#7  Jane Says … Grab Hold of Singapore’s Intangible Heritage

When we think of heritage, we usually think of things — old buildings, battle sites, graveyards, historic gardens, and such. But heritage is more than that. It’s also the stories we tell, the things we make with our hands, and the rituals we attach to festivals and significant religious holidays. Heritage can be abstract as well as concrete.

“Intangible heritage is all about traditions that are part of a country's character and DNA,” says Jane Iyer of Jane’s SG Tours.

In Singapore, intangible heritage is everywhere — from social practices such as weddings and coming-of-age parties, to annual happenings like the Tamilian Hindu Thaipusam festival with its fascinating body-piercing and load-carrying rituals that symbolise penance and gratitude. The Monkey God festival is another yearly celebration and at the handful of temples in Singapore dedicated to this important character in Chinese literature, it’s all about lion dancing, clashing cymbals, banging drums and opera singing.  Chinese New Year, Deepawali and Hari Raya are major holidays rich with rituals connected to food; prayer; and candles, joss sticks and festive lighting.

Jane’s SG Tours showcases much of Singapore’s intangible heritage in its tours and events. On walking tours led by Singaporean author Josephine Chia, for instance, who wrote two books about Singapore’s old kampong days, we visit neighbourhoods to hear stories about life before HDBs. Meanwhile, Jane’s Vanishing Trades tour includes stops at a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shop, a metalsmith, and hawker stalls where coffee is brewed using the Singapore-centric stocking method and where bak-kut-teh (pork rib soup) is made the old way.

“On our tours, we take people to shops where traditional trades have managed to survive, from bird cages to Chinese opera costumes and songkok caps traditionally worn by muslim men from the Malay world. Old-style bakeries and tea shops are also deliciously rich ways to connect with the past,” says Jane.

How a nation manages to hang on to its intangible heritage is a predictor of what will survive for future generations. The intangible complements the concrete — from black and white homes, to old temples, mosques, and churches — and broadens and deepens the Singapore story.

Fortunately for our island, there seems to be renewed interest of late in preserving the past in its many facets and forms. Singapore recently ratified the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, joining many countries around the world in an effort to preserve our history, from traditional performing arts to festivals, trades and food heritage. Sinpgapore’s heritage leaders, including Jane of Jane’s SG Tours, have been tapped to push the movement forward. They’ve begun an inventory of the country’s rich cultural legacy, so that others may be inspired to share what they know about the past to keep it alive for future generations.

To connect more with Singapore’s intangible heritage, check out what’s on offer from Jane’s SG Tours. Click Creative Singapore for more details on tours focused on everything from Vanishing Trades to Literary Tours led by authors who have written novels or memoirs about Singapore, from Josephine Chia to Dawn Farnham. Our next one is May 17 — Goodbye My Kampong: A History & Literary Walk with Author Josephine Chia.