈话中也听说留学生当中有位是还是鲁迅的一位孙子。 因为要和家人通信学写中文,在学习日文的课外中,自己也买了些日本放送协会 NHK 电视台发刊的教学中国语言的刊物。 从那些刊物课程中, 我初次接触到, 《茶馆》,《沙子龙》,等作品,散文。

记得修读完学位后的第三年,在即将回国时,参加了日本大企业,三井船务- Mitsui Liner - 的百年庆祝游艇活动。 在游艇上和同行参加游艇的有位来自中国的留学生 谈起了中国近百多年来的历史, 和未来的发展。 我对他说这百多年来只是中国历史上的一段很短的时间, 将来的二十一世纪, 即将会是亚太世纪了。

虽然,京奥 ,神七 都顺利圆满成功,中国以在迅速的发展和崛起, 但从中时常会抛出为人伤感的事件。上次卖了两大盒的蒙牛牛奶,现在对中国制造,中国生产的食品得要问个清楚。 去年在东京的一个夏季Fun Fair里 听到一位卖烤鸡肉串的小伙子说,没有来自中国的鸡肉,自己以为日本人太过已敏感,太过已怀疑中国食品 。 现在不只是日本人了。

当然崛起的路是不容易走,何况国家那么的大,历史那么的悠久,传统习俗是不易改。 以前盼望着中国站起来,中华民族的优良传统发扬光大。 但是,今后强大起来的中国又会带来什么样的忧虑呢。



The old books were purchased at the Sunday flea market in Chinatown. From the year the books were publishend in the early 1980/s, it is a reflection of self, and the opening up of China in the past 30years or so.

Books title:

1. 古代白话短篇小说


印数 426001 – 826000 册

王太捷 朱希江主编


印数:1- 180,000

3. 精读文萃

高校文科 电大 农大 刊大 高教自然考试 写作参考读物

刘锡庆 张继缅 吴炫 编


1985年6月第1 版,




Friday, August 29, 2008

老照片: old photographs from the tanabe studio - high-color lifestyle of 1920-30’s Japan

The title of the book reads – the Showa period as seen by the Tanabe Photo Studio.

For those of you with an interest in old photographs - laozhaopain – 老照片– this book would be a good read, albeit in Japanese and of Japan in the 1920-30's. It’s about life in pre-war Japan, in the early Showa - 昭和- period. A high-color – haikara – (to mean fashionable) lifestyle of chic western fashion & luxury enjoyed by the ordinary citizens.
Behind every old photograph – a story waits to be told, and old photographs are appealing because it tells of a past which is very much related to our present. It brings the past back to life, and there could not be a better way to hear the story than to hear it from the people who are the witness themselves.

The articles on the - laozhaopian - 老照片 - were written by the award wining lady author – Seiko Tanabe – who is the grand-daughter of the founder of the Tanabe Photography studio in Osaka. She was born in 1928, in the 3nd year of Showa. She wrote of her family, and her childhood to adulthood in Osaka, spanning a period of twenty odd years.

This period is specially meaningful and historic, as it covered the years leading to the 2nd World War. Many a times when we read of the Japan of this period, there would be a militaristic tone to it, and often what we would see in the pictures in our history books and museums are military personnel in uniform.

What was the everyday life like for the ordinary citizens of Japan then?

Perhaps because of the period of extreme hardship and poverty after the war ended, in between which Japan rebuild herself to become a world economic power and an affluent society, the author had chosen the theme for her articles – the fashionable lifestyle and the good life that even the ordinary folks enjoyed before the war.

This story rings a bell, as it was something that the post war baby boomer would be able to relate well too, for they would have heard it from their parents. Or for those who still have grandparents in their eighties and above.

On the island in the Straits Settlement and in Malaya, life was peaceful & easy then. The Straits dollar was strong, and with a pocket money of 5cts to school, it was treat – for a bow of noodles cost 2cts, and a cup of drink at 1cts. A dozen eggs would cost 15cts, and cost of living was cheap. Then came the planes, and with it misery and sky rocketing inflation.

Well was life like in pre-War Japan, Osaka

These photographs tell of the fashionable lifestyle and the luxury that the ordinary Japanese enjoyed.. These photographs escaped the bomb fires of the Allied planes over Osaka that destroyed the Tanabe Studio, as many of them were with the letters sent by her mum to her maternal village, reporting on the tidings of her brood. However, beneath a seemingly peaceful life adorned with chic trappings, the sound of war was not far off .

The two little children on the cover photograph are the author when she was 6 years old and with her younger brother, 4 years old, seated in a toy car. The photograph was taken at their Tanabe Studio in 1933 – Showa 8, Feb 25.

The author zoomed in to describe the little doll that she was holding in her left hand. It wasn’t a doll from France, though it looked Western at first glance, but a Made-in-Japan doll. It was a a Japanese doll called Ichima-san (as in Barbie). The doll had black hair and black eyes, and was chicly dressed – with a bonnet and a Western dress with lace. She went on to narrate the origin of the name Ichima-san for dolls. In the cast of performers of olden day Kabuki, there was a beauty by the name of Ichimatsu – 市松 , and thus dolls in Japan were called Ichima-san.

This photograph of a group of 6 gentlemen smartly dressed in coat and tie - was taken on New Year’s day, 01Jan 1938. The author wrote that the haikara fashionable attire reflected the modernism trend of the early Showa period. Or, more precisely the Osaka-Kobe brand of Showa modernism, as she puts it.

In the front row was her dad on the right, and two young paternal uncles. The three gentlemen standing behind were technical apprentices in the photo studio, and they came from distant prefectures to Osaka to learn the trade. It was perhaps a fashionable technical skill to pick up then – photography – and these young men would then return to their hometown to set up a photo studio, upon completion of their apprenticeship.

Interestingly it had the word Tanabe written in English on the photograph – and perhaps it was fashionable to learn English then, too. The author wrote that his youngest uncle, seated in the middle, studied English Osaka YMCA. And English was viewed with suspicion when the Pacific War broke out.

Beginning with the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese adopted the Gregorian calendar, in place of the Lunar based calendar. On New Year’s Day it is customary to put on new clothes, and instead of the traditional kimono, these gentlemen had chosen the modern western fashion of the day.

However, war came early to Japan.

Before the year 1938 was out, a member in the photograph – back row standing 2nd from right- received his draft order.

Six months ago the Marco Polo Bridge incident occurred in the outskirt of Beijing, on 07Jul, 1937. It ignited a declaration of war between Japan and China. The war was to last 8 long years.

The author observed the easy-going mood in this photograph of the send-off party. The party was organized by her grandfather (in the center bare bodied) for this staff of his (seated on the right) who was drafted. The reality of the war and the misery that it would bring had yet to set in; moreover, China was a far away country. It was a send off party and it was meant to be a happy occasion for good wishes. The backdrop of the picture were two banners, with bold Kanji – Chinese characters – 祝 応召  足立多一郎 - vertically written. They were well wishes , one from her grandfather and the other signed off as from the Tanabe studio.

The author a young lass of about 11years old, was a seated on the left. On the wall behind her hung the picture of the beauty of the Japanese cinema screen of the 1930/s Takamine Hideko - 高峰秀子 - with the Marcel wave hairstyle. This style with the finger wave was made popular in the nineteen twenties and thirties made popular by Broadway actress such as Lillian Gish and Ann Harding,

The author’s keen sight zoomed in on the plate of half finished western steak, laid out on the low table with the beer and sake. It was served with a pair of knife and fork, and she thought it incongruous with the tattered edge of tatami mat just below the table.

Well, so much for the haikara lifestyle of pre-war Japan ….

Postscript :

1. Japanese one point lesson:

a)  ハイカラ - haikara

This word is derived from English word – high color. As it is an adopted word - or 外来語– gairaigo - it is written in katakana form.

It is used as an adjective to mean: smart, posh, dandyish, chic, fashionable modern.

ハイカラな男 - haikarana otoko – a dandy
ハイカラな車 - haikarana kuruma – a posh car
ハイカラ服 - haikarana fuku – a smart, chic or fashionable dress

Karewa itsumo haikarana fukusoo wo kiteiru.
He is always stylishly dressed.

It is an adjective that ends with a - な – na. In Japanese language there are two categories of adjectives – one ends in - い – ii , while the other in in - な – na. The - い – ii – adjectives are mainly for words that are native to Japanese, while the - な – na - adjectives are words adopted from Chinese or other foreign language.

b) 召集令状 - syoosyuu reijyoo - Draft order

The author had notated this phrase -アカガミ- akagami – meaning a red lettered mail. Whoever received this letter would need to report for duty, a serious matter.

祝 応召 – syuku oosyo - meaning to extend good wishes on the draft call
徴兵 – chyoohei – conscription, recruitment
徴兵検査 – chyoohei kensa – physical examination for conscription

In the early years, drafting age was 20years old. All male on reaching the age wouldl old would need to undergo the physical examination for conscription.


1. 田辺写真館見た ”昭和”
Author: 田辺聖子
Publisher: 文芸春秋
Published: 2008.5.10

The caption on the red promotional flyer that wraps round the book reads – even in the prewar days everyone enjoyed a life of high-color - ハイカラ – haikara –( to mean fashionable, chic) and extravagance – 贅沢 – zeitaku (or luxury) .

The series of articles was first published in the Japanese monthly magazine - Bungei Shunshyu –文芸春秋 - from Jan 2003 to Oct 2004. It was later complied into a book.

Purchased -
明正堂書店 -東京都 台東区上野4-6-4
2008.5.18 (Sun)
¥600 (S$48.10)

2. Dictionary:
旺文社シニア英和辞典 – Obunsha
最新漢英辞典- Charles Tuttle

3. Japanese actress – Takamine Hideko 高峰秀子


4. 1920’s hairstyle

More on the lady hairstyle of the 1920’s:


Saturday, August 16, 2008

a tale from selat-pore: dance of the mer-dragon with the little red pearl

Many a tale has been written about the Merlion, and here is one more to add to the mythology.

Long long ago, feeling bored one day, the prince of the great kingdom of the archipelago decided to take leave of his princess one afternoon to venture beyond his shore to seek some adventure.

As the legend goes, when Sang Nila Utama, landed on the island with his retinue, he saw a strange & strong creature ambling on the shore. Not knowing what it was he asked his general whol told him that it was Singa-the-Lion. Sensing that this was a good omen, he decided to settle down on the island and name the place after the Singa – calling the ir Singa-pura - meaning the city of the Singa or the Lion-city.

Seeing that man had taken over his playground on the beach, the Singa-the-Lion got angry & ran off into the deep of the jungle. Lion vowed that he would never wander and play by the sea again as long as he had four legs.

Under the wise rule of the prince, the Singa-pura prospered Traders came from far and wide - from the land of the elephant and the land of the dragon. In the long and dangerous sea journey, these men from the different lands brought along their animals from their land of origin, well as mascots.

These animals feeling bored in a strange land, soon roam off into the jungle to seek play mates. They found Singa-the-Lion, and soon became great friends and companions.

Deep away in the tropical paradise, Singa-the-Lion and his new friends, Gajah-the-Elephant and Naga-the-Dragon would picnic by the refreshing stream. Singa-the-Lion introduced them to the thorny fruit of the jungle, the Duri-an which his new friends soon grew to love.

Meanwhile, the people having not seen Singa-the-Lion for such a long time forgot about Singa and soon change to call their place Selat, the Selat-pore. For selat - means the waterway between two land mass – that is the straits. And it was where their perahu and junks passed each day.

One fine day, Singa-the-Lion and his friends Gajah-the-Elephant & Naga-the-Dragon wandered into the lower reaches of the Rochor stream. After playing all day, they got tired. Lion & Dragon went to rest near the waters edge, while Elephant wandered further inland.

While they were napping, they suddenly felt that the earth shook violently and then heard a loud boom. They thought it was a bad dream. In fact a big earthquake happened in a neighboring land and it had together triggered a violent volcanic eruption. Black clouds soon overcastted the sky. The great chasm of the earth, generated a great wave that swept into the jungle, followed by a fierce storm of thunder and lightning.

Singa-the-Lion got very frightened and panic as they were caught in the waters gushing inland. In the avalanche of the Tsunami and the great turmoil and on the verge of drowning, Singa-the-Lion found a charged of energy when he was hit by a flash of lightning. Singa-the-Lion suddenly found that he could swim like a fish. On turning to look at his limbs, he found that his body was transformed into a fish tail, and he swam to safety.

Naga-the-Dragon too was struck by the lighting. He found that his lower body too was transformed into a fish tail while his upper pair of limbs was changed into a pair of wings. And well, Gajah-the-Elephant was resting further inland on higher ground and he was spared the wrath of the Tsunami.

In the confusion, the three good friends got separated – where are they now, you may ask?

Centuries past and fast forward to the 21st century –

Singa-the-Lion, became the Mer-the-Lion – 鱼尾狮 - yuweishi – literary a lion with fish tail. He had kept his vow. No longer has he his limbs and he has his proud fish tail to display as he returned to frolic by the sea. He has moved house not so long ago to a new spot further out by the river mouth,that has been turned into a bay. He daily sprouts water from this lion’s mouth – welcoming friends from afar – what joy!

Mer-the-Lion has a great influence on the land. The water he sprouts into the bay while standing in a north-easterly direction enhances the meridian forces and brings wealth and prosperity to its people.

Lately a huge wheel went into operation and that deem affecting the fengshui - 风水- the wind and the water elements – of the land. As it was rotating in an outwardly direction from the bay, the Fengshui master – 风水师傅- fengshui shifu - observed that all the good fortune that he sprouts was being wheeled away - in the wrong direction!

It would be bad business for the Flyer, as well as affecting the Qi – 气- in Shenton, the financial district beyond. Thus a six figure sum was paid to re-program and change the direction and have it rotating in-ward towards the bay.

Gajah-the-Elephant has settled up river in the land of the Rangoon bird. He too has brought life and prosperity to the place and continues to welcome his relations from afar.

Whence, then Naga-the-Dragon?

Last week, while traveling along Jalan Besar on the way downtown and while looking out from the upper deck of the double deck bus, I found him there. He has a full grown fish tail and with a pair of wings, he is now the winged Mer-the-dragon-鱼尾龙-yuweilong. He has become a straits born Selat-pore dragon, just like his good old friend Mer-the-Lion, a tru-blue specie of Selat-pore.

While his friends have moved on and made it big in a new environment, he is in a little laid back habitat, perching on the front of the old straits shophouses – waiting for his chance to swim & soar.

When the Fengshui master saw him, he portends that the days of Mer-the-dragon is soon near – all the auspicious elements in heaven, on earth and in man are aligned for his resurgence.

Meanwhile, Selat-pore, in the great Tsunami had been reduced into a little red dot. However, out of the calamity and with the baptism of the volcanic fire it had also been transformed. It has metamorphosed itself into a little red peal. This pearl would soon soar above the bay, stirring Mer-the-Dragon out of his long slumber.

For the Fengshui master says - that when Mer-the-Dragon soars to the sky to dance with the red peal, it will stir up waves in the bay, and the whole land will be churned into – 风生水起 - feng sheng shui qi - literary the rising of the wind & the gushing of water – a metaphor for vitality, good fortune and prosperity. For in he cycle of the five elements, the water element symbolises weath.

Mer-the-dragon will soon join his friend the Mer-the-Lion by the bay. He will display his skills soaring high into the sky just like the Black Knight, and diving deep into the sea while tango-ing with the red peal. His act of - 飞鱼尾龙吐珠 – fei yuweilong tu zhu – will invigorate the yin –阴and the yang- 阳 - elements of the land and bring it to an unprecedented level of prosperity and abundance.

Whoever has the good fortune to chance to get a glimpse of Mer-the-Dragon in his dance at the bay will win big at the casino, and hit every jackpot!- the Fengshui masters tells.

In no time, Mer-the-Dragon will come the twin symbol of Selat-pore, together with Mer-the-Lion.

Fast forward 2108 – a century hence –

The way of the Tao that gave birth to Mer-the-Dragon & Mer-the-Lion, was soon lost among the descendants of the dragon of Selat-pore. For they no longer understand the interpretation of the five elements and the inticate working of the forces of the meridian, nor able to harbor the energy of the yin-and-yang forces for the good of the land. They no longer could decipher the way of the ., and out of ignorance, called the Tao the Tao.

Not knowing the way of the Tao – the roots of the descendants of Selat-porean, got shallower and shallower, and this has the Jade Emperor worried. For, when the next Tsunami hit the shores of Selat-pore, they would not have much to cling on to.

Well, so much for the tale, time for Saturday lunch date, and catch Kung-fu Panda…


a) Straits shophouses

It’s uniquely a local flavor, and you know that you are on home ground when you see them – the straits shophouses. Many of them are embellishment with traditional motifs with Chinese, Western and Peranakan influence.

There is a good collection of Straits shophouses along Jalan Besar and in the vicinity of Syed Alwi Road. Though most of the building is a little run down, they have continued to retain the ‘soul’. With, the business and family life together, they intermingle into a lively and authentic atmosphere. These shophouse from post war or re-build after the wall, and more than half a century old.

b) Decorative motifs - winged mer-dragon.

The winged mer-dragon - 鱼尾龙 - is found on the shop front along Jalan Besar, together with the neighboring shops decorated with a winged tiger and winged Qilin – 麒麟 – another mythological animal。 These are auspicious animals in the Chinese mythology, symbols that brings good fengshui and help to stabilize & balance the Qi – 气 – energy forces - surrounding the building.

As to the mer-dragon, I believe its inception is earlier than that of the mer-lion. Though the dragon is considered a hybrid mix of a reptile, fish and deer (with horns) or what ever – its body has scale of a fish, but its tail is flare like a gold fish in traditional Chinese form, and with four clawed limbs.

This mer-dragon has no limbs, and its body is that of a fish and the tail in the shape of a dolphin. Perhaps inspiration that created the mer-dragon is the same source that inspired the creation of the mer-lion. It is not the mermaid sitting in Copenhagen harbor. It’s rooted in Chinese mythology.

Singapore a port city – with the tail of the fish to represents the maritime aspects, and the dragon head its Chinese roots.

3. Selat-pore - 石叻坡 –

The old name for Singapore as the early migrant Chinese would call it, instead of - 新加坡 – xinjiapo - as I learnt, was : Selat-pore.

Selat – is the Malay name for straits. The first inhabitants of Singapore were the Orang Laut – the sea gypsies – of the Malay Archipelago. They could have been the first to refer to Singapore as Selat – the straits – i.e the water mass separating the peninsula land mass from the main island, or the water ways between the islands, where they took shelter.

This photograph of the palanquin for the gods – was taken at Hong Lim Food Center, behind the Chinatown Point complex. It’s at a celebration of the the month of the Hungry Ghost – seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This festival in actual fact should be called by its proper name, namely - zhongyuan jie – 中元节 – the Zhonguan Festival . It has its origin in Taoism, a mid year summer festivity

In Japan this festival is celebrated as Ochuugen - お中元 - a mid-year gift exchange season, which culminated in the visit to ones hometown to pay respect to the ancestors at the family’s grave.

On the plaque in the center in the center of the palanquin is written -石叻坡- 唐朝府
(written in the original way of writing Chinese, from right to left). 唐朝府 – tangchao fu - a Taoist temple group that organized the celebration.

Well again, story short, with a discerning sight, one can find nuggets of the past, here and there buried in the concrete jungle.
4. IR by the Bay -perhaps STPB could consider building a statue of the Mer-Dragon dancing with the pearl at the IR, to complement the Mer-Lion tale. It will be one more fengshui tales for the tour guides to enthall the casino guests from the land of the dragon.

1. Tao - 道 - Dao (pinyin)

Lao Tzu – The Book of Tao and Teh.
Translated by : Gu Zhengkun
Peking University Press, Beijing 1995

老子道德经 – 汉英对照



Dao ke dao, feichang dao
Ming ke ming, feichang ming

The Tao that is utterable
Is not the eternal Tao;
The name that is namable
Is not the eternal Name.

The opening quote in Chapter One, from the Book of Dao and De (pinyin ) .

Lao Zi -was the head of the imperial library of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256BC), and believed to live around the same period as Confucius (551-479BC) .This is a good book to start on the Tao – the Way. It is very readable and with an excellent introduction to Lao Zi and his philosophical system.

Purchased at :
World Trade Centre – World Book Fair ; 世界贸易中心- 舒展
1997.June.22 , $7.00. The Commercial Press Limited – Clebrates 100 years – 1897 to 1997


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

where have all the tea leaves gone? a tale of the likes of - 牛车水- ngau chair sooi - in transition

It faded quietly into history. Unlike the 7 Storey Hotel at Rochor or the National Stadium – its passing was without any fanfare. As it was not reported in the newspaper, there was no shutter bugs buzz snapping a lasting shot for memory.

In it’s making over; the shophouse has kept its architecture very much intact. The new color tone of pastel purple, with the front painted light beige and the multi-colored frame on the upper floor patio gave it a pleasant refreshing look. Surprisingly or surprisingly not it has kept the motifs of the Chinese characters on the shop pillars. And for someone who does not read these characters, they might have thought that the characters are a part of the deco of the art gallery.

The boldly formed characters reads - 广珍茶庄 – Guangzhen Chazhuang - or - Gwongzhen Chazhong – (Cantonese) - meaning - Gwongzhen Tea Manor. Its former self was a shop trading in Chinese tea. It was one of the last of the - 老店铺 – lao dianpu – old shop houses along Smith Street, that had keep its original trade selling various varieties of tea from China. I believe, the dim sum restaurants- 点心茶楼 - or the bak kut teh - 肉骨茶 - in the vicinity of Chinatown would have gotten their daily tea supply from this shop.

Though painted over with a coat of emulsion the Chinese characters on the pillars are still very much visible. The Tembusu Art Gallery which took over the shop had perhaps thought that the characters have some artistic touch and had decided to retain them. However, there no longer is the fragrance of tea wharfing from the new old shop house though there are traces of tea lingering on its shop front.

About the Chinatown you can find this phenomenon repeated in the renovated shophouses - a modern establishments retaining an element or two of the old Chinese characters, which is an anachronistic miss-fit.

The new business that took over the shophouse had perhaps thought these Chinese words still look pretty and bold. It would not be too jarring to their trade, and had kept them there - feng shui or no feng shui – 风水 – even if it renders their name incorrectly. They exude a character – so to say – that the modern signage hardly could match.

It’s perhaps a reflection of the cityscape in transition - a reluctance to discard the traditional in total, but keeping elements of them but albeit in a masked mode. For these are the finger prints that have a distinguishingly unique local flavor in all that is modern and global.

Though the shophouses in the Chinatown area are preserved, however something seemed amiss. Perhaps that was what Kit Chan, the Singapore singing sensation, meant in her recently National Day interview, she quoted- that she could no longer recognized the Chinatown that she grew up in – the Chinatown of the 1970s and 80’s. Perhaps, she still could, the physical buildings are still much intact in form, however much of the soul is gone.

I came to Singapore in the closing year of the 1980’s and had a chance of to catch a glimpse the tail end of it’s past – the past that Kit grew up in. There was still the old Tai Dong dim sum restaurant along Pagoda Street – 大东海记。 It opened for business at 6am in the morning. Many a Sundays, I would jog from Geyland-Guillamard Road starting off at 5am, and be there as one of the earliest customers for the weekend morning treat.

After breakfast the bill would be settled in Cantonese. For a plate of dim sum costing $2.70 the attendant, already way past his prime, would called it out as – 两两礼拜 – liongliong leibai - literary meaning – two taels & a Sunday. It reflected a facade of the ingenuity of the Cantonese dialect with an entrepreneurial flowery pitch. For Sunday is equivalent to a seven. That was the way that they counted it out in the dim sum restaurants in Ipoh, KL and even in Hong Kong, too.

Alas, though they have cloned the Tai Dong Restaurant along the junction of Smith and Trengganu Streets – Da Dong Restaurant – in Mandarin - was no longer its former self – unpretentious, and for the locals. It has pretty lost much of this - Ngau Chair Sooi - touch and transformed into another Chinatown restaurant. The staff members are young pretty lass from China who speak in Mandarin. Weekend biz starts from 11am and as with much that is main street Chinatown, it’s targeted at the tourists. Well, and nobody wears wooden clogs anymore!

Well the likes of Gwonzhen tea manor along Smith Street are gone for good. Others have morphed into the pretty tea joints – offering a cool and comfortable place to sip Chinese tea in a hot Sunday noon. Their - lao dianpu – - 老店铺- old shophouses – will no longer be there , though their – lao zhihao - 老字号 – their old trade names – may continue business in modern convenience, without characters.


1. Shitamachi – したまち -downtown

So much for downtown Singapore, how is downtown Tokyo –the shitatmachi district of Ueno-Asakusa -上野―浅草.

Well – along the streets of Ueno, Asakusa- you can hear the voices of children. You can see old ladies sweeping the streets. Old trades are thriving and there is a daily life 24/7.

This photograph was taken in downtown Tokyo in the Ueno area. It is an old shop cum office and residence engaged in the traditional construction business. It is next to a modern apartment building, but the old trade has continued to stay – a refection of old Tokyo of the Edo Era. -江戸 。

As for Singapore – Chinatown – along the streets of Duxton and Ang Siang Hills one could hardly find a sign of life after the last of the pub closes at the wee hours or the night. There was still the shop that sold wooden clogs many years back – but it was mainly kept for the tourist, I thought then. However that was gone too, for you cannot just survive by tourist alone.

2。 老字号 – lao zhihao

Though they may no longer occupy their original the lao dianpu - 老店铺– the original old shophouse –many of the lao zhi hao - the established brand with a good old tradition and tale behind it - continue to prosper in Ngau Chair sooi - the Chinatown.

Some of the lao zhihao -老字号 - ( pronunciation rendered in Cantonese) :

白花油 – bak fa yau - traditional Chinese medical ointment – a must stop shop for tourist from Hong Kong
大中国 – dai zungguo - traditional Chinese pastries - with the hot selling moon cake in the signature paper bag come each Mid-Autumn festival
林志源– lam zhiyuen- Dried meat – when you see snake of long queue outside the shop, you know that Chinese New Year is round the corner.
东兴饼家 – dong heng bang-ga – Tong Heng pastry shop – a must for ordering traditional wedding cakes to sent to one’s bridge.

These are the brands that maketh the place and help to render it a continuing soul -

3. Photograph


Saturday, July 19, 2008

a guest re-view of the yamato

A search on the web of Huang Zunxian (1848-1905) – 黄遵宪- (HZX) - throws up many links, and there is no short of information about him that can be trawled from the internet. He is one for serious research by the academics on modern Chinese history.

A talk last Saturday, at the Ying Fo Association-新加坡应和会馆- at Telok Ayer Street prompted me to search thro my library of books and pull out this booklet that I had of him.

The topic of the talk was – Understanding Japan Anew – 重新认识日本 – chongxin renshi riben.

The talk was divided into two topics of an hour each and was conducted in Mandarin. The first hour was by a journalist of the local Chinese daily who is a commentator on Japan - its politics and society. The second hour was by an assistant professor cum CEO industrialist who is the president of the association. The common thread between HZX and the two speakers is that, they are of Hakka – 客家-ethnicity.

Perhaps this talk was organized because of the recent thaw in relationship between China and Japan – and to give the folks here an afresh understanding of Japan. The recent normalizing of relationship between China and Japan, which was frozen during the Koizumi years, and which culminated in mass demo in China, I believe have a subtle but significant impact on how the local Chinese here, particularly the older Chinese educated folks view Japan.

And this talk was held to give an afresh perspective on our understanding of Japan. And who would be more qualified and better to do that than these two gentlemen who were educated in Japan, and are also deeply engaged with Japan in their career. In Mandarin they are the - 日本通 - riben tong - an old Japan hand. While in Japanese they would be deemed the – 知日派 – chinichi hazhire pai (pinyin).

The two terms would have a different connotation perhaps – with the- 日本通 – taking a on a more neutral stand of being an expert of Japan, while -知日派 – in Japanese would carry a meaning of being pro-Japanese.

Now back to HZX, the Hakka connection and Japan –

A diplomat and great literary figure of the old school HZX lived the twilight years of the Qing dynasty (清朝). In 1891 he was posted as the High Commissioner of the Qing Emabssy in Singapore.

I first got to know of HZX while attending the Hakkalogy conference in Singapore in 1996 in the search of my ethic roots. On a trip to the ancestral homeland the following year I visited Meizhou-梅州-and his old residence – 人境庐 – renjing lu . The souvenir booklet was from the visit, and it has a brief introduction of his life history, his works and his residence.

HZX - is perhaps the first Chinese –日本通 – of the modern era. After passing his imperial examination in 1876, he was posted to the embassy of the Qing Court in Japan the following year as a diplomat. While he was there, he researched the history of Japan and studied her experience of nationhood during the Meiji Restoration – 明示維新。

He subsequently wrote the - History of Japan - 日本国志 – riben guozhi. He has also another welll-known work on Japan. The close to 200 odd poems that he penned on his observations of Japan & her society during his stay there was later complied into an anthology of poems known as - 日本杂事诗 - riben zashi shi .

Well, so much for the Hakka connection and Japan, it was perhaps only logical that the Hakka association in Singapore organized the talk – to re-afresh the understanding of the locals of the Yamato race – 大和民族 – dahe minzhu.

Postscript -

1) On 知日派 & 親日派
While studying in Japan – there was a Japanese senior who was my research lab mentor and we used to talk about non-academic stuff when we go out for lunch. He would jokingly said that if it was during the War, one would be considered a - shin nichi ha – 親日派 – qingri pai - namely belonging to the pro-Japanese clique if someone were close to Japan then.

親日派 – shinnichi ha - is definitely a term for the pro-Japanese, while - 知日派 – chinichi ha - could mean some who knows Japan.

2) The 2nd speaker was prepared for tough questions from the audience, and he had well prepared himself and anticipated that. After all the positive pointers that he presented of Japan in the talk, an elderly member from the floor during the Q&A session asked – what were some of the negative things about Japan.

The 2nd speaker was all ready to flash out on the screen, old photographs of WWII Japanese occupation of Syonan - 昭南– school children bowing to the - Hino maru - 日の丸 sketches of atrocities of the Japanese military by artist Liu Kang.

Singapore’s government policy towards Japan had since the 1960/s been to forgive but not to forget. Being a small island nation, she has to take a practical and realistic stand – and even though there was a significant Chinese population that has lived thro the Japanese occupation – cool headed policies that benefited the country took precedent above all else.

Japanese industries were encouraged to invest in Singapore, and over the years there is a strong community of expatriate on the island – living as it had been always in their own community.

Which, in actual fact the Japanese community in Singapore is nothing new. They were first here as early as the 1850/s and culminated in a community of traders and karayuki-san – 唐行きさん-in the late 1800/s and early 1900/s. There was even a street called Japan Street – which after the war it was named Boon Tat Street.

3) Japan Street
Boon Tat Street, as I read somewhere was once called Japan Street in the pre-war days. Why is the street located near to Telok Ayer in a Chinese enclave named Japan Street - were there many Japanese Shops around the area too, other than in Middle Road area? Yet to find that out-
4) The talk

重新认识日本 - 讲座联新书发布会
<传统社会与高科技社会 – 日本内部的文化冲突>

Title of talk: Understanding Japan Anew

1) President of the Yin Fo Association:
<Traditional Japanese society and its high tech society – the clashers internally within the Japanese civilization>
2) Journalist and commentator Huang,
<China & Japan: the misconception of - of being of the same language (writing script) and roots>

1) Renjing lu - 人境庐 (booklet)


Renjing lu (name of the residence of HZX in Meizhou)
Complied by: Meizhou city – Renjing lu - Cultural relic management section
Author: Xie Ji
Date publishL 1995.12

人境庐 - Renjing lu – which literary - means a dwelling set at the edge of human habitat - is derived from the beginning of a phrase in a well-known poem by Tao Yuan Ming 陶渊明 aka Tao Qian 陶潜 (365-427AD) , Drinking Wine - 饮酒

Web link :

a) Huang Zunxian -

b) Tao Qian

Drinking Wine – 饮酒


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

mountain folk song 客家山 歌 let you guess - a refection on speaking dialect

A few Sundays ago, I discover that history need not be confined to just the tangible – the physical buildings such as the old shop houses or go on an archeological dig up Bukit Larangan or Fort Canning.

For there is the intangible aspects of our heritage that is also intimately link to history. It’s in each of us – the language that we speaks, the songs that we sing and the tale that we tell , which is the part of oral and cultural heritage. That is our ethnological & social history.

A reflection of our oral heritage – the Hakka dialect

It was the last of the series of talks cum forum on Hakka culture organized by the clan association – The Ying Fo Hakka association - 应和会馆 - located at Telok Ayer Street. - on Hakka folk songs – 客家山歌 . It was in celebration of its 186 anniversary
Though the clan building, its structure dating back to 1882 is still standing strong after 120 over years and with a few good rounds of renovation, it dawn on me that many of the oral and cultural heritage of this dialect group will so be gone - without a conscious effort of preservation and promotion.

Of all the five major dialects spoken in this city state – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese and Hakka - the dialect that will most likely to disappear soon among the local born Singaporean population would be Hakka.

With a community that constitutes less than 10% of the local born population it is perhaps around the two hundred odd thousand range. The Hakka community is geographically relatively much more diversely spread that other dialect groups. There no longer is a Hakka enclave and you could not longer find a concentration of Hakka/s in a certain locality on the island. To Kereta Ayer – you can discern that this has a concentration of Cantonese, to Purvis Street – the Hainanese, or Hougang you have the Teochews, and the Fujianese around the island.

To get to hear Hakka spoken, the most likely place to go is perhaps visit a traditional Chinese herbal medicine shop or a pawn shop – the traditional trade of the Hakka here - and look for a middle-aged person who could perhaps still converse in their mother tongue. Well, and that is fast vanishing if it had not.

It’s thus not a surprise to see that in the Channel 8 program on one’s roots – 追根到底 - zuigen daodi – the hosts had difficulty to pick someone around the city that could speak Hakka.

Being brought up speaking Hakka, there is a certain measure of nostalgia attached to the dialect. While studying in Tokyo, when I had a yearning to hearing Hakka, I would drop in to Ginza – the shopping & pedestrian paradise of Tokyo. For among the tour groups from Taiwan, there was a chance that someone among them would speak the dialect.

If Hakka is heard in Orchard Road, or out on the streets or in Chinatown among the younger population – you can be guaranteed that they are not local born. Most probably these youngsters are from the Silver State of Perak up North in the Peninsula, or from Kulai, Johor or perhaps from the outskirt of KL or from Sabah in East Malaysia, This is where the Hakka dialect is still being kept alive cos of its relative high concentration of the dialect group there.

Other than it is a minority population in the city-state, the demise of the Hakka dialect could also be due to fact that Hakka is linguistically closer to Mandarin than the other dialects - that to speak Mandarin, you just need to tune the pronunciation a little to sound like Mandarin. Thus perhaps the community found it relatively easy to jump start the - Speak Mandarin Campaign - in the days of -多讲华语,少讲方言. – Speak more Mandarin, Less of Dialect.

Among the nephews and nieces in the hometown, who are educated in English & Malay & have not learnt a word of Mandarin in school, I find that they do not have much of a problem picking up Mandarin. Most likely it is because they spoke Hakka at home and have a foundation of the language in the dialect.

The diversity of the different dialect groups that had enriched the Chinese community on the island – could be glimpsed as a museum exhibit from the static display at the annual River Hong Bong - 春到河畔 - festivity put up by the different clan associations during Chinese New Year. It’s the annual parade of our heritage – our roots, where we came from, & the trade that the early migrant communities were engaged in.

Perhaps it was due to this awareness that if you don’t use it or promote it will be gone, that a Senior Minister after learning his mother tongue for years, for the first time address parliament in the Tamil language, last week.

Well, so much on the dialect, now back to the mountain folk song –

The folk song that the Hakka is known as - Hakka mountain Songs - 客家山 歌 – hakka san goh (hakka) - kejia shange (pinyin) . I had always wondered why the Hakka is known for their mountain folk songs, and how did they developed their singing prowess.

The answers came in the talk by Ms Xu Qiuju –徐秋菊 – an authority on the folk songs as well a champion singer herself from Meizhou – 梅州 - the heartland of the Hakka/s located in North-eastern Guangdong Province - 广东省.

I was also surprised to know that my ancestral village –松口 - Songkou (pinyin) - Tsung keau ( hakka) - featured prominently in the folklore of the Hakka songs. For since time antiquity – all the Hakka mountain folk songs came from - Tsung keau!

Mountain song of the Hakka

Why is the folk song of the Hakka/s always known as - 山 歌– shan ge (pinyin) - or san goh (Hakka) – songs of the mountains, you may ask.

The Hakka - 客家 – kejia (pinyin) as the name suggest means - guest people. They migrated from the plains of the Yellow River in Northern China to the highlands of Southern China close to the borders of Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi - 福建, 广东省,广西省. Historically it could be divided into 5 major waves of migration over a period of close to two thousand years – escaping from wars & internal struggles, and invasion of the northern barbarians.

As the story went, the Hakka being later migrants to Southern China, they had no other choice but to settled in the mountainous regions that surrounded their river routes that they took to moved southwards. For the plains and fertile land had already been occupied by the locals- such as the Cantonese –known as - 本地人- bendi ren - in Guangdong province. The later migrants were thus called – 客家人- kejia ren - or the guest people, to differentiate them from the locals.

These escaping soldiers from the North, inter-married with the women of the mountain tribe who then beget the Hakka that we know of today. Being occupiers of the vast mountain ranges, and their dwellings remotely located, the yells and calls they made to keep in contact with each other across the hills evolved into sing-a-song pitch which subsequently gave birth to the mountain folk songs, so the story went.

The traditional Hakka folk songs were ballad based on a set tunes in hepta-syllable liner. The themes of many of these songs were love songs and teasers sang in duet among the young men and maidens while out in the mountain - moving from hill to hill or to collect firewood, etc. There are song duel, where they were composed and sung impromptu.

They are songs of love, of joy, of sorrow, of advice derived from the wisdom of the common folks. They were supposedly to have a tradition as old as the - Book of Songs – 诗经- shijing - the collection of poems from antiquity during the time of Confucius.

Hakka mountain folk song – was never really a accepted as a mainstream culture among the educated elite of the traditional Hakka. For being steeped in the Confucian traditional moral and ethics, they would frown upon the expression of love in the crude and uncultured prose sang in duet among the young men and maidens. However among the common folks, the songs were a lively part of the Hakka folk culture.

There was many a tale of this smart & quick-witted maiden who in a song duel was no match for the scholar.

In the 1960/s - while the hills in the west were alive with the Sound of Music from Julie, out on the highlands to the east, it was reverberating with the mountain folk songs of Third Sister Liu – 刘三姐- Liu Sanjie.

This hit musical movie from Communist China, which was filmed in the scenic Guilin - 桂林 , Yunan Province - 云南省- was adapted from a Hakka folklore. Liu Sanjie used her singing talent – in the songs she sung to defy the oppressive bourgeois landlord. It was also a love story - Liu San Jie, found her prince charming that could match her singing talent during the annual Song Festival up on the mountain.

Songkou - Tsungkeau – 松口 or 从口

My ancestral hometown –- 松口 - Songkou (pinyin) - is pronounced as - Tsung keau - in the Hakka dialect. Going by the Hakka sound - Tsung keau – could be written as 松口 or 从口.

松口 - means mouth of the pine trees i.e the name of the town; it could also mean -
从口 - coming from the mouth:

Thus when challenged to a singing duel by a scholar coming up river on a boat to the village looking for this pretty and talented maiden - Third Sister Liu, Liu Sanjie sang -


- Since antiquity the mountain songs came from TsungkeauWhence have you the mountain song delivered on a boat? -

(punning on sound Tsungkeau – i.e coming from the mouth )

Hearing that, the scholar was dumb stuck and could not find a better phrase to reply her. Since then this lyric has been synonymous with the village and the Hakka mountain songs.

Whither Hakka mountain song –

It’s heartening to hear from Ms Xu that that in recent years there is a revival of sort of Hakka folk songs among the common folks in China. With the promotion and call for the preservation of Intangible cultural assets- Hakka mountain folk songs has been identified as one of the intangible cultural asset in China for preservation and promotion.

As in elsewhere in the world, traditional culture is losing it draw to the younger generation. In order to entice their interest & with the keen interest among the young in China to learn English, Ms Xu explained that English phrases have been interwoven to the lyrics folk songs – and hope that it could do the trick.

Thus you have -

唱首山歌 let you guess ! (chong shu san goh let you guess )
- Sing a song of the mountain, to have you guess

(note: the hepta-syllable lyrics– which is the length of ballad line )

What an odd animal it had created! Imaging a Scottish folk song from the highland interjected with - ni hao ma – 你好吗 – meaning how are you.

However, I cannot help but to be amazed at how the Chinese have taken on modernization and globalization in their stride. And considering Meizhou is relatively a up country county in the highlands.

Barely 30 years ago, before the country open up to the outside world by Deng Xiaopeng, - 邓小平 - and during the days of the Cultural Revolution – Hakka mountain sound would be banned, and what more English - this would be anathema & the composer would be banished forever to toil in the labor camp!
Mountain song in the city

Fast forward back to the 21st century – the connoisseur of these mountain songs are a very select group of aunties and uncles, who have heard them sung by their grandparents.

Among the audience in the talk, someone asked Ms Xu how she would propose to promote the mountain song in Singapore. She said that it’s best to get the young to be interested – and when they go for mountain song classes to bring their kids, oh no, their grandchildren along!

I wonder, with the passing of this generation of aunties and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, who would be left in the city state to enjoy the songs of Ms Xu and her pupils. When the young became aunties and uncles they have nothing to be nostalgic about the mountain songs, much less understanding their mother dialect.

Postscript –

a) Mountain song class

If you wish to learn some Hakka mountain song, a weekly class is organized by the Ying Fo Hakka association at Telok Ayer Street, (website of the association below)

b) A lesson in Hakka - faan poh - providing a glimpse of our origin

The common /colloquial term for 'woman' in Hakka is - faan poh - 番婆

番 – faan – meaning foreign, from another group, clan or tribe
婆 – poh - meaning the female gender – woman,

Thus – faan poh – means women from another tribe or group.

This phrase probably came about when the escaping soldiers from the North met the tribal women in the mountain ranges of South China – who were the – faan poh – And whom they took as their wives later.

Thus – from the intangible asset –of the dialect – one could get to know the origin of once ancestors through the fossilized words and vocabulary.

Without knowing the dialect – the future generations of Singaporean of Hakka ancestry would be poorer in their understanding of their roots and having a living link to it. What fun – dialect!

(other words with fann eg : Tomato – 番茄 – fanqie (pinyin)– a foreign import in ancient China )

b) Hakka – the mountain dwellers

There is a saying in the Hakka heartland of Guangdong Province 广东省 –
山区客家谚语 (yanyu)


- In every of the mountains there ought to be Hakka living
And, no Hakka who does not live in the mountain -

c) Hakkalogy

At one point in time in the 1980/s Hakkalogy - 客家学 – as a social study became in vogue. Then, the three head of states in China, the greater China region & SEA were all of Hakka ancestry – namely Deng Xiaoping - 邓小平 - of China, Lee Tenghui - 李登辉- of Taiwan and LKY of Singapore.

In November 1996, Singapore hosted the 3rd International Hakka Convention – 第三届客家国际检讨会。

In conjunction with the event an exhibition was held at the national museum:

客从何处来?从“过客”到公民 客家文化源流展
From “Guest People” to Citizens - The Hakka Exhibition

Singapore History Museum
Nanyang Khek Community Guild Singapore – 新加坡南洋客属总会


1) 客家山歌 - 非物质文化遗产丛书

刘晓春 胡希张 温萍
浙江 人民出版社 2007年3月

Book title: Hakka Mountain Song – Series on Intangible Cultural Heritage
Publisher: Zhejiang Renming Chubanshe 2007.03

Other intangible cultural heritage of China – that is kept alive in Singapore:
南音 - nanying

Nanying - traditional song and music on traditional instruments with it's origin during the Tang Dynasty. It is still kept alive by an ensemble with the Hokkien Association at Telok Ayer Street.

2) Photograhs :
-A scenic drive along road up Mt Yinna - 阴那山 (taken in 25Dec1997 on visit)
-Quay at Songkou overlooking the Meijiang River - 梅江 - where the ancestors board the boat down river to the Nanyang - 南洋 - the South Seas (24Dec1997)

2) Links -

Ying Fo Hakka Clan Association:


Intangible cultural asset – UNESCO :

Hakka – wikipedia:

Hakka Hill song – wikipedia :


Monday, June 09, 2008

an afternoon in tokyo - from tea water to 仏蘭西 cuisine

On a bicycle in Tokyo, one was able to cover a number of places which the usual foreign tourists would not cover. You get to get a glimpse of how the Tokyoites live as you cycle around the metropolis at your own casual pace.

17May/ Saturday afternoon

Ochanomizu - 御茶ノ水 - Literary means – water for making tea. This photograph is taken from the bridge over the Kanda River next to the Ochanomizu train station.

Leaving Asakusa at around 11:30am, it took less than an hour to reach Ochanomzui Station - お茶の水駅.

The first I heard of Ochanomizu was related to the Ochanomizu University - お茶の水女子大学 . Although there are other universities around the area, I remembered this university well, because, we had a - kompa - a sort of a drinking party - with the female students from this university.

The Ochanomizu University is the leading all girl university in Tokyo and Japan. As we were from the top technological university in Tokyo we were able to arrange for a party with the female college students.

At the party, it was an immersion into another aspect of Japanese culture -

The female students would take the initiative and be the first one to pour beer and sake – Japanese rice wine - for the guys. The party was held close to Valentine’s Day. And on that day it was again the ladies who took the initiatives to send us guys - nice little boxes of chocolates! What a blessing it is - or was - to be a male – in Japan..

The Nikolai Cathedral

Other than being the center for higher leaning, Ochanomizu is also well-known for another landmark, the Nikolai Cathedral - ニコライ堂。

What Tokyoites do a Saturday afternoon – you may ask.

As it was a warm May afternoon - in and around the compound of the cathedral, there were close to 30 odd - obasan – おばさん aunties- and ojisan – おじさん - uncles - sketching and painting.

I was sort of taken by surprise by the number of aunties and uncles – and even - oji-i-san - おじいさんgrandpa – painting this cathedral, engaging in this artistic pursuit. In Singapore, one would perhaps find them playing mahjong.

Why this building, and not another Shinto temple or shrine. Perhaps, it was the exotic charm of old European architecture and the west that that was the draw.

The Nikolai Cathedral was build around the same time as the National Museum of Singapore in the 1880/s and took seven years to complete - from Meiji 17th to 24th year. It is noted as the biggest Byzantine structure in Japan. On Sunday, church service, albeit the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I think – is still conducted. It was designated an Important Cultural Treasure – 重要文化財- by the Ministry of Education in the 1960/s.

Yushima Seido - 湯島聖堂 - Shrine of Confucius(孔子庙)

Looking down the slope from the Ochanomizu Station and wondering what this grey dark colored building in traditional architecture was, I cycled over. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a shrine build in traditional Chinese architecture style and dedicated to Confucius.

I was taken quite aback that the whole shrine complex has a very subdue and grey tone – with - black colored walls & pillars and roof of grey green tiles. Though it’s the first time anywhere, that I had visited a shrine dedicated to honor Confucius, I struck me as strange on why this color scheme for this Confucius temple.

Well, this is another aspect of the Japanese culture shock that I had to ‘acclimatized’ to when I first went to Japan. The Japanese sense of traditional color – is very different from that of the Chinese culture– well that of the Chinese culture in the current scheme of things – that is the recent dynasties from the Sung onwards, perhaps.

A black walled temple – could perhaps be a Taoist Temple in China, but would not have been one dedicated to honor Confucius. For a Confucius shrine would be bestowed the same honorable color of golden tiled roof and crimson wall. This is the color of the palace of the emperor. Well, on the other hand, the palace of the Japanese emperor never would have it in such bold colors as well – of crimson red wall or golden titled roof.

And way back in antiquity – the Chinese emperors of the Chin- 秦朝- and - Han - 汉朝 Dynasties if you notice in period dramas i.e. dramas that are authentically portrayed – were dressed in black gown. For the color of black – in - Yi-Jing - 易经 – the Book of Change – signifies Earth. That is, abode of the Son of Heaven & earthly power. Perhaps the authentic color should be black then.

Taking about Confucianism –

This temple looks quite empty and run-down though it is big. I wonder if this temple perform the annual rites though on the altar is laid out with various paraphernalia to honor Confucius. Perhaps not, for since the Meiji Restoration and with the call to reject things Asian and embrace the European civilization – 脱亞入欧 – and last they would honor would be the Sage. Confucianism was backward and hindrance to progress. Unlike Korea, there don’t seem to be any diehard Confucian scholars in traditional costumes and all - in Japan.

In the early 1990/s in one of the lectures on Confucianism by Professor Du of Harvard, in Singapore that I attended, he lamented that though Confucianism originated in China more than 2500 years ago, the model students are in Japan & Korea. As an ethic Chinese and a Confucian scholar he felt sadden about the whole state of Confucianism in the Chinese world then.

Coming on the heels of the 1970/s and the campaign in China to denounce Lin Biao and Confucius – 批林批孔 – pilin pikong - one could not expect anything more, could one.

Well what a turn of fortune has Confucius underwent again barely 30 years on. Lun Yu – 论语 - the Analects - has been given a new interpretation to 21st century living and a new lease of life by the likes of Prof Yu Dan – 于丹 - a lady lecturer from Beijing – on the popular CCTV lecture series. It reflects another step in heralding the revival of Confucianism, and as mass culture.

Perhaps, with the renaissance of Confucianism, the Japanese may someday start to officially perform the rites to honor Confucius again in the temple. Then would it be rejoining the Asia – i/e the Far East family of nation again – that she left more than a century ago.

Hibiya Park – Matsumotoro – 日比谷公園 - 松本楼

Though I have visited Hibiya park a number of times, I did not know that it had such a historic restaurant in it’s midst, until I read of it in the ST , where on May06, 2008, PM Fukuda of Japan hosted President Hu Jin Tao of China to a dinner at the Matsumoto Ro - 松本楼 - famous for its French cuisine - 仏蘭西料理– furansu ryoori - fine dining.

On this trip I marked it in my itinerary as one of the palace to visit.

One of its most distinguished guests was Dr Sun Yat Sen. 孙中山. The great grandfather of the present owner Umeya Shoya - 梅屋庄屋 - was a close friend and ardent supporter of Dr Sun’s & donated generously to his revolutionary cause. While in Japan, Dr Sun would occasionally drop in to this restaurant. Umeya had organized many a functions at this restaurant to introduce Dr Sun to his Japanese supports.

At the lobby of the restaurant stands an old piano, a 1907 make, by the predecessor of Yamaha Piano. This is only one of 2 set left in Japan. In 1915, while on the run from the failed republic, Dr Sun married Soong Mei Ling - 宋美岭- at the Umeya residence in Tokyo. To while away her time while waiting to return to China, Madame Soong would tinkle at the piano.

Well, on - 仏蘭西 – has the same pronunciation as the katakana form -フランス – Furansu – the Japanese name for France ?

Interestingly, in the menu France cuisine is written in Kanji as – 仏蘭西料理– furansu ryoori - instead of – フランス料理 - furansu ryoori .

Perhaps it’s rooted in history - 仏蘭西 料理 - certainly looks more cultured, refined, romantic and with a character, than - フランス料理. So when you are looking for fine western - French dining in Japan, look out for - 仏蘭西料理- instead.

See, again knowing Kanji or Chinese characters is a great advantage in Japan.

However, though France in abbreviated Kanji is written as - 仏国 – Fukkoku – it is never use together with the term for cooking/cuisine - 料理 – ryoori – meaning cooking/cuisine.

For 仏国料理 –could also to mean - cooking from the land of Buddha!

So much for an appetizing and confusing afternoon…

Postscript –
1. 湯島聖堂 – Yushima seido - Shrine of Confucius

The 5th Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who was very much inclined towards Confucianism, built this shrine & residential college in 1690. The shogun would organize lectures on the Analects -论语 - and promote its learning.

In 1797 the Bakufu administration expanded the residential college & named it after the birthplace of Confucius - 平昌坂学問所. For the next 70 years, up till the Meiji Restoration of 1868, this was the center of education of the Edo period.

In the 4th year of the Meiji Era, in 1871, the Ministry of Education, as well as the National Museum was located here. Subsequently, the Tokyo Normal College (the predecessor of Tsukuba University) and the Tokyo Ladies Normal College -東京女子師範学校 -( the predecessor of the Ochanomizu University were located here too.

The Shrine to Confucius was burnt down 4 times, and each time it was rebuilt. It was destroyed in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. The present structure of reinforced concrete was built in 1935. However the gate - 入徳門 - located at the bottom of the slope, was the original structure from 1704, and it is dedicated an important cultural treasure)

(Adapted from the synopsis at the entrance to the shrine)

2. Matsumotoro - 松本楼


3. 仏蘭西 vs 法蘭西- Furansu

In Chinese – France is written as - 法兰西 ( simplified Chinese) or - 法蘭西 – (traditional script). In short it’s - 法国 – faguo – land of Law (literary).

Knowledgeable Japanese would avoid using仏 and use 法国, instead. For 仏 when pronounced as - butsu – hotoke – means Buddhism. When pronounced as Futsu –it means French. (ref - Wikipedia )

– Japanese blog on France -仏蘭西

4. Ochanomizu University