Kway chap, lo hei among latest additions to NHB's heritage list

Inventory gets boost in diversity; total of 97 practices and artefacts now enshrined

Nadi Singapura co-founder Yaziz Hassan says there are not enough people in Singapore who make Malay drums. The making and repairing of Malay drums is a new entry to the National Heritage Board's intangible cultural heritage list. PHOTO: NADI
Making and repairing of Malay drums. PHOTO: COURTESY OF EIMBRUNT RASHID
Making of flower garlands. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Making of tempeh and tapai. ST PHOTO: YEOH WEE TECK
The Nineteen Day Feast and Baha'i community life. PHOTO: THE BAHA’I FAITH SINGAPORE/FACEBOOK
Passover and related Jewish practices. ST FILE PHOTO
Yusheng and lo hei. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Kway chap. ST FILE PHOTO

Hawker fare kway chap, Malay dance form zapin and flower garlands used by Hindus are among the nine latest additions to the intangible cultural heritage inventory created by the National Heritage Board (NHB).

This is the third time that the list has been expanded since its launch in April 2018. It now comprises 97 practices and cultural artefacts, up from the original 50.

The inventory is meant to raise awareness of the diverse practices and preserve them for future generations. It includes the country's hawker heritage, which was added to Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in December.

The other additions to the NHB list are: the making and repairing of Malay drums; the making of Chinese signboards; the making of tempeh and tapai; the Passover and related Jewish practices; the Nineteen Day Feasts and Baha'i community life; and yusheng and lo hei.

With the newest entries, a wide diversity of practices by various religious, ethnic and artisanal groups here are now enshrined on the list.

These range from niche practices such as the making of joss sticks to the widely enjoyed fish head curry.

Religious festivities such as the celebration of Christmas and even forms of medicine like Ayurveda, which has roots in ancient Sanskrit sources, are also included.

Among the newest entries, the Baha'i faith, which is predicated on the oneness of religion and man, is practised by only about 2,000 people in Singapore.

Similarly, Passover, commemorated by the Jewish community, is observed by only some 2,500 people, most of them expatriates.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive of policy and community, said the board's efforts to leave no stone unturned in compiling the list shows its continued commitment to "document Singapore's intangible cultural heritage elements and safeguard them for future generations".

"The inventory is also a key pillar of NHB's efforts to profile and recognise intangible cultural heritage practitioners," he added.

Living heritage includes social practices, rituals and festive events, performing arts, and craftsmanship that frequently change over time as people adapt to new environments.

It has been said, for example, that the quiet tossing of yusheng this year due to Covid-19 regulations presents an important change in the practice.

Being added to the list means the practice is given an entry on NHB's website Roots, covering its origins and expression.

The entries are topped off with bibliography and references to aid students or those who are interested in reading up on the topics.

More crucially, the heritage inventory focuses the efforts made by the NHB and its stakeholders to help some of these practices live on, at a time when many of them are not being picked up by younger practitioners.

Mr Yaziz Hassan, 46, co-founder of Nadi Singapura, a Malay drum and percussion group, said there are enough players of Malay drums but not enough people who make the instrument.

He started playing Malay drums at the age of 10. He had to learn how to make them when he was 17, as he could not afford to buy one.

Each drum takes about one to three months to make.

"The craft is appreciated among practitioners but not by the public because it's not a normal career," he said.

Madam Som Said, one of Singapore's most well-known dance choreographers, said Singapore's zapin is unique, despite the dance's popularity in the Malay world.

She said that with more young people taking up zapin, the dance form will naturally evolve.

"While we preserve and promote it, a tradition is not static. Zapin is now so popular that children, youth and adults are able to dance zapin in schools, community centres and cultural organisations."



One of the most popular dance and musical forms in the Malay performing arts, zapin originated in Yemen and was introduced to the region in the 14th century.

While in the past it was mostly danced by men and performed at only significant rite-of-passage events, it is now performed widely by both men and women.

Often rhythmic, dance moves in zapin mimic the movement of animals and the natural world, including that of the fruit bat and trees.

Making and repairing of Malay drums

Malay drums, which include the kompang, hadrah and gendang, are the heartbeat of the Malay performing arts.

While the art of making and repairing them went extinct previously, a revival in the 1990s of the Malay cultural scene here saw more people returning to the traditional craft, although it remains a niche service.

As the enterprise is labour-intensive and high-cost, most drums used locally are sourced from regional craft centres in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Making of Chinese signboards

These signboards, usually made with wooden boards and carved or painted with calligraphic characters, are hung above the entrances of temples, clan associations, businesses and schools.

Signboard carvers are found wherever there is a sizeable Chinese community, such as in China, Malaysia and Singapore. A hand-carved signboard takes about two to three weeks to complete. More recently, there have been fewer commissions for these boards, and the lack of successors to the craft also puts its future in question.

Making of flower garlands

Hindu religious and cultural practices often make use of flowers, which are both offered to deities and used to adorn their statues or images.

Hence these garlands are sold near or in Hindu temples. The most frequently used flowers are fragrant varieties like jasmine and rose.

While demand for them remains high, there are concerns that there may be fewer traditional garland-makers here in time to come, as more pre-packed garlands are imported and fewer young people take to the handicraft.

Making of tempeh and tapai

Tempeh, made from fermented beans, and tapai, fermented rice cakes, are unique to South-east Asia.

They are believed to have originated in Java, Indonesia, and have variations made from different ingredients.

Both are widely used in Malay and Peranakan cuisines, as well as by vegetarians and vegans as meat substitutes.

The Nineteen Day Feast and Baha'i community life

The Baha'i faith is based on the unity of mankind, the oneness of God and the oneness of religion, and was brought to Singapore from India in 1950.

One of its most unique practices is the Nineteen Day Feast, which happens every 19 days and is used to make sure that the community remains tight and is kept abreast of all members' concerns. It is usually held on the last evening of the 19-day Baha'i month, and includes religious prayers and a social element.

Passover and related Jewish practices

The Passover is a Jewish tradition that commemorates the end of Israelite slavery in ancient Egypt.

In Singapore, it is celebrated over eight days, during which Jews visit the synagogue and recite special prayers and passages from the Torah.

Preparations begin at least a month before, with homes thoroughly cleaned to remove all traces of leaven, according to the belief that the ancestors had to escape in haste and could not wait for their bread to rise. As at 2019, there were about 2,500 Jews in Singapore.

Yusheng and lo hei

Lo hei, or the tossing of yusheng - a salad dish comprising raw fish, shredded vegetables and various seasonings - for good fortune is a Chinese New Year tradition here.

It involves diners shouting auspicious phrases as each ingredient is added, although this year, Covid-19 restrictions mean it has to take place quietly.

Kway chap

A dish originally from the Chaoshan region in China, kway chap has become a hawker staple, comprising broad sheets of rice noodles in soup with pork offal, as well as side dishes.

Most duck rice stalls now also sell this dish of Teochew origin, adding to it new ingredients like braised eggs and fish cake.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2021, with the headline Kway chap, lo hei among latest additions to NHB's heritage list. Subscribe