Friday, August 5, 2011

Singapore Part II: Peranakan Shoes, Orthodox Jews and Missed Connections (LONG)

This was written while I was still in Singapore. I’m transferring in Hong Kong right now to Shenzhen: yay free wi-fi. I will upload pics once I'm in Shenzhen.

I’m in Singapore’s Changi Airport right now, about to head off to China. I’m really excited to start my internship and to live in Shenzhen for two months.

Again, I’m going to divide the post into four sections: Sights, Social and Reflections

SIGHTS (I did a lot of walking around, which I discussed last post)

Peranakan Museum: This museum, in an old colonial building near Fort Canning, is dedicated to the culture of the Peranakan people: descendents of mixed marriages between Chinese traders and local Malays up and down the Malay peninsula and Sumatra. It has some pretty neat artifacts and provides a good introduction to a now-disappearing culture, including a whole floor on the old-school twelve-day wedding ceremony that was once done by wealthy Peranakan families. 

This is a beaded Peranakan mat. The Peranakan are famous for their incredible, intricate beadwork. This mat is all beads, and about 2.5 feet long by a foot wide.

Reflections at Bukit Chandu: The Japanese invaded Singapore and occupied it from 1942 to 1945. It was a brutal experience, and it is an experience very much still within the Singaporean psyche (for more reading, I highly recommend Breaking the Tongue by Vyvyane Loh, which is set during this time in Singapore.
This museum is at the top of a short, but steep hill called Bukit Chandu – “Opium Hill” in Malay. This was the site of the last battle during the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore, when Malay troops within the British Army defended their stand on this hill. The museum serves as a memorial to them and as a memorial to the Japanese occupation of Singapore and its victims, including POWs and the many, many tortured and killed civilians. It is an extremely chilling experience, and a lot of the exhibits are presented with a realism or directness not necessarily found in the US. 

The entrance to the Bukit Chandu museum.
Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple, Sri Mariamman Temple and Chulia Mosque:

(In order to respect the sanctuaries I did not take photos.)

In short succession on a street in what was Singapore’s Chinatown before the country became majority Chinese, lie three separate houses of worship. The first is an enormous Mahayana Buddhist temple built to house a relic of the Buddha. It is an enormous, beautiful and fascinating temple, museum of Buddhist history, and cultural center, and I spent the better part of two hours exploring the mammoth temple.

The second is a Tamil Hindu temple built in the traditional Tamil style. It is rather quiet in comparison to the other two, but very interesting nonetheless.

The third is a unique mosque for Singapore, built not by the Malay but rather by South Indian Muslims who arrived in Singapore in the mid-19th Century. The mosque is enormous, and was rather alive because it’s Ramadan. The architecture is quite interesting, and one of the functionaries told me a little about the history of the mosque itself. It also serves as an “ambassador of Islam” to the tourist and non-Muslim communities and has a lot of placards talking about Islam as a religion of peace, including about Islam and tolerance for Christians and Jews.

For all three, shoes come off at points, and one takes off one’s shoes on the street for both the mosque and the Hindu temple. Given the rain, it was quite an experience walking barefoot, even for a short while, on busy Singapore streets.



I was hoping to see another classmate from UChicago, but our communication was a bit of a fail so we didn’t get to meet up. I was able to see a friend from a long time ago who lives here for a short while, we had dinner and window-shopped in a fancy mall together.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue

(due to security reasons, photos are strictly forbidden from the outside at Maghain Aboth)

Unfortunately, a family friend’s mother, who I was quite fond of, passed away this week. It was quite sudden and quite sad, and I wanted to say kaddish on her behalf. This drew me to Maghain Aboth synagogue.

The synagogue was built by Sephardi Jews who came from Iraq in the 19th century, a tiny community that not only exists today, but produced one of Singapore’s most eminent politicians, David Marshall.  Architecturally, it’s quite magnificent.

The community in Singapore stands at about 2,000: a few hundred from the original community, and many expats from all over the world. The synagogue is staffed by a resident Sephardi rabbi, and two young Chabad guys from the Northeast. I spent some time before the service chatting with one of them – a very interesting guy to be sure, and extremely well-travelled.

The rite is Sephardi and Orthodox. I am a bit off-kilter in Orthodox services due to the differences from the Conservative/Reconstructionist rite I am used to, but most of those differences are small and I’m usually used to it within a few minutes; I’m usually able to follow an Ashkenazi Orthodox service. The Sephardi rite, however, is quite different, and it was my first time in a truly Sephardi service (the other times have been mixed). The guy next to me, a born-and-bred Singaporean Jew, helped me with the new things (including some different practices around the recitation of Kaddish).

It was a very nice and edifying experience, even though it was a bit challenging for this Masorti, Ashkenazi guy who’s still dealing with a bit of jet lag. It was also neat to be on the other side of the world, and still be part of a Jewish prayer service. I felt more Jewish than ever.

Expect a post about religion while abroad and my weird kashrut while here next week.


Singapore is a truly, truly amazing and fascinating place. It is a crossing between worlds, it is a world unto itself, it is a place without comparison. It is a place that surprises, it is a place that is both expected and novel. I can be in China on one block, Malaysia on another, and any Anglophone country on a third. It is somewhere that really opens one to a lot of new experiences, but it is also somewhere that is really a testament to the diverse history of this region, and the diversity of the future. That diversity isn’t coming. It’s now, here, in Singapore.

I’m really glad I came. I could definitely see myself spending a few years here after college, and it was really nice to explore, to see people, and to just take in the sights, sounds and feeling of this place. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to visit. I hope this is not my last.

The port of Singapore, from Bukit Chandu
And now I go to China, again, for the internship, and back to work after two weeks of not-work. It will be nice to live in Shenzhen, and really awesome to continue doing the work I’ve been doing (expect a post about that too). I’m completely, completely happy to get going.

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