Culture

A view of Pingjiang Road in Suzhou, China. (iStock)

Diplomat, book addict, concubine and sage, all in an old alley of Suzhou

In one of his carefree walks down an alleyway in Suzhou, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai discovers the old studio of Huang Pilie, renowned book collector of the Qing dynasty. But that’s not all. The former abodes of diplomats, concubines, academics and many more lie hidden in Xuanqiao Lane and its arteries. What stories will he find with each meander?
The Chinese community in Singapore has developed in a way that is unique to its time and place. (SPH)

Trees in a forest: Becoming Chinese Singaporean in multicultural Singapore

A metaphor used by playwright Kuo Pao Kun and recently mentioned by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong says that different cultural communities are trees in the forest, each separated at the trunk, but nourished by the same soil and cross-pollinating high in the sky at the leaves and branches. Low Sze Wee, CEO of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, extends the metaphor, noting that Chinese Singaporeans have developed distinct cultural identities from Chinese elsewhere. Their way of life is a combination of what they brought with them, their interactions with others, and the policies they live under with their fellow citizens.
My English teacher taught me that one had to change their usual ways of expression when learning a foreign language. (iStock)

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: My English teacher called me Pei-kai Cheng

Unlike the rote-learning of today, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai remembers his English classes to be fun-filled vocabulary “battles” and games. He credits his teacher, Mr Fu Zhou, for teaching his students not to fear a new language but to get comfortable with it, like wearing a second skin.
The Grand Hotel is illuminated with the Chinese characters '平安' (Peace) in Taipei, Taiwan, 3 June 2021. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg)

Taiwanese art historian: What flowers and swallows taught me about life amid the pandemic

As art historian Chiang Hsun recites the Diamond Sutra and prays for the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, he believes in the adage that "this too shall pass". In tough times, we must remind ourselves to be grateful for the breath of life and to be kind to one another. May humankind be safe and well in their warm homes, wherever they may be.
People walk along an alley in Zhenjiang Xijin Ferry site, said to be the birthplace of Zhenjiang ham jelly. (iStock)

A Chinese deity and a ham jelly with a 300-year-old history

With each bite of Zhenjiang ham jelly, a traditional dish of Jiangsu province, Cheng Pei-kai remembers local folklores and heroes. There was Zhang Guolao, an immortal who dared to try meat accidentally cured with saltpeter, and also national hero Shi Kefa, who defended Yangzhou with his last breath. What would they have thought of today's tourists, nonchalantly trying a slice of ham jelly or two?
Xishan, Jiangsu in China (left) and Modica, Sicily in Italy (right).

Egyptian-American architect: I see China in rural Italy

In this photo series, Hisham Youssef captures unexpected parallels between the countryside in China and Italy. Different cultures and many miles apart, the similarities are uncanny.
A barber in a barbershop.

'Life is indeed like a dream': A cultural historian returns to the barbershop of his childhood

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai visits his hometown in Taiwan, going for a haircut on a whim. He and the barber are lost in their own thoughts as the shaver buzzes on. 40 years have whizzed by since they last met; their memories hang in the silence, like a time capsule frozen in time.
Tea fields in Anxi. (iStock)

Exploring Dehua porcelain and Anxi tea with a Dutchman

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai recalls his study tour in Dehua county sampling tea as he visited dragon kilns and pottery workshops. He was delighted to extend warm hospitality to a Chinese-speaking Dutchman who was there to learn about Dehua porcelain and Anxi tea.
Generous chunks of mutton keep the foodie heart happy and the body warm. (iStock)

Morning call in Zhejiang: Mutton with shaojiu

In Haiyan county, Zhejiang, local fishermen used to down a bowl of piping hot braised mutton with shaojiu before battling the icy winds at sea. Now, local trades dominated by textiles and hardware have moved onto land. But the tradition of rising at dawn for braised mutton and a tipple lives on.