Take Time to Make Nice

14 Sep 2019

View of 100 year old tree from the cafe where Time is the secret ingredient in their cooking.

The owner of the cafe tucked in the alley behind the military headquarters(总兵署) was very detailed in giving us directions to Wu Miao (武庙), the temple that we needed to locate in order to be at Houpu Teahouse (后浦泡茶间).

Wu Miao Temple dedicated to Kuan Yu, the Warrior Deity who stood for justice & loyalty.

He taught us two routes to our destination: one for the local people and the other for visitors like us. And he was fairly insistent that we took the latter because he didn’t think we could read the landmarks meant for the locals.

We took his advice & had a great time.

The next day El suggested that we took our dinner at the cafe as a gesture of gratitude for the owner’s kindness.

When we arrived, the local patrons chatting with the cafe owner immediately offered us their table in the courtyard because they believed their position was the coolest and nicest part of the cafe on a hot summer day.

During our walk we got lost and gained this majestic tree and the hospitality of a cafe owner & his wife.

The cafe owner’s wife gave us our evening meal of cooked rice, slowly braised dishes, lightly fried cabbage & pickled vegetables.

When we complimented the wife for her amazing food, she smiled & told us her secret ingredient was time.

She said what we just had were ordinary produce braised in soya sauce with a bit of sugar over slow fire for 3 hours. Some dishes were cooled and then chilled in the refrigerator in order for the flavours to gather & settle.

And so what we ate was essentially Time, as she revealed with glowing pride.

The houses in this back alley are easily 100-200 years old. My grandmother was born in this city and I like to think she passed through here before.

Do You Have Space For …?

6 Sep 2019

“Miss Ong, do you have space for another cat?”

A former student in my first school during the 80s texted me recently.

Me: What do you mean? As in a live cat? (feeling a bit nervous)

First Student: No, I mean a cat figurine.

I thanked him for his kind thoughts but explained that I’ve had my share of cute cat merchandise to last a lifetime.

First Student went on to describe how the cat figurine he saw was very well made and he would like me to have it.

I was touched that a kid I taught 32 years ago and who’s now working overseas should be interacting with his ancient teacher with such sincerity & enthusiasm. 😊

And after all, a couple of cat figurines shouldn’t take up too much space, I reasoned.

So bring it, I texted back.

Last week when we caught up at Grains & Hops near his art studio, he didn’t just bring me a pair of cats, but an entire collection of 20!

He wanted me have a complete set he said.

So on Teachers’ Day today, I’m dedicating this cat mandala to wish all teachers plenty of heart space to receive generosity & completeness, as shown by the giver of these 20 kitties.

And as Maggie Smith in her Downton Abbey character once said, “Nothing succeeds quite like excess,” I hope all students will not hesitate to thank or compliment their teachers and mentors excessively today or any other day. 😄

Extravagant Impermanence

4 Sep 2019

This morning as I was sipping my coffee, a vision greeted me.

It was a new leaf bearing all the glory of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Indeed “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.”

As I studied the leaf up close I felt humbled.

Its luminous beauty & delicate veins reflect a creator of extravagance, and all the more so considering “it’s only a leaf” and will wither and die soon.

If Nature bothers to put in such exquisite details in a little leaf that might even go noticed, then giving my best to what I do however impermanent the outcome, will truly be an act of freedom & generosity to myself.

Changing narratives

25 August 2019

Last week we had lunch at a restuarant in a shopping mall by the Singapore River in an old part of the city where my mom grew up.

The wait staff got us a table where we could look into the river as we chatted & ate in airconditioned comfort.

As the brightly painted tourist bum boats passed us by, my mom commented on how dirty the river used to be during her childhood & my childhood.

But filthy as the river was then, it was a lifeline to thousands of illiterate people and one of my paternal uncles. I still recall this uncle in a white chinaman t-shirt and cotton shorts of indigo blue. He carried a hook with a wooden handle to pick up gunny sacks of grains to hoist onto his shoulder. Sack by sack, he would carry these food supplies from boat to warehouse from dawn to dusk.

My paternal uncle, Ong Cheong Lock (王章乐) as a teenager. He is now 80 years old.

Somedays when he came back to our extended family, I could see his face, neck and shoulder all badly burnt from the scorching sun. There was no sunscreen in those days. But he would always have a smile for me as he took out the little trinket or sweet he had just bought on his way home with his coolie pay.

Now the river is all clean and green. My uncle is now 80 years old and a grandfather. My own brothers are very fond of him. They see bits of my late dad in him I guess.

My uncle is always very happy to see me at ancestral prayer meets. I’ll always be his “first child” from his bachelor days in my grandma’s home.

My mom also recalled how her dad, my late maternal grandpa, would trudge throughout the river neighbourhood collecting kitchen scraps from households to feed his livestock pigs at home. He did so for many years before he became a temple care taker.

We both agreed that my late grandpa would have been happy to know that 70 plus years later, his daughter and grand daughter would be sitting & lunching in a fairly high end restaurant on the very street he used to walk barefooted to seek for leftovers to feed his pigs.

So birthdays to me are no longer personal. It is also not about counting the years or planning for botox treatment. It has now become an integral part of honouring the ones older than us and sacrifices made for us so that our current life is worth celebrating.

My mom and her sister on a Batam kelong in 2018.

And as we trade stories of past hardship or regrets, we can do so with a spirit of gratitude & respect. And this mindset may embolden us and give us reasons to laugh and to care, without reservation for the days ahead.

My mom, her siblings and their spouses having a laugh outside the temple which her late father cared for.

Turning 76

24 Aug 2019

My mama turned 76 yesterday.

She still works part time in the factory she’s been employed since she was 16.

My mama (R) and her teenage buddy Auntie Moi (L).

As a result she has friends, both the young & the aged, despite not having access to social media.

My mama (background) and my second aunt during a sibling outing to a kelong in Batam Island, Indonesia in 2018.

Her weekends are precious with temple visits, visits with friends & siblings, visits from her grandchildren and the occasional shopping for gifts to give to young colleagues leaving their company.

My mama on her wedding day.

Mundane tasks such as cleaning, cooking and feeding people & animals anchor her & give her a sense of control & pride, even as she complains about having to do them.

Over the years I’ve learnt not to over analyse things with her. Most grudges with her are easily resolved by a bowl of prawn noodles or a shared concern over the welfare of another person or animal.

My mama makes water offering to Lord Ganesha whenever she visits the temples at Waterloo Street.

I may have a university education, but it’s my illiterate mother who has taught me not to be afraid, and to hold onto my visions, even at times when I cannot read all the signs on my path.

My mama in her 20s. I was about 3 or 4 years old. I looked worried in this picture cos she had caught me cutting my own fringe. Her smile says, “I’m gonna kill you when we get home.”

It’s August and Momo ( Peaches) Season in Japan & Taiwan. So the day before I bought what I believe to be the most expensive peaches my mother has even eaten in her life. 😆

The display reads “寿桃 (shou tao)” meaning longevity peaches. Longevity noodles from Kinmen were added.

Peaches are the favourite fruits of the Monkey King. They confer longevity and alacrity. So I wish for my mama and all who are mothers, on her birthday and the days ahead, the same gifts of longevity & alacrity.

My mama at 76. (Tung Lok at Central Mall 20 Aug 2019)

Happy Birthday Mama! 😊

Setting Intentions

19 August 2019

Me: For today’s session, we have to complete 3 things – Spelling, make a birthday card for Singapore & play the violin. You can decide on the order in which these work are to be completed.

First Tutee: OK, I will play the violin, make birthday card and then do spelling.

Me: Ladies and Gentleman, we’re very honoured to have in our studio today, a lovely boy who will play the violin for us.

First Tutee played the violin and went on to share with me what his music teacher taught him the week before. He also played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, with greater virtuosity this time round.

Then in his SG54 polo T-shirt he started colouring the Merlion showering Singapore with gifts such as encouragement, kindness, respect, gratitude etc.

“Singapore is a girl you know,” First Tutee said without looking up. He also added that he always asked his Teddy Bear, Hafif, on what colours to use next. Then he put the bear close to his ear to show me how the consultation happened.

Me: Do you love Singapore?

First Tuttee: Yes.

Me: Why?

First Tutee: Because she’s my country.

As he coloured he told me he liked to start with the easy work first and then do the more difficult ones at the end.

I saw the wisdom of First Tutee structuring his tasks from easy to difficult. By completing the easier bits first, such as playing the violin & colouring, he was gathering the courage & focus he needed to take on the more demanding ones, such as spelling.

So I asked him if he would like to try spelling while colouring at the same time. But if it distracted him, we would spell later. He agreed to give my suggestion try.

And I was amazed that not only was he able to spell and colour at the same time, he was able to predict which word was coming up next. He also had some fun trying “to read my mind,” and “accusing me” of changing the words last minute.

After the card for Singapore was completed, he insisted on writing a few lines.

Then he went on to sketch a scene of his school auditorium during national day celebration.

Sketching & colouring help First Tutee to reflect on past events, locate his bearing and find his centre again.

Then without needing to be reminded, he turned to a new page and numbered 1-20 on the margin to get ready for spelling, the final task of our Sunday ritual.

Except for the word, “beware,” which he paused a while to recall, he spelt the rest effortlessly.

After he had gotten all the words right, he went into the kitchen to help himself to a mini conetto ice-cream, a food incentive, courtesy of my friend, Krison Tan.

I complimented First Tutee for keeping his word as he smiled and hugged Hafif.

Happy Birthday, Singapore!

9 August 2019

Happy Birthday, Singapore!

You are the gateway to all things good.

Thank you for your generosity to me & all sentient beings. Please forgive us, little island, if we’ve taken your gifts for granted.

May you have many more 54 years to celebrate my dear Singapore, as our people remain wise, kind and united.