Bite a chicken in rite of passage

Mr Markus Tay, secretary- general of Singapore Kityang Huay Kwan Youth Wing, registered his son Viari (both left) for a Teochew coming-of-age ceremony.
Mr Markus Tay, secretary- general of Singapore Kityang Huay Kwan Youth Wing, registered his son Viari for a Teochew coming-of-age ceremony.PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

A group of young people will take part in a Teochew coming-of-age ritual which involves them biting the head of a steamed chicken

On Aug 16, a group of Teochew youth will be wearing red clogs and biting the head of a steamed chicken.

They are trying to revive a coming-of-age tradition Teochew people used to practise.

Organised for the first time by the Singapore Kityang Huay Kwan Youth Wing, the ceremony called chu hua yuan (literally, coming out of the garden) will start with participants washing their faces with floral water in basins to get rid of any xie qi (bad luck).

Kityang is one of the eight districts in China that the Teochews come from.

Putting on red clogs and new red-coloured T-shirts, they will offer tea to their parents to thank them for bringing them up.

I want to do my part to preserve the Teochew tradition. If young Teochews let our tradition die off, then future generations will not get to experience what our ancestors have gone through.

VIARI TAY, 16, who will be taking part in a Teochew coming-of-age ritual next month

An altar will be set up for the young people to pay their respects to the Gong Po Shen (garden deities), who the Teochews believe take care of their children from birth to age 14.

A highlight of the ceremony will see each young person biting the head of a steamed chicken - an act that originated from what a Ming dynasty Teochew top scholar, Lin Daqin, did.

Lin, whose family was so poor he had to wear red clogs to school, was one day rewarded with the gift of a chicken for helping an elder complete a couplet.

Lin's father served him the head of the cooked chicken with the hope that he would become somebody great.

The Teochew youth organisation holding the ceremony expects at least 15 participants who are aged 14 to 18.

Five have registered. The participation fee for the ceremony, which includes a 10-course lunch featuring auspicious fare, is $188 for members and $238 for non-members.

Mr Markus Tay, 43, the secretary-general of the youth group, which was set up last August, says : "We want to encourage young Teochews to continue the Teochew traditions and chu hua yuan, which targets teenagers, is a good way for us to start connecting with the young."

He is among the few in his generation to have undergone chu hua yuan in a simple ceremony arranged at home by his parents when he was 15. He has registered his 16-year-old son, Viari, to take part in the coming ceremony.

He says: "Nowadays, there's nothing to mark a person's transition into adulthood.

"Hopefully, after going through the ceremony as a group, the participants will be left with a deeper impression of the significance of the ceremony, and be prepared to take on their responsibilities as an adult and play a bigger role in their family and society."

Associate Professor Lee Cheuk Yin, director of the Wan Boo Sow Research Centre for Chinese Culture at the National University of Singapore, says that coming-of-age ceremonies, or initiation rites, for the Chinese date as far back as 2,000 years ago.

It was one of the four Confucian rituals, together with weddings, funerals and ancestral sacrifices.

Initiations were then held for children aged 15 to 20 at the ancestral hall of the clan and involved the child praying to the ancestors and thanking his parents for raising him. The acts signified that they were of marriageable age.

Today, it is practised in some parts of China. In Singapore, clans such as 157-year-old Char Yong (Dabu) Association and the 78-year-old Singapore Kwangtung Huay Kuan say they have not conducted such ceremonies for their members in recent memory.

Coming-of-age ceremonies are also dying out in other cultures here.

For instance, the Tamils traditionally hold a ceremony called the Manjal Neerattu Vizha for girls after they had their first menstruation.

A feast is thrown by the family for friends and relatives, but this practice is not widely observed today, says Dr K. Shanmugam, head of Tamil Language and Literature programme at UniSIM.

The Sikhs' version of a coming- of-age ceremony for males would be the turban-tying, or dastar bandhi, ceremony.

This is usually done by family members when the Sikh male reaches the age of 11 to 16 years.

During the ceremony, a prayer is done and an elderly family member would then demonstrate how to tie the turban.

The practice is also slowly vanishing, says Mr Manmohan Singh, secretary of the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, which administers two Sikh temples here.

But he says that the board plans to revive the tradition and organise a formal ceremony for the community later this year.

Mr Singh says: "The turban is the most conspicuous representation of the Sikh identity and we would like to encourage people, especially the young, to retain this representation."

An initiation rite that is still practised is in Malay-Muslim families - the upacara berkhatan, or circumcision, ceremony, followed by a kenduri or banquet, for Malay- Muslim boys at the advent of adolescence, says Associate Professor Lim Beng Soon, head of UniSIM's Malay Language and Literature programme.

But the circumcision is now not widely performed as part of a big ceremony.

Mr Singh believes that some possible reasons for the decline of the turban tying practice and coming of age ceremonies in general are Western influence and the break-up of multi-generational families resulting in traditions not being handed down from one generation to the next.

To ensure that the upcoming chu hua yuan ceremony at Singapore Kityang Huay Kwan premises in Geylang adheres to tradition, the youth group researched online and referred to the clan's encyclopaedia on the traditions of Teochews.

They also visited the clan's counterpart in Kityang China and also Teochew Eight Districts Association in Johor Baru, both of which still hold such coming-of-age ceremonies.

Viari, a polytechnic student, is looking forward to the event, though he admits that initially, he found the ritual "a bit strange".

But after his father told him the story behind it, he agreed to take part.

He says: " I want to do my part to preserve the Teochew tradition. If young Teochews let our tradition die off, then future generations will not get to experience what our ancestors have gone through."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline 'Bite a chicken in rite of passage'. Print Edition | Subscribe