Sunday, September 14, 2008:
The 15th Day of the Eighth Month (early September) is the Mid-Autumn festival when the moon is perceived to be at its roundest and brightest.
In the 1950s when I was growing up in Amoy Street in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown, Mid-Autumn Day was an important event to celebrate with moon cakes, lanterns and streetside wayangs (open-air performances on a stage of planks, bamboo poles and canvas awning). Hordes of children scrambled along the verandahs of shop houses, holding candle-lit paper lanterns. And milling around the makeshift theatres were hawkers pushing bicycle-driven carts loaded with candies, toys and knick-knacks.
Those were the days when Singaporeans were poor, dirt poor, and the various Chinese folk festivals (mostly on the 15th Day of each lunar month) were the only times that brightened their grey, grinding existence.
Besides Mid-Autumn Day and the 15th Day of Chinese New Year, there were the bak-chang (rice dumpling) festival in the 5th Month, the various feast days honouring Bodhisattva Guanyin, and of course the clangourous celebrations during the entire 7th Month when the gates of Hell’s so-called Retribution & Damnation (i.e. R&D) department were opened and ghosts let loose among the living.
Some of my happiest childhood moments were spent with Grandma in the Guanyin temple in Geylang Road, eating cakes, lighting firecrackers, playing hide-and-seek with other kids among the sombre-looking Buddhas and Arahats, and stopping to hear adults chanting the Holy Name.
Today, most Singaporeans are moderately well-off. With cash, every day is like New Year’s Day (as my late mother used to say) and there’s no need to wait for special occasions to spend on stylish clothes and good food. But we still need myths to live by, and so we make do with the angmoh (white man) celebrations and shopping orgies of Christmas, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. And our waking fantasy is peopled by Hollywood-generated heroes and monsters (Hobbits, Jedi knights, Harry Potter, Iron Man, Spiderman and other queer characters).
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying Western techno-pop culture but we have to be mindful of its insidious influence in our thoughts, conversation and general outlook. Hollywood should not dominate our mental and spiritual life. Instead, let us take time out to read and reflect on our rich Chinese and Asian heritage, learning and legacy, and occasionally to look out the window to check if the sky is clear, so we can admire the moon in a full-starred heaven.
At this Mid-Autumn season, I share a parting thought from Tu Fu 杜甫 (Tang Dynasty), the most thoughtful of Chinese poets, more than a millennium ago:
Mid-sky the moon is brilliant but who is there to see?
The line implies that at mid-career or in middle age, the poet is now at the peak of his intellectual capability and able to perform his best, but no one notices his talent or good work.
This is a serious problem, not only in old China where conscientious, capable but much older people were often overlooked in the public service, but today in Singapore too, where only young people are considered employable.
There is a corps of managers, professionals and technical experts who have reached their personal best at middle age, but find themselves either stagnate in their career or being retrenched because employers prefer workers who are younger, cheaper and more obedient. And like Tu Fu, after long years at work, these middle-aging folks could only look for a branch to shelter from life’s storm.
Here’s the full text of Tu Fu’s poem (and my free translation), written in mid-autumn where, after years of government service, all he could afford was the cold comfort of a night’s lodging in an army camp:
Lodging for the night
Stopping at a riverside town
I stay the night in an army camp
Alone in my room,
I watch the candle burns low
The clear autumn air chills the courtyard
The notes of a bugle ache my heart.
Mid-sky the moon is brilliant
but who is there to see?
The mountain pass is closed
The road ahead is difficult
And all news are lost in the dust and wind
Ten years have passed
As I search for a branch to rest and shelter.