As the drizzle continued, I had little choice but to take shelter in the walkway beneath a block of flats, hoping it would let up quickly and I could continue my way to the metro station. Well, it didn’t let up quickly and I found myself getting impatient. And bored.
I decided I would walk to the end of the block just to see if there might be anything interesting there.
Indeed, there was. An old tree had statues of gods planted around it. More were laid out in the planter a short distance away.
It’s not common, but once in a while you see these shrines here and there around Singapore. I’m not sure how they arise, perhaps someone once upon a time saw an apparition emerge from the tree or heard a voice from it. Typically, the vision or voice would have told the recipient which number to buy for the week’s lottery. When it turned out to be a winning number, the lucky man or woman would feel obliged to return the favour by making offerings at the tree. Offerings would include donations of statuettes such as in the photo.
Others would quickly come making offerings of their own in the hope that they too might be blessed with a propitious number.
I’m just saying this in the general; I have no idea if this was the provenance of this tree’s sacredness.
It so happened that I had a camera with me, and I had nothing else to do. The only problem was that it was still drizzling and the light was dull. The colours on the porcelain statues would be so much brighter on a good day.
Never mind, I’d take a few pictures and hope they turn out half-visible, I told myself, especially since I am unlikely to come this way again anytime soon.
Cupping my hand over the camera to protect it from the rain, I strode out towards the tree to take a few shots. There were many things to think about. What setting should I use? How do I compose the shot to provide it with the context of a working class housing estate? In the top picture for example, I deliberately included the bicycle in the frame. How do I aim the camera without a droplet of wind-blown water getting into the lens?
Amidst all that, I also sensed movement among several men who had been sitting in the coffeeshop at the end of the block. One by one they got up from their seats, coming up to the dripping eaves of the walkway, looking at what I was doing. Eventually, there were about ten to twelve of them, together with one woman. Most were middle-aged Chinese, at least two were Indian. All of them had weatherbeaten looks, cheap shorts and cheaper sandals.
My sixth sense told me it wasn’t just curiosity that had roused them from their seats. I was on their turf. They were the keepers of this neighbourhood shrine and they were eyeing me with great suspicion. Did they think I was going to break anything? Did they think I might offend the gods by stepping on certain stones or ledges that no foot should insultingly touch?
I put on my best behaviour, avoided laying hands on the statues and watched where I placed my feet. And finished my mission as quickly as possible, which anyway the rain would have ensured.
A critical decision then awaited me. Should I return to the same block from which I emerged and where now stood a phalanx of the pious? Or should I make a short dash to the next block to escape their suspicions? Deciding that I was guilty of nothing except appreciation of folk religion, I felt that I should most certainly not turn tail. So, putting on my self-confident air, at least to the extent that shoulders hunched against the rain permitted, I strode back towards the walkway with the coffeeshop.
The phalanx parted like the Red Sea to let me through. My cup of self-confidence runneth over, as my self-confidence is wont to do. Instead of walking on, I stopped and re-started my camera to review the pictures I had just taken. From behind me, I could feel men half-leaning forward to glimpse for themselves what images I had captured of their gods.
Slowly, I turned my head to give the guy on my left a greeting nod. He nodded back with a nervous smile. At that, the rest of the men leaned in closer, in a semi-circle around my back. I had now acknowledged their presence and they must have felt entitled to check out my pictures without restraint.
The woman was the first to speak. “Why are you taking photos?”
“Because they are pretty,” I said, “and you seldom see similar sights in Singapore.” As I replied, I held up my camera’s display and showed her this picture:
Actually I hated the picture; the light was no good. I should have used a fill-in flash, but in the drizzle and without an umbrella, there was really no way I could fiddle around to do so. But I gambled that she knew nothing about photography, and that since it was her god, she would of course think it was a pretty picture. How could she say otherwise?
“Yes, it’s very pretty,” she said and then asked the question that everybody wanted to ask but didn’t know how. “Are you from the government?”
“No,” I said, notching my voice a few decibels up and spicing it with a note of protest, “I’m not from the government.”
The men rose in chorus: “He’s not from the government.” Smiles beamed all around, tension lifted like a bunch of balloons and general agreement was reached that indeed their shrine was a beautiful one.
Matter resolved, I snapped my camera shut and walked out into the rain.
The small crowd went back to their plastic chairs in the coffeeshop and to the soap opera playing on the television hung from the ceiling, relieved that the government was not yet going to demolish their illegal shrine, chop down the tree, offend their gods and otherwise deny them the opportunity of divining the next lucky number.