Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dutch Burghers in Sri Lanka

A few months ago, I paid my first visit to Sri Lanka.  I was here essentially to spend time with a friend and also to meet up with an old University classmate.  But I must admit that I also came here  to explore the links and connections between Sri Lanka and the other colonial territories of the Portuguesse and British in Asia, principally Malacca and Singapore.

St Theresa's Church, Colombo
The histories of Sri Lanka and Malacca are surprisingly alike.  First colonised by the Portuguese, who brought with them Catholicism, and churches.  Then by the Dutch, who started off the task of institution building. and then, lastly the British.  Finally, the Sri Lankans got the opportunity to govern themselves.

I spent a little time with each of Sri Lanka's former colonial masters.  In Colombo, I went to mass in St Theresa's church -  the parish was under the charge of the Redemptorists.  I must admit that I would associate Redemptorists with St Alphonsus rather than St Theresa, but then St Theresa is one of the patron saint of missionaries; so it is a good name for a little church far from the homes of the missionaries themselves.  We had an Irish priest giving the sermon, so the missionary spirit is indeed alive and well here.  Mass was "organised" the way it was in my childhood - the songs dated from then, and we knelt around the altar to receive communion.   The altar boys were dressed all in red.  I am still wondering whether it was a local custom or whether there was a special feast day being celebrated.


The Dutch Burgher Union House
We also went to the Dutch Burgher Union cafe for lunch.  Called the VOCafe, the "VOC" is actually a reference to the Dutch East India company or the Vereenigde  Oost-Indische Compagnie....  its definitely easier to say VOC. We had lampreis for lunch, a "typical" Burgher dish but I also saw traditional Eurasian dishes such as Mulligatawny soup and Beef Smore on the menu.  We were to have lampreis again a few days later, as my Uni friend is a Dutch Burgher by heritage and his wife cooked it for us.  Lampreis is not really a dish we see in Singapore.  It looks like a packet of nasi lemak from the outside, but it is actually rice cooked in a beef stock, with "seeni sambal", some  meat cutlets, a mixture of cubed meats and spices which is the exciting part of the dish.  The food is all packed together in a banana leaf which can then be kept aside till it's time to eat.  At this point, it is steamed for a few minutes till it's all nicely warmed up.  Pure comfort food.

Driving around Colombo, we saw the institutions the British left behind - the Parliament, the old government offices.  My friend told me that her husband's parents met because their families were living near each other, in the government officials' quarters.

Beyond Colombo, the old buildings and institutions the British left behind were really evident in Galle, where we visited the old Fort.  Built originally by the Dutch, the British fortified it further.  These sturdy walls have withstood storms and even the Asian tsunami of 2004 (there was some damage, apparently, but it has since been repaired).  Its institutions - the old government offices, the police etc are all here, in addition to the military barracks, and the lighthouse etc. It reminded me a little more of Malacca, rather than Singapore - I suppose that's the combined influence of all three colonial Masters rather than just one.   Unfortunately we got here a little late in the day and didn't have the opportunity to have high tea at the posh hotel.

Galle Fort

In short, I had left my home behind but found myself in a familiar place on the other side of the Indian Ocean.  I do have some family connection to Sri Lanka.  My mother's father's sister (my grandaunt) was married to a Ceylonese Burgher, of French descent.  He left Ceylon before the war, and came to Singapore where he met my grandaunt.  I distinctly remember visiting them every year at Christmas, tagging along behind my parents.  I would sit and look at their beautiful Christmas crib with its lovely figurines and eat Sugee cake and Love Cake.  So, you can see that the Ceylonese burgher and the Singapore Eurasian indeed lived harmoniously together.

And now that the Sri Lankan civil war has ended, I do hope that the people of different races, languages, religions  in this little island can also live harmoniously together.  It is time for the rich history and heritage of this lovely island to shine again.


Sunday, July 06, 2014

Outlines completed

And here we have it folks!  Slightly belated, as my cousin's wedding was last week and I didn't have time to work on it.  But I have at last completed the outlines of the two shoes.  Now to fill in the remainder...




Sunday, April 27, 2014

Going Home

"Balik Kampong" is a Malay term which essentially means going back (or "balik") to one's home village (or "kampong").  It can sometimes be used in a derogatory sense - for example, one could tell the referee in a football game to "balik kampong" if you disagree with his stupid decisions.  


"Balik Kampong" is also the name of a little book of short stories printed by the Math Paper Press, which I bought in Books Actually. Eight writers were invited to contribute a story about a place in Singapore which he or she had stayed for at least 10 years.  They share with us slices of their memories of the area, glimpses of their lives and of days gone by.

A story of an old man finding a buyer for the home he shared with his wife.  Seven family members remembering their lives in Redhill.  A young girl fascinated by a lighthouse.  The friendship between a Filipino maid and her employer's daughter.  A grandmother who visits with a change of clothing in a red plastic bag. I have my favourite - the vexing and curious story of mysterious disturbances at the museum - and old man burdened with the loss of a childhood friend. 

"Balik Kampong" means, simply, going home to the people and place you left behind.  Strangely enough, roughly what this entire blog is about.

Friday, March 21, 2014

First, let's eat!


Grilled charcoal fish
The House of Sundanese Food started off in a little shophouse near the Holy Family Church in Katong.  It subsequently moved (to Suntec City) but now it is back again!  But in a different guise, because they wanted to broaden their menu to include other non-Indonesian items.  Bring it on, I say.  Especially when this means they have pohpiah on the menu!

Tauhu Telor
House of Sundanese's new restaurant, "Makan Dulu" is now at Katong Shopping Centre - a corner shop, facing the road.  We have our favourite dishes - the charcoal grilled dishes such as fish (see photo) and chicken, rather tasty and succulent beef rendang, and a lovely ayam bumbu (fragrant curry with a very more-ish curry gravy).  Indonesian favourites such as tauhu telor (below) and sayur lodeh are also available.

"Makan Dulu" translates directly to "Eat First" in Malay.  It is used in many ways, for example, someone who is coming home late might say "makan dulu", or in this context, don't wait for me, eat first.  Or it may be used by a mother to a child who wants to go off and play - you have to eat before playing.  But in this context, it truly reflects the priority we Southeast Asians place on food :-)

For more details, their Facebook page is here.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Once a Guide, Always a Guide

I have many happy memories of my days as a Girl Guide in secondary school.  Of afternoons (we used to meet every Saturday afternoon, from 2pm to 5pm) spent in all manner of activities - of starting a fire in one corner of the school field (it was a sandy rather than grassy field), of learning First Aid, of playing Kim's Game (an observation and memory game), even of etiquette lessons.  Guiding aims to train us up to be all-rounders.  I remember singing around the campfire, of going camping during the school holidays, and going orienteering in the Macritchie reservoir area (we got lost for some time and had to walk until we hit the main road).  

Guiding Badges - The Trefoil, World GG Association Badge,
Patrol Badges, and accomplishment badges
I am not sure what is left of my Guiding skills.  Certainly, the First Aid knowledge has largely dissipated over time and I'm not too sure if I can remember all the orienteering instruction either.  But Guiding was far more than just doing activities.  In a way, it was really about inculcating values in young girls, which would put them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

What are these values?  It starts with our Guide Motto: "Be Prepared".  Guiding teaches the skills for Guides to use in various situations.  But the instincts - of looking ahead, thinking, planning for contingencies and preparing for success - is embedded in this simple motto.

Guides are also exhorted to "do a good deed every day".  It teaches us to be proactive in looking out for and helping others, to be unselfish and to think of others besides ourselves.

Every Guide must know the Guide promise - the threefold promise - in order to get to wear the Trefoil (the three leafed badge).  The promise goes:

"I promise to do my best,
to do my duty to God.
To serve my country, and help other people,
And to keep the Guide Law".

Indeed a challenge for each of us to live up to, every day.

Today is World Thinking Day.  In my day, it was just "Thinking Day", but the word "World" was added in front to reflect the international movement of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.  Indeed a time for us to think about the international sisterhood and brotherhood we all share, Guides or not, and maybe also to think about whether we are living up to the values that Guiding sought to inspire in us.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Four years - the beginning of the end?

Well, it has been four years since I started on this kasut manek project.  I'm glad to say that there was greater momentum over the past year and I'm on the last stage of my right shoe.  Now to move back to the left shoe to even up the progress.

Right shoe - outline completed
 Hope that I can move faster this year - would be so exciting to see one shoe completed at least!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tracing One's Roots: An Exhibition at the National Library

Welcome to "Roots"
I finally found the time to go to the National Library's exhibition, on "Roots: Tracing Family Histories".  The exhibition is for people who are interested in tracing their family histories, and helps provide more information about the resources available in both the Library and elsewhere in Singapore to help them to do so.  I must say that I went a little on the late side; the exhibition started in Jul 2013 and ends 16 Feb 2014 (the day after the anniversary of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese).  But I did manage to join a guided tour, which was useful in supplementing the information provided at the exhibition, and in telling stories about how the individuals featured had gone about the process of tracing their ancestors.

Mr Supramaniam's family tree
What really was so inspiring was the patience and perseverance these people demonstrated, and the amount of research they put in to learn about their families.  The starting point of their journey was often the family - the family stories and anecdotes which were passed down from the older family members in particular.  One gentleman featured, Mr Paul Supramaniam, not only took extensive notes but also recorded an oral interview with his maternal grandmother who passed away many years ago. His hand-drawn family tree and notes, together with more information on his family, can be seen at the exhibition.

Interviews of family members, particularly older ones, is essential - but memories fade and grow imperfect over time, so must be supplemented by searching through old records - old newspapers, birth and death registers, burial records, land registers, company registers and so on - rather like detective work.  One lady, Ms Christine Moss, was under the impression that her ancestor, Captain Mark Moss, had sailed to Singapore on a boat called the "Black Duke".  But she could not find any records of the "Black Duke".  Eventually, she found a newspaper report that her ancestor, a Captain Mark Moss was sailing on the "Black Joke" when the ship was attacked by pirates near Macau.  He was the sole survivor of the attack and subsequently came to Singapore on a ship called the "Sultana" - quite a different story altogether.

Baby Spoons
The exhibition also features family heirlooms (largely wedding and baby gifts) and other artifacts, loaned by the families themselves. There was beautiful jewellery and a kris (dagger) with diamonds embedded in the hilt (an Arab diamond merchant's family).  I really loved these little silver spoons, for a baby's first Christmas.  Reminded me of my own Christening spoon.  Quentin Pereira's book of recipes (I've featured the pot luck recipe here) was also on display - a reminder that family heritage goes  beyond just physical artifacts.

Embroidery pattern book
Another section of the exhibition talks about family businesses.  I was intrigued by the family business, Eng Tiang Huat, which deals with Teochew embroidered goods.  The business has been passed down to the third generation, and is still around today.  One precious business asset was a big book of embroidery patterns, which was on display.  Customers would select their pattern, and the order would be relayed to the craftsmen in China to execute.  Of course, a sample of the embroidery itself could be seen at the exhibition too.

I came away from the exhibition happy that my approach towards tracing family history (interviewing older family members, web searches, visiting Bukit Brown) appeared to be on the right track.  Other tips also give me new avenues to pursue in finding out more about my family - learning, for example, that the words above the house door can also be the name of the home village in China, that the Chinese also keep meticulous geneologies of their clan.  It gives me hope that if I only persevere I will succeed, one day, in finding the name of my mysterious ancestor

The other great take-away from the exhibition?  The Resource Guide full of more useful tips and information on resources available in Singapore for this detective work. Go for the exhibition, get a copy!
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