Survey on intangible cultural heritage to start soon

Devotees at the annual firewalking festival at the Sri Mariammam Temple in South Bridge Road in 2011.
The Straits Times

Traditional Chinese puppetry, the Hindu practice of firewalking and food - such as kaya toast and nasi padang - will soon be documented as part of Singapore's heritage.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) will today call a tender for companies to research on such intangible cultural heritage.

The research will be done through a survey that will involve fieldwork and collating available material, and is slated to start in September. About 150 types of intangible cultural heritage are expected to be identified.

Some of these cultural aspects, like fengshui, did not originate here but have been practised widely in Singapore for decades.

The methodology of the research and implementation of the findings will be guided by members of a panel comprising architecture, geography, sociology, anthropology and history experts, the NHB said at a media briefing last week.

Intangible heritage can be classified broadly into five categories:

  • Oral traditions and expressions such as folktales.
  • Performing arts such as the Malay Dikir Barat.
  • Social practices such as lo hei - the tossing of raw fish salad during Chinese New Year.
  • Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe such as traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Traditional craftsmanship, which includes food.

Mrs Rosa Daniel, NHB chief executive, said: "Findings from the survey will complement research done by NHB over the years and help plug the gaps in our heritage repository."

She said the survey will not be exhaustive and information will continue to be updated.

The findings will go towards the creation of a "national inventory", she added. The information may also be used to make documentaries or hold exhibitions.

In defining Singapore's intangible cultural heritage, the NHB took reference from the 2003 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

On why such heritage is important, Professor Brenda Yeoh, dean of the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and chair of the Heritage Advisory Panel, said that at the turn of the 20th century, South-east Asia was very interested to learn about others and rushed to learn the meaning of being modern.

"One century later, what we see is that a lot of issues are about identity (and) heritage," she said. "The panel sees this as important work because this will give us the kinds of social and emotional strength to face a troubled future."

The NHB also gave an update on the first comprehensive survey of Singapore's tangible heritage.

This includes the research and documentation of buildings and sites of historic or cultural interest, which were completed in or before 1980 in mainland Singapore .

Information on 20 buildings, which are among those covered in the survey launched last September, will be put up on NHB's heritage portal Roots.sg from today.

Among these buildings are Singapore Polytechnic in Dover Road, Changi Cottage in Netheravon Road and People's Park Complex in Chinatown.

Currently, the tangible heritage includes Singapore Botanic Gardens, 72 national monuments and more than 7,000 conserved buildings, heritage trails and historic sites.

President of the Singapore Heritage Society, Dr Chua Ai Lin, said it is high time Singapore's intangible cultural heritage was documented.

"Such heritage is often not properly recognised. The public may not even know about some of these intangible aspects. It's great that they are doing it," she said.

'Instant messaging' the song and dance way

Nanyang Polytechnic's dikir barat team members (from left) Muhammad Aidil Azman, 19, with the tok juara; Masayu Nurulhuda Mohammed Shiddek, 21, with the anak rebana; Yasser Abqari Abdul Nassir Basalamah, 24, on the gong and chanang; Siti Munirah Aman, 19, who plays the tambourine; and Muhammad Asyraf Mohammed Ibrahim, 19, hugging his ibu rebana.

Dikir barat, a traditional art form that originated in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, has a "uniquely Singaporean flavour" when performed here, and is part of the Malay culture.

Mr Muhammad Asyraf Mohammed Ibrahim, 19, who has sung and played since he was in primary school, said Singapore groups tend to be more experimental, and veer away from the basic four-count rhythm.

In charge of the male performers in the dikir barat team in the Malay Cultural Group at Nanyang Polytechnic, he plays the rebana, a traditional Malay instrument.

Dikir barat, which combines singing, dancing and literature, is a way for performers to convey messages and advice, he said.

A group usually consists of a choir, lead singers and instrument players. His group writes its own lyrics and has covered topics such as the effects of social media and the erosion of family values.

The art is part of Singapore's intangible cultural heritage, which the National Heritage Board will soon document for a national inventory.

"We are from the generation that can continue such traditions. The older ones are retiring. It's up to us to keep it going," Mr Asyraf said.

Cake maker out to keep dough culture alive

Mr Lim runs Gin Thye Cake Maker, a traditional Chinese pastries shop in Sembawang Road, with his mother. The shop, which sells baked goods, is one of only a handful that still exist.

The second-generation owner of a traditional Teochew pastry shop, Mr Lawrence Lim, 43, remembers running around the shop his father founded in 1964.

Now, he runs the shop in Sembawang with his mother, Madam Ang Sew Gek, 68. The shop, Gin Thye Cake Maker, which sells traditional baked goods, is one of only a handful that still exist.

His customers are typically couples who have to give sweetmeats to their elders as part of wedding tradition. In a traditional Teochew wedding, for instance, the bride is required to present wu se tang - a set of confections such as bean-paste pastry and sticky candy - to her grandmother.

While customers now do not order 80 boxes like they used to in the past, they still want 10 to 20 boxes, Mr Lim said. He said the customer base has grown, with the decrease in the number of such shops.

Mr Lim said he is glad the National Heritage Board will document foods like his that are part of Singapore's heritage. "Youngsters nowadays think there is no culture, but there is," he said.

Even so, he is planning to revamp his shop to make it more modern. He now also offers less traditional goods like durian mochi.

He hopes that his son, who is about two years old, will take over the business eventually.


This article was first published on July 19, 2016.
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