A JOURNALISM ILLUSTRATED FEATURE

REWRITING RITES
A feature about how coming of age isn’t just about growing up, wedding traditions may be left at the altar, birth rituals are seen as old wives’ tales and how funerals aren’t kicking the bucket yet.
BY CALEB NG, CHUANG BING HAN, SITI ROZIANTI & TAN ZI JIE SUPERVISED BY ANDREW DUFFY & TAY KAY CHIN

EDITORIAL
Apart from death and taxes, the only certainty in life is change. And the biggest changes in life come when we transit from boy to man, single to married, child to parent, and life to death. These changes are so shrouded with uncertainty and fear that it can stop us in our tracks, not daring to move forward. But we, the human race, cannot not move forward. A world where people would not grow up, commit to marriage, or father children is unimaginable. (Though death, of course, is the one un-negotiable.) So we come up with formulas and guides and rules. If you would just follow these steps, everyone will agree that you have moved on to the next stage. No one will dare doubt that you have. Not even yourself. These, are the rites of passage. The rituals that you have to do to go through the passages in life. They mark and guard the gateways in life. If you have not gone through them, you have not made the transition and you remain an outsider. Or if you have, attaboy. You have passed, made it, and earned your mark. Rites of passage have become so ingrained into our society that we usually do not stop to think about them. But things are changing. Especially for us in Singapore. This generation, the 20- and 30-somethings, is taken up by a new wave of individualism, say sociologists. We are not selfish. We just think about ourselves more. And we think about what we want for ourselves. And we do not like to follow rules and dogmas. Which is a problem when rites of passage are about formulas, guides and rules. So we are rethinking whether these rituals are for us. What we do not understand or identify with, we reject. Many rituals that our parents held as dear, we have cast aside. We pride ourselves on being different. To be like our parents, or worse, their parents, is unthinkable. But if we understood what rites of passage really are, we will find that no matter how radically we change our rituals, they do the same things. And these changes in form, they mean something. They show that something has changed in our society. So for us, we need to know and understand what rites of passage are. We need to soak in the significance of them. We need to know why others did what they did. And what this means for us as a society. And perhaps, along the way, we can understand why we do what we do better.
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Copyright belongs to Caleb Ng, Chuang Bing Han, Siti Rozianti & Tan Zi Jie. Uncredited photos by Tan Zi Jie. Printed in Singapore in April 2011. All rights reserved. No part of these pages, either text or images, may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopied, recorded or otherwise, without prior permission of the copyright owners.

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TURNING POINT
A rite of passage is a ritual that marks the passage from one social status to another. The tea ceremony is a crucial part of the Chinese wedding. The bride and groom’s new status as a couple is acknowledged by their family when they offer cups of tea to their elders. The couple kneels in front of the groom’s grandmother to serve her tea and receive her blessings in the form of a pair of hongbaos. This is a sign of the couple’s respect for the elder. After all the family elders have been offered tea, the newlyweds are now seen as a couple. They then sit and hand out red packets of their own after receiving tea offered by their younger relatives, who will address them in their new capacity. 4

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Can the rites of our parents’ generation survive us?
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RITES OF PASSAGE
They are everywhere, yet are all but invisible. The people going through these rituals seldom think about why they have them except that it is imperative that they do Rites of passage show what is vital to society.
hree weeks before she said “I do” to the love of her life, Marie Chan, 28, locked lips with a restaurant hostess, wielded a wand crowned with a five inch plastic penis, and watched a man strip down to his underwear — all while wearing a black corset and white tutu skirt. It was not a raunchy night out by a painted woman, but a well planned hen night organised by her girlfriends, more than 10 in all, complete with her fiancé’s blessings. Her hen night was a special event for Marie, and not just because of the male stripper her friends engaged for her. She could not imagine getting married without having a hen night. It would have meant skimping on the pre-wedding celebration with friends who have been through thick and thin with her. “The people who are there to celebrate your hen night with you are those who really care. They are happy for you, happy that you’re getting married,” she said. “Those who aren’t there, who didn’t bother, they aren’t my true friends.” Having a cosy celebration with her

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friends in a more intimate setting of a restaurant in town made her wedding, where guests at the banquet numbered to more than 300, feel more complete. The hen night is one of the new rites of passage — which mark a significant change in life — that Singapore has seen recently. Rites of passage here are changing; traditional rites are giving way to newer and more modern ones. Rites of passage show what is vital to society. Like signposts, they indicate what people see as important when they move into their new phase in life. So when these signposts shift, it signifies that what is important to people has changed. Take the hen and stag nights for example. These pre-wedding parties are gaining popularity because many brides- and grooms-to-be see their friends as important to the wedding. While weddings used to be family-centric, couples now want a separate celebration with their close friends too. These affairs need not be sordid; the only requirement is good company. Jacqueline

Koh, 29, went for a baking class with five of her girlfriends for her hen party last December. Her girlfriends pitched in to help the administrative executive, who seldom cooks and has never baked, whip up a tart and two sponge cakes from scratch. A hen party has become a custom for the gang of six. Each member who is getting hitched must be given one. So far, they have arranged four and will have another two when the remaining two marry. “It’s a girls’ time out,” Jacqueline said. “To really spend time with your good friends and to thank them for helping you out on your wedding.”

DEFINING IT RITE
The term rites of passage, first coined in 1908

by French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, describes the ceremonial rituals that people go through as they move from one social status to another, such as from boy to man, or single lady to married woman. They mark the major transitions in life, such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. Van Gennep broke down these rites into three phases — the separation, transition, and reincorporation phases. He described going through rites of passage as moving out of one room into another through a door. You leave the first room behind (separation), cross the door threshold (transition), and move into the next room (reincorporation). National Service gives a good example. Young male Singaporeans are separated from the civilian community when they are conscripted and have their heads shaved.

A CLOSE SHAVE: 19-year-old Glenn Ong has his hair shaved by his close friends as he prepares to enter National Service. He chose them over the army barber as he wanted to bring the well wishes of his friends with him as he begins the next phase of life.

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This represents stripping off of their previous identities. During the first nine weeks of basic military training, the trainees are in the transition, or liminal, stage. They are recruits, neither civilians nor proper soldiers. Their crew cut is a reflection of their status. At the end of their training, the recruits embark on a 24 kilometre route march which ends at the floating platform at Marina Bay. There, they are presented to their family and friends and army officers. This ceremony, better known as the Passing Out Parade, is where the recruits take on their new identities and rejoin society as fullyfledged soldiers. After the parade, they are allowed to start growing out their hair a little, an immense privilege to them. These rituals are vital for those going through transition, said sociologist Geoffrey Benjamin. They act as a guide for and proof of the transition. Also, people need rites of passage because the transitions are often traumatising and uncertain, he said.

JUST THE RITE MAGIC
Transitions often leave people in a “questionable and rather fearful psychological state”, said Dr Benjamin, who studied rituals of the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of Peninsula Malaysia. Rites of passage act as a guide, allowing them to follow an established way of handling this transition. This provides a sense of certainty and reduces the amount of distress they experience, he said. “These transitions are always disruptive, one way or the other. Disruptive and dangerous, therefore they are heavily ritualised,” said the associate professor. Childbirth is one such disruptive transition. Traditional Chinese confinement rules for the first month after childbirth are meant to help mothers navigate their way back to health and rejoin society. The rules include not bathing for the entire month, wearing long sleeved shirts and pants, and not drinking plain water. First-time mother Marie Ong, 32, did not adhere to some of the confinement rules at the start. She was skeptical of some of the beliefs, such as ‘wind’ going into the body.

People need rites of passage because the transitions are often traumatising and uncertain.

BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY: After giving birth, Marie Ong did not bathe for a whole month. She believes in the confinement tradition that bathing after childbirth would weaken her body. She only wiped her body and dry shampooed her hair with powder. Marie followed confinement customs as much as possible as she was afraid she would suffer from rheumatism otherwise. She drank pig’s stomach soup, a traditional confinement food, regularly. 11

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“...These highly structured activities help them through a situation that is so uncertain.”
- Dr Geoffrey Benjamin

“I thought that some of them sounded extreme. I would think, ‘Are you sure that I can’t do this, are you sure that I can’t do that?’” she said. So she brought her five-day-old daughter Bridgette out to the paediatrician in an airconditioned shopping mall. Over the next two days, she had the chills, stomach pains, and felt bloated. This, she said, was because she violated the confinement rules. After that incident, she followed the list of confinement dos and don’ts strictly because she was afraid of further repercussions. She did not bathe for an entire month, and kept to a strict diet, like having red date tea instead of plain water, and eating only specially prepared food with lots of ginger, wine and protein.

These food are believed to dispel ‘wind’, purify blood, and improve circulation. Marie had also heard of stories of women, including her mother, who suffer from rheumatism and other health problems, when they did not obey the rules. “I really really don’t want to be like that. I’m very afraid,” the senior account manager said. The rules must be there “for a reason,” so following them is only right, she said. And the reason could be psychological rather than physical — it just feels better to follow a prescribed set of steps. Sometimes, these practices do not make any sense and may not be true, said Dr Benjamin. But they provide an outlet for the new mothers to “pour themselves into” to cope with the stress and anxiety. “It could be meaningless, but these highly

structured activities help them through a situation that is so uncertain,” he said. “In a sense, that’s magic.”

EARN YOUR RITE
Rites of passage also serve another function — to qualify those who go through them. It separates those who dare to from those who do not. They act as gatekeepers to keep out those who refuse to pay the price. Only the willing who prove themselves may pass. The Chinese wedding ‘gatecrashing’ is one such rite. Among the Chinese, gatecrashing is the rite where the groom and his xiong-dis — a gang of his closest male friends — take the bride from

her home. He has to earn his way through by contending with the bride’s entourage of jie-meis — the bride’s counterparts to the xiong-dis. They guard the door and demand a hefty red packet, usually in the hundreds, in exchange for entrance. The groom and his xiong-dis also have to perform a series of forfeits — such as eating wasabi or donning female underwear. The gatecrashing rite is done to challenge the groom’s sincerity and love for the bride, said Mr David Tong, founder of a fengshui consultancy which specialises in choosing wedding dates and customs. Overcoming these challenges shows that the groom is willing to take on anything to prove his worth as the bride’s husband. Newlywed Yvette Yeo, 30, had insisted her husband go through the ‘gatecrashing’ during their wedding last November. Her husband, Christopher Shie, was a little reluctant because he did not want to look like a fool. But it was a must-have for Yvette. “Somehow I think it’s quite integral. If not it won’t feel like a proper wedding,” she said. “It’s a tradition of sorts, so he has to go through it.” Her jie-meis made Christopher and his band of 10 xiong-dis croon a ballad from the void deck of the Yvette’s flat to declare his love for her. And they had to be loud enough for her to hear it from her apartment on the 11th floor. Dr Ivy Lau, an assistant professor of psychology at the Singapore Management University (SMU) explained: “In order to be accepted and be able to affiliate with a group, sometimes people do need to do something to show their willingness and their qualifications.”

“In order to be accepted and be able to affiliate with a group, sometimes people do need to do something to show their willingness and their qualifications. “
- Dr Ivy Lau

MAKING THE RITE CHANGES
Some of these rites are losing popularity among some young people today. They do not relate with them, and do not want to comply just for sake of it. What was meaningful in the past may not be so today. Jo’an Ow, 25, did not have the gatecrashing or the tea ceremony when she got married last April. These two ceremonies are often seen as crucial in a Chinese wedding. Traditionally, the tea ceremony, where the newlyweds kneel and serve tea, is a sign of respect to the elders and a welcoming of the new spouse into the family. But Jo’an’s parents did not want the ceremonies. “My mum said it is like kowtowing for
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DARE TO DANCE: In order to get pass the jie-meis to his bride, Christopher Shie had to don a green bikini and dance to the tune of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. 12

PHOTO COURTESY OF YVETTE YEO

“People who feel obligated to do stuff end up usually not feeling happy.”
- Dr Angelique Chan

money,” said Jo’an. Instead she, her husband Guillaume Brady, and her parents prayed together. The Christian family held hands, and Jo’an’s father prayed for the newlyweds while Guillaume prayed for the older couple. They preferred to have the prayers, which they identified with. In the Bible, Rebekah’s family blessed her with prayers when she got married to Isaac. “It was like a handing-over ceremony, with God as the witness,” Jo’an said. While the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and the Christian prayers may seem very different, their purpose remains the same: to mark the handing over of the daughter to her husband and to welcome him into the family. To Jo’an and Guillaume, their Christian faith resonates with them more than the Chinese traditions. Jo’an and Guillaume are not the only ones preferring to have rituals that they identify with, even if it is different from what is usually done in their community. This is because of a new wave of individuality in Singapore society, sociologists say. This kind of individual expression is prevalent in the West, said NUS sociologist Gavin Jones. And it is gathering momentum here, especially for weddings. “People just want to get away from a standardised wedding,” said Dr Jones. “They make their wedding meaningful for themselves.” The focus on themselves and what they want is not necessarily because they are more selfish, said NUS associate professor Angelique Chan, who specialises in sociology of the life course. A higher education allows people to know that they have options other than the traditional rituals, and people who make choices that they want generally make for happier people, she said. “People who feel obligated to do stuff end up usually not feeling happy,” said Dr Chan, who is an expert on social demography.

While Chinese weddings are usually steeped in cultural customs, Jo’an replaced the tea ceremony and gatecrashing with a prayer session when she got married. It showed that she values her religious beliefs over cultural ones. Rites of passage also reflect what is feared, since they are meant to guide people through the uncertainty of transiting to the next phase of life. An example are the funeral rites in Singapore. They have barely changed in the last

30 years, said funeral directors. Funeral rites have not changed because the fear of what comes after death does not go away. And the family fear not doing enough for the deceased, said Mr Hoo Hung Chye, 32, funeral director of Singapore Funeral Services. “After all, nobody has been to the afterlife and came back,” he said. “So when the elders of the family, the religious leaders, or an experienced person in the industry say this or that ritual is needed,

they’ll agree to it. It becomes a ‘let’s follow because of fear’.” Many worry that if they miss out on a ritual, the deceased will not be able to move on in the afterlife, he said. The unchanging funeral rites show this fear still persists, even in modern Singapore. As long as transitions — be it coming of age, wedding, birth or death — are shrouded in uncertainty, people will turn to rites of passage for help and assurance, in whatever forms they identify with.

“After all, nobody has been to the afterlife and came back.”
- Mr Hoo Hung Chye, funeral director, Singapore Funeral Services

DRAWING THE RITE CONCLUSIONS
The presence and form of rites of passage say a lot about what society values and fears. With Jo’an, she changed certain parts of her wedding to reflect what she values.
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MOVING ON: Traditional Chinese believe that they can enjoy luxury items like sports cars, even in the afterlife. Family members burn paper replicas of items that the deceased might need.

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BOYS TO MEN?
National Service (NS) is one way of insisting that males come of age, said sociologists. The two-year compulsory stint in Singapore’s armed forces separates the young male from his community, and enforces a form of discipline through its training. It also places the responsibility of defending the nation on their shoulders. But there is no guarantee that it will work every time. “The trajectory is never linear,” said sociologist Ho Kong Chong, an associate professor at NUS. “Just because you serve NS, it doesn’t make you hit the other markers of adulthood.” Also, being able to go home on the weekend seems to dilute its effect. “Immediately after you’re inducted, you’re not allowed to go home for two weeks,” said sociologist Geoffrey Benjamin, an associate professor at NTU. “But after that, you go home and let your mother wash your clothes.”

STRIKING OUT ON HIS OWN: 19-year-old Melvin Soon (right) separates from his father David (left) once they reach Basic Military Training School 1 at Pulau Tekong. He was not allowed to go home for two weeks as part of the standard National Service (NS) training programme. Both Melvin’s parents believe that NS will be a good learning experience for him, but they do not think he will become independent overnight.

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RATEDADULT
In most tribes, coming of age is a monumental affair. They have elaborate rituals, from proving their hunting skills to sticking reeds down their throats. In Singapore’s urban tribe, we too have our own coming of age rituals, and they are not so different from the tribal ones

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very April, Taiwan’s aboriginal Bunan tribe holds the mala-ta-ngia, or literally shoot the ear, festival. The entire village gathers solemnly to watch the men shoot the ears of deer, mountain goats, and boars hung up on wooden frames. It is their largest and most important ceremony of the year — their coming of age ritual for the boys. They ask their gods for success on hunts and to make sure their sons become great hunters. The boys must shoot the ears in order — first the deer’s, followed by the boar’s, and then the goat’s. If they do not, it is believed that they will be afraid of boars when they hunt or doomed to walk treacherous paths in life like the mountain goat. Those who can hit the deer ears are considered especially talented hunters because of its small size. The mala-ta-ngia festival ensures that the boys from the Bunan tribe are capable of bringing home the bacon. To them, only those who are contributing hunters can be considered adults. But not all tribes use hunting skills as a benchmark for adulthood. The Matausa tribe in Papua New Guinea believes that a boy needs to be separated from his mother to become a man. The Matausa males must go through blood initiation in order to be recognized as real men, cleansed of female ‘contamination’. They insert canes down their throats to induce vomiting, poke sharp reeds up their noses and stab their tongues repeatedly with arrows to release blood. These are to cleanse their bodies of any ‘unclean blood’ that is left

in them by their mothers during birth. Those who do not go through this traditional rite of passage have failed to cut ties with their mother and are social outcasts, undesirable to women and perceived as weak by other men. Only when they are independent of their mothers have they come of age.

MALA-TA-NGIA AND BLOOD INITIATION IN SINGAPORE
Coming of age is the transition when an adolescent becomes an adult. Although the Bunan and Matausa initiation rites may seem tribal and primitive, Singapore society has rites that are very similar. Being successful hunters has become being employed, while removing the ‘unclean blood’ from our mothers has become setting up our own homes. This is because society still values a contributing and independent person, sociologists say. Getting a job and setting up a home are two major markers of adulthood, said sociologist Ho Kong Chong, who specialises in sociology of youth. “If these major markers of adulthood are not being hit, then there can be no transition,” said Dr Ho, an associate professor at NUS. Missing out on either means the person will not be seen as an adult. Philip Koh, 58, does not see his 27-yearold daughter Daphne as an adult, though she has been working for three years and contributes money to the family every month.

NOT A CHILD, NOT YET AN ADULT: Victoria Lim (left) wants to move out of her childhood home, which she shares with her mother and youngest sister (right), along with four other family members. While she holds a full-time job and pays most of her bills, she feels she is not fully an adult. Living with her parents means she still has to abide by their rules, even at 25 years old.

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He said that she has been mature and responsible since young and he relies on her when he needs help. But to him, she has not crossed the line completely, simply ”because she’s still living in his house, eating the food that he cooks”. To the father of four, adults must be totally independent, not relying on their parents for anything.

“If being an adult means having your own house, then some can never be adults, since it’s so hard to get a house in Singapore.”
- Sia Beng Yi, 26

ONE MARKER REJECTED
But in Singapore today, it is not easy to hit the marker of getting your own place. The high cost of housing and laws combine to make it almost impossible to move out from the parents’ place until marriage or before the age of 35. Twenty-five-year-old Victoria Lim holds a full-time job as an accounts coordinator in a public relations agency. Getting her own place is very important to her, because it represents total independence. And if she could, she would have. “But in Singapore it’s not possible,” said the psychology graduate, who lives with her parents, grandmother, three younger siblings and two dogs. With marriage not yet on the cards, housing laws prevent her from buying a Housing & Development Board flat. And with her monthly income, slightly over $2,000, she cannot afford private housing. Unable to move out of their parent’s place, young people are rejecting it as a marker of adulthood. Two-thirds of the 30 people, in their 20s and 30s, surveyed say getting your own place is no longer a realistic gauge of adulthood, because it is too far out of reach. “Being independent in every aspect is

important for adulthood, but just not having your own house,” said Christabel Cai, 25, who started working as a lawyer last year. “Housing is too expensive nowadays to buy one at the drop of a hat.” “If being an adult means having your own house, then some can never be adults, since it’s so hard to get a house in Singapore” said pharmacist Sia Beng Yi, 26. Instead, they have other ways to prove that they are self-reliant and can live without their parents, even though they cannot leave the nest.

I AM ADULT, INDEPENDENT IS MY MIDDLE NAME
Some do that by showing that they are able to plan for their lives and take care of themselves without their parents. Daphne had to observe a curfew set by her parents, and be home before sunset till she was 21, and rarely spent the night away home. When the staff nurse first went on a holiday to Tioman with a friend at the age of 24, it marked a coming of age for her. She had had late nights out before, but this was different: she decided what to do, where to go, and when to go back to the hotel for four days straight. She had to plan out the whole trip and was responsible for everything. Her safety net was no longer there. “If anything happened while we were overseas, we had to settle it. I learnt to handle things in Singapore, but my parents were always just a phone’s call away. In Tioman, they were not,” she said. For some, they took a step further and took care of others. Adeline Hee, 26, helped a group of nine

FAST FORWARD: Some youths are so eager to become adults, they resort to sneaking into clubs so they can party like them. 20

overseas students in her first year at the University of Tasmania six years ago. They were together in the Overseas Christian Fellowship. They approached her for help when they did not know how to rent an apartment because she was a couple of years older than them. She also made sure they did not cut classes, had their meals regularly and did not go partying too often. Mothering others on top of taking care of herself while away from home was a big deal for her. It was then that she feels that she became an adult. “When I can look after myself and other people, my role (in society) started to change from a child to an adult,” she said. “Not only am I not depending on my parents, but others are depending on me. I became aware of what I’m supposed to do, and what I can do.” While Adeline felt that taking care of others showed that she was not dependent on her parents, others felt independence meant being able to do anything they wanted, especially those they were not allowed to. Leo (not his real name), 26, started frequenting nightclubs and their hostesses when he was 14. Not long later, he started using drugs like ketamine and ecstasy. He felt that was what only adults were allowed to do, not kids. These experiences helped him leave the rest of his peers behind and cross over to adulthood. “You’re more exposed and they are just enclosed in their lives,” he said. “You see life on the other side and you feel good about it.” A party lifestyle also made Chris (not his real name), 17, feel more mature. He can drink and pick up girls at the clubs, something he was supposed to be too young to be able to handle. From secondary one, he had been hearing stories of his seniors’ ‘conquests’ every weekend. Being able to handle himself at the clubs emboldened him when it came to alcohol and girls. He believes that his partying has brought him across the threshold into adulthood. “Doing such things is alluring and at the same time fearful. After the first time, it is still alluring. But the fear is lost,” he said. “It was the door to the world.”

YOU CAN’T CONSIDER YOURSELF AN ADULT UNTIL YOU...
People have different ideas on what adulthood means, other than having your own place. Here’s what they say. “...HAVE RIPPED OUT YOUR HAIR WHILE FILLING UP A TAX RETURNS FORM.”
- Eunice Tan, 24

“...HEAR THE ‘BEEP’ INSTEAD OF THE ‘BEEP BEEP’ WHEN YOU TAP YOUR EZ-LINK CARD ON THE BUS.”
- Candice Teo, 19

“...HAVE ENTERED THE RAT RACE.”
- Nuranggraini Md Yusuf, 24

“...HAVE LIVED ON YOUR OWN FOR AT LEAST SIX MONTHS.”
- Marcus Yong, 23

“...STOP ASKING YOUR PARENTS FOR MONEY.”
- Grace Tng, 27

“...HAVE WATCHED AN ADULT FILM (BUT I HAVEN’T DONE SO YET).”
- Jolene Ho, 22

“...HAVE YOUNGSTERS LOOKING UP TO YOU AS A MENTOR AND FELLOW ADULTS RECOGNISING YOU AS A POSITIVE INFLUENCE TO SOCIETY.”
- John Huang, 26

“...HAVE GIVEN YOUR PARENTS THEIR FIRST ALLOWANCE.”
- Hilary Ng, 29

“...HAVE TRIED TO UNDERSTAND HDB REGULATIONS WHEN PURCHASING A FLAT.”
- Theresa Thia, 25

“...HEAR SOMEONE CALL YOU ‘UNCLE’.”
- Weston Woo, 42

“...NO LONGER NEED TO REPORT EVERY MOVE TO YOUR PARENTS AND CAN STAY OUT AS LATE AS YOU WANT.”
- Josephine Chan, 25

“...HAVE STARTED BALDING.”
- Chua Wei Ye, 34 21

Some couples are following traditions, but if they could have it their way, they would not. After the gatecrashing ceremony, Teng Lie and his bride, Winnie Ng, both 27, arrive early at his family home to pay respects and serve tea to his parents at 6am. The couple was also followed by an entourage of friends and relatives. A pair of ‘dragon and phoenix’ candles (龙 凤烛), part of the bride’s dowry, was lit in the middle of Teng Lie’s living room. According to Chinese custom, these candles must remain lit the entire day. It is considered inauspicious if the flame is extinguished. The candles serve as a way to announce the matrimony to the couple’s ancestors. But if given a choice, Winnie will prefer not to do any of them, including the tea ceremony, as she finds them too troublesome.

TRADITIONS BURNING OUT

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“It was moments like this, it was the interaction with the guests that mattered a lot to us.”
- AMINAH BTE ABDUL LATIF, 27

FORBIDDEN SMILE
Aminah bte Abdul Latif chose not to have the traditional dais at her wedding to Iqbal bin Mohamed in February this year, so she could mingle with her guests. Traditionally, Malay couples are raja sehari — royalty for the day. Enthroned on the dais, known as the pelamin, they are elevated above and away from their guests for the entire day. They are also not allowed to mix with their guests, much less touch them. But Aminah and Iqbal chose not to have the pelamin. “We wanted a more personal touch for the wedding,” they said. “We wanted to move around, laugh, talk and catch up with long-lost friends.” The couple chose to be among their guests, to hug and laugh with them, over observing the traditional Malay customs. “It’s the interaction with the guests that mattered to us,” said Aminah. Looking back, this made her big day feel just right. “The whole wedding - when I watched the video, it totally reflected our personalities. There was so much laughter.” “It was perfect.”

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TYING THE KNOT RIGHT
When one thinks of Chinese weddings, the dinner banquet in a hotel function room usually comes to mind. But more people are choosing to have a lunch reception instead. This is just one way weddings in Singapore are changing to suit the couple’s tastes

But Han Chong has not intention to do that. “Spiritually, God or lawfully, the ROM; whatever is needed, we’ve already done. So I think we’ve fulfilled most of the required. I don’t think I owe anybody else a wedding banquet,” Han Chong said. They feel married without the trappings of a huge wedding and to them, that is enough. That was their ideal wedding day. But for others, the dinner is still a necessary part of the wedding ceremony. However, with everybody doing it the same way, things become rote, which makes it just another wedding. That is, not special. And so, couples are adding on to what they see as the “standard package” for their wedding day.

They want to make their own marks and they have a common goal: To stand out from the more than 20,000 weddings held every year.

RIDING ON A WAVE OF INDIVIDUALISM
The trend of couples personalising their weddings more could be due to an “increasing individualism” that is being expressed in society, said sociologist Gavin Jones. People want to get away from a typical wedding, said the NUS professor. They want to personalise their weddings, and make it meaningful to themselves. This runs counter to the average Singaporean wedding, especially the Chinese

“I don’t think I owe anybody else a wedding banquet.”
- Kang Han Chong, 29

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nstead of the traditional dinner, newlyweds Alvin Pang and Jasmin Phua decided to have a wedding lunch reception. The decision met with some resistance from their parents who preferred the celebratory mood of a dinner. Even so, they went ahead. “We didn’t agree with them,” said Alvin Pang, 33. “We didn’t want the ceremony to drag on.” With the evening free, the couple invited 15 of their closest friends up to the bridal suite for a night of party games and reflections over beer, champagne and pizza. “That was really more meaningful and it’s an even greater experience for us and for our close friends, it’s a very nice sharing session,” he said. The couple was happier ending the day surrounded by friends instead of the crowd of acquaintances at a wedding dinner.

THE WORLD MUST KNOW
Once a couple signs the marriage certificate, legally they are married. But usually, the wedding process does not seem complete without the grand announcement ritual in the form of a banquet. When it is left out, people seem to still expect it to happen. Such is the case with Kang Han Chong and Ang Lili. The couple declared their vows at a small ceremony and lunch attended by 28 people in July 2008. But to this day, relatives are still asking when they are going to have a wedding banquet.

“We didn’t want the ceremony to drag on.”
- Alvin Pang, 33

PHOTO COURTESY OF KANG HAN CHONG

ALL THAT MATTERS: Just 28 guests and their well-wishes are all that Kang Han Chong and Ang Lili needed at their wedding as they solemnised their marriage at a friend’s photo studio. 27

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ones. “If you go back a long way in Chinese society, you don’t see much changing,” he said. “(We) are probably seeing a new wave of individualism,” he said. “It’s controversial, but I think that’s probably the case.”

“If people don’t enjoy themselves, or it’s not memorable, then it just doesn’t reflect well on you.”
- Gracia Chiang, 25

NOT A SUCCESS UNLESS IT’S MEMORABLE
For Gracia Chiang, it was not enough to just be different; she also wanted people to talk about her wedding. So in front of their guests in the ballroom of Fullerton Hotel, she and her husband, Rufus Chan, waltzed to ‘Can I Have This Dance’ from the popular movie High School Musical 3. While common in Western weddings, the idea of a couple’s first dance does not exist in a Chinese one. But Rufus and Gracia did just that to stand out. They feel that weddings now tend to compete with one another. “Our generation tends to be a little more

showy, we have a point to prove also,” said Gracia. The point being a successful wedding is an unforgettable one. Gracia felt that it was, at the end of the day, still an event. As the bride, she had to take pride in planning for the wedding. “If people don’t enjoy themselves or it’s not memorable, then it just doesn’t really reflect that well on you,” she explained. And that is where the waltz comes in. It was an extravagant way of making their wedding unforgettable. The dance was not just about standing out though. The couple also felt that it is a symbol of their relationship. In dancing, “as you move together and work together, you learn how to be in sync with one another.” And with practice, they will only get better and better. That’s where the Rufus and Gracia saw a parallel between dance, dating and being married. “Relationship is like a dance, the

more you work at it, the more beautiful it becomes,” 25-year-old Gracia said. The waltz added more meaning to their wedding, thus making it extra-special. More than just an announcement to the world, the wedding was a reflection of the couple. “There’s a need to showcase what our lives have been, what our personalities are like,” Rufus said.

ONE UP OVER THE REST
However, the additional flourish does not necessarily have to resonate with the couple; they could be there simply to catch the eye. Karen Ang had a popcorn machine and candy floss machine when she exchanged her vows in 2005. The two seemed like mechanical intruders standing under the towering steeples of the St Andrew’s Cathedral. According to the 35-year-old homemaker, the machines had no special significance for her and her husband. It was just their way of standing out.

“My friend didn’t have a popcorn machine,” she said. “And I have it.” But, the presence of the machines was significant; they helped make Karen’s wedding memorable. And to Karen, a memorable wedding is the hallmark of a perfect one. “It became a strive for perfection, wanting it to be as good as possible. And in that whole perfection you need to be unique as well,” she said. “Because it can’t be perfect if it’s the same as someone else’s perfect.”

TIME TO GET IT ON(LINE)
Peter Li and Han Bing Ling also wanted their wedding to be memorable. They wanted people to know that they are married. And it was not enough to just share that moment with the guests at the wedding ceremony. They also wanted it known online. Right after saying their vows, they had their laptop brought up to them, logged on to social networking site Facebook, and in a flourish of clicks, changed their relationship status from ‘In a relationship’ to ‘Married’. The act of changing their Facebook relationship status became an important ritual in their wedding ceremony. This is the current generation’s way of making things official, said 29-year-old Peter. It is not enough just to satisfy the legalities of getting married. “You’ve got to get with the times,” Peter, an IT teacher said. “For the younger generation, it might not be official until you’ve updated your Facebook status. It’s astounding how much weight they put around that Facebook status.” Another reason why the Internet was the ideal place for the couple to declare their nuptials: those who were unable to attend their wedding could still share in the moment online. “Facebook is available for the world to see. It gives a record, time stamp and what not, so it’s a little piece of eternity stuck on a social network,” he said.

“Because it can’t be perfect if it’s the same as someone else’s perfect.”
- Karen Ang, 35

WALTZING TO THE SAME TUNE: Rufus Chan and Gracia Chiang put on a surprise dance item for the guests at their wedding banquet. Dancing is the perfect metaphor for their relationship, they feel. When one person takes the lead, the other follows. They may step on each other’s toes at first, they said. But the more they work at it, the more in sync they become. 28

LEADING THE WAY
PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL GOH

Bride-to-be Jasmine Oei wants to challenge tradition at her upcoming wedding ceremony in May. She plans to wear a black
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“You try to be different, and if you can get away with it, you just feel smug about it.”
- Jasmine Oei, 25

dress to her wedding banquet. The colour black is taboo in Chinese culture, and most definitely unwelcomed in an auspicious occasion like a wedding. However, Jasmine is determined to have it as her colour theme. This meant negotiating with her parents on which traditions must be kept and which she could put aside. “Parents’ wishes need to be honoured and respected, but I mean, if you actually negotiate and try to reason out with them, I think both parties will be happier,” Jasmine said. She chose the colour black because she did not want her wedding to be like all the other weddings people go to. There’s nothing interesting, nothing new any more, she said. “I want to give people the wow factor. I’m wearing black, and my bridemaids, white,” Jasmine said. Even her gatecrashing is not spared an extreme makeover. Not satisfied with the usual haggling at the front of the house, she plans to send her husband-to-be, Seth Chan, around the island on her version of the Amazing Race. Pitstops will include the gym she works out in daily, and her workplace in Suntec City. “My Amazing Race is to get him to think about my daily life, and what’s important to me,” she said. “It’ll trigger memories.” Instead of a token gesture of resistance at the front gate, the gatecrashing ritual has added meaning since it will actually be about the memories they share as a couple. For Jasmine, it is about setting trends and making waves by doing something different. The traditional ways are boring and outdated. She wants people to think about making their own weddings unique. “These wedding traditions, are they really that important to keep? Or is it a day, even though you have to keep to certain customs, you can try to challenge and push the boundaries of others?” Jasmine said. “You definitely want your special day to be remembered. You try to be different, and if you get away with it, you just feel smug about it.”

BLACK IS THE NEW RED: Bride-to-be Jasmine Oei (middle) discusses the banquet table arrangement with fiance Seth Chan and the wedding coordinator at Shangri-La Hotel. She aims to set a new trend of having black as the primary colour at weddings even though it is considered inauspicious for the Chinese. On her big day, she will don a black wedding gown and have black-rimmed plates. If she has her way, even the tablecloths would be black.

PERSONALISATION IS TODAY’S TRENDING TOPIC
Wedding planners agree that there is an
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increasing trend of people personalising their weddings. “Couples want to have a good time,” said Ms Hannah Chong, who prefers to be known as a concept planner. The director of Heaven’s Gift, a wedding planning company, spoke about how guests want to make the right impression with their guests, giving the example of an Indian couple who had a Chinese lion dance at their wedding.

The couple wanted to showcase Singapore to their guests. “Everyone knows there’s lion dance in Singapore,” she said, explaining the couple’s rationale. Events like weddings become more personalised because of our desire to simultaneously belong as well as stand out, explained psychologist Ivy Lau. “We don’t want to be just a number, we want to be different,” she said. What this means is that the wedding

ritual will stay but people are trying, as much as they can, to do it their way. “People realised, if they are going to spend so much money, why can’t they spend it where it really reflects them,” Ms Chong said. “They have to fulfil their own dreams.” If the trend stays true, guests should have much more interesting things to look forward to when they attend weddings in the future.

“We don’t want to be just a number.”
- Dr Ivy Lau

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CONFINING CHANGE
Birth has always been considered dangerous, both for the mother and the newborn, but it is less so in modern Singapore. Still, today’s mothers are keeping to traditional birth rituals — such as confinement — although the meaning behind the practices is beginning to change

“The baby is only a month old and his immune system is not that strong. And his neck, he’s so fragile. Why can’t we wait until later?”
- Valerie Loy, 28

status as parents. But like Karen’s attitude towards confinement, the perception towards man yue is changing too. Today, with infant mortality rates much lower at 2.2 per 1000 births, the man yue celebration has become more about fulfilling an obligation towards the elders. Expectant mother Valerie Loy is concerned about exposing her vulnerable newborn to germs during man yue. “The baby is only a month old and his immune system is not that strong. And his neck, he’s so fragile. Why can’t we wait until later?” Valerie said. However, appeasing the family elders will have to come first. She will have a man yue after her baby is born in May because her family will “make noise” otherwise. At present, mothers’ reasons for going through confinement and holding a man yue is now different from what it used to be.

A TIME TO REST
The birth ritual begins with the confinement period. While it used to last for 40 days, most Chinese mothers observe it for only 28 days now. Bathing is not allowed as mothers should have minimal contact with water. Also, they need to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants

and are literally confined at home during that time. These are just three in the long list of confinement dos and don’ts, usually enforced by the older generation or a hired confinement nanny. These customs are believed to help a mother recover from labour. Wearing long sleeved shirts and pants help to prevent ‘wind’ from entering the body as ‘wind’ is believed to cause joint pains for women in their later years. Not leaving the house gives the mother time to rest. The presence of additional help around the house can also make things easier for the recovering mothers. It was for this reason that first-time mother Eunice Loh and her husband, Amos Loh, hired a confinement nanny. The nanny not only cared for the baby but also helped out with the housework, giving Eunice Loh time and the peace of mind to recover. “You have someone to take that load off you, and for that one month, it’s siesta, it’s Sabbath,” Amos said.

“For that one month, it’s siesta, it’s Sabbath.”
- Amos Loh, 32

(NOT) A TIME FOR TRADITION
However, while accepting the nanny’s help, this generation’s mothers are also rejecting

NO WRIGGLE ROOM: Just like a baby in a cot, parents feel boxed in by birth rituals. They cannot do as they wish because they have to observe a set of rules. Many parents still follow these traditions, but only out of respect for their elders.

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ne week after giving birth to her second child, Karen Ang broke the biggest rule of confinement by bringing her newborn, Nicholas, out for tea and an excursion to the Singapore Science Centre. Even so, they went ahead. After her initial experience with confinement, the 35-year-old homemaker saw no reason to go through it again. “I was less clueless about what to expect and I didn’t see how following the confinement rules had helped me the first time round,” she explained. Karen was referring to a post-natal custom practised by many Chinese mothers. They

go into a 28 day-long confinement period culminating in the man yue or full-month celebration, which is when the baby’s birth is officially announced. Man yue originates from a period when infant mortality rate used to be high. There was a worry that a newborn would not survive the first month. And so, confinement had two important roles; it ensured that mothers recovered well after delivery and secured the safety and survival of newborns. Following that, man yue not only celebrates the newborn’s official acceptance into a family. For the couple, it affirms their

NANNY DIARIES: Today’s confinement nannies have not only become mentors to new mothers, but also an extra pair of hands around the house.

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“If wind can go in, then technically, your blood can also come out right?””
- Eunice Loh, 32

confinement rules which are not grounded on logic. The no-bathing rule was one such example for Eunice Loh. “Rules like don’t bathe because you will introduce wind into your body and you will get rheumatism. I was like, on what basis, really? Who said so? To me it just didn’t make sense,” Eunice said. She took a bath the day after delivering her baby boy. Similarly, she did not believe that cold wind could enter her body through her pores if she used the air conditioning unit, which was also forbidden. “If wind can go in, then technically, your blood can also come out right?” the 32-yearold argued. Eunice’s sentiments was shared by Wan Rajemainuri. She was puzzled with a Malay custom which forbids one from sweeping the floor. “They say don’t sweep the floor when you just gave birth because you’ll end up losing a lot of hair. That one I don’t understand, I don’t see the link at all,” the English teacher said. Such non-adherence to traditional beliefs and change in mindset among today’s mothers is a result of higher education, said confinement nanny agency director Gilbert Tan. “Sometimes they will question these traditional beliefs (and) if there is no scientific evidence, they will not follow,” he explained. The magic in these rituals disappear when people start to question the science behind them, said Dr Geoffrey Benjamin. Although more are rejecting traditional confinement practices such as no bathing and staying indoors for a month, today’s mothers recognise a new relevance to confinement.

Valerie hired one five months before her baby is due. She sees the nanny as the best person to guide a mother during her first month. “I’m not experienced at all (and) she has a lot of experience. She teaches you how to handle your baby, gives you hands-on lessons like how to bathe your child and how to make sure your child is fine,” Valerie explained.

A TIME TO LEARN

For many new mothers now, confinement is more than just about giving them their time to rest. The 28 day-long confinement period doubles up as an intensive class from a nanny on caring for their newborns. “They actually pick up skills from the nanny, that’s why they engage one,” said Mr Tan, director of the confinement nanny agency GPLS.

With confinement undergoing its fair share of change, man yue is not spared either. For Marie Ong, her daughter Bridgette’s man yue was merely an excuse for the grandmothers to show off their new granddaughter in a large gathering. “Man yue is a social ceremony just like birthdays are social ceremonies. Life can be a lot simpler if we don’t have to do all this stuff,” Marie said. While she did admit to feeling proud of showing off her daughter to friends and family members, the thought of man yue as a celebration for Bridgette’s survival never did cross her mind. “Nowadays, in this country, with this kind of medical infrastructure, you expect the baby to live. It’s like, of course the baby would survive,” Marie said. On the other hand, Eunice Ong, 32, held a man yue for her first son out of respect for her mother-in-law’s firm belief in the tradition. “I think she would have been very angry otherwise. I mean, if I can do, I’ll do it. I won’t purposely go against it although it doesn’t mean anything to me,” Eunice said. And so, she prepared the required ceremonial foods: red eggs, ang ku kueh, ordered pastries and cakes from Bengawan Solo and invited over 60 people to her home one month after the birth of her first son. Hard boiled eggs are dyed an auspicious red colour to symbolise fertility and the renewal of life. Ang ku kueh are traditional Chinese cakes filled with green bean paste shaped like a turtle to signify longevity. Both the red eggs and ang ku kueh are given out in pairs as even numbers are used in auspicious events such as the man yue. Eunice plans to do the same after her second son is born in August. All these, to “go with the flow” to meet the expectations of a family elder.

ANNOUNCING THE BABY’S ARRIVAL

MAGICAL MOMENTS

After spending more time with her daughter Bridgette, Marie feels their bond has blossomed. “When she smiles at me, it’s magical. I just think it’s the sweetest thing I’ve seen. It’s like an affirmation, you always want people you love to love you back. It was a happiness that touched my heart.” We followed Marie on her road to finding that connection with her newborn.
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MARIE’S JOURNEY
R
ites of passage act as bookstands, marking the beginning and end of a transition. We follow Marie Ong as she moves from pregnancy through birth to confinement. Marie Ong, 32, does not believe that bonding between mother and daughter can be instantaneous. “I have to cultivate the feelings,” she said in her third trimester. While she was pregnant, the idea of being a mother remained “conceptual”. But after she gave birth to baby daughter Bridgette on February 19, the bond between them slowly built up. Where she used to be cavalier, Marie now feels a greater empathy about other’s misfortunes. “I’ve become more compassionate. I felt it immediately after delivery. I’d feel a pang of something if I see a very bad situation happening in the papers,” she explained. Besides making her more vulnerable, the senior public relations manager is aware of the huge impact of Bridgette on her life. She now needs to make sure that neither her family nor her career is neglected. As she learns how to bathe, feed and clothe her child, Marie feels that she is not completely a mother yet. A “perfect” mother is one who will go to any lengths for her child; no sacrifice is great. “I think I will reach that stage at some point. But it doesn’t change overnight. Maybe I’m just a more selfish person where I keep thinking about how much more of my life will get compromised. How much more of it is Bridgette going to carve away? How much more will the identity of Marie disappear and become Bridgette’s mom?”

JUGGLING ACT: (ABOVE) Marie is both excited and worried about the new addition to the family. “I envision my life to be more stressful. A baby means less time for myself. Between work and my family, I’ll be too tired to go out. I just have to live with the fact that I will no longer be as plugged in, as in touch with the world.”

HARDWARE IN: While feelings for the baby may take a while to cultivate, Marie did not leave the rest of the preparations to chance. Months before the due date, she starting buying baby paraphernalia. She even packed her overnight hospital delivery bag one month in advance.

SOFTWARE PENDING (ABOVE): Marie did not feel much love for her daughter after delivery. To her, love was not automatic. Bonds between the two have to be fostered, she said.

UNDER WATCHFUL EYES (LEFT): The first week after birth was particularly difficult. Having to breastfeed every two hours meant she had little sleep. She was bad tempered all the time. Her mother-in-law (in pink) had different ideas on how to handle the baby when she cried. “That week I was snapping at people, I was very, very frustrated.”

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PREPARING THE WAY: To prepare for afterlife, Chinese family members burn joss paper replicas to the dead so they can live well in the underworld. Joss paper items include fullyequipped mansions, cars, servants (left), passports, handphones, iPads and even aeroplanes.

“After seven days, she will come back and then realise that she is dead. This is our belief. The soul will return to see the family for the last time before they finally start on their journey,” Soon Peng, 52, explained. The first seven days following the physical death is a transitional or liminal period between life and the afterlife, the Chinese believe. In order for the spirit to peacefully move on to the next stage, rituals such as prayers are necessary in a funeral. During the prayer rites, the Taoist priest will chant scriptures to first invoke the spirit, and then enlighten her. The Tao meaning of life and death is explained to both the spirit and the family members present. These funeral rites provide guidance for the dead to the afterlife, and help the surviving family members cope with the death.

So these rituals assure and guide the bereaved family through the uncertain and traumatising period, said sociologist Geoffrey Benjamin. The funeral is seen as a rite of passage for both the deceased and family.The deceased has to move on to the afterlife, while the family has to transit to a life without them. Going by the amount of rituals funerals have, death is the most challenging transition there is, compared to coming of age, wedding and birth. The duration of the wakes and rituals aside, funeral rites have held onto their traditional forms, flying in the face of Singapore society’s modernity. This is because of the fear of the afterlife, and the unwillingness to talk about dying, sociologists and religious experts said.

COPING WITH THE UNKNOWN
Religious funeral rites help the family cope with the uncertainty of what will happen to the deceased after death. The greater the uncertainty, the more ritualised the ceremony will be, said Dr Benjamin. And there is nothing more uncertain than death. “People have very vague ideas about death. All they know is, it’s final. That it’s irreversible — you know once you’ve gone you don’t come back. And it’s the end of everything that you’re familiar with. The end of everything you know,” said associate professor Cynthia Goh. “It’s a leap into the unknown,” added Dr Goh, who is Centre Director for the Lien Centre for Palliative Care. Soon Peng had a Taoist funeral for her mother even though she was not convinced that there is an afterlife. “Death is always a question mark. What happens after that? Nobody knows. So as long as you don’t know, you have to do the rituals. You will have to buy the insurance,” she said It is because of this uncertainty that religion plays such a huge role in funeral rites, said religious experts. “Some of them may feel lost. If I don’t do this, will the deceased be a wandering spirit? Some of them, they have this fear. That’s why they will fall back to religion to fulfill the spiritual need,” said Taoist priest Chung

WHEN SIMPLER IS BETTER

When other rites of passage are facing change, people are doggedly holding on to the traditional funeral rites.

LAST RITE STANDING

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or a full week after her mother died, Chin Soon Peng continued to serve her breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the five mornings of Leong Geok Ran’s wake, Soon Peng and her siblings placed a basin of fresh water, washcloth, toothbrush and toothpaste before their mother’s coffin. This is so she can wash at the start of the day. “After she washes, we’ll serve her her usual breakfast of oatmeal, using the usual things like her cup. We’ll burn the joss-sticks to invite her to eat,” the real estate agent said. “It’s like a normal day. We behave like she’s still around.” The meal offerings continued even after the body was cremated. They were placed at the altar in Soon Peng’s home for the remaining two days of the week. The family believes that for the first week, she does not know she has died. So it is necessary to treat her as they usually would.

Funeral rites have barely changed in the last 30 years, said funeral directors. The biggest change seems to be that they have been condensed. Wakes used to last for as long as seven days in the 1990s. Today, the average Taoist or Buddhist funeral is five days long, said Mr Ang Ziqian, CEO of Ang Chin Moh Funeral Services. This is because the average family unit is smaller. Relatives usually live in Singapore and do not have to come in from overseas, said Mr Hoo Hung Chye, funeral director of Singapore Funeral Services. A three or five day wake is more than enough for the family and friends to pay their last respects. Some funeral rituals are also not adhered to for as long as they once were. For instance, the Chinese practice of dai xiao, or attaching a linen patch on one’s sleeve for three years to indicate a family member’s passing, is hardly done today, according to Mrs Ang of Ang Yew Seng Funeral Services. Now, they are just worn for the duration of the funeral.

“Death is always a question mark. What happens after that? Nobody knows. So as long as you don’t know, you have to do the rituals. You will have to buy the insurance.”
- Chin Soon Peng, 52

THE FEAR FACTOR

Not knowing whether the deceased can successfully move on to the afterlife is difficult for the family, on top of having to deal with the loss of a loved one.

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“It gives me peace of mind everything right, if I follow tradition.”
- Chan Yit Leng, 54

Kwang Tong, a council member of the InterReligious Organisation. Religion governs the last rites closely, especially for Muslims. All Muslims must go through Islamic last rites when they die. There is just “no room for changes”, said funeral director Iskandar Dzulkhairi of Singapore Muslim Casket and Marble Contractor. The Qu’ran, Islam’s holy text, details instructions on how the body of a deceased should be handled. When a Muslim dies, the body needs to be washed and wrapped in clean white cloth, called the kafan. The prayer leader, or imam, then lead the deceased’s relatives in prayers. The body cannot be cremated. It must be buried. The belief is that Muslims come from the soil and thus must return to it. Norwahida Anwar, 25, arranged her father’s funeral in 2006 according to the Qu’ran. And that is the way she wanted it. She would not have changed anything. “It’s against our Muslim beliefs,” she said.

KEEPING MUM ABOUT DEATH
The taboo surrounding the topic of death

also channels bereaved families into keeping traditional funeral rituals. Thinking about death still strikes fear in many hearts today, said Dr Goh, who has worked with terminally ill patients for over 20 years. “Death is a taboo subject, it’s not something we normally think about. The Chinese think that death is unlucky and it’s not a good thing that you think about it,” she said. “When you ask people, what do they want for their funeral, many have no idea what they want,” said Mr Hoo. And when the deceased do not leave behind any instructions, the family finds themselves at a loss when they have to decide what to do for the funeral. They usually turn to religious leaders or funeral parlours for direction because they are in emotional distress, said Mr Hoo. Chan Yit Leng, 54, had arranged for three funerals, for her father and parents-in-law. She opted to have all the traditional rituals because she did not want to shortchange the deceased or do anything that affects their passage to the afterlife. “It gives me peace of mind that I’ve done everything right, if I follow tradition,” she said.

TOGETHER, FOREVER: Dora has left instructions that when she passes away, her ashes are to be thrown into the sea so she can be reunited with her husband who had a sea burial.

While the ritual aspects of a wake or funeral remain unchanged, how the remains are settled afterwards is another matter. How the body is put to rest is usually not dictated by religion, with the exception of Islam which requires burial and Hinduism, scattering the ashes in a river or ocean. But among others, there is an emerging trend of sea burial, funeral directors said. While the ashes of the deceased are usually stored in a columbarium or places of worship after cremation, a small group of people are opting to scatter them into the sea now. Three per cent of the clients at Ang Chin Moh Funeral Services and five per cent of the clients at the Singapore Funeral Services ask for sea burial, the funeral directors at these two funeral parlours said.

MIND THE BODY

RETURNING TO THE SEA
For Dora Lim, 62, sea burial holds special significance. The retiree scattered the ashes of her husband, Stephen de Silva, in the sea when he passed away last year. Stephen had been a chief engineer on

ALL NIGHT LONG: Traditional Chinese funeral rites can be three or five days long. The relatives of the deceased stay there around the clock to “guard” the body. 40

board ships before he met Dora. But he chose to quit the sea when they got married. “When I got to know him, I told him: you’re going to get married, you must have a land job. I don’t want you to have a sea job,” she said. So for the 32 years of their marriage, Stephen stayed on land, working as a marine surveyor, and raised three daughters with Dora. And when he died, Dora chose to have a sea burial for him. “My husband has been at sea for many years. So when he passed on, we let him go back to the sea again,” After a three-day Christian wake, Dora, her three daughters and close family members chartered a boat out to sea. Onboard, their pastor conducted a short half-hour service. When they were in waters south of Pulau Semakau, Dora scattered his ashes. Her three daughters followed suit as the boat sailed on. “To me it was a beautiful thing. Everything worked very beautifully. I believe God was there,” she said. “When my time comes, I will go into the sea and look for him.”

“When he passed on, we let him go back to the sea again.”
- Dora Lim, 62

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Our heartfelt thanks to all who have helped us put this project together over the past year.
Adeline Hee Alvin Lim Amos Loh Angelia Goh Chan Wei Ye Christabel Cai Clara Lock Denise Tan Douglas Mok Eunice Loh Farhan Gracia Chiang Glenn Ong Guillaume Brady Haslinda Putri Harun Hilary Ng Jas Lin Jeremy Bin Jo’an Ow Josephine Chan Karen Ang Koh Kin Foo Leong Poh Keng Magdalene Tan Marie Ong Melina Chan Nasri Sadi Oh Jun Yong Pearl Lee Rachel Lim Rufus Chan Seth Chan Tan Bee Leng Teng Lie Theresa Thia Wan Rajemainuri Wong Jan Ee Yvette Yeo Dr Ho Kong Chong Dr Gavin Jones Dr Premchand Dommaraju Mr Edison Phua Mr Iskandar Dzulkhairi Ms Di Bustamante Ms Vernetta Lopez Alex Ng Alvin Pang Ang Chye Hock Bernard Sim Chan Yit Leng Christopher Shie Daphne Koh Donald Kee Edwin Teo Eunice Ong Glenn Ong Guillaume Brady Grace Tng Gwendoline Tum Hazwan Aziz Iqbal Bin Mohamed Jasmin Phua Jeremy Fok John Huang Josephine Cheng Kenneth Lim Lam Meiling Loh Jun Hao Marcus Yong Marissa Yeo Melvin Soon Norwahida Anwar Ong Lu Sun Peter Li Rashid Tahir Samuel Soon Sia Beng Yi Tan Dunlin Tham Whai Kit Valerie Loy Weston Woo Xie Siliang Zarinah Kader Dr Angelique Chan Dr Geoffrey Benjamin Dr Yap Mui Teng Mr Ang Ziqian Mr Gilbert Tan Mr Leow Bock Kiong Ms Hannah Chong Rev Ng Koon Sheng Ali Hanifiah Aminah Bte Abdul Latif Ang Lili Candice Teo Chin Soon Peng Chung Kwang Tong David Soon Dora Lim Emma Goh Eunice Tan Grace Tng Geoff Liang Gracia Chiang Han Bing Ling Heng Bak Leng Jacqueline Koh Jasmine Oei Jessica Fung Jolene Ho Kang Han Chong Kim Ying Lee Wangwei Long Xiat Fei Marie Chan Mary Ong Mohammed Fadzleigh Nuranggraini Md Yusuf Pauline Phoon Philip Koh Robin Ho Seow Hwee Peng Talisa Lee Tan Lee Huat Thanathakiam Victoria Lim Winnie Ng Yeo Thiang Swee Zurashikin Dr Cynthia Goh Dr Ivy Lau Mr Ang Zi Sheng Mr David Tong Mr Hoo Hung Chye Ms Debbie Low Ms Penny Swee

And to our supervisors who mentored, guided, and pushed us beyond our limits.
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Mr Andrew Duffy Mr Tay Kay Chin

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NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY WEE KIM WEE SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION