S’porean woman on how she found her way back to her Teochew roots

Her then-three-year-old daughter’s fixation on Teochew opera led Eileen Hair on a path to rediscovering her roots.

| Low Jia Ying | Sponsored | November 07, 2021, 11:06 AM

For younger Chinese Singaporeans, joining a clan association is something not many would consider.

Especially taking into account that many of us can barely hold a conversation in our dialect.

But for Eileen Hair, who is the section head of the event management course at ITE College Central, joining the Teochew clan association in 2018 was like fulfilling her calling.

However, what prompted the 43-year-old’s quest for membership at Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan wasn’t because she was encouraged to do so by her grandparents, nor was it out of a need to network with other businessmen in the clan.

It was her then-three-year-old daughter’s unexpected interest in Teochew opera at the 2016 Teochew Festival that encouraged Hair to dig deeper into her roots.

Daughter was fixated on opera, demanded to take pictures with performers

Hair brought her daughter to the 2016 Teochew Festival held at the Sands Expo & Convention Centre, after having a good experience at the inaugural festival in 2014, which was held at Ngee Ann City.

When they passed by a performance of a Teochew opera by Nam Hwa Opera at the festival, Hair’s daughter insisted that she watch it with her.

“I thought it was just for fun, like yeah, why not? We’ll sit here for just 10 minutes,” Hair recounted.

But her daughter ended up staying for “almost 1.5 hours”.

Hair’s daughter Sue’ En (center).

“For a three-year-old to be fully absorbed into the stories and in a language that she was not exposed to, I was very amazed,” she said.

And where most young children would be frightened of the performers in their costumes and heavy makeup, Hair’s daughter dragged her to take a picture with them.

Afterwards, she asked her mother to bring her to more operas.

Hair remembers fondly what it was like to accompany her young daughter to these shows at Nam Hwa Opera:

“A lot of people would say, ‘Wah, your daughter would come and watch with you, is it?’ I’m like, no sorry it’s the other way around, we have to watch with her.”

Her daughter’s unexpected and sustained interest in Teochew opera fortified her motivation to join the Teochew clan.

Trying to embrace her roots

Hair herself also has a special fondness for Teochew culture, as many of her cherished memories growing up involved watching her paternal Peranakan grandmother prepare meals for the family:

“The most unforgettable memory was when grandma prepared and guided my cousin and I through a coming-of-age (出花园) ceremony, an important milestone for a Teochew child, when he or she turns 15 (Chinese age).”

“Now that we are so many generations down, our children will feel departed from their roots, [especially] if we do not have the opportunity to share the values, the culture, the language with them,” Hair lamented.

Hair gets her source of inspiration from her late maternal grandmother, whom Hair considers the archetypal Teochew woman – gentle, one who puts her family first, and is great at cooking.

Hair and her daughter, Sue’ En.

She added:

“She played that important role of teaching me the language, correcting the pronunciation, and also guiding me step by step in making traditional dishes like rice dumplings.

“Her patience and encouragement was helpful in my process of learning the language and I was not afraid to speak it and make mistakes.”

The 2014 festival also opened Hair’s eyes to the rich history of the Teochews in Singapore.

“[The festival] started to make me wonder about how important it was to know our roots, and it is beyond just the food we have, or the language we speak, but the history of how our forefathers came from China to Nanyang via the Red Head Junk, and the culture and festivities that were celebrated by the Teochew community,” she said.

Coming full circle

Now, Hair is a member of Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, and is busying herself organising this year’s Teochew festival.

There hasn’t been a festival since the one she attended with her daughter back in 2016, mostly due to delays from Covid-19.

Helping to organise this festival is the perfect blend of her skills and passion, Hair said.

For one, Hair worked as a trade exhibition organiser for 20 years before joining ITE.

“Now when I look at the festival, I thought, what a fabulous way to exercise what I was trained in over my years of experience.”

She also pulled some of her Teochew friends from the exhibition industry to help organise the festival as well.

Organising this festival also fulfils her goal of using it as a platform to educate more Singapore youths about Teochew culture and connect them to it:

“I believe in chuan cheng (传承), which means to pass down knowledge from one generation to the next. I hope to connect the next generation back to their roots,” she said.

Hair’s daughter at a Nam Hwa Opera event.

Teochew Festival 2021

This year’s festival is organised by Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan and co-organised by Nam Hwa Opera, and is held entirely online.

Image courtesy of Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan.

Key highlights include over 100 hours of opera shows by Nam Hwa Opera, Teochew language lessons, a food street, rich cultural, tradition, and crafts by our Chaoshan partners, virtual tours to Chaoshan, and even a Miss Teochew Pageant Competition.

A virtual map of the activities available at this year’s festival. Image courtesy of Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan.

Visit this year’s virtual Teochew Festival here.

This sponsored article by Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan makes this writer want to be Teochew even though she’s not.

All images courtesy of Eileen Hair, unless otherwise stated.