Each year, Siong Leng celebrates its annivesary and in honour of its patron saint, Lang Jun 郎君. This year, being the 70th year since the founding of Siong Leng, it was a special event. And we have a special place to hold the occasion too, Chong Wen Ge 崇文阁. Chong We Ge gives us the space and time (it was like time frozen) to allow our members, friends, supporters and guests the opportunity to experience the multi-sensory impact of the dinner and show that was so meticulously planned and choreographed by the artistic members of the organising committee. All members, young and old, put in their best to create a wonderful night for everyone. By the beaming faces of the friends and guests leaving the gates of Chong Wen Ge on both nights, we know we have managed to do that.
On 3rd and 4th of September, the court of Chong We Ge came alive, as if it was in the 70s, a theme background planned for this event. Children playing skipping with the rubber-band linked rope. A small push-cart stall serving the sweet potato starch mee-sua, a Quanzhou 泉州 dish, specially prepared by Gim Tim Restaurant after a workshop with a Quanzhou chef, specially brought in to prepare for this event. For many, it was already nostalgic enough to have the small tuckshop bowls of mee-sua. But to their surprise, what was this purplish ball? That was the special part of this mee-sua. The life of Quanzhou brought to Singapore. Many of the early Singaporean Chinese came from Quanzhou (Chuang Chiew in Hokkien or Minnan Hua). And so is Nanyin, where Quanzhou could be said to be the main seat of Nanyin.
A rather youthful looking lady was proudly showing to her grandson what life was in the past, small bowls of mee-sua being sold on push carts. She was tickled to see this brought-back-from-the-70s kacang putih man with his every smiling face with a big basket on his head. If that was not enough, this Indian man spoke perfect Hokkien! She insisted on having a picture taken with him. The grandson was, of course, the cameraman.
In the courtyard, as if waiting for the opera to start, the rows of solid wooden benches were lined, and now, occupied by the guests, enjoying their bowls of mee-sua. The high humidity in the courtyard just made it real, as it was in the 70s. Soon, the kacang putih man had his kacang sold out. The even innovative person that he was - talk about the days when one has to be creative to keep one's tummy filled, half if not to the full, and for the bigger than these days' family - our kacang putih man came with ice-creams. After a hot bowl of mee-sua, it was time to cool down with a good slab of ice cream held together by two wafers.
Soon, the courtyard was getting crowded. Some escaped into the cool dining halls. A lion came in bring in more yang qi (positive energies) in the courtyard and the dining halls.
The first show was to be on the stage in the courtyard and so, the guests were invited to sit on the long benches as the first group sang the Nanyin reminiscent of the 30s, when Heng Yun Association, the predecessor of Siong Leng, performed. An attentive audience watched, some who probably knew the songs by heart - especially the older ones (our oldest guests much be in the late 80s) - while the younger ones stole glances at the screen displaying the lyrics. One woman quipped in Hokkien (but of course), "with the lyrics, I could also learn to sing, and better appreciate the songs."
Dinner was a surprise for many. Gim Tim Restaurant already has a good spread of very delicious dishes. To add to that, their chefs took extra effort in learning from the sifu from Quanzhou on a few Quanzhou dishes for this occasion. And so, on this occasion, the guests got to taste four dishes (including the mee-sua) from Quanzhou, a Singapore premiere!
For those who love Hokkien food, this was yet another peak. Minnan Stewed Pork, very similar to the Kong-Bak in Singapore which is already a signature dish of the Hokkien cuisine in Singapore, just melts in your mouth. Alas, for many health conscious people, they opted to skip the fatty part. But for those who appreciate Kong Bak in where its highlight is, ate them with gusto.
Interleaved with local Singaporean Hokkien dishes, we had a duck soup. This was no ordinary duck, well, at least these days. It is the "Huan Ark", a duck with the ugly red patch on its head just above the bill. This is the favourite duck that the Hokkiens would double-boil with herbs such as "Chap-Chuan" - Shi Quan 十全. In this dish, it was just boiled with clams and sweetened with wolfberries. A light and delightful dish. We are wondering when Gim Tim would put this on its menu. (^^)
Between delicious dishes and equally fragrant tea from Pek Sin Choon, we had yet another performance, this time, a medley of Nanyin songs with lyrics by the late Teng Mah Seng and music by Zhuo Sheng Xiang. The late Teng Mah Seng, the past President of Siong Leng, was a trailblazer who came up with new formats of the Nanyin, boldly making some guideline such as each song should not exceed 8 minutes and promoting singing in different grouping. A prolific lyricist, there were three volumes of Nanyin songs created by him. For the guests and fans who have been following Nanyin performances, especially the three days of Guan Yin Festival in Thian Hock Keng (19th of Second Lunar Month, Sixth Month and Ninth Month), the songs were familiar to them.
Another dish that looked like Ohr-Nee turned up on the tables. "Ohr Nee," exclaimed one. To the surprise of the diners who thought that this was the dessert, it was not. This dish, called "8 Treasure Yam Paste" is sweet on the outside and saltish on the inside. For many Singaporeans, it was a taste that needs some getting used to.
Just when we were enjoying our cup of the "Charm of the Buddha's Palm", a specially blended tea by Pek Sin Choon and recognised by the Singapore Tourism Board in 2001 with its Merlion logo, the gongs and drums sounded. Like excited kids, were rushed out to the courtyard. The show was about to begin.
Some sitting on the long benches, and some standing, and the guests upstairs had a great circle-seat view, the show began with a traditional ritual performance. And then, the main show, an excerpt from "Tan Sa Gor Niu" (Chen San Wu Niang 陈三五娘), in the Liyuan tradition began. The scene was the "Lantern Gazing" - the 15th night of the Chinese Lunar New Year (Cap Go Meh) when young ladies, accompanied by their maids, would come out to look at the lanterns, and well, perhaps, for prospective life partners.
In this rather small courtyard with a small stage, and a small space on the floor, the performers made full use of them. From the stage to the floor where the ball-throwing and lantern dance were performed by students of Ai Tong Chinese Dance Troupe and members of the Rochor CC Dance Group called Dance Inspirations, it was an experience with us audience so close to the performers, as if we were also part of the people watching the Lanterns. And then, a song burst into the night from somewhere above. Ah, Tan Sa was singing from the upper floor of the pavilion. Looking down at the parade and at this lovely lady, Gor Niu 五娘. And of course, in the course, Gor Niu stole a glance up the pavilion to look at Tan Sar 陈三.
This grand finale came to a close with a toast by the President of Siong Leng, Teng Hong Hai, to the supporters and guests. Each had a glass of "Double Blossom" - a work of art with tea - with green tea, jasmine flowers and a red flower called Gomphrena Globosa - to admire, toast and drink enjoying the fresh flavour of flower and tea.
The guests took their leave, greeted by a pair of dancing lions just outside the doors of Chong Wen Ge. The positive energies of the lions sent off the guests home.
To the friends, supporters and guests, thanks for coming and we hope that you have enjoyed the evening as much as our members have enjoyed performing for you.
Our next performance will be at Thian Hock Keng at 7.30pm on 15 Oct 2011, the 19th of the 9th Lunar Month, one and last of the three Guan Yin festivals.