Recently, some people are saying that rice contains arsenic, so be careful when eating rice, especially white rice. At least, this was what an article that was shared on Facebook had advised. Then, there are other people who say that brown rice becomes poisonous when not washed properly before being cooked and that one should avoid consuming brown rice in large quantities. Dang! I thought when I read this. I had just managed to convince the family that brown rice, being of a higher glycemic index is better than polished white rice, staving off hunger pangs more efficiently and is better for losing weight with. Diabetics are better off eating brown rice than white, so the author writes. Since my mother’s mother was a diabetic and died from blood sugar poisoning, I thought it wise to heed this latest advice on brown rice. My younger daughter shed some genuine tears when I told her that we are no longer eating white rice at home.
The very first time I saw my mother crying was the day that Grandmother died. Mother never cries. She shouts and curses, hits and smacks, but cries, never! It was a hot night, I remember; the air was stifling and my bedroom still warm from facing the afternoon sun made sleep difficult; the electric fan did not bring much respite, only the desperation to fall asleep. I got up to take a pee and that was when I spied a crack of light escaping from my parents’ room. I pushed the door open and saw Mother, dressed in preparation to go out; she was wiping away tears while putting on some green eyeshadow.
“What happened?” I asked, concerned. It’s strange to see her crying. She wasn’t sobbing nor were her shoulders heaving in grief like how someone cries in the movies. There was no sound to her crying, only tears forming in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks as she went through the motions of putting on her face. I could hear the shower running as Father was getting washed. It is very late at night. I know this because the curtains were drawn and the street outside was quiet.
“My mother died tonight,” she answered softly without looking at me, her voice strained but not giving away much emotions. She was wiping away tears with the back of her left hand and trying to apply make up with her right at the same time, one eye was shut voluntarily as if winking so that she can smear the green powder on its lid.
It’s funny how she didn’t say ‘your grandmother died tonight’. After all, this is how she always refers to Grandmother. The possessive ‘my’ next to ‘mother’ added a new layer of meaning to grandmother: she is my mother’s mother and belongs to her. But she is my grandmother and belongs to me but she is not my mother, yet somehow, we are all joined in unity: ‘My mother’ connects me, Mother and Grandmother in one unbreakable blood chain that goes backwards beyond life and forwards beyond death.
Grandmother was a stranger to me for most of my life. As far as I can remember, she was ill throughout my childhood and then she died. When I was eight years old, she became paralysed from a stroke caused by ingesting a glass of glucose which someone in the family had made her drink in the belief that glucose water would cure diabetes. Cure like with like was the advice that Grandfather’s third wife proffered, the advice that he heeded. Mother seldom spoke of her mother but this was the only story she would tell. Without saying much, Mother did the dutiful thing of visiting her ailing mother once a week to check that everything was as it should be: her mother was being fed, washed and kept comfortable by the rest of the family and that nobody was giving her any more glucose water. Grandfather’s third wife never visited again. My mother is the eldest of sixteen children by Grandmother, wife number one, and it was her duty to see that things ran smoothly in the house, even though she had stopped belonging to her mother’s household as soon as she got married, as dictated by Chinese customs. Still, duty-bound, she went on looking after her mother until the day she passed on. The Chinese call this duty filial piety. Not even death can terminate this obligation. Filial piety ensures that the dead continue to exist amongst the living and that life carries on into eternity. Ancestor worship is a traditional Taoist custom combining a sense of magic realism keeping the dead alive through veneration by the living: every human soul can become divine but only in death.
Grandmother was fond of rice. She loved the watery rice porridge that was eaten with pickled mustard greens and salted duck’s egg; this was a typical Teochew diet. The salted egg was a luxury in poverty stricken Malaya during the Japanese Occupation and continued to be so many decades after liberation. When eggs were scarce and money insufficient, Grandmother would fry pieces of pork lard until they became brown and crispy. She would drain the oil from the crispy pieces and use it for stir frying vegetables later. These morsels-of-heart-attack would accompany her daily gruel of rice porridge; there would always be enough to feed her children and husband when he felt like coming home for a meal. Sometimes, she would drizzle some oil from the lard onto her gruel to take away the blandness. My fourth aunt never tires of telling me this story for she loved the crispy pork crackling that Grandmother made often.
The priest whom the family consulted had advised a ritual of feeding the deceased during the funeral. The extended family was a mix of Buddhists, Taoists, Christians and Atheists but all were willing to go through the ritual for none knew what to do for the better.
Some people came to set up a marquee in Grandmother’s front porch a day before her coffin arrived home. A wooden table, covered with a piece of cloth that had the Eight Immortals embroidered on it, held a ceramic incense jar filled with sand and was placed in front of the opened coffin which lay in wake under the marquee right outside the front door. On the same table, someone had put a fruit bowl, dishes filled with food, and a bowl of rice; there was a dish filled with crispy pork crackling next to the bowl of rice. As soon as Grandmother came home, Mother and her siblings had to light a joss-stick each while calling their mother. The priest explained that her spirit needs to know where to come home to and the joss-sticks and her children calling for her would show it the way. I asked Grandmother if she minded sleeping outside. She never answered which was normal because even when she was alive, she never spoke to me. She had given up speech the day she discovered that Grandfather’s third wife wanted her dead.
I watched from the living room window as my aunts and uncles busied themselves over where things should be set and what they should be doing during the funeral. There were many people on Grandmother’s front porch in constant motion. The day’s events seemed very chaotic to my child’s eyes. It seemed that the adults didn’t know quite what to do and we were left to our own devices since the adults were too busy to supervise us. I sat under the dining table covered by a white table cloth too big for it. The overhanging material made for a good hiding place where I could read and sketch; I had my own little marquee.
The scent of cooked rice filled the air. Mother was calling for me. I popped my head out from under the round dining table with a marble top and heavy rosewood legs. Mother took my hand and led me towards the coffin. I resisted, afraid of the body lying within, afraid that her spirit would wake her up. Mother pinched me hard on my right thigh and dragged me where she wanted me to go. The priest was chanting a prayer in a language I didn’t understand and my uncle Philip, the eldest son, was at the head of a line that had formed at the top of the coffin where Grandmother’s head was placed. The adults had formed a line and the grandchildren, ten in all, had to form another, behind my youngest aunt. I was at the head of the line for the grandchildren because I was the first grandchild.
The priest handed my uncle Philip a blue and white ceramic bowl filled to the brim with rice rounded at the top to resemble a mound. A pair of chopsticks was subsequently handed to him too. On the priest’s instructions, starting with uncle Philip, all of Grandmother’s children and grandchildren had to feed her a chopstick full of rice and say this: “In life, you fed me, in death I am now feeding you” as they stuffed her mouth with some rice.
Grandmother’s eyes were pressed shut with a silver coin on each lid, a Taoist ritual. By the time it came to my turn to feed her her chopstick of rice, grains of white rice had already spilled from her stuffed mouth, sticking to her chin and collar. She was dressed in her favourite samfoo, a blouse and trouser suit worn by many Chinese women in Malaya. Although this was not the traditional way to bury the dead in Taoist customs, it was all the family could do as Grandmother did not have a funeral outfit made during her lifetime. If she had one, it was lost during the war when many homes and villages were looted by Japanese soldiers.
I looked in wonder at Grandmother’s ashen face and her mouth that was filled with rice. There’s nothing as macabre and fascinating as the death mask of a loved one, especially from the point of view of a child. Some people would say that this was a gruesome ritual to put a child through. Others would defend the ritual’s tradition and heritage.
Rice is an important staple to billions of people in the world. Rice is a measurement of wealth, of success and of life because in life we are fed as in death with this grain that some other people have said contains arsenic.
This artwork entitled Clockwork Moons (time waits for no migrant man), 2017, (48 cm x 48 cm) is part of a series of eight kinetic artwork by British contemporary artist, Nicola Anthony, who is based in Singapore. It is made with light, ink, incense, embroidery loops and Korean paper. Anthony has a unique method of working with paper, using an incense stick to perforate the paper stretched out in a frame made of embroidery loops. In this piece, she has written a Chinese character symbolising the word ‘grain’. The image is then illuminated from behind by a light source, lifting the character from the parchment, stimulating the viewer’s visual senses. This work was commissioned by the Singapore Art Museum in 2017. You can read more about Nicola Anthony and her projects here:
Anthony was inspired by a migrant worker, Mr Wang Jixing, from China, who had been laid off due to a stroke that paralysed him and rendered him unable to work. He was earning S$500 a month as a cleaner at one of Singapore’s many outdoor food courts. The meagre amount of money he was earning ensured that he could ‘put rice on the table’ for his family in China. Being disabled meant that his job was no longer tenable and because of Singapore’s strict immigration and working regulations, he was repatriated to China, paralysed and unable to work. The burden of his care is borne by his children, the youngest of which is 12 years old. You can follow Mr Wang’s story and help him on:
The Chinese character burnt onto the paper is the symbol for ‘Grain’ and when cooked becomes ‘Rice’ which is written with another character and pronounced as ‘fan4’ (fourth intonation of the sound ‘fun’). The Chinese differentiate cooked rice from uncooked grains with a different character and sound because both are different entities and each represents different energy values.
In order to understand the importance of rice as a staple in Asia, one must understand the significance of its symbol which is made up of the characters eight and ten. It takes 88 days to grow rice from start to harvest and much respect has to be given to this number and to the farmers whose back bending work puts rice on the table for more than a billion people throughout Asia.
‘To Put Rice on The Table’ is a phrase used frequently in many parts of Asia as one would use ‘to put bread on the table’ in Europe and the English speaking world. ‘To Break One’s Rice Bowl’ is synonymous to stealing someone’s job or to cause someone to lose their job. ‘To Stack up Rice Bowls’ means to increase one’s worries because the sound for ‘rice’ is homophonous to the sound for ‘worry’ in the Cantonese language. Hence, it is bad form to stack one rice bowl on top of another when clearing the table. Because rice is such a necessary food crop in Asia, proverbs using the character has become part of its people’s linguistic references for communication.
Rice was inspired by Anthony’s artwork which triggered a childhood memory of loss and enlightenment.