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