Syamatara – The Goddess of Compassion

This must be the most beloved of all bodhisattvas in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. She goes by many names, depending on where you come from. In the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, she is known simply as Tara.

Who is Tara? She is the Goddess of Compassion often linked to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. She is said to be born from one of the tear drops that Avalokiteshvara shed on witnessing a scene of human suffering. Avalokiteshvara is Tara’s male counterpart. Tara refers to “the one who saves”. Like Avalokiteshvara, she is said to deliver her devotees from suffering and pain.

Here, we have Tara in her green form, otherwise, known as Syamatara. This form of Tara is an energetic form; she is ready to spring to action to aid anyone invoking her name.

She is placed on an important pedestal in both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Syamatara stands on a double lotus pedestal denoting her importance. She wears lots of jewellery indicating her position as a bodhisattva or a buddha who has forgone nirvana in order to stay behind in the earthly realm to assist others to their nirvana. Nirvana can be said to be the ultimate goal in Buddhism when once achieved, there can be no rebirth and the soul is at its purest. (McArthur, pp 206).

Witness her left hand holding onto a flower, the lotus, which is a symbol of purity in generic Buddhist iconology. In Hinduism, the lotus represents the concept of primordial birth which is linked to fertility. However, in the case of our Syamatara from central Java, she would be holding a blue lotus signifying its association to the sacred moon. This further symbolizes her connection to the cult of the Mother-goddess as the moon is often associated with the divine feminine.

The choice of the blue lotus, according to some sources, is linked to its symbolism of rejuvenation. The promise of a prolonged life is considered a boon that Syamatara bestows.

Her right hand holds a fly whisk, representing her compassion for all life forms including that of insects and flies. The whisk is to gently whisk away insects, ensuring that such life forms are not accidentally killed in accordance with Buddhist laws. The whisk is also a symbol of overcoming ill fortune, like mental afflictions, and obstacles, such as ignorance.

In the arts of Indonesia, fly whisks are often associated with Shiva. (Moore, pp 117). There could be a reference here to the Shaivite cult that was fast consuming Java which commenced before this Syamatara’s production.

Her voluptuousness is representative of her status as a Mother-Goddess or Devi. Tara is known to be the “mother of all the buddhas”. (Seow, pp 322). It is in this aspect that she is worshipped and venerated in Java.

A sacred thread traces the crevices of her cleavage to the joint on her right hip. She wears a sarong held up by a belt with a buckle whose shape can still be seen in later belt buckles fashioned in gold. Anklets adorn both ankles whilst her arms are clasped by arm bands with detailed intricate motifs on closer inspection. These intricacies can still be detected in jewellery pieces made in the later centuries. A pendant ear ring decorates one ear lobe. Her hair is piled into a cone like shape wherein a triangular shaped crown is placed. Her eyes are downcast, perhaps representing her compassionate gaze downwards towards her devotees.

She exudes sensuousness, mystic and a form of elegance which is exclusive to Indonesian statuary found in central Java.

This form of Tara is neither strictly Buddhist nor Hindu. Indic in style, she was carved by Indonesian craftsmen who have adopted Indian aesthetics but sculpting in their own terms. (Carpenter). In Java, a form of syncretic faith took shape that combined both Hinduism and Buddhism. This synthesis of spiritual beliefs came to be known as Hindu-Buddhism. It begun in Mataram between 6th  – 7th  centuries and lasted until the advent of Islam in the 11th  century,  where it arrived first in North Sumatra. (Hannigan, pp 60-79).

Links to other forms of Tara:

  • Bosatsu Kanon; Tarani, Tara (Japan)
  • Guan Yin (China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore)
  • Guan Am (Vietnam)
  • Sgrol-ma (Tibetan)

Tara (Syamatara) – The Green Tara (9th century, Central Java, height:130 cm). Private Collection. Photo Credit: Pinacotheque de Paris, Singapore.

Eva’s Notes:

This is my favourite bodhisattva; there are quite a few of these saint-like sentient beings in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. I love Syamatara for her compassion.

Tara is a Jungian archetype of female sensuality, of feminine mystic and womanly fecundity.  She is pregnant with love. Invoking her name would cause the speaker to feel a sense of overwhelming compassion for humanity and gazing at her image would fill the beholder with a sense of peace knowing that such love exists in the earthly realm.

I first set eyes on Syamatara in a Chinese temple. She was in her Buddhist incarnation as Kuan Yin. In this form, Tara doesn’t do much for me. My passion for Hindu-Buddhist statuary lies in their artistic forms. It’s the art that I’m after.

Tara would take many forms as Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, her features would change to resemble the Khmer queen of Jayavarman VII, and the ornate lines and voluptuous forms found in our Javanese statue would give way to cleaner lines and a more modest body shape. But my most favourite rendition of Syamatara is still the Javanese one.


Printed Sources:

Cotterell, Arthur (2014), A History of Southeast Asia. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions. Chapter 4: Early Indonesia.

Hannigan, Tim (2015), A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation. Hong Kong: Tuttle Publishing. Chapter 2: Empires of Imagination: Hindu-Buddhist Java. 

McArthur, Meher (2002), Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. pp 47.

Moore, Albert C (1977), Iconography of Religions: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. pp 117.

Seow, Marilyn (2006), The Asian Civilisations Museum A-Z Guide. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. pp 322.

Curatorial Source:

Bruce Carpenter.

The Oba and the Kingdom of Benin

My first encounter with Benin was during university days spent in Northern England. Those were halcyon days. My Nigerian room- mate and I would exchange stories about Africa and Southeast Asia. Over cups of tea, sweetened with condensed milk, tucked under a fluffy duvet that kept us warm in wintry months, we would share stories of our countries’ various dishes; food is a great way to connect and bond. I would discover that rice, ginger, garlic, yams and okra (ladies’ fingers) also form part of the Nigerian diet. We also shared stories of our love for the art forms of our diverse regions – Africa and Southeast Asia. She was the one who told me about Benin and the kingdom’s art. Visits to the British Museum would confirm that the people of Benin were not only skilled craftsmen, they were artists too.

My subsequent encounter with Benin would be at the National Museum of Singapore. The British Museum Treasures of the World exhibition would bring back memories of my Nigerian room-mate and our shared histories of colonialism and then, amongst other things, of personal post-colonial experiences in our respective countries that have diverse art forms and sub-cultures. I told her about Prince Sang Nila Utama who saw a lion when he came ashore on a little island in 1299 and how that island came to be known as Singapura. I told her how in 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with a Malay sultan that led to the founding of Singapore. In exchange, she told me stories of Ogiso kings and of the Obas, the name for Benin’s second dynasty, which begun around the 11th century and was vanquished by 1897.

The ancient Kingdom of Benin was situated in today’s modern Nigeria. The kingdom was ruled by a line of divine kings whom the people called Oba. The people were the Edo who spoke a language by the same name.  The Oba lived in a palace in Benin City that was filled mainly with brass, ivory and wooden art works made on commission by the Oba. Edo artisans skilled in carving, lost wax casting, and beading produced these works of finery. These artefacts are indicative of the wealth of the Benin Kingdom and formed a figurative narrative of the lives of the Benin royalties.

It was through trade that the Obas accumulated wealth. As they were powerful warriors who waged war on neighbouring tribes, war booty also formed part of this wealth. Trade with the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to sail to Africa, begun in the 15th century. Trade links were quickly set up from 1498 for Benin to purchase coral beads, brass and other European goods while the Portuguese wanted slaves as well as pepper, ivory and leopard skins. Trading exchanges were relatively peaceful although the Obas were known for their warrior like activities.

One brass plaque on display at the National Museum of Singapore shows the Oba wearing a leopard skin denoting his status; only royalty are draped with such finery. Bracelets adorn his right wrist and anklets wrap both ankles. Jewellery is always a good indicator of wealth and this Oba is one rich king. He holds a spear and a shield showcasing his might. He wears a mitre-like helmet with an opening allowing us a view of his features. His eyes are bulging with power, his nose is regally set and he has a set of fleshy lips. The tall helmet could be once more indicative of his status, signifying his position as a warrior king.  Oba takes up substantial amount of space on the plaque indicating his importance; our beholder’s eye is immediately drawn to this central figure.

We see four other figures flanking him. At the top are two Portuguese traders bearing gifts; they are identified by what they are wearing and their long hair. Clothing and hairstyles are often good time keepers; historians date such plaques to around the 16th and 17th centuries.

The two figures below are attendants who are wearing helmets made from pangolin hides. Pangolins are known for their durable shell like hides, hence make very good protective head gear. These helmets also help situate the attendants as those chosen to serve the inner court of the Oba; they were leopard hunters. Looking closer, we detect floral patterns in the background that are linked to the water god Olokun; this indicates the power that the Oba has over water.

The Benin Empire was eventually destroyed by the British in a punitive act of revenge known as ‘The Benin Expedition of 1897’. The Oba’s decision to assassinate one British General led to his palace being captured, burnt and looted. The last Oba of Benin was imprisoned and died in exile. A 19th century British newspaper reported this event as the “Benin Disaster”.  As a result, ancient treasures collectively known as the Benin Bronzes came into Western consciousness and hence begun the collection of these pieces by museums and private collectors as art. It is from such booty that the Western world began to learn about the Edo people and the ancient Kingdom of Benin. Debates have risen about whether these pieces of artwork should be returned to their rightful owners.

Restitution is always a controversial topic because ancient artefacts require optimum museum conditions for their conservation and survival. Subsumed into the restitution debate is the sense of superiority amongst many Western art institutions centred on their argument that their museums are the optimum repositories for ancient artefacts like these Benin Bronzes.  The British Museum has always claimed that it is the best place to house and showcase the Benin Bronzes because it has the funding and the expertise. On the one hand that is accurate, on the other, it seems such a shame that many Nigerians are deprived of experiencing the beauty of their heritage because conditions in their museums are not deemed optimal for exhibiting ancient artefacts. The power relations between colonial and post-colonial nations continue to fuel this debate. Emotions run high among individual Nigerian historians and scholars but to date, the British have yet to repatriate these Bronzes.

Benin Brass Plaque, Benin City, Nigeria, Edo People, 16th century AD, brass, (h) 48.3 cm x (w) 39.9 cm x (d) 7 cm, in The National Museum of Singapore, Treasures of the World, 05 December, 2015 – 29 May, 2016, cat. no. Af1898,0115.21

Image: © The British Museum

Eva’s Notes:

Would you believe that when the Europeans first set eyes on the Benin Plaques, they were bowled over by their artisanal craftsmanship and beauty, and thought that the Africans must have learnt their craft from the Europeans?

The Benin Brass plaques displayed in several museums in the Western world tell only part of the the kingdom’s history. Plaques, like the one in the essay, tell the story of trading relations between Portugal and Benin which started from 1498 and were to continue for 400 years before other European powers arrived.

It is good to remember that the way these plaques are displayed in museum settings are not indicative of how they were used within the context of the Oba’s palace; these plaques which are documents of the Oba’s business relations, war and ceremonies were found on the walls of the royal palace. Another little tidbit to take away is that brass belonged solely to the Oba; it is a royal material.


Conn, S (2010) Whose Objects? Whose Culture? The Contexts of Repatriation in Do Museums still need Objects? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp 58-86.

MacGregor, N, (2012), ‘Benin Plaque: The Oba with Europeans’ in A History of the World in 100 Objects. London: Penguin Books Ltd, pp 424 – 428.

Moore, B (2015), Treasures of the World from the British Museum. (exhibition catalogue). Singapore: National Museum of Singapore.

Woods, P (2012) ‘Display, Restitution and World Art History: The Case of the ‘Benin Bronzes’ in Visual Culture in Britain, volume 13, Issue 1.

Singapore – The Lion City by Raffaella Nava

During the fourteenth century, a prince named Sang Nila Utama was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. He then founded this little island where he had spotted this magnificent animal, and had named it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city).

Soon after that The Lion City’s busy markets had fine craftsmen and merchants who sold goods like hornbill, cloth, spices and porcelain, but fierce battles broke among The Lion City and their neighbouring kingdoms. In one of these battles, The Lion City got defeated and was burnt to the ground. The only things left in the city were some coins and ceramic bowls. Over time these goods became buried in sand and dust.

And so the old and beautiful kingdom was forgotten.

A British colony

The Lion City stayed hidden for over 200 years until one day in 1819 when an Englishman called Stamford Raffles was sailing up the river and came across the old lion city. Raffles liked it so much that he went to ask the two rulers, Sultan Hussein and Abdul Rahman if he could set up a trading post.

Soon enough The Lion City became a British colony, this meant that The Lion City belonged to England.

With his friend, Colonel William Farquhar, Raffles started building roads, shophouses, streets, markets and even a free port for ships and boats to come and trade.


Everything was going great, until one night when all the people of Singapura where fast asleep, war paid a visit. The Japanese dropped bombs from up high and marched into the city with frightening swords and guns.

The people of Singapura were not prepared to fight but tried as hard as they possibly could, but still it was not enough. Quickly Singapura was defeated! And so Japan took over Singapura, changing Singapura’s name to Syonan-To.

Japan ruled very cruelly for three and a half more years, they started killing and torturing the people of Singapura, making them not feel safe anymore.

After three and a half cruel years, Japan lost to Britain. Singapura was free at last! Everyone was happy! Can you believe that even the children were excited to go back to school and be with their friends?

Lee Kuan Yew

After the war, people became unhappy. They didn’t want to be a British colony anymore. They wanted to be free. A young man named Lee Kuan Yew and his friends wanted to turn this dream into reality. They asked the Queen for independence and she granted Mr Lee and his friends their wish.  In 1965, Singapura became Singapore when it parted with Malaysia.

Singapore is now a sovereign country, we have now celebrated fifty-one years of independence.

Photo credit: Zheng Lai Ming.  To read more about the artist go to:

Lee Kuan Yew, 2015, oil on canvas, 230 x 192 cm. Private Collection.

Eva’s note:

Raffaella is only 10 years old; she has a big imagination.  This was an essay she had to write in class. She picked Singapore as a topic to research about because “The Lion City” is her home. Knowing the story of the city in which one calls home is important for self-image and identity.  As a Third-Culture Child, home is wherever her parents choose to live; for now, Singapura is home.

Every city has a story; nations are built over time and learning about the history of Singapore made Raffaella realise that hard-work, people and love are the important ingredients that nations are built on.

Zheng Lai Ming is Eva’s art teacher. She has been taking lessons sporadically from him. Hyper-realist oil portraits take talent, hard-work and lots of dedicated love. The colossal canvases that Zheng paints on require skill and a good eye for the minutest of details.

Working with Zheng has made Eva realise that artists are both born and made; they are born with an innate talent and are made to be keepers of this talent by a divine design.

The Belachan Loving Cat – by Jasmine Adams

As a child, I was nicknamed little Miss Butterfingers.  Even though I was the sole owner of a family of imported dolls, I never had the pleasure of playing hostess at their tea parties.

Entrusting me with the responsibility of pouring the tea would inevitably result in miniature teapot cover flipping off or a misdirected spout resulting in a spreading stain on Barbie’s pinafore.

Given my propensity towards accidental slips, I was not deemed to be kitchen assistant material and banned from the exciting arena of smoke and smells presided over by the women folk in my family.

My earliest memory of food in its semi-original form brought memories of a high pitched yell. “Yau Siew” was a Hokkien vulgarity, and emanating from my sedate and ladylike grandmother, most surprising indeed!  She accompanied that heart rendering curse with a frenetic waving of a feather duster in her attempts to thrash the cause of her unhappiness.

Preceding this outburst, there was a crashing sound of bamboo and metal and the swish of a furry tail belonging to an accursed feline who will, undoubtedly henceforth, be destined towards a difficult and foreshortened life.

Excited by the cacophony, I finished on the home square of the hop scotch game and rushed to the scene of the crime.

My untrained nose detected a pungent odour totally disproportionate to the dismal mess which confronted me. Mud cakes lay flattened into unmentionable shapes on the pock marked and dusty cement five foot way. The bamboo tray which was their most recent residence bore few marks of their existence having toppled down along with the supporting poles meant usually to hang laundry.

This unsteady contraption which rested on odd chairs worked well for drying less tempting products but my neighbour’s cat was undeterred by the challenge of this precarious perch when it came to belachan.

My absence from the hallowed walls of the kitchen was a primary cause in my lapse in understanding the direct connection between these disintegrating slabs to the most important condiment on every Peranakan’s dinner table.

My grandmother’s precious patties of belachan had become shapeless forms which would not have the opportunity to harden and mature into solid grey rocks. Our family recipe for belachan was “purist” and made from the freshest miniature shrimp known as grago.

These tiny shrimps were deeply ingrained in our historical and cultural beginnings. Not just an insulting word for Eurasians who incorporated them into their daily diet, they were also associated with Portuguese colonial masters. Another but not often used name for belachan was Melaka cheese.

In her book ‘The Golden Chersonese’, Isabella Bird explained how this association between tangentially disparate but acquired tastes could be made:-

…The boatmen prepared an elaborate curry for themselves, with salt fish for its basis, and for its tastiest condiment blachany – a Malay preparation much relished by European lovers of durian and decomposed cheese. It is made by trampling a mass of putrefying prawns and shrimps into a paste with bare feet “

Given that true blue Peranakans have paternal Chinese origins, the use of this ubiquitous condiment was a strong influence from their maternal Malay roots. A likely by-product of the remnants of a day’s catch left out too long in the baking sun which evolved into food, many South East Asian cuisines have their equivalents. The Thais have their kapi/ kapee, the Filipinos, their alamang and the Indonesians their terasi, humble essentials which elevate simple repasts of rice and vegetables into memorable meals.

These days, making belachan from scratch in Singapore may be an insurmountable task. These miniature shrimps have become an unprofitable product to sell to the retail customer and are not available even in the most esoteric seafood market.  Understandably, making belachan at home according to secret family recipes is now an extinct practice in our city state.

From start to finished product, there are many steps in the production of belachan. Fortunately for all of us, compressed bricks of ready prepared shrimp paste are easily available in any Asian supermarket. Those who prefer a more authentic and rustic taste can still venture into fishing villages in Malaysia as they are still made by fishermen’s wives. Seawater and fresh sunshine may make for less stringent hygienic production standards than the cottage industries which export far and wide but according to connoisseurs yield a taste sensation comparable to none.

Image credit: Brian Adams; to read about Brian Adams, go to:

Eva’s notes:

This is a mouthwatering story of loss; loss of a traditional method of making a condiment that is so dear to every Peranakan’s heart.  It is also a tale of regret; regret for the passing of an epoch when life was simpler in Singapore as indicated by the drying of belachan patties on a makeshift perch.

Mantegna -The Dead Christ

Peter gazes numbly at his son’s corpse.  He finds his way slowly out of the morgue and towards the hospital waiting lounge; Diane is sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup, staring vacuously ahead.  An empty seat by her beckons him; he lowers himself onto the edge of the hard plastic seat and perches elbows on knees, hands clasped as if in prayer.  The seat groans under his weight; it is the only sound in this air-tight space.  The metallic odour enveloping him is acutely pronounced today.  When John passed, the air was clinical; his nose detected only the whiffs of astringents and syringes that day at the hospital.


The stench of death clings to the air; the air freshener scatters a spray of chrysanthemum although the packaging says rose.  The funeral parlour is packed; John had led a full life with many friends coming from afar to celebrate him.

At John’s funeral Peter cried like a baby; Peter can’t help himself; he is 85.  No turning back now, he mumbles as they lowered the coffin; his better half is gone forever and his heart is stone.  Alice, Peter’s wife, has Alzheimer’s; she doesn’t attend the funeral; she can’t attend.  It doesn’t bother Peter the least; he wanted his last moments with John to be private, like the many times they had played golf together or had chatted over a pint at the bar – just John and him.


“You’re not ready for me,”  Death soothes, tucked up in the lower corner of Peter’s bed; he likes the right corner, especially.  He is not cloaked and doesn’t carry a staff.  He has no shape or form.  His presence is electric.  Who said that Death has to be personified?  Was it Shakespeare or Garfield?

George Eliot made a statement once but Peter can’t remember it now, he thinks it has something to do with parting; it’s been some time since he’s taught a literary criticism class.  It was Browning who had said ‘shun death’, John had said, but look where he ended up.

“Am I to feel grateful?”

“Gratitude serves me no purpose.”

This obscenely inane conversation takes place nightly.


The disease makes her forgetful.  One day, she remembers Peter and the next, he eludes her, becomes a stranger.  On good days, she calls him John, the love of her life.  On bad days, she screams like a banshee and paces the carpeted parquet.

“Take me,”  she screams at Death.

“Not yet.  He still needs you.”

This utterly desperate conversation occurs nocturnally.


Peter’s children take turns daily to help out.  His daughter, Diane, the eldest and single, brings them The Mail and the milk.  Susan comes with the dinner, cooked fresh from her own kitchen.  She is a chef and runs a restaurant in town.  Tonight, they will have Spag Bog and Spotted Dick for afters.  Alice loves her meat sauce; Susan cuts up the spaghetti and feeds her mother like a baby; Peter can’t wait to douse the pudding with whisky.  James, the vet, takes their dog for a walk and makes sure that the alarm is turned on when he leaves – the gypsies need a deterrent – and the log fire is put out – “can’t have it burning all night, it’s not good for the environment,” his eldest reminds him.  James is afraid that with nobody tending the fire, an accident might occur.

They don’t talk about death.  No need, they know He’s lurking there.

James cycles to and from work; the suburbs make for good living.  Good for his heart and his climbing cholesterol.  Doctor’s advice.  He doesn’t drink; seen his father pass out too often.   He doesn’t smoke; recoils at his mother’s breath on greeting .  Would she know how to light one now?


“Give me more time.”

“Afraid?”  Death teases, flashing his naked teeth.  “Ah!  You’re still a babe.”

This necessary begging is a nightly affair.  The answer comforts him, reassures him that his daily trudge on the bicycle is meaningful and productive.


James is late.  His sisters have come and gone and the fire is slowly dying in the fireplace.  Alice is all tucked up in bed; her bedroom door locked.  Peter is sipping his night cap – single malt whisky.

When he awakes he is still in his armchair.  The fire has died and his whisky glass has slid from his hand to the floor.  It’s not broken.  Murano glasses are made well and can sustain damage, even half a bottle.  Where is James?

Peter draws the curtains and the living room brightens.  The glare cleanses his soul.  Alice is pacing the floors above.  He’d better go upstairs to see to her.  The nurse will arrive soon enough.  His mobile buzzes in his pocket.  It’s Diane.  She’s at the hospital, she says.  They found James keeled over on the road this morning, he’d fallen off his bike and hit his head on the pavement.  The coroner said, rigour mortis had already set in when two cyclists found him.


photo credit: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

To read about Mantegna, go to:

Going Japanese

It doesn’t matter what she says; he doesn’t wear her skin.  The previous foursome date night, they all agreed that the next should be Asian; Carlo agreed to their local Japanese, Misuzu wasn’t so sure.  Noah and Patty have never been; Carlo is keen to introduce them to the neighbourhood.  He’s proud of their new home in this unchartered part of London; unchartered by Noah and Patty, that is.  Their mock Tudor house is immense compared to the flat Noah and Patty own in Hampstead.  Location, Location, Location.  The estate agent hadn’t mentioned that Willesden Green really isn’t the location; only said that the area offers “better value for money” and the Jubilee line goes directly to Canary Wharf.

The Japanese had a good write up in TimeOut – “authentic neighbourhood Japanese sushi bar; great value for money, although Japanese culture can be lost in translation.”  The owners are from Kyoto.  Based in London since the ‘70s, they have a regular list of clientele who really understand fish.  Misuzu glows with pride and commiseration; at last one of her own in an obscure neighbourhood.  She has company.

Carlo had insisted on the Japanese; Misuzu was afraid that their friends won’t like it, won’t like the locality.  Hampstead has many great eateries north and south of where Noah and Patty live.  But… too far north and one enters another part of town; however … a little south and one enters the heart of town.

“Oh, they can come over this time, I’m tired of the trendy places they like to eat at,”  Carlo retorts.

It was Patty who suggested going Japanese on their next date night.  Misuzu acquiesced as she is so prone to.  Frankly, Japanese cuisine is her go to, being part Japanese on her mum’s side.  You couldn’t tell that she’s also part American, Irish-American; her mother’s features are stronger.  This was a convenient genetic advantage; Misuzu never knew her father, has never lived in America.

“Perhaps, Ono San isn’t the right place for them,”  she suggested to her husband.

“No, no, they’ll like Ono.  It’s cozy and Mrs Ono is cute.  They’ll like the set up with her serving them in her kimono.”

There’s a sudden rancid taste in Misuzu’s mouth but being expats, friends are hard to come by.

Ono san and his wife, Hiroko, greet them courteously at the entrance.  Hiroko is minuscule tonight in her usual yukata.  It hadn’t been easy to find a parking spot.  Noah was concerned that they would scratch the Cayenne, worst still pick the lock and drive off with it.  He had warned Patty not to leave anything visibly valuable in the back seat.  They had even removed their daughter’s branded car seat.  Patty being Catholic doesn’t like to leave things in temptation’s way.

Come carina!  She’s in her traditional costume,”  Patty beams at Hiroko and takes three clumsy bows.

“Sylvie would look adorable in a little kimono like that, great for International Day at school,”  Patty nudges Noah.  She loves alternative dressing; it’s very in moda in Milan

It’s not like they haven’t had Japanese before.  They adore Nobu; the location is central and the Cayenne doesn’t stick out in Knightsbridge.  Patty could eat there every day, Noah had said.  They just haven’t been to one this small and one run by real Japanese people; they like it though but the menu needed translating.  Noah loves the idea of the subservient wife serving the guests in her kimono, he winked at Misuzu when he said that.  Topping that, Ono san is bald like an authentic Japanese manga character; Patty is itching to caress his shiny head; wouldn’t that be a hoot?  The sake list looks formidable.  Japanese restaurants are so “not-the-same” in Milan, complains Patty.

The tables were all laid out Japanese style: wooden chopsticks in their paper sleeves sitting on ebony rests placed horizontally in front of the diner.  Patty removes her chopsticks and pulls them apart.  She likes these portable cutlery, so clever of the Japanese.  Sylvie is learning to use chopsticks now; you can buy these tong-like ones in Habitat; great for learning to eat with sticks, she had chimed to Misuzu, so excited to find them that she had phoned Misuzu on the spot.

They read the menu silently.  Patty wants to know what tobiko is, and the maguro, is it raw or flambéd?  The ones at Nobu are flame-cooked on the top and she likes those.  Noah explains that authentic Japanese restaurants serve everything raw.  Misuzu keeps quiet.  She ponders on the chirashi, although the grilled saba and the tempura both sound good.  The yudofu would be wonderful; obaasan in Kyoto relishes this national dish.  She’ll also order a selection of sashimi.  Ono san’s expertise is in fugu.  He apprenticed under a famous sashimi chef who taught him the intricacies of preparing pufferfish.

“This, this and this,”  Patty points to the dishes on the menu with satisfied confidence.

Hai, hai, hai,”  Hiroko san confirms.

Hiroko’s small frame stiffens in discomfort.  She hesitates before taking Misuzu’s order and mumbles something in Japanese that Misuzu didn’t catch.  The pause hung in the air for a concrete moment.  Carlo was mid-sentence in recounting the football.

“Chopsticks for eating, not for ordering and definitely not for pointing,”  Hiroko whispers authoritatively, head lowered, no eye contact, simultaneously retrieving the pair from Patty and replacing them on their perches.  She turns around quietly and leaves the table to compose herself before returning again to finish taking the rest of the orders.

Misuzu glowers internally but mentally does a victory pull.  One up for the time she got accused for cutting the line at the Royal Ballet; all she did was slide silently next to Carlo who was queuing for tickets.  It unnerved Carlo that she felt assaulted by the old British gentleman who tapped her on the shoulders indicating that there’s a line; she’d assumed he’s British.  It’s not aggression that made him physical, only a language barrier because not all Asians understand the British protocol to queue up for everything, Carlo explained.



Mazu – Goddess of the Sea

In Norse Mythology, when we cast our minds to the Goddess of the Sea, we think of Rán. With her net, a present from Loki to help her catch fish, she ensnares men to her undersea world laden with gold.

Rán is known for her many amourous adventures with sea farers and other Norse gods. She is a symbol of unpredictable weather conditions and an epitomé of death associated with sea travel.

In Chinese mythology, Rán’s counterpart is Mazu, Goddess of the Sea. She is Mother Ancestor, protector of sea-farers and sea merchants living in the coastal areas of China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Chinese diaspora as far as San Francisco, pay homage to Mazu.

The legend of Mazu begins with the story of her birth. She was born in the Song Dynasty (c.960-1279 C.E.) to the Li family on Meizhou island, in the Straits of Taiwan. Her birth is said to be down to the benevolence of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Upon her death at the age of 28, she was deified and became Mazu, benefactor and patron goddess of sailors. A temple dedicated to her can be found on this island and homage is paid to her annually. Meizhou Island has been declared a UNESCO Heritage site of Culture.

Mazu’s given name was Mo Niang which means the “silent girl” since she cried very little as a child. However, she was unusually alert.

When she born, it is said that the room filled with an emanant light and the fragrance of blossoms permeated the air. It became apparent soon enough that Mo Niang was a talented child. She had a photographic memory and was also very spiritual. During her first visit to the temple of Guanyin, she was given her “second sight”. Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, endowed Mo Niang with the ability of clairvoyance.

There are many legends telling of Li Mo Niang’s bravery and pious faith and of how her magical and mystical abilities developed. One legend ascribes these powers to her having accepted a piece of bronze disc from a sea creature. Henceforth, she began to develop mystical powers that grew stronger each day.

How did she become so beloved by sea-farers and sea merchants? Well, with her gift of clairvoyance from Guanyin and her new found set of mystical powers from the sea creature’s bronze disc, she could predict the changes in weather patterns. Sailors and fishermen started to ask her advice for a good time to go to sea. Her popularity grew as each prediction of weather changes came true.

Marine folklore has it that she is often seen standing on a cliff wearing red to alert returning sailors and fishermen from the treacherous waters ahead. It is also said that she appears as a red light in troubled ships just in time to calm a storm and rescue the sailors onboard. Seafarers were told that the invocation of her name would bring her to their rescue.

One of the many mystical powers that Mo Niang has is the ability to go into a trance and have her spirit leave her body. The most poignant story of her life refers to this out-of-body ability that became a pivotal moment for her.

One day whilst weaving, she fell into a deep trance like sleep. She could see a storm raging and the lives of her father and brother in danger. She transported herself to their rescue. Her father and brother were tossed at sea upon her arrival. She brought her brother safely to shore and returned to help her father. Clenching his shirt sleeve between her teeth, she swam for shore. However, at that precise moment, her mother shook her gently awake, breaking the trance. This caused Mo Niang to let go of her father’s sleeves, resulting in his death. Grief stricken, she vowed to continue saving endangered lives at sea.

Her dedication to save lives meant that she took a vow of celibacy. However, she had a fair share of suitors.  It is said that two warriors of great fame lusted after her and each asked for her hand in marriage. The ever intelligent Mo Niang challenged the warriors to a duel. They were each to fight her until their deaths; her only condition was that if they lost to her, they would have to serve her for all eternity. As the legend goes, the two warriors died at this duel since Mo Niang who was tutored in in the Buddhist art of Kung Fu outwitted them in her superiority. They have remained her celestial guardians since.

The goddess Mazu is always flanked by these guardians: “Thousand li Eyes” and “Wind Favouring Ears”, who both symbolize clairvoyance and deep knowledge as one can see far ahead and the other can hear all that the wind brings.

The cult following of Mazu reached new heights during the Qing Dynasty when Emperor Qianlong awarded her the title of “Heavenly Empress” as he attributed the many battles he had won to her.  To the shamanistic practising Manchus, Mazu is seen as a female shaman due to her ability to travel to, communicate with and influence the spirit world.

Mazu plays a significant part in Singapore’s history. When Chinese indentured servants arrived on the shores of Temasek, they would stop off at the Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street

to pay their respects and give thanks for a safe passage.

Telok Ayer Street in the 1800s was right by the shoreline of Temasek. New arrivals from Fukien would find their way along the shoreline to Thian Hock Keng temple to give thanks to Mazu. The temple was the focal point for the Hokkien community where the men gathered, prayed and found work. Construction of the temple started in 1839 and was completed in 1842 with the help of funds from the Hokkien philanthropist Tan Tock Seng.

Mazu’s statue was shipped from Amoy (Xiamen) to Singapore and the Straits Times featured an article of the procession that took place in April 1840 to consecrate a “very elegant temple, according to Chinese taste” that was “built in the town for her reception”. The procession was organised to carry the “divinity herself… a very elegant canopy chair, or palanquin, of yellow silk and crape, and was surrounded with a body guard of celestials, wearing tunics of the same colour.”

In 1907, Qing Emperor Guang Xu dedicated a calligraphy plaque that he had written himself with the words ‘Bo Jing Nan Ming’ – Gentle waves protecting the South China Seas – which bears witness to the temple’s stature and the importance of Mazu as a deity and goddess.

Mazu is held in great esteem in the Chinese pantheon of gods and goddesses. Although her origins are derived from folklore, she is linked to Buddhism in many ways: the myth of her conception as being granted by Guanyin and her vow of celibacy lend her Buddhist leanings. However, it is important to note that she is neither Buddhist nor Daoist but a syncretic mix of both.