Thursday, August 30, 2007

Burning Hell Notes: Appeasing the Dead and the Living

[Images posted via the "Blog This" feature from Please link to back to the various image owners, attributed below]
I interrupt my series of IFLA posts (yeah, a few more to go) with this one on the custom of burning "Hell Bank Notes", otherwise known as Joss Paper.

Hell dollars - Originally uploaded by Mussels

To Hell (域) - Originally uploaded by ampulets2

Offerings to Ancestors Dec 2006 - Originally uploaded by jasonwmw

My family doesn't practice this custom. Maybe only one time, at my maternal grandpa's funeral, but not for my paternal grandma's. Nevertheless, the practice comes to me. Or, I'm affected by the effects of the burning.

I live in a HDB estate and many of my Chinese neighbours burn joss sticks and joss paper as part of ancestor worship -- particularly during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Some of the burnings can get pretty elaborate, with paper constructs of mansions, cars, luxury goods like mobile phones, even effigies of maids and servants -- all burnt as offerings to ensure the ancestors or spirits would enjoy a life of ease in the afterlife.

Hungry Ghost Festival I - Originally uploaded by Juin Hoo

The smoke gets to me. There's an acrid chemical odor to the fumes. Surely, breathing that into your body cannot be good.

And then there's the scattered ashes and blackened spots on bare concrete walkways -- remnants by those who don't use containers to burn their offerings (provided by the town council) like this one:

For The Skies Only - Originally uploaded by Jelly of Eld

There are hidden clean-up costs. Ultimately, it's tax money from you and me.

Without fail, I'd have to shut the windows when the burning starts. But the acrid smell of burnt paper still manages to seep in. Sooty ashes litter the void deck. Gets into my apartment sometimes.

It pains me to see people not giving a hoot about the cleanliness of my (and their) surroundings.

On the bright side, more and more civic-minded neighbours are using the containers. But understandably, they cannot control how the smoke and ashes would drift.

Still, there are those who persist in damaging the concrete pavement (yes, I've seen pitted and cracked concrete floors). The town council puts out posters urging the use of the containers, but to no avail.

Now I'm NOT suggesting in anyway that the custom of burning joss paper be stopped.

In truth, when I was younger, I was inclined to think that the practice of burning joss paper was outdated. But maybe having been exposed to heritage enthusiasts in later years, I now take a moderated stand. People should be free to practice whatever customs within acceptable social norms. There are also people who participate in the custom because it's a family thing (btw, nice post on explaining the burning procedure).

I'm not for burning. I won't do it. That doesn't mean others should not.

What I take issue is the resultant pollution and litter, from the collective burnings from many households. I wish there was a way to reduce the negative effects.

Calling for the practice to be stopped would be a recipe for disaster, politically and socially.

So what we need is a way to continue the practice, without resulting in the smoke, soot and litter. Or at least make incremental progress to reduce the negative effects.

I was thinking of a multi-pronged approach:
  1. Public education on the relevance and importance in maintaining customs. And clarify that the issue isn't about the custom per se, but the pollution. Something that heritage enthusiasts and agencies can work hand-in hand, I think.
  2. Create incentives for students to design a better bin, to capture the smoke and debris. Or filter the smoke.
  3. Victor Yue (over at the Singapore Heritage list) mentioned about the concept of smoke being the transportation medium, which may lead to resistance in adopting smoke filters for burning. Still, I'm hopeful that modern practitioners can accept the idea of a "Hell Note Super Highway", i.e. burn in a collective location. After all, if they can introduce modern items like cars and handphones to burn to the dead, why not a collective smoke superhighway?
  4. In the same discussion, Victor mentioned about possible health hazards from the burning of the cheap materials used in the joss sticks and papers. That might be a possible angle to make people more receptive to items 2 & 3. I'm confident most will consider the health-risk to others. They want to accumulate good karma, not incur bad ones.
  5. Engage the public on the issue. Start with open discussions. Spill to the papers and talk shows. Hopefully a solution from the public as well.

Would the above work?

I don't know.

But at least I got the matter off my chest. I've always wanted to speak my mind about this issue but wasn't sure how to approach it. Thanks to the postings over at the Singapore Heritage list, it has clarified some of my thoughts. I've decided to blog it here.

I realise that talking about the practice of burning hell notes and joss sticks is probably as sensitive as talking about say, Muslim prayers that are sometimes held at void decks or homes, or Indian weddings etc. Issues that touch on the faiths and traditions of another individual is always a sensitive matter.

Perhaps the reluctance to speaking pointedly about them stems from worries that it would be (mis)construed as being racist or intolerant. This reluctance can get to the point where no one talks about it openly. And the problem gets worse.

Race, religion, beliefs... that's not the issue here.

The issue is about striking a balance between preserving traditions and consideration for others who don't subscribe to those traditions.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Off to IFLA Conference: 19-23 August 2007, Durban, South Africa (part 9)

My plane touched down in Singapore on Sunday, around 6am. Good thing there was a direct baggage transfer from Durban airport to Singapore. Saved time and effort from collecting and re-checking in the luggage at Johannesburg (but odd that there isn't a direct baggage transfer from Singapore to Durban -- not sure how it all works).

Here are more photos, taken on the same day as the visit to the Durban Central Library.

This is the Durban City Hall. It houses the city's central library, its Natural History Museum, and its Art Gallery. The banner proudly announcing the 120th anniversary of the Natural Science (History) Museum.
durban natural history museum

The view of the main foyer (taken from the landing staircase leading to the next floor). The entrance to the library is on the ground floor.
durban natural history museum - foyer0

The next floor was the Natural History Museum. On the wall of the staircase landing were the heads of a rhino and an elephant. Beneath the rhino's head, the sign says "A museum about the earth, its history, and life on earth, both past and present."
durban natural history museum - foyer1 durban natural history museum - foyer2

A stuffed giraffe awaits at the next level. It's tall (I'm 1.85cm, btw)!
durban natural history museum - foyer3 durban natural history museum - giraffe and me

Into the W. A. Campbell gallery, where the 'Big Five' (and more) awaits:
durban natural history museum - gallery

I immediately noticed a lifelike leopard perched on a branch, poised with its kill, snarling down on the stream of visitors below. The well-placed lights created a dramatic effect, bringing the leopard to life. Beautiful.
durban natural history museum - leopard
Turning to my right, I saw this:
durban natural history museum - baboons

Up close and personal with a rhino...
durban natural history museum - rhino

... and a bull elephant (looks fearsome even when stuffed):
durban natural history museum - elephant

Oops, what's this? A dinosaur (an attraction for the kids, surely):
durban natural history museum - dinosaur

More exhibits:
durban natural history museum - storks durban natural history museum - cheetahs durban natural history museum - vultures durban natural history museum - barracuda durban natural history museum - hyenas

One more level up...
durban natural history museum - roof windows

... to the Art Gallery:
durban natural history museum - art gallery durban natural history museum - art gallery landing

Even the toilets (the male one... I don't know about the Ladies washroom) have a sense of history!
durban natural history museum - urinals

On the urinal, it says "Shanks & Co Ltd. Patentees. Victorian Pottery. Barrhead." (Hmm.. could this company website be the same Barrhead, circa 20th century? Heh.)
durban natural history museum - urinals 2

Check out the hydraulic door auto-closer/ anti-slam mechanism:
durban natural history museum - hydraulic door closer

The Durban Natural History Museum isn't as huge as say, London's Natural History Museum (but that's not a fair comparison) or the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. But it's impressive nonetheless. Lots more exhibits I didn't capture on camera.

It's a good idea to have the library in the same location as places of attraction like the Natural History and Art museums. I saw lots of kids touring the museums and I'm sure they would be dropping by the library after that (when we dropped by the library, it wasn't open for public yet). Bet the kids will be checking out books based on the exhibits they saw.

I can imagine the librarians leveraging on the kids' heightened interest and awareness from the museum exhibits, and making appropriate references when conducting library tours, book talks, instructions on using OPAC, Internet searches etc.

It just occurred to me the Durban Central Library librarians ought to produce some relevant resource guides (i.e. pathfinders) and have them placed at the museums and/ or selected exhibits. Might be a good way to connect the museum-goers to the library collections.

By the same token, why not place some smaller museum exhibits in the library, supplemented with resource guides from the museums?

Think "synergy" instead of "silos".

Here's another thought -- maybe one day, our own National Museum of Singapore would co-opt the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research to its main premises, where it's a lot more accessible to the public. There's something about natural history that's infinitely more attractive than man-made historical artifacts.

I don't see the National Library physical collection moving back to the National Museum premises though (it used to be). But Digital Collections could be designed and integrated into the museum exhibits.

Maybe some day.

In my lifetime.


[Reference: Part 8]

Friday, August 24, 2007

Off to IFLA Conference: 19-23 August 2007, Durban, South Africa (part 8)

I made a point to attend Stephen Abrams' presentation (incidentally, I managed to meet him to thank him for his comment). He spiced his talk with humourous pictorial slides.

Here are bits and pieces from his presentation.

Stephen Abram - IFLA 2007 presentation

"The book is not at risk. Knowledge management is."

I loved this slide showing Albert Einstein explaining what Library 2.0 is (picture is made up, of course).

Stephen Abram - IFLA 2007 presentation

Library 2.0 = (books & stuff
+ people
+ radical trust)
x participation

Mentioned Snowden's 3 rules:
  1. Knowledge will only ever be volunteered it can not be conscripted
  2. We only know what we know when we need to know it
  3. We always know more than we can tell and we will always tell more than we can write down
He said his presentation slides should be up in his blog. I think it would be listed on this page [update: see this post].

Challenge is for libraries to move to a place where we cannot see our users face to face (the way librarians are traditionally used to).

If librarians want to get into social networks, we have to be willing to tell people our real names (i.e. cannot be anonymous). "Would you go to a doctor who won't tell you your name?"

p.s. last post from Durban. Will post a few more once I'm back in Singapore.

[Reference: Part 7]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Off to IFLA Conference: 19-23 August 2007, Durban, South Africa (part 7)

Three other colleagues and I made a trip down to the Durban City Public Library. It's located at the City Hall -- a building that's 140 years old if I remember my facts correctly. The building itself houses the Natural History museum and the Art museum.

The public library itself occupies one floor.

Collection in English, Afrikaans, and Zulu (South Africa has 9? 11 indegineous languages; Zulu was the predoniment predominant tribe in Durban).

durban city library - front

Their front desk, with Internet terminals at the side. Users have to book up to one-day in advanced, and limited to only one hour.
durban city library - main desk

They had a collection specifically for Mills and Boons novels.
durban city library - mills and boon

Here's their Afrikaan's Collection (i.e. fiction works written in Afrikaans)
durban city library - afrikaans

They used the DDC Classification System for Nonfiction works. Interestingly, they had a Four-letter Call Number system for Fiction (NLB libraries used the Three-letter Cutter system). I asked why it was four letters and was told that it's easier to locate items with four letters than three. Like in this picture, where CHIN and CHIP would show up as CHI under the Cutter system.
durban city library - call number

Their Adult Fiction section.
durban city library - fiction

I believe this was their circulation desk in this part of the library.
durban city library - inner section

Their music collection, with CDs and DVDs.
durban city library - music library

A book display.
durban city library - book display

The Children reading area (this was just one part of it):
durban city library - children section

When asked what would he consider as a major issue in running the library, the librarian said space management was constantly on their agenda. What was interesting was that they had something called "Dusty Books Weeding" held twice a year.

In library terminology, "weeding" was to remove "unwanted" books off the shelf -- usually outdated, less popular, and tattered ones. Their term "dusty books" was quite apt, i.e. books that had collected dust because they have not been read.

He asked if public libraries in Singapore was busy. I said most of our public libraries get roughly around 2,000 visitors a day and up to 5,000 visitors on weekends. He said he also served about the same number. That's quite a high usage for them.

This exit said: "Thank you for coming. Bring a friend or two next time".
durban city library - exit sign - english

And here's the Zulu translation.
durban city library - exit - zulu

[Reference: Part 6]

Off to IFLA Conference: 19-23 August 2007, Durban, South Africa (part 6)

Spotted this at the conference venue: A "Braille Trail" for those who rely on Braille -- the sign provides instruction on how to get around. For instance, to get to Hall 2, one has to "Turn to 3 o'clock, and walk straight ahead".

Rather than say "turn 90-degrees", it said "turn to your 3 o'clock". Makes sense.

A clever system.

I closed my eyes as I touched the surface of the sign (as if I was reading the Braille sign). I was facing the sign. So I pictured 3 o'clock, which was a 90-degrees turn to my right. Walking straight would get me to Hall 2.

Durban ICC - braille sign

[Reference: Part 5]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Off to IFLA Conference: 19-23 August 2007, Durban, South Africa (part 5)

"How do you say "Hello"?" I asked. They greeted back: "Sawubona".

At IFLA conferences, I try to chat with at least one or two IFLA volunteers. They were often local librarians and/ or library students helping out at the conference. I've found that such informal chats are a good way to understand more about libraries and librarianship in the host country.

Two nice South African librarians I met

Ms. Ntutu Sogoni (L) and Mr. Ishewakatipa M. Dube (R) were academic librarians. I spoke to them during a break in the conference proceedings. We were able to converse in English very fluently.

"What made you become librarians?"

Basically, both of them didn't enter the the profession by design. More by chance. And they stuck with it (inspite of the low pay and recognition) because they loved what they do.

"How does it feel to be a librarian in South Africa?"

Perception-wise, they told me people still think librarians stamped books. Ntutu said the popular image of a librarian was still an old lady with glasses and hair tied in a bun, and stamping books (wow, talk about universal misrepresentation!). Most people didn't know that the libraries already had electronic services and resources. Librarianship was often not on the radar screen of government officials. Ishewakatipa said libraries were only included upon hindsight when the university had plans to expand facilities and premises.

The South African situation (as they explained to me) sounded similar with what singapore faced in 1994 or 1995. I shared with them about how more public libraries were built, how staff pay and working premises and conditions were improved, how services were more customer oriented. Of course i mentioned about government funding. Which led me to explain that singapore only had a population of 4 million, over 640 sq km. How most our water and food were imported. The only resource we have are the people. They looked at me and it was all new to them.

ASIDE: I asked them if they have blogs, or heard about blogs. They looked quizzically at me. Ntutu said she heard it mention in an advertisement (non-library related it seems) but no, they didn't really know about. She asked what it was about. I said it was a free service, just like Internet email services, that allows the user to create accounts a start their own websites or online diaries. Suggested they try or So maybe they might start blogging after this.

I also learned from them that public libraries in South Africa were well used but under-funded. Regular users were schools that didn't have the means to have their own libraries. Generally, opening hours were 8am to 5pm on weekdays, 8am to 1pm on Saturdays, and closed on Sundays (very much like the opening hours of public libraries in Singapore 10 years ago).

Ntutu said many school children in rural areas do not have access to public libraries. I said that in their Cultural Minister's speech at the opening ceremony, there was mention of plans to fund and develop libraries in South Africa.

They said that they have also heard talks about funding but progress seemed to be slow. Then they said "We just try our best, given what we have".

Ishewakatipa was from Zimbabwe. I asked what made him decide to come to South Africa. "For a better life," was his earlier reply. Ntutu said she studied in a Bantu school and did well enough to go to better schools.

That, plus their professional attitude of "trying their best given what we have" -- I couldn't help but admire and respect them.

We parted with smiles and laughs. They taught how to do handshakes, African-style.

[Reference: Part 4]

Off to IFLA Conference: 19-23 August 2007, Durban, South Africa (part 4)

Parked outside the conference venue was a Mobile Library bus.
mobile library bus - front
mobile library bus - rear to front
mobile library bus - rear

I met Aron, a South African librarian with the Reading Awareness & Library Promotion (Department of Sports, Arts & Culture, North West Provincial Government). He immediately gave me a quick tour of the bus without my asking.
mobile library bus - Aron librarian

The bus won't be operational for another two months or so. When the service begins, it will ply the rural areas and farm schools where there are no community libraries.

Its inside was quite spacious inside the bus, comfortably accommodating my height (1.85cm). Sufficient aisle space for people to browse the opposite facing rows.

mobile library bus - interior
mobile library bus - interior - mid
mobile library bus - interior back

The bus will serve as a marketing tool to promote libraries that are under-utilised.
mobile library bus - canopy

It can used as an exhibition stand (participating in shows and events).
mobile library bus - banner
mobile library bus - side panel

The brochure also said the bus will be used "to celebrate national and international days, especially when the events are celebrated in areas where there are no libraries at all". And because the target audience is the farming community, the bus will also be deployed at "sod turning" events.

mobile library bus - driver seat

Nearer the driver seat is the wireless Internet workstation.
mobile library bus - Internet workstation

The bus holds about 2,000 items -- mostly books -- Adult and Young People collection (no Children's collection). Mix of Fiction and Nonfiction works. Non-lending materials were located at the back of the bus.
mobile library bus - books

mobile library bus - books - adults

They also lend out items from their Toy Library collection. Before being allowed to borrow the toys (the entire bag or single items within) borrowers have to be briefed by the library staff on how to use the items.
mobile library bus - toy library

The bus has a toilet and pantry area.
mobile library bus - interior - toilet

It also has a lift to bring up bulky items and also wheelchair-users.
mobile library bus - lift

The service will run daily (I forgot to ask if it would operate on weekends). The service would be managed by a bus driver (whose job is purely to drive and maintain the bus) and a librarian. The bus would return to the central public library for replenishment after each trip.

Younger Singaporeans may not know of a mobile library service back in the 60s and/ or 70s (I'm not too sure of the specific years at the moment). As more physical libraries were built, the mobile library service was terminated.

[Reference: Part 3]