Tag Archives: culture

Year of the Horse


This is the Year of the Horse!   Now I am a Tiger (yes – that’s right – a tiger squirrel!  I have a picture of just such a creature HERE on this blog).  My year was in 2010 and I think we can say that us Tigers gave you a good year.  You are welcome.

My wife is actually a Snake.  Her kind gave us last year.  It wasn’t a particularly bad sort of year but let’s face it …..it wasn’t a Tiger year.

Now for those who hold stock in traditional Chinese astrology, they say that a Tiger – Snake romantic pairing is not an auspicious one and the relationship will not work well.  Perhaps for that reason, when we were first dating, my wife told me that she was actually a Rabbit.  Sometimes when someone asks about her Chinese astrological sign, she will still say that she is a Rabbit.  To set the record straight, I tell that person that “this Rabbit speaks with forked tongue!”

So this is the Year of the Horse!  Yes, well, I don’t know much about horses but I will gladly share my general ignorance with all of you dear readers.

First, my sister is a Horse.  Enough said.  I dare not say more.  She can kick like a ……

Second, the word for horse in Chinese is “Ma” and is often one of the first words that they teach how to write when you are trying to learn Chinese.  This is probably because it clearly shows the pictographic nature of many Chinese characters.  The earliest character for “Ma” really resembled a picture representation for a horse and it evolved into the present day character. (see below)

Chinese_horse
The evolution of the Chinese character for the word horse. Source: Tan Huay Peng, What’s in a Chinese Character.

Third, I  actually had the privilege of seeing the Przewalski’s horse roaming wild in Mongolia (see post).  The Pzewalski’s Horse is considered the only remaining truly wild horse in the world. Woohoo!  Perhaps an ancestor of the horses I saw was the inspiration or model for that very first Chinese character for “Ma”.

Rubbing It's Behind on the Rough Rock
Rubbing It’s Behind on the Rough Rock (photo by LGS)

Fourth, when I was a wee lad, the only horse I knew was the “Hoss” on TV.  For me , he was the “Hoss”.

"Hoss" Cartwright (the one in front) of TV's Bonanza fame.
“Hoss” Cartwright (the one in front) of TV’s Bonanza fame.

Fifth and final point; lovely button mushrooms (yum yum) are grown on horse dung (not so yum yum) and that’s no bullshit!

And that brings to and end all that I know about horses.  Must go now……head feels ….kinda…….empty…..

20 Years With Trouble and Strife


I know it’s been awhile since I posted and it was not due to a lack of material but from a lack of time to put mind to computer keyboard.   So for my catch up post, I thought I would  stick to the theme of romance in honor of Valentine’s Day  as well as touch on the fact that this is a new year according to the Chinese lunar calendar – kill two birds with one stone as it were (this was a phrase that always got the hackles up with my birding enthusiast friends whenever I used it while still working for a nature conservation organisation)!

First, I wish love and happiness to all young lovers ( and old ones too) on the occasion of Valentine’s Day.  Of course, I wish this for every day of the year.  For me, this year is a milestone in my marriage and last month, my wife and I marked our 20 years together as man and wife with a small dinner at a small restaurant with a few friends who have cheered us and helped us in our life journey together.  The “Trouble and Strife” in this post’s title is the Cockney Rhyming Slang for “wife”; or more specifically …..my wife.  Before I get in to trouble, it is meant as a term of endearment.  You know, like “ball and chain”.  Ummm.  Maybe I better move on.

IMG_1611

I have had 20 years of happy marriage with the love of my life.  I am a firm believer in marriage and it grieves me to see so many marriages today  in trouble or ending in divorce.  Marriage has been a great blessing but as with all good things, it requires work, commitment and self-sacrifice.  It has not been easy going all the time.  Yet, for the most part, most of our problems were from external sources – family relationships being one of them, but we found the strength in our love and trust in each other to weather all the storms thus far.  We had a few fights and quarrels along the way but truly they were but a few and we have a rule never to let the sunset on our anger.  This has been a good rule.  Life is too short to waste on being angry.

Anyway, I shared with the dinner guests the story of how we first met; my wife’s generally poor impression of me that first time; our deepening friendship; my getting cold feet and running away and how God brought us together again while I was studying for my doctorate in Ottawa, Canada.  I proposed to her in front of the Eternal Flame on the grounds of the Canadian Parliament while kneeling in the snow.  We got married almost exactly a year later in much warmer circumstances in Kuala Lumpur.  At the dinner, I also made a spectacle of myself by singing “our song” to my wife.  (the song is Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes”) which I think also impressed the serving staff of the restaurant.

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And so, I thank God for blessing us both and guiding us these twenty years and pray that by His Grace, we will continue to love each other as we age into hopefully a fine vintage.

That concludes my romantic section of the post and as promised, I will now touch on the Chinese New Year aspect of the post. As you may know, this is the Year of the Snake. This is of significance as this is my wife’s year! Yes! She is a Snake. Now the interesting thing is that when we were courting she misled me into thinking that she was a Rabbit. Now more than 20 years the wiser, I realise that my darling Rabbit speaks with forked tongue!

Kecak


Our friend Mago does a series on his blog called “Sunday Music” and just recently he covered a song by Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985).  In his post, he included the use of that song in an animated version of the Ramayana story.  A rather unusual combination which you should check out.

Anyway, this reminded me that I had a related post that had long been on the back-burner and I decided it was time to bring it to a boil.

In Bali, Indonesia, there is a dance called the kecak dance in which dancers enact the Ramayana story with musical accompaniment provided by the rhythmic, hypnotic chanting of a large group of men.  It is quite an experience.  I have had the good fortune of witnessing it twice.  Once, I saw it as part of a dinner performance at an international beach hotel in Nusa Dua (which is where all the photos  below were taken) and once at a sunset ceremonial performance at the clifftop temple at Uluwatu.  Of the two, I really must recommend the spectacular setting at the Uluwatu temple which also includes a fire dance.  If you are ever in Bali, this is definitely one of the highlights not to be missed.  To tantalise you, I have included a video by Hawaiian filmmaker and reknown hula dancer Kimokekahuna at the Uluwatu temple.

The Ramayana is a classic Hindu story.  In brief, the kecak dance is about the hero Rama and his beautiful wife Siti.  One day while in the forest, Siti sees a golden deer and begs Rama to capture it for her.  He leaves Siti under the protection of his brother Lakshmana and chases after the deer.  Sometime later, Siti is misled into thinking that she hears Rama calling for help.  Fearful for her husband, she pleads for Lakshmana to go and search for Rama.  Lakshmana is reluctant to do so at first but eventually gives in to her pleas and disappears into the forest looking for Rama.

But it was all a ploy to get Siti alone and unprotected and she is kidnapped by the demon King Ravana and taken to his kingdom of Lanka.  The rest of the story is about how Rama defeats Ravana and rescues Siti with the help of the white monkey king, Hanuman and his army of monkeys.

 

Kecak Dance and Dinner at the Grand Hyatt, Nusa Dua, Bali.

 

The Bad Guy Appears

 

Fight! Fight! Fight!

 

Left to Right: The Golden Deer, Little Tourist and Some Character that I Can't Remember

 

The Bad Guys After Losing Again

 

The White Monkey King Giving Me the Thumbs Up

 

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

 

Pole Dancing


One of the wonderful things associated with Chinese New Year celebrations (which is still going on as it lasts 15 days), is the Lion Dance.  Here are some photos and a video that I took during a performance by a lion dance troupe at a friend’s home in Malaysia.  To make it more interesting, the dance is carried out by the lion dancers as they prance around on top of poles some 2-3 metres off the ground.   Yes, this is “pole dancing” the Chinese Lion Dance style.  “Pole dancing” by men in costumes.

Astute readers will have noticed that the Squirrel is making repeated references to “pole dancing”.  This is a thinly veiled and  brazen attempt to get more hits on this blog from people googling “pole dancing”.  Anyway, now that you are here, get your brain out of the sewer and be enlightened by some culture.

The Lion Gets Ready

The Lion Climbs on Board

Wait for it! Lion Pole Dancing!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

(ALL PICTURES AND VIDEO BY LGS)

Asking the Bleeding Obvious


Had a Bad Day?

There is a curious social behaviour that occurs here in Malaysia especially amongst the Chinese.  It is a phenomena that I can best describe as, “asking the bleeding obvious.”

Let me give you a few examples.  Say that you are eating dinner at a local restaurant when a friend happens to come by your table.  He might say, “Eating, eh?”

Or you might be at the department store’s annual sale with your arms full of over-flowing shopping bags when you run into your aunt and she says, “Shopping, ah?”

Or yet another scenario where you are at the supermarket with a shopping cart in tow and you are testing the firmness of the apples on display when an acquaintance might pass by and say, “Grocery shopping?”

That’s what I mean by “asking the bleeding obvious” and sometimes when I encounter such a query, I feel this dark primal urge boiling up from within me to say something sarcastic.  I am too polite to actually say it but boy, do I think it!

“No, no.  I ‘m not eating.  I am just curious to see how much food I can cram into my mouth.”

“Shopping? Oh,no.  Just shoplifting as usual.”

“Oh, I’m not buying anything.  I just like polishing apples while pushing a fully loaded grocery cart.  It’s better than joining a gym.”

Anyway, I had a real strange conversation with my local car mechanic just recently and it went something like this…..

Mechanic:  “Are you here to see me?”

Me: “Yes” (my sarcastic thought: “Yeah, especially since there is no one else here or do you have an invisible friend?”)

Mechanic: “Something wrong with your car?”

Me: “Yes” (my sarcastic thought: “Why would you think that? Actually I would like your help to pull out all my rotten teeth.”)

Me: “One of the license plate numbers has fallen off.”

Mechanic: “So you want that I replace that missing number?”

Me: “Yes.” (my sarcastic thought: “No, I would like to put up a Missing Poster for the return of that number.”)

Mechanic: “So where did you lose the number?” (well, I was stumped but at least it wasn’t asking the bleeding obvious.)

A Whole Lot of Feeding and Jumping Going On


Last Saturday, I drove about 60 km, partly along a dark country road to attend a friend’s wedding dinner in a small town. I have known the groom for about 6 years now. He does not come from a privileged background but he has a strong passion for working with nature and an incredibly strong work ethic, which has caused him to progress quickly in his career and also won him much respect amongst the community and his workmates. In fact, those of us who know of his long hours, often working 7 day weeks, frequently forfeiting his leave and on top of that attending night school, are relieved that he has finally taken some time to listen to his heart-strings. Where did this workaholic meet his bride, you ask? At work of course!

But they both took some time off to plan their nuptials and to honeymoon in Bali and won’t worry about work till next month. Good for them.

Anyway, it was a big Hindu wedding. There was a temple ceremony earlier followed by the dinner at night in a large community hall. This is a small close knit community and the groom is well known and the bride is the daughter of a well established local potter, so just about everyone was there.

Now, suffice to say that a great time was had by all, although the loud music blasted at the front tables probably has caused some permanent damage to our hearing. There was lots of jumping and dancing going on ranging from traditional Punjabi folk dances to the latest Bollywood numbers. I video-taped the Bhangra dance which is a lively and energetic dance by the Punjabi community but the video really was poor quality and does not do the dance justice. So, for your benefit, I purloined a rather good video from You Tube. Hope you enjoy it.

Of course, there was also a lot of delicious Indian food. Let’s see. There was Briyiani rice, acar (spicy vegetable pickle with peanuts), dhall (chickpea curry), dry mutton curry, Chicken fried with chili amongst others. But before we could eat, there was a lot of ceremonial feeding. In a Hindu wedding, kissing the bride is not as important as feeding the bride….and feeding the groom ……and the bride feeding the groom ……and the groom feeding the bride. Yup. A whole lot of jumping and feeding going on.

A Kolam Welcomes All to the Wedding

A Kolam is a traditional art form using coloured rice.

Me Feeding the Bride

Me Feeding the Groom

More Feeding Going On

Secret Squirrel Sneaking a Photo With the Bride and Groom

Bhangra – the very energetic and lively dance of the Punjabi farmers

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Ham On Air


I was recently with a group of colleagues; all of them somewhat younger than myself.  I believe they are what are known as Gen Y.  Other alternate names include  Generation Next, Millennial Generation or even Generation Net.  These include babies born around the mid- 1970’s until the early 2000’s.  It was in relation to Generation Net’s growing up with the internet that I was talking to them about.

I was reminding them that the things that they take for granted today had not even been conceptualized in the not too distant days of my youth.  There was no laptops, facebook, twitter, blogs, handphones etc.  I really lost them when I told them that we used to encode computer data by punching holes in cards (for all you young ‘uns, google it as  “computer punched cards”).  Oh yes,  we did not even have google in those days!

It brought to my memory, that as a young boy in those pre-blogging days, I was already interested in reaching out to others in the world.  the answer at that time was ham radio.  Ham radio really refers to a network of amateur radio operators whose hobby was to talk to similar hams from all around the world riding on the magic of radiowaves.  Apart from chatting, they often provided important services to the community and many times provided support during emergency and disaster responses.  Even today, it is estimated that there are 2 million ham radio operators out there (as compared with 126 million blogs as tracked by BlogPulse).

Ham radio just requires three things;

The Latest, Coolest Radio Set

The Tallest Possible Antennae

And finally, the Ham!

I could never afford it but I was really attracted  to the whole idea of scanning the frequencies and meeting new people from around the world; not strangers but fellow members of the family of hams.  In my dreams, I often imagined reaching out and touching a lonely lighthouse keeper in the Outer Hebrides or a snow bound hunter in his isolated shack in the Canadian wilds.  Perhaps, they would share wisdom grown from hours of lonely solitude or we could play a game of chess.

So, I guess it isn’t all that surprising that I have taken to blogging because I still have a desire to meet new people from around the world.  In line with that sentiment, may I ask each of you, dear readers, to help me with this quest.

Your Mission, should you choose to accept it, is to introduce me to one or two bloggers that you think I might like to meet and to follow their blogs.

Many, many thanks.

Thaipusam


This post is a follow on from the last post on the topic of body scars.

This year, the 9th of February so happens to be Thaipusam which is a very special Hindu festival which is especially celebrated by the Tamil peoples throughout the world. It is celebrated on the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai. Pusam refers to a star that reaches its highest elevation in the sky during the festival. The festival honours the birthday of the Lord Murugam and his acquisition of the spear that would enable him to triumph over the evil demon Soorapadman.

Today, the festival has been celebrated in India and nearly every other part of the world where there is a sizeable Tamil community. There are major celebrations in Malaysia and in Singapore. The main site of the celebration in Kuala Lumpur is at the massive limestone outcrop called Batu Caves where today, more than 1.3 million devotees and tourists converged.

One major component of the festival is the carrying of the kavadi. Devotees who have asked favours from or prayed to the Lord Murugam often make pledges to carry the kavadi. The simplest form of the kavadi is a semi-circular frame with a wooden rod which is placed across the shoulders of the devotee. Other forms include piercing the skin and supporting the kavadi with metal spokes or spears. Another variant involves using hooks embedded into the skin to carry heavy objects or to pull a chariot. Other devotees may pass a skewer through their cheeks. Basically, the more pain you endure, the more merit you score.

Kavadi Carrier, Thaipusam Festival, Penang

However, devotees go through a strict purification ritual which includes prayers and specific diets. Special powders are applied and prayers chanted. As a result, most devotees enter a trance-like state where they seem to feel no pain from their self-inflicted wounds.

Dude, do you know you have a bunch of hooks in your back?

These kavadis may be carried along a procession route but in Kuala lumpur, they end up at Batu Caves where they will be carrried up these 272 steps leading to the cave temple complex.

its a long way up, imagine doing this with the spiked kavadi for thaipusam
Another aspect which is very much identified with the festival is the smashing of coconuts as offerings after their prayers. This results in a sea of smashed coconuts which is entusiastically welcomed by resident monkeys but less so by the cleaning crews the next day.
Smashing the coconut

This squirrel has been to Batu Caves a number of times and it certainly worth a visit if you are ever in Kuala Lumpur. However, this squirrel is also smart enough not to be there in the mad crush of 1.3 million people in the equatorial heat and humidity.

That is all for now from this squirrel, reporting from a safe and comfortable distance from the Batu Caves.

The Young Squirrel Chant


The Malay culture is a rich and romantic one which has interwoven into its fabric, threads of Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Arabic and even Western cultures due to Malaysia’s position along the ancient sea routes of trade.

A personal favorite of mine is an art form called “Dikir Barat” which is widely practiced in the state of Kelantan. It is widely believed to have been introduced to Kelantan from adjacent southern Thailand. “Dikir” means a prayer or a ritual while “Barat” means west. Indeed Dikir Barat is a style of singing which is accompanied by an almost ritualistic chanting and southern Thailand lies to the west of Kelantan.

I even joined a club to learn how to sing Dikir Barat when I was in school but alas, that was many moons ago and I am no longer able to remember enough to sing it. However, I thought you might like to hear how this art form sounds like.

I have chosen a song called “Anak Tupai” which might not surprise you means, “Young Squirrel”. The song is about a young squirrel with a bushy tail and empty stomach wandering about in search of food and enjoys the fruits from people’s orchards. The people set a trap for it and eventually poison it. The squirrel’s parents go looking for it and find it dead. Not a happy ending for the squirrel I fear but the song does talk about how man doesn’t spare each other from violence so therefore, it was too much to hope that they would spare that one squirrel.

Enjoy the two video versions of the song. I should also mention that this is not in the formal Malay language but the colloquial dialect of the Kelantan state.

The Princess of Gunung Ledang



The Malay culture has many interesting stories that have been handed down over the centuries. Some of them are based on historical events and others are more in the form of legends. Sadly, many of these tales are not well known to the average modern city dwelling Malaysian and are perhaps today found only in the libraries of academicians and in the memories of some elders in the remote villages.

However, there are still several enduring legends which are still relatively well known. One of them is the legend of the Princess of Mount Ophir or as she is known in Malay, “Puteri Gunung Ledang”. Puteri means “princess” and Gunung Ledang is the Malay name for Mount Ophir. The legend was recently made into a movie and a musical which has greatly helped to keep its magic alive in the people’s consciousness.

The legend dates back to the 15th Century at the height of power and prosperity of the Kingdom of Melaka. The Kingdom had grown rich and strong by being an important port of call for trading vessels plying the profitable marine trade route between India and China. In recognition of the power and importance of the kingdom, Sultan Mansur Shah received from China a princess bride and he had another princess bride too from a nearby Kingdom in what is now the island of Java.

Yet this did not satisfy the growing ego of the Sultan and his desire for recognition. Since he considered himself superior to the surrounding kings and sultans, he wanted a queen that no other ordinary king or sultan could possess. To the horror of his advisors, he declared that he wanted to marry the Princess of Mount Ophir.

Now there are many stories about the origin of this Princess and many of them ascribe to her mystical powers and claim her to be more than a mortal being. She lived on the top of the tallest mountain (Mount Ophir) in the south of the Malay Peninsula. It is said that her court consisted only of women that could appear and disappear with the mists on the mountain top and that could become pregnant by the power of the wind that blows there. It is also said that she was protected by tigers which were actually jungle peoples with the power of transformation. The Sultan believed that he had been chosen by God to be the sultan and having the Princess of Mount Ophir as his queen would give legitimacy to his claim of divine appointment.

He called on his most trusted warrior, Hang Tuah, who is a legendary warrior in his own right, and sent him on the mission to secure the princess’ hand in marriage for the Sultan. Hang Tuah and his men went up the mysterious mountain and after some adventure, found the Princess and her court and conveyed the Sultan’s desire for marriage.

The legend tells of how the Princess really does not want to marry Sultan Mansur but in recognition of his power decided not to embarrass him by saying no. Instead, she tells Hang Tuah and his men to tell the Sultan that he must first provide a suitable dowry. She requested the following; a bridge of gold and silver from the foothills of Melaka to the top of Mount Ophir, seven trays full of the hearts of mosquitoes, seven trays full of the hearts of mites, a bowl of water wrung from dried areca nuts, a bowl of tears from virgins, a cup of the Sultan’s blood and a bowl of the blood of the Sultan’s baby son.

When Hang Tuah heard this, he knew immediately that these conditions would never be fulfilled and felt that he had failed the Sultan. Rather than face the Sultan in disgrace, he threw his magical keris (curved dagger) Taming Sari into the Duyung River and vowed never to return to Melaka unless the keris floated to the surface. With that, some stories say that the mighty warrior that had kept Melaka safe from her enemies, faded into the mists of time.

Nevertheless, the Princess’ dowry demands are delivered to the Sultan. The legend says that the Sultan was so driven with his desire to claim the Princess’ hand, he actually sets about fulfilling the dowry conditions. He actually builds the golden bridge and collects all those wonderful items. However, when it come to collecting a bowl of blood from his infant son, the Sultan realises the baby would die in the process and finally realises that he is not able to make that sacrifice.

The legend tells how this mad endeavour had bankrupted the Kingdom. The Sultan himself was a spent man and withdrew himself more and more from the real world. In this manner, the mighty Kingdom of Melaka was fatally weakened and finally fell when Hang Tuah was not there to defend it when the Portugese fleet attacked in 1511.

Although this legend may sound fantastical to the modern listener, it is actually hard to tell myth from truth as it is so well woven with historical events and actual physical locations. Elements of the story are also found within the texts of serious historical records written by the conquering Portugese and even the Arab and Chinese traders. Believers will tell you that final definitive proof is still available in the form of the remains of the golden bridge now hidden by the jungle and Hang Tuah’s keris lying at the bottom of a dark pool of water on the Duyung River. Squirrel’s Believe it or Nuts.