Friday, October 02, 2009

James Seah remembers Mid-autumn Festival (中秋節)in Bukit Ho Swee Kampung

The Mid-Autumn Festival is here again!

Chinese Singaporeans, together with ethnic Chinese all over the world, will celebrate this traditional festival on October 3 this year ( Lunar calendar 八月初八日). It is also commonly known as the “Mooncake Festival” or “Lantern Festival” in Singapore.

Traveling back in time in my mind now, I remember celebrating the mid-autumn festival with my childhood friends in the kampong of Bukit Ho Swee when I was a 9-year-old boy, 53 years ago. At that time, I was staying at 10C, Beo Lane, Singapore before the “Bukit Ho Swee Fire”.

As night fell and the bright full moon took over the sun in the sky, about 12 of my buddies and I assembled at the spacious courtyard of the landlord’s house. The landlord’s grandson was the leader. Each of us carried a paper lantern of different color, shapes and designs. We were happy and looking forward to an enjoyable evening of fun, carrying our lighted lanterns and walking around the kampong in a procession. Some were chaperoned by their parents.

Each lantern has a small, lighted candle. It was a happy celebration for children in the usually quiet kampong at night.

Old photo of roadside stall selling lanterns. Photo courtesy of Derek Tait from page 42 of his book, Sampans, Banyans and Rambutans.

On the night of September 17, 1959 after dinner, my mother brought out my favorite paper lantern. The lantern was wrapped in brown paper and kept in an olden wooden chest box (brought to Singapore from China by my father). I waited patiently as my mother unwrapped the foldable lantern and handed it to me. Every year for the past five years, she had repeated the same ritual on the night of 中秋節. She would store the lantern for me after playtime was over. The lantern must have cost quite a sum in those days. As I write this, I am filled with warm thoughts and fond memories of my mother’s love, the virtues of her thriftiness at a time when people do not have wasteful habits of throwing away stuff which could still be re-used.

I did not know that it would be the last time that I would be playing with my beloved lantern that night. It was a special hand-made, colorful and beautiful lantern in the shape of a rooster. The paper and cloth material and the thin wire-frame of the lantern was sturdy and durable. That is the reason the lantern could be re-used over the years and it was still in pretty good condition.

So why did a joyful event ended up as a disaster, a “kill-joy” for a child of 9?

That night, my precious rooster lantern went up in flame within minutes …. burnt to ashes except for the metal frame and the metal candle holder.

A group of young “terrorists” (neighborhood children who are slightly older than me) were out that night looking for some fun. Their victims were the young children carrying lanterns in the procession.

For want of a better word, I use the term “terrorist”. Actually they were only mischievous boys who were “street bullies” acting tough. They were out to terrorise other kampung kids who were not as tough and younger than them.

The “mid autumn festival” coincides with the “buah duku” season, when the fruit was in abundance and sold cheaply at most local fruit stalls. These “terrorists” use the thrown away rind of the “buah duku” as “bullets”.

With a rubber band shooter or lastic, a small piece of the rind folded in half was used like an arrow (rind) and a bow (rubber-band shooter or lastic) to shoot at the lighted lanterns. On impact, the lantern would catch fire and destroyed. The “buah duku bullet” was a lethal weapon indeed!

(Please check out the what Chuck has written previously on “Good Morning Yesterday” about the Rubber-band shooter and Lastic)

While the children were romping merrily near the tomb of the landlord’s ancestor where we used to play, carrying lighted lanterns and singing kids songs, these “terrorist” (4 or 5 of them) appeared suddenly from nowhere and started shooting the lighted lanterns with the “buah duku” rinds within close range. They were a group of sadistic kids who seems to enjoy watching the lanterns set on fire, while the children were screaming and howling. The “terrorists” then escaped into the darkness as mysteriously as they had appeared, and nobody knew who they were.

It was a sad night for the “victims” and their parents. However, a few of the better-off parents immediately went to the shops to buy their children a new lantern.

My mother looked at me sadly when I returned home empty-handed, without the lantern. I was sad too, and felt sorry for not taking care of the 5-year-old lantern. My mother did not scold or scream at me though.

I understood her feelings and told her that I would stop carrying lantern on 中秋節 after that fateful night. I did not want her to buy me another lantern, comforting her with the excuse that I was too old to be carrying lanterns at age ten the following year. I already knew how to be “paiseh” at that age : ) I really missed the rooster lantern. It would have been a collector’s item.
While sharing this amusing story with my friend, Ng Eng Tee, I learnt that when he was young, he carried home-made “armoured” lanterns which his brother made for him, using condensed milk tins. He was then staying in the Ulu Pandan kampong (now a high-class residential area at Queen Astrid Park).

Eng Tee drew me a sketch of the “condensed milk tin lantern”. The picture here (created by my son Liwei who is putting his professional Photoshop skills to good use) is self-explanatory.

The “condensed milk tin” is definitely “terrorist-proof” and would not have suffered the same fate as my rooster paper lantern when shot with the “buah duku rind bullet”.

Indeed, “necessity is the mother of invention”, and the creatively designed “condensed milk tin” lantern was made at almost zero cost, except for the price of the candle.

According to Eng Tee, he had as much fun on中秋節 as any other children who were carrying lanterns bought off the shelf. There were no “terrorist kids” to burn down their “armoured lanterns”.


Wishing everyone a “Happy Mid-Autumn Festival”.

Related posts:
2) Mooncake Festival by Laokokok
3) Lantern Festival by Philip Chew


Lam Chun See said...

My sincere thanks to James for sharing this touching story. I hope young children will read this story becos it really brings out the family values of those days.

As for those 'street terrorists', I hope they too are reading this. As a 'punishment', they should write a story for us to share their own feelings and memories of those times.

Edward said...

Ahhh James … you brought back so many memories of the Mooncake Festivities. My parents weren’t as innovative so they bought the bright coloured transparent plastic paper lanterns from our local shops instead. My favourite was the aeroplane lantern. My sister has a small rabbit one – that was the animal she loved most. I cannot remember what my brother got. When night fell the kids would start moving outdoor with their lighted lanterns. Soon other children will join them. There was no need to plan the “procession” with your neighbours. Everybody just joined in, the moment they saw others moving along the street with their lanterns. Sometimes they stopped at street corners and stood with their faces close to the lanterns. It’s so nice to watch the candle flame dancing in the night, flickering across the happy faces of the children. Not all of us were known to each other but this was no barrier to joining the group for a night of fun.

Anonymous said...


Life is Short said...

As much as these lanterns are irrelevant to today's youngs, this is definitely history worth reading. I'll get my 2 boys to read it.

I remember carrying those colorful red lanterns as a child together with my siblings; it was so much fun. Although still on sale, I hardly see children carrying them now.

Beng Tian said...

My family used empty Milo tin as lantern in the past.

It had always been a challenge to stick the candle into the container.

I remember getting scratched & cut by the spikes that protrude from the pierced holes :)

Victor said...

It should have been 八月十五, (8th month, 15th day), also an euphemism for "buttocks" but I don't know why. Yet another indispensible item associated with Lantern Festival and coincidentally also connected with "buttocks" is "lor yau" (or is it "lok yau"?) which is pomelo.

Oops, taboo topic. :p

Lam Chun See said...

During my time, we didn't refer to Mid-Autumn Festival as 中秋節. Rather we would say, in Cantonese, Pat Yuet Sup Ng or 八月十五 (15th of the 8th month)。

I remember there was also a time we looked out for the eclipse of the moon. In Cantonese we said, Kam La Sik Yuet. Not sure what are the Chinese characters for this expression.

Lam Chun See said...

Anyway, my memories of Mid=Autumn Festival of my childhood is not so much the lanterns but the food. Besides the moon cakes there were interesting stuff like the 'pig cages', yam, and the 'buffalo horns'. Maybe one of you should blog about that topic.

Icemoon said...

LKK did here.

I also wonder what are the chinese characters. 金 something 吃月?

Thimbuktu said...

Thanks to Chun See for allowing me to guest blog on GMY and to share my personal memories of the mid-autumn festival in Bukit Ho Swee and to everyone who contribute with your comments. The collective memories of friends and fans of GMY is what makes this a great waterhole, with links to other informative and interesting blogsites with a similar theme, a place for sharing memories of the heritage of yesterday. I appreciate your input. Pls keep them coming. Thank you. bad, Anonymous. It should be 八月十五. Thanks to Victor for correcting me.

Have a happy and memorable 中秋節 to you and your family. Cheers!

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks Icemoon. I had forgotten about LKK's post of only 2 years ago :( I think I should add the link in the main article.

BTW, the 'kam' is pronounced like 琴 or 禽 in Cantonese. Supposed to be some kind of monstor.

fr said...

I don't know what 'Kam La Sik Yuet' is. There is another one "theen gau sik yuet" (sky dog eat moon)

Icemoon said...

After searching around, I think I know what's Kam La.

A famous Cantonese term - 邊度會有咁大隻蛤乸隨街跳㗎

Our monster is 蛤乸, which is read as, I believe, Gap La.

This is consistent with the chinese mythology for lunar eclipse, where a three-legged toad is said to swallow the moon.

This toady is the 招财蛤蟆.There is a famous story called Lau Hoi and the Three Legged Toad.

Zen said...

Basing on story told by my mother the interpretation from icemoon on 'kam la sik yuet' seems most correct. There is no shortage of mischievous kids whether in the earlier years or even right now. To illustrate this point, I would like to relate a recent incident in my estate which has many young Ang Mo kids. A chinese father was playing ping pong with his young daughter at our club house located just below the swimming pool at the basement. Two bare-bodied Ang Mo kids (aged around 10 yrs old) saw the tennis ball bouncing 'merrily' around decided to spoil the fun. One of them audiciously flung a plastic bag full of water onto the table, splashing the water in all direction, and both of them dashed off with lightning speed. Meanwhile, the dumbfound father still in his swimming trunk and daughter were shocked by this sudden attack, decided to catch these two kids but they were not to be found. According to our security guard these two naughty fellows hid in some bushes at an obscure corner of the estate. The fuming father and daughter instead marched straight to one of the kids parents house to launch a complaint. But after ringing the bell for quite some time, only the maid appeared and said that her boss was not at home. I being the next door neighbour saw the whole proceeding knew that the mother of this notorious kid was still inside the house but dared not come out to face the complainant, knowing fully well how capable her son is when coming to creating havoc in the neighbourhood.

yg said...

james, i was very moved by your story, especially the part where you told your mother 'you would be too old to carry a lantern'. at the tender age of 9, you were already such a considerate and understanding person.
your burnt lantern reminded me of my own experience. i was 4 or 5 years old when my dad bought me a aeroplane lantern. it was my pride and joy...a shortlived one. it caught fire when i was at the staircase landing, and i was so terrified that i threw it down the stairs. then i was living at upper dickson road.
in the kampong, those of us who had lost our lanterns or who could not afford one, improvished and constructed our own from tin cans, usually milo or ovaltine tins.
lantern procession was always a fascinating sight in the kampong because the lighted lanterns brightened up the night scene. yes, we would chant cheekily, "swaying lanterns light up the way, casting light on a girl without pants" (it was said in hokkien).
the picture of the 'buah duku' looks more like a duku langsat. the rind or skin of the 'buah duku' is thicker and the 'sting' from it is more severe. we used a stretched rubber band to propel the 'bullet' at our target. no, we, at least i, didn't use it to shoot at lanterns.
thanks for bringing back those memories!

Victor said...

Icemoon, kam na is not the same as gap na. The latter means "toad" but I am not sure about the former.

Lam Chun See said...

Update (04 Oct 2009)

A big Thank You to Derek Tait for emailing us a colour version of that photo of roadside stall from him book.

I have added 2 links to related posts by LKK and PChew.

Thimbuktu said...

Thank you for sharing your childhood experience with the aeroplance lantern during the mid-autumn festival.

Its true that sometimes the lantern will catch fire by accident becos the lanterns were lighted with wax candles, not battery-operated mini candles used these days.

I believe the fruit in the picture is "buah duku", not "langsat". The rind is quite thick. I found the image from Google with search word "buah duku"...oh dear, now you know : )

Victor said...

I also have a mooncake post written 2 years ago.

Thimbuktu said...

Thank you for sharing this blog which I read it previously. Its an interesting and memorable piece.

Its wonderful to know that although the blog topic may be the same, every blog reflects something unique and interesting from the personal perspective of of the blogger.

Like the latest NTUC ad slogan:

"Same same...but different" ; )

Anonymous said...

Chuck says:
My brothers and sisters made our own lanterns by using coconut husk just like the condense milk tin.. but without the holes.

Thimbuktu said...

"Coconut husk lantern"? This is special. Its the first time I've heard about it although I grew up in the kampung.

The kampung kids are truly innovative. It would be great if we could have a picture or sketch of the "coconut husk lantern" creation.

Thank you for sharing, Chuck.

Victor said...

I don't know about lanterns made out of coconut husks but I certainly know that we made lanterns out of lok yau (pomelo) skins.

Icemoon said...

Can pomelo or coconut husk be carved out like those Halloween pumpkins?

Anonymous said...

Sorry... I think we used the coconut shell instead of the husk. Sorry for the confusion.