The New Paper - SEPT 3, 2004
Report by Kor Kian Beng
Photos by Kua Chee Siong
THERE was no boisterous getai, or roadshow, and no dinner. Only about 30 people came to bid at the auction. And when it was time for an opera performance, old folks turned up, some of them with their own chairs. The Hungry Ghost festival on Pulau Ubin is nothing like it is on the mainland. But there are those who make it a point to be there.
Mr Lim Kia relocated from the island to Bedok North 26 years ago. But every year, the sprightly retiree returns to Pulau Ubin on the 15th and 16th of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar when the island celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival. Said Mr Lim, 59, in Mandarin: 'I was born and brought up here. Most of my friends are still living here. So this festival is a good time for us to gather and catch up with one another.'
And he is not the only one doing this. Mr Lim Ah Tee, 61, who moved out in 1974, has been helping the organising committee over the years with his knowledge on the religious rites and procedures. 'I grew up here. This is just a small way I can give back to this place which has given me so much,' he said in Hokkien.
For these nostalgic folk, it doesn't matter that they get only a token hongbao for their efforts, said Mr Lim Kia, who was there with his wife, Madam Lee Soo Kheng. It also doesn't matter that there is nothing like the usual getai with humorous emcees and accomplished singers to entertain them. Nor is there any dinner which they can enjoy comfortably, while joining in the bidding at the auction. Instead, what they have on Pulau Ubin is a small, quiet affair - but interesting in its own way - as The New Paper witnessed on Tuesday. At 7.30pm, the Wayang House in the kampung square came alive with a traditional Teochew opera, with colourful characters and melodramatic acting. Old folk sat right in front of the stage - some of them on their own chairs - captivated by the show put up by a troupe hired from the mainland. The auction began around 8pm. There was no proper stage, so the auctioneers had to climb onto the altar table to make themselves seen and heard.
Mr Lim Kia turned out to be a vociferous auctioneer, and kept shouting 'Gah gah!' (be bold in Hokkien) to the crowd. Standing around him were the bidders - mostly middle-aged men - clutching beer bottles and dragging their slippers. But they put up a bidding war no less exciting than what is seen at mainland auctions. The lack of getai and dinner didn't stop the 100-strong crowd from enjoying themselves. Some mainland visitors stayed till the auction and opera ended at 11pm before heading home.
Madam Chris Seah, 26, was there with her family. 'You can't find the festival celebrated in this kind of atmosphere on the mainland,' said the former Ubin resident, who moved out at the age of 6. For those who remain on the island, the celebrations have to be there of course. Said Ubin resident Kek Koon Hai: 'This is my kampung. Of course, I enjoy myself more here than elsewhere.' But their numbers have fallen. Thirty years ago, there used to be crowds of 5,000 people at the festival. That is why the local people are particularly happy to see former residents coming back and doing their part to sustain the island's festival celebration.
Said Miss Koh Bee Choo, 34, who runs Comfort Bicycle Rental near the jetty: 'Without them, we the younger ones won't have the know-how or the experience to run this festival.' Still, there are doubts about how long it can go on. Mr Lim Kia is determined to enjoy the event as long as it lasts. He declared: 'I'll keep on coming here and helping out with the celebrations. That is, until I'm too sick to get out of bed or until I die.'
THEY used to be petrified of him. But now, Mr Lim Kia and Ubin resident Kek Koon Hai regard their former teacher, Mr Kek Yak Kwai, 67, fondly. They all help out together at the Hungry Ghost festival celebration every year. The grey-haired but fit-looking man was their Chinese teacher at Min Jiang Primary School on Ubin, where he taught for 27 years. Said the younger Mr Kek, 47, a kitchen helper: 'He once caned me on my buttocks for something I did wrong. I can still remember the pain!' His former teacher, who is not related to him, smiled. He was pleased to see many of his former students again on the island. I'm also glad to see them all grown-up and doing well,' said Mr Kek, who moved to Tampines around 20 years ago. 'Some of them are even grandfathers now!'
Thanks to Sivasothi for the alert