Before coming to Geylang, I stayed in Jalan Haji Salim in what was a row of terrace units. We had a swing in front and I remember playing much in the sandy patch in front of our house. But this place is no more as it was cleared when the North-South MRT train systen arrived.
A Chinese kampong further up (in what is now Chai Chee indutrial estate) gave me strong memories. It was a huddle of light blue zinc roofed wooden houses that began around a cul-de sac atop a hill. Walking up that hilly road and seeing those light blue houses against a clear sky always gave me a happy feeling, the same wistful sort we get now from seeing those white houses against a blue sea along the Mediterranean. coast.
I know it is a fanciful notion but that was how it was, why I suppose the memory stuck.
One of those front blue units was a laundry shop run by a samfoo-clad lady proprietor who was my mom's friend. Every visit, I would greet her and then she and my mom would sit and chat. I would take that as cue and run to look for the other children to play with. We sometimes floated paper boats in the small gutter drains between the houses. The houses of this kampong all stood on cement floor and paved walkways, altogether rather neat and tidy (and clean). And the cement floors could really burn your feet on a hot sunny day.
At other times, my mom would bring me along to the temples in the area. There's a particular one we went to often. It wasn't that big nor small. It also wasn't very ornate. It stood by a giant tree on a sandy lot. Like many old temples at the time, it was paneled in wood and painted mostly in red. Later, this temple's medium would move to a flat in Marine Parade, deities and all. My mom continued to consult with her. The matters raised ranged from the spiritual to the superstitious. It also regarded 'little people'. For this we would get our shirts chopped with a talisman orint so these little people would stay far, far away!
The medium aunty was a lean woman with a somewhat wizen, hang-dog face. Her hair was oftentimes boofy, as if wearing a wig. Though her skin was sallow, her beady eyes burned with a certain intensity. She had this unmistakable, husky voice that would later be ravaged further by heavy smoking. A couple of years ago she paid the price for that habit. But by then, she was already well into her 90s, so I guess it didn't really matter. Her other vice was mahjong. In her later years, part of her personal savings was lost to a swindle by some new mahjong kakis. They probably took advantage of her being borderline senile. Her sons were livid. I was livid too given that some of that fortune was contributed by my mom's hard-earned money paid as temple "heong yaw" or 'oil money'.
No prayer is triggered without a crisis and our trips to consult with this medium was the same.
A typical medium session with her would begin like this: She would be seated at her altar table in her Dragon Chair, hands on the table. She would mumble something and it gets louder. Many times she would make a purring sound with her lips that would end in a crescendo. She would then half get up and slap the table. This was the cue that she had gone into in a trance. She sometimes wore a medium's cloak, at times not. And she would always have an assistant around to intercede between her and client.
Soon after in trance she would speak in dialect. When it was hard to understand what she was saying, her assistant would help translate. Often, a session would end with her writing talismans on yellow paper amulets ("fu" in Cantonese) which we would bring home to burn in a glass and then mix with water. We would drink and leave a little to dab the forehead with. That's the final blessing for it to work.
I have drunk countless glasses of these carbonised amulet solutions to guard against sickness, bad exam results and probably, my supposed hernia condition. The first time, I thought I was going to get a tummy ache but my mom's stern voice must have scared off all the potential germs. Usually, after drinking this blessing, we would have to wash ourselves with flower scented water. The flowers came in a packet wrapped with grey tracing paper or newspaper. The wet market flower shop or joss paper shop would sell this. A pack consisted mainly of stalkless orchids, chrysanthemums, daisies, etc, probably all the scrap flowers that dropped off. But they were fresh.
At home, we all bathed from water scooped from a giant ceramic urn commonly found in bathrooms in those days. This large urn was originally made to preserve stuff like century eggs or salted vegetables. These days, you have to pay a pretty penny for it.
Our urn was the shiny green type with a brown lip. Its sides were embossed with dragons and phoenixes. Once the flowers were mixed in, my siblings and I would then take turns to wash. The flowers gave the bath water a very fragrant scent. Whether you believe it gave you good fortune afterwards or not, it did not matter. It was a cheerful thing to do. As we got older, the flowers were placed in a basin instead and we would just wash our faces with it.
To my mom, these visits to the medium were necessary... kind of like going to see your parish priest or therapist. But I've always viewed them with a skeptical eye. I mean, who chose this medium to be the conduit between this and the spiritual world? And how come we never got straight answers, only stuff that left us hoping for the best? How come we have to give so much oil money?
No, I am not resentful of these mediums nor with the practice of Taoism (even though as a kid, I've often found the deities to be butt ugly and scary. They were always painted black and gold and were always in a scowl. Don't they have Happy Hour over there?) Like all religions, they serve a purpose. However, with Taoism, there are many deities. Too many in my view to comtemplate or even wrap our minds around. Why, I supposed, only a few were popular.
Maybe finding the right affiliation was the key. Our medium was affiliated to Tai Chi Yeh (tai zi ye) - a deity that was a kind-hearted son of an ancient emperor cannonised. It was common practice to god-child a kid to a deity and I was no different. For as long as I could remember, I have always been Tai Chi Yeh's godchild. I didn't feel any extra special. No godly abilities like x-ray vision or Bionic Man strength. No ang pows either during CNY.
Every Qing Ming Festival, my mom would go to temple off Balestier Road to pay her respects to this now deceased medium. Her ashes are interned there. Looking at her pix on the memorial tablet, I remember all the times she was alive. Although slight of frame, she came across as a lady who took charge of her life. I sometimes wondered what her back story was; it would be interesting to know. And aren't lady mediums a rarity in the temple business?
When my mom first visited our medium friend's resting place, she was visibly upset. I also began to see her relationship with this medium in a different light. At the end of the day, they were friends who lived through each other's ups and downs in life. She probably knew more of my mother's heart-felt concerns than even her closest friend in Geylang. We might have moved here and there but this medium lady was always a constant in our lives. Till that day she passed away, their friendship was as old as I was; and that is something to be celebrated. Rest well, Pai Sun Por (Praying to God Lady in Cantonese, how my mom calls her) and thank you for giving us hope, blessing and a very warm friendship.
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