One of the quickest, most authentic and fun way to get intimate with a city is to speak with the taxi drivers. Seriously, two strangers stuck in a vehicle for a while might as well talk and if possible learn something from each other. It might be an anomaly in many parts of the world, but most taxi drivers in Singapore are amicable and have given me the lowdown on everything from local food, culture, religion to people and politics. Even job leads and life wisdom, though unsolicited.
‘The general of the north’ – a revered Taoist deity in the Xuan Jiang Dian temple, Singapore
Naturally I had no qualms about asking my cab driver the legend behind Duanwu festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival or rice dumpling festival, to which I was headed. The venue was Xuan Jiang Dian, an eighty-plus-year-old Chinese temple atop a hill at 85 A Silat Road, where a group of us were invited to hang out, sketch and watch the making of rice dumplings and eat them, of course. “Why don’t you check the story on the internet?”, asked the cab driver.
I could but I pressed him to narrate. Because a folklore is desultory when read in black and white. Because a folklore needs a voice to come alive, its inflection to set the mood and often a pinch of hyperbole to build momentum and pique the right amount of interest.
Sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves
When we stopped at the second signal, he began with the disclaimer that there are more than one version of the story. I nodded in eagerness, while he cleared his throat. “Long, long ago , an honourable Chinese minister who’d offended the king, was banished from court. In despair the minister committed suicide by drowning himself in the river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. When locals failed to find the body, they rowed their boats into the river, beating their drums loudly and splashing their paddles on water to scare the fish. Some dropped sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river to feed the fish and keep them from devouring his body.”
“Fascinating!”. But when did this happen? Who was the minister?” Which river did he drown in? I was curious.
“Dunno lah! All I know, is every year on fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which is…June 12th this year, we race dragon boats and eat sticky rice dumplings for a month.”
Volunteers at the temple wrapping sticky rice dumplings
The temple was a sight to behold, with bright red lanterns, fiery looking dragons with long tails and formidable statues of Xuan Tiang Shang Ti, the resident deity, also known as the general of the north, dressed in imperial clothes, residing inside one of the most exquisite lacquered alters, I have ever seen. With his red face, large bulging eyes and long flowing beard, he is supposedly one of the most revered Taoist deities. “Notice that his right foot is on a snake and the left one is on a turtle”, said Victor Yue, a salt and pepper haired Engineer who’s a Chinese temple geek, and an excellent storyteller.
Ah Heng, who’s taking it easy with a cigerette between his fingers, is actually this Taoist temple’s spirit medium who goes into a trance twice a week and offers consultation to devotees on their issues ranging form medical, philosophical to spiritual.
When I started picking his brain, Victor fed my curiosity with an enthralling tour of the temple and a crash course on Taosim and spirit mediums such as Ah Heng (see my sketch above) who are consuted on a regular basis by devotees to cure their ailments. The only thing that distracted me from our intense spiritual discussion was the smell of rice dumplings. Two volunteers had fixed themselves a make shift rice dumpling station on plastic chairs with a basket of steamed bamboo leaves, a tray each of rice, cooked mushrooms and pork.
When friends tease and taunt you with stories of how hard it is to wrap a rice dumpling, how mothers and grandmothers still do it with ease and finesse and they can’t make it happen after years of practice; you are naturally instigated to try wrapping at least one and see for yourself, rather than agreeing like an idiot. When I hovered around the fringes of the crime scene, the volunteers dared me. “Want to try?” They were wearing surgical gloves and bandanas. “Go wash your hand first.”
Hanging the finished dumplings on the steel rod, to be boiled later.
The bamboo leaves are soaked in water before they are ready to be used.” said Victor. Three leaves overlap each other, two on one side and the third on the other, making an anorexic “Y”, which is then twisted to make a cone; into which goes a spoon of rice, a spoon of mushroom and a spoon of pork. The cone is then folded, tightly shut, tied with a string and hung from a steel rod hanging from above. To the two dumplings that I wrapped, the volunteers matched five each and giggled a lot, probably at my expense. Friends cheered me and clicked photographs as if I was wrangling a croc with my bare hands. But wasn’t I merely wrapping a very sloppy rice dumpling?
Yes and no. My fruit of labour was shoddy no doubt but by rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty ( or sticky) that morning, I had tacitly shed my wide eyed tourist garb. The volunteers warmed up to me. “Do visit anytime you want to” and “Eat one more dumpling, won’t you?” and “Did you see, she wrapped two dumplings?”.
The rice dumplings were dropped into a large metal can of boiling water atop an open fire made out of wood and coal. “We can’t have such big pots in our homes, so my mother steams the dumplings in batches through the night, so we can have them in the morning on the festival day.” said Chao Zhu, a fellow urban sketcher, who was visiting the temple on a second consecutive year to celebrate Duanwu. I was curious to know if she could wrap rice dumplings nearly as good as her mother. “Gosh no! Unfortunately it’s becoming more and more obscure. I don’t think I can pass it down to the next generation.” Sadly there were too many heads nodding in agreement.
Four different types of dumplings laid out with hot tea and ketchup
After the dumplings were boiled, the volunteers laid them on a table in separate trays with name tags indicating their type – Kee Zhang (plain rice dumplings with no filling), Zhang (Vegetarian dumpling), Bak Zhang ( dumplings with pork filling) and Tao Zhang ( dumplings with beans). Kettles of tea, disposable plates, cups, bottles of ketchup (to accompany the dumplings) were set up. After our fill, when we were ready to leave, the volunteers packed us the leftover dumplings. “Souvenirs from the temple!” said Victor.
Victor, regaling me with his stories
Back home, I checked the internet all right – Duanwu festival commemorates the death of the patriotic poet and revered minister Qu Yuan ( 340 – 278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu. He committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo river in Hunan province, because he was accused of treason and exiled by the king for opposing an alliance with the state of Qin.
So much for getting the facts straight, it’s still the cab driver’s dramatic narration that rings in my ears.