The myth and magic of the keris | Gods and Gangsters

Malay Art Gallery Keris

Originally written for Wowgetaways.com

Think you know all about these enchanted daggers? We give you the lowdown on the origins, legends, and symbolism of the supernatural weapon.

The keris: originally a stingray tail or spearhead?

Despite decades of archaeological research throughout Southeast Asia, the origins of the keris still remain a mystery. There are two prevailing theories regarding the creation of the keris.

The first says that keris blades were initially made from the venomous tails of large stingrays. When iron was discovered, the tails were replaced with iron blades and the venom, substituted with a wash of lime juice and arsenic.

Stingray's sting
A stinger from a stingray measuring approximately 9.5cm. According to this theory, prehistoric weapons were first made from the tailbones of fish or sting rays. Photo credit: Wikipedia

The second says that keris blades were originally spearheads. In the days when ancient Java was torn by war, warriors used to abandon their weapons, particularly the unwieldy spears, for speedier escape. They soon realised that it was a waste of perfectly usable iron and began to craft spears that had tips that could be easily dismantled. Coupled with a wooden sheath and small hilt, a new type of weapon that could fit comfortably under the belt of a fleeing warrior was born.

Even the place of origin of the keris remains a hotly debated topic today. While some scholars say that the keris was inspired by the ancient daggers found in Dong-Son (Vietnam) in 300 BC, others say it dates to the mid-14th century and originated from Java in Indonesia. The clearest and earliest depiction of a keris being forged, for example, is found in the bas relief of the Sukuh Temple in Central Java.

Sukuh Temple
The bas relief in the Sukuh Temple in Java, which archaeologists say was built in AD 1361. The three scenes depict the Hindu god Bhima (left) as a blacksmith forging the metal, while his brother Arjuna (right) pumps air into the furnace. The elephant god Ganesha watches over the process in the centre. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Either way, at least they now agree that the regional ubiquity of the keris was due to the expansion of the Javanese Majapahit empire (AD 1293-1527) which promoted the adoption of Javanese culture and associated cultural artifacts. Today, various versions of the keris can be found throughout Southeast Asia, even in the Philippines where the kalis, as it is known locally, has evolved into a sword-like version of the original dagger.

The keris in politics and (pop) culture

Kerises are a core component of Malay culture, featuring heavily as weapons, spiritual talismans and symbols of honour. In the epic text Tuhfat Al-Nafis (translated as “The Precious Gift”), kerises are brandished by various factions in the Bugis-Malay wars which were waged across the Riau and in Peninsula Malaysia.

The last sultan to reign in the Malay world, Sultan Mahmud Shah II, was famously stabbed by a keris by his admiral. Because the admiral’s pregnant wife ate his jackfruit. If you’re confused, don’t be. Malay legends are complicated and often trippy – you can read about the full incident at the bottom of this article or watch a 1961 film adaptation to see the fight in full glory. 

The point is, kerises have long been used as a symbol of honour and this tradition continues today. There’s even an entire TV series in Indonesia about a particularly powerful keris wielded by Ken Arok, a legendary ruler from East Java (Indonesia). Watch the trailer below.

In Malaysia, the keris has been appropriated as a political symbol by pro-Malay nationalist groups. The daggers were brandished by extremist agitators during the Malay-Chinese race riots in the aftermath of the 1969 Malaysian general election. And until 2009, kerises were regularly held, kissed, or wielded symbolically during speeches by various heads of the youth wing in Malaysia’s UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).

Hishammuddin Hussein 2005 keris
Former Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein brandishing a keris during an UMNO party meeting in 2005. Other famous keris-waving politicians include Najib Razak (recently deposed Malaysian Prime Minister) and Khairy Jamaluddin (former Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports). Photo credit: Bolehtalk.blogspot.com

In 2016, the keris was evoked once again in 2016 by Malaysia’s Islamist political party PAS (PAN Malaysian Islamic Party) during its annual party assembly. Ironically, whatever messaging the party intended to communicate was lost in the absurd theatrics of the event. Not only was the metre-long-plus keris oversized (the length putting it within the range of a rapier, and twice the length of even the Filipino kalis), but it was then used as a knife for a cake frosted to look like the PAS flag.

Hadi Awang keris
PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang holds the outsized keris at the party’s annual assembly. Photo credit: The Malay Mail Online

Keris and magic

Kerises, especially the older ones, are believed to be imbued with magic and can possess either a benevolent or malevolent nature. While better natured kerises can boost the powers of its keeper by bringing disaster or death upon his enemies, evil kerises are innately destructive and will seek out victims by flying around independently.

The best known of the “good” kerises is the Taming Sari, a magical dagger wielded by storied Malay warrior Hang Tuah. Said to grant the power of physical invincibility to its custodian, the Taming Sari also had the ability to hover in the air, or to leap out of its scabbard to defend its master during fights. Today the Taming Sari is said to be residing in the Perak Royal Museum in Malaysia as part of the Perak sultan’s regalia.

Bad kerises, in contrast, are unnamed and are usually destroyed once discovered. But it is rumoured that one nefarious keris resides in the Perak Museum in Taiping town, which is incidentally located along Jalan Taming Sari (Taming Sari Road), named after the famed lucky keris. Said to be possessed by a bloodthirsty spirit, locals claim that the keris is able to escape from its sheath at night, kill someone, and wipe itself clean before returning to its display case at dawn.

It is believed that the older the keris, the more powerful its spiritual energies. Until recently, it was also believed that kerises get more poisonous over the years due to the accumulation of acid-arsenic polish used to bring out the blades’ pamor.

Modern scholars however, have debunked this claim, as the herbal concoctions containing arsenic cease to be effective within days of its application. Victims of stab wounds from ancient kerises were thus far more likely to die from tetanus than arsenic poisoning!

A gift from heaven: the keris’ pamor

Malay Art Gallery Keris
The keris is characterised by the blade’s asymmetrical profile, distinctive damascene patterning and ornate hilt. There are three main components to the keris: the dapur (general shape of the blade, be it wavy or straight), the perabot (ornamentation at the bottom half of the blade), and the pamor (the damascene patterning). Photos taken at the Malay Art Gallery.

The most important component of the keris is its pamor, the damascene pattern visible in the keris blade. Said to be the soul of the keris, pamor is produced by first welding together iron and nickel, and then finishing the blade off with an acidic mixture to bring out its distinctive black-silver pattern. The complexity of the pamor demonstrates both the skills of the empu (the keris smith), and the spiritual power of the blade.

Pamor falls generally into two categories: that which is controlled by the empu (pamor rekan) and that which is uncontrolled (pamor tiban). Pamor rekan produces patterns that many would consider more intricate but it is pamor tiban that is revered and cherished for its spiritual energies.

But this was not always the case. Prior to the introduction of iron smelting in Java, kerises were mostly made from iron imported from the Luwu Kingdom in South Sulawesi. These contained trace amounts (about 1%) of nickel, which created a low level, indisdictive pamor in the keris blades. This metal was known as pamor luwu.

A second source of metal then arrived in 1749, from a meteorite that crashed near the ancient Prambanan Temple in Central Java. This meteoric iron contained more than 9% nickel, which produced dazzling pamor in the kerises subsequently forged from it.

The symbolism of a fiery projectile falling from the heavens before crashing near a holy ground was not missed. The Prambanan meteorite was regarded as a gift to the royal family from the gods and as such, the dazzling kerises forged from this holy metal, known as pamor prambanan, were believed to possess supernatural abilities.

Pamor prambanan thus became reserved exclusively for kraton (palace) kerises. And bit by bit, the meteorite was chipped away by the best empus in Java. Some believe that the keeper of a kraton keris could kill a person just by pointing the keris in his enemy’s direction.

Obviously due to the limited supply of meteoric iron, the majority of kerises today are forged not from the holy rock, but from scrap metal, including recycled bicycle parts.

One legend across two countries: Bintan vs. Kota Tinggi

Adapted from the Tuhfat al-Nafis

Puteri Dang Anum was hungry. Pregnant with the child of the celebrated Laksamana, Megat Seri Rama, she chanced upon the palace steward carrying a platter of nangka (jackfruit) to be served to the sultan when he awoke.

Please, she pleaded. My child is famished. Could I just have one slice? The unsuspecting steward conceded, extracting just a piece of the fruit for the admiral’s wife.

After all, both the Laksamana and his wife had travelled far from their hometown in Bintan to serve the sultan in Kota Tinggi (Malaysia). The nangka was also at the peak of its ripeness, close to the edge of rotting. With plenty of the fruit remaining, surely the sultan wouldn’t miss a single aril.

Dang Anum Nangka
Dang Anum looking pleased with her nangka. Screengrab from “Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang”, produced in 1961 by Cathay-Keris Film Productions.

Nothing could have prepared the palace for the wrath of the notoriously sadistic sultan, who upon noticing that he was eating leftovers, demanded to know who had the first taste of the fruit.

On hearing that it was Megat Seri Rama’s wife, the sultan ordered her belly to be split open, pulled out the unborn child and effectively sentenced both mother and child to death.

Laksamana then returned to the palace, fresh from a victory over the pirates that terrorised maritime trade between the waters of the Riau (in present day Indonesia) all the way to Kota Tinggi. Struck with grief, he swore to avenge his family’s death.

He sought the blessings of the Bendahara (vizier or chief minister), the Temenggong (chief of public security), and Raja Indera Bungsu (a distant relative of the sultan), who collectively with the Laksamana effectively ran the Malay court due to the sheer ineptitude of the king. And in the middle of Friday prayers, the legendary admiral unsheathed his keris, stabbing the king as he sat aloft on the royal sedan chair.

In response, the sultan threw his poisoned keris at the Laksamana, fatally injuring his attacker in the foot. With his dying breath, the sultan cursed the hometown of the Laksamana, proclaiming that all visitors from Bintan should die from vomiting blood if they ever dared to set foot in Kota Tinggi.

Watch the 1961 film adaptation below to see the fight in full glory.

Play Video

Thus was the end of Sultan Mahmud Shah II, the last of the line of Malay kings descended from the legendary Sri Tri Buana (also known as Sang Nila Utama).

The Earth God: your friendly estate manager | Gods and Gangsters

No Chinese deity is more confusing than the earth god. He is the lowest ranked, but most popular deity within the celestial pantheon. Ethnically, he is Chinese, but is sometimes Malay. Visually he is mostly depicted as a respectable gentleman, sometimes a timid dwarf, and in other times, a formless spirit.

Let’s break it down.

What is an earth god?

The earth god is a position within the celestial bureaucracy. Imagine the Jade Emperor as the prime minister governing all aspects of heaven and earth. At the bottom of the food chain is the humble estate manager position.

Different deities or spirits can occupy the position of “earth god”. In some villages, the spirit of a deceased Malay elder may be worshipped by the Chinese population. In others, the position may be occupied by a Chinese ancestor or a Chinese wealth deity. 

As the earth gods migrated together with the populations that worshipped them, composites of the original deities began to form. When communities could not agree on the identity of their earth god, they ended up worshipping both deities instead.

TRUE STORY: THE CONVOLUTED IDENTITIES OF THE EARTH GOD

The village of Senggarang, a small Chinese fishing community in Bintan (Indonesia) worships both Tua Pek Kong and another deity named Fu De Peh Kong. There is no earth god in the village, although both aforementioned deities are eligible for the position. 

According to the temple steward, Fu De Peh Kong was once just an earth god serving alongside Tua Peh Kong, a higher ranking deity.

However, Fu De Peh Kong was promoted when he began to answer prayers for winning lottery numbers. He then received a dedicated temple built from donations amassed from grateful lottery winners, and is now regarded as a wealth god.

The 5 types of earth gods

Default mode: The responsible paper pusher

This is the most common deity in the earth god position. He has no name, but is immediately recognisable as the de-facto earth god. Kind, responsible, and polite to a fault, you can count on him to fix matters ranging from snakes in the neighbourhood, to a lousy harvest on your farm. For matters beyond his pay grade, such as earthquakes, he will be sure to file a report to the relevant department.

While usually depicted alone, he sometimes appears with his wife. Like her husband, she is a kind and and benevolent lady, but can sometimes be a nag. Some say that she was sent by the Jade Emperor to check that her husband did not distribute blessings to the undeserving.

As the lowest ranking employee of the celestial palace, this earth god is often bullied by more temperamental deities. Most versions of the tale Journey to the West, for example, show the Monkey God Sun Wukong making sport of his lack of power.

Other names: Tou Di Kong, Tu Di Gong, 土地公. His wife is known as Tou Di Po, Tu Di Po, or 土地婆.

“Senior” estate manager: The Divine Granduncle

The Divine Granduncle, more commonly known as Tua Peh Kong, is an honorific given to deified Chinese ancestors of townships in Southeast Asia.[1] 

Most of their identities been forgotten, in which case, a generic statue of an old man, or a plaque with the words “Tua Peh Kong” serves as the object of worship.

However, there are two pretty famous Tua Peh Kongs in Southeast Asia. The one in Penang (Malaysia) who used to be the patron deity of a triad,[2] and the one in Ancol (Jakarta, Indonesia) who arrived with General Cheng Ho’s armada but missed his ride home.[3] Scroll down to the footnotes for the whole story.

Today most Tua Peh Kongs are regarded as wealth gods, or powerful ancestors you wouldn’t want to mess with. Tua Peh Kong essentially serves the functions of earth god with two added bonuses. As a distant relative he is more likely to offer protection, and to answer your prayers compared to a common bureaucrat. He also has a non-specific job scope, and is thus more able to grant wealth compared to a deity only in charge of the soil.

Sometimes Tua Peh Kong is synonymous with earth god. But in most cases, he is ranked just a step higher – think of “Senior” Estate Manager.

Other names: Tua Pek Kong, Da Bo Gong, or 大伯公.

FUN FACT

Tua Peh Kong is synonymous with scapegoat in some parts of the underworld. A Tua Peh Kong’s one and only job is to take the rap for the boss when he is caught by the police. In exchange for that, the Tua Peh Kong is reimbursed with a monthly retainer for his services, plus a one-time fee for his family and himself when he is “activated”.

Straight from China: The Wealthy Benefactor

The Righteous God of Blessings, more commonly known as Fu De Zheng Shen, is an upgraded version of the default earth god. He represents wealth, prosperity and ethical business behaviour. Basically, he’s not going to be very useful if you are involved in gambling or any other vice-related activity.

Unlike Tua Peh Kong, which is a Southeast Asian creation, Fu De Zheng Shen comes straight from China. There are two versions of how he came about. Both involve a man named Mr Zhang who lived an upright life before becoming a supernatural phenomenon after he died.[4]

Fu De Zheng Shen is also known as the locality Tua Peh Kong in some places. That’s ok because both share a similar rank: a few rungs up from earth god. If you’re confused because he looks exactly like the default-mode earth god, or because he is also known as Tua Peh Kong, look out for his name tag: 福德正神.

Fu De Zheng Shen is specifically tasked with dispensing wealth to the good guys. Go to him if you need some luck in your business and remember to pass some of the profits to charity.

Other names: The Righteous God of Blessings, Fu De Zheng Shen, 福德正神

“Hire local”: The Malay Chief

Datuk Kong is an honorific given to Malay-muslim spirits that serve as earth gods. Like Tua Peh Kong, there are many Datuk Kongs around. Each has his own legend (if any), temperament and associated superstitions. Some are decreased Malay elders that were highly respected within the Chinese community. Others are spirits that appeared to the neighbourhood Chinese medium in a dream. Datuk Kong is believed to reside in old trees, caves, riverbanks or rock formations.

A Datuk Kong altar is immediately recognisable by its design. Unlike Chinese shrines, it is usually decorated with Islamic imagery and a swath of yellow cloth. There is sometimes a figurine of a Malay man within the shrine; other times an inscribed tablet or a gravestone.

Think of Datuk Kong as a practical solution to a localisation problem. A Chinese guy would be pretty useless as an estate manager in a Chinese-minority community. It makes more sense to find a local guy who can speak both Chinese and the local language. Better still if the aforementioned guy has supernatural powers.

Datuk Kong is worshipped by both Malays and Chinese. Be sure not to eat pork or consume alcohol prior to praying.

Other names: Datuk Kong, Na Du Gong, 拿督公, Ben Tou Gong, 本頭公, Datuk Keramat

When nothing else is suitable: The Landlord God

Landlord God Plaque
A landlord god shrine at the corner of a shop in suburban Singapore.

The Landlord God is a nameless, formless spirit which protects property owners (you guessed it!). His altar is traditionally placed in the hall or doorway, or in an independent shrine on the ground outside. Each property has its own Landlord God. 

Landlord Gods have been around a long time.[5] Think of the Landlord God as a prototype of the default mode earth god, or Datuk Kong. He does the job of an earth god, only with a smaller jurisdiction. The Landlord God will only protect property that you own (rental also counts).

The Landlord God is technically not a “god” per se, and is not part of the celestial bureaucracy. Think of him as a spirit that does the job of a god. What the Landlord God is to the heavenly palace, is like a long-serving contract worker who’s never been offered a permanent position.

Which begs the question: why is he still around?

The answer is: exclusivity and accessibility. The Landlord God is responsible for a very small number of people and should, presumably, be pretty free to entertain all requests large or small. As a no-ranking spirit, he doesn’t have any ethical restrictions either.

Other names: Di Zhu Shen, the Landlord God, 地主神, The Dragon God of the Five Directions, 五方五土龍神, The Wealth-Bringing Landlord God Guarding the Front and Back, 前後地主財神

Notes:

[1] See this article for an account of who said what about Tua Peh Kong. After debating for half a century, there is still no conclusion to the question of who is Tua Peh Kong. Chia, Jack Meng-Tat (2017),Who is Tua Pek Kong? The Cult of Grand Uncle in Malaysia and Singapore in Archiv Orientální (Issue 85.3), pp 439-460).

[2.1] Zhang Li: the Penang Tua Peh Kong

There were three sworn Hakka brothers who were on their way to Sumatra (Indonesia) on a boat. Sailing with 50 other passengers, they departed from the Guangdong province of China. But their boat was swept off-course in a massive storm before they reached their destination.

The passengers washed up on an island at the north of Peninsula Malaysia. Stranded with no prospect of ever reaching Indonesia, they decided settle down. The three brothers took the lead in establishing the colony. Each had essential survival skills in agriculture, blacksmithing and coal-making.

The leader of the trio, Zhang Li (张理) passed away in a stone cave near his hut in 1749. He was buried by his brothers Qiu Zhao Jun (丘兆進) and Ma Fu Chun (馬福春), and venerated as the colony’s “granduncle” (Tua Peh Kong). The remaining brothers passed away at the turn of the century.

[2.2] Tua Peh Kong’s triad association

Sworn brotherhoods, the precursor to gangs and triads, were the default mode of governance for overseas Chinese prior to the 20th century. The society provided mutual assistance to its members and served as a liaison between the Chinese, the European colonial governments and the local chieftains in Southeast Asia.

The Tua Peh Kong Society of Penang, for example, governed the community of Chinese established by Zhang Li and his brothers. They existed alongside another brotherhood, the Ngee Heng Kongsi, and were constantly fighting for influence. All Chinese societies and brotherhoods were officially shut down by the European colonial governments in the early 20th century. Their associated temples and related properties (such as cemeteries) were then transformed into merely religious venues.

[3] Sam Poe Toei Soe: the Ancol Tua Peh Kong

Sam Poe Soei Soe (Chinese name unknown) was a Chinese sailor who served as a ship cook for General Cheng Ho. He arrived in Jakarta in the 17th century together with the general’s armada. The general was tasked with establishing trade ties between the Ming dynasty and the Majapahit Empire.

Legend has it that Sam Poe Soei Soe became stranded in Indonesia when he missed his ride home. The reason? He fell in love with a local girl, Sitiwati, while watching her dance. Sam Poe Soei Soe then married Sitiwati and built a family in Ancol. When he passed away as a respected elder of the community, he was venerated as Ancol’s Tua Peh Kong. A temple dedicated to him and Sitiwati still exists today.

[4.1] Version 1: Zhang Fu De

There was once a man named Zhang Fu De (张福德) who was born during the Zhou dynasty (BC 1046 – 256). He worked as a tax officer and was known as an honourable and honest man who sympathised with the poor, extending help whenever he could. While he led a relatively unremarkable life, miracles occurred when he passed away at a grand old age of 102.

According to the legend, his body refused to decompose even after three days of his demise. A poor neighbour then built a humble shrine for him with just four pieces of rock – three for the walls and one as a roof – as it was all they could afford at that time. When the family subsequently experienced a stroke of luck and became immensely wealthy, word spread that the shrine housed a god of prosperity. The shrine was then converted into a properly constructed temple and Zhang Fu De became venerated as Fu De Zheng Shen, an amalgamation of his given name Fu De, and the upright life (Zheng) that he led.

[4.2] Version 2: Zhang Ming De

Fu De Zheng Shen once lived as a man named Zhang Ming De (张明德) who was a servant of a rich man named Master Shang (上大夫). Master Shang was sent by the Zhou court to a remote location to serve as a government official. When he did not return after a long period of time, his daughter set off in search for him together with his servant.

On the way the pair met with a heavy snowstorm. Zhang Ming De took off all his clothing to cover the girl to prevent her from freezing to death but unfortunately froze to death himself.

Similar to the other legend, miracles occurred upon his death. Immediately upon his passing, the words “南天門大仙福德正神” which translates to “Deity of the Southern Heavenly Gate Fu De Zheng Shen” appeared in the skies. When Master Shang learnt of Zhang’s selfless deed, a shrine was built in his honour.

[5] Right around the time mankind began attributing living souls to plants and other natural phenomena. This guy has plenty of non-Chinese counterparts around the world. There are many legends that explain how the Landlord God came about, some more fantastic that the rest. But I prefer this more scholarly explanation.

For more, see Chamberlayne, John H (1966), The Chinese Earth-Shrine in Numen, Vol. 13, Fasc. 3 (Oct., 1966), pp. 164-182. 

A quick summary

The Chinese have been worshipping mythical gods representing heaven and earth since the mid-Zhou dynasty (BC 1122-225). The royal family made obeisance to the heavenly gods; the common folk, dependent on good harvests for survival and so worshipped the gods of the earth. 

Back then, 25 households usually congregated around a mound of soil built around a sacred tree, which represented the spirit of the soil. The term She (社) was originally used to refer to this spirit of the soil, but later evolved to refer to the “social group around the altar”. The concept subsequently developed to mean “society” (She Hui, or 社会). Worship of the “society god” or She Shen (社神) became more elaborate as small shrines and even idols were used in place of the simple mound beneath the tree.

The spirit of the soil is closely associated with the god of the grain, Hou Ji (后稷), who is credited with introducing millet to humanity.

Over time, both the spirit of the soil and the god of grain came to be worshipped together as a pair. They are now represented as husband (spirit of the soil) and wife (god of grain). The terms She Shen and Hou Ji were replaced by Tou Di Kong (Lord of the Earth), and his wife, Tou Di Po (Lady of the Earth).

Things to prepare for your confinement nanny

It’s a week before your delivery date and its time to get your act together. Assembled the cradle? Bought the diapers? Trucked the second hand baby wear from your best friend’s house?

Now all that’s left is making sure everything is ready before the confinement nanny arrives. Use this list to help you keep track of the tasks needed and good luck!

Click here for a shorter checklist if you’ve only got five minutes.

Things to prep for the nanny

Work permit

paperwork for confinement nanny
Actually not so daunting la. You’ll probably need about half an hour to settle the confinement nanny’s work permit online.

There is a special work permit issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for confinement nannies from Malaysia. These make up the majority of confinement nannies working in the country.

The permit takes only a few days to approve compared to the usual S-pass which could take months. It is valid for 16 weeks starting from the birth of the child and you can apply for the pass four weeks prior to EDD.

There are three criteria for confinement nannies to be eligible to work in Singapore under the aforementioned permit:

  1. She has to be Malaysian
  2. She has to be between 23 to 70 years old at the time of the application.
  3. She has to work at your residence.

There are also three things to note in terms of cost:

  1. Application cost payable to MOM: SGD 30.
  2. Medical insurance for the nanny: ~SGD 107 (from NTUC Income)
  3. Foreign worker levy payable to MOM: SGD 60 (if the employer is a Singaporean) and SGD 265 (if the employer is a foreigner)

The angpaos

Two angpaos for confinement nanny
Some employers choose to give more auspicious numbers, like $88 at the start of service and $288 at the end. It’s all up to you.

In addition to the agreed fee for her service, employers of the confinement nanny are also expected (by tradition) to provide “red packets” known as angpaos (红包) at the start and end of her service.

I’ve been told that the rates differ quite drastically. Freelancers get less (around SGD38 at the start and SGD 88 at the end) because they do not pay any agency fee.

Nannies that are engaged through agencies get more, presumably because they make alot less. Prepare about SGD 88 before she starts work, and another SGD 88 when her term ends. Feel free to give more at the end if you were satisfied with the experience.

Her bedroom

Think of the confinement nanny as a stay-in guest. As most of them should be pretty senior ladies, you should treat them with the respect they deserve.

(Note: whether the nanny is just a glorified domestic worker and should be treated as such, is another debate altogether. I address the expectations for confinement nannies in another post here). 

Be sure to prepare a bed for them, preferably in a separate room with the infant’s crib in a convenient position. She will wake up frequently at night for diaper changes and to feed the baby. If you’ve decided to feed via direct latching, her room should be close to yours so she can bring the baby to you easily.

Prepare her bedside table with the necessary equipment for the baby’s diaper changes.

Bedside table items for confinement nanny's room
Essential items for the bedside table include: a rubber changing mat, anti-bacterial hand gel, diaper rash cream, talcum powder, yu yi oil (如意油), baby moisturiser, diapers, cotton buds, wet wipes, and cotton balls.

Also remember to place a box of newborn clothes and towels in the room. The box should have the following items: newborn onesies, socks, mittens, washcloths, towels, swaddles.

Don’t bother with arranging the clothes nicely in the drawer as you’re unlikely to reuse any of the clothes once the month is up. Babies grow out of their newborn clothes so quickly! Once the nanny leaves, stash the newborn clothes in the same box and keep it in the store room.

“Her kitchen”

Get in touch with the confinement nanny beforehand to ask about what she plans to cook and purchase the necessary condiments. Black vinegar is usually a staple in such cases.

Essential confinement herbs
Some essential herbs for confinement include (from left, clockwise): Dang Gui (当归), American ginseng, dried longans, red dates, black vinegar and Dang Shen (党参).

Make a mental note of where the nearest supermarkets and Chinese medicine halls shops are. She will need to purchase fresh ingredients and herbs for cooking once she arrives. You’re expected to bear the cost of purchasing these items as it is not included in the nanny’s fee.

She will also need a large pot for cooking your herbal bathwater, another pot for soup, and a wok (or frying pan) for stir fries.

Crockery for confinement nanny
A soup pot (left) and a pot for herbal bathwater (right).

Toilet

If the hospital is going to provide a plastic bathtub for use, great. Otherwise simply purchase one from the nearest baby care shop. Other essential toiletries include baby-grade laundry detergent and baby soap.

Bathroom essentials for confinement nanny
Bathtub, together with an anti-slip rubber mat, baby-grade detergent, and baby soap.

Infant food

If you’re planning to breastfeed

Even if you plan to feed by latching, ensure that you have some milk stored in the freezer in case of an emergency. It is also not uncommon for mothers to express milk in advance for the nanny, who will take care of night feeds while she sleeps.

The essential items for breastfeeding are: the pump + accessories, breastmilk storage bags, feeding bottles + newborn teats, brushes to wash the bottles and baby-grade dishwashing liquid.

Breastfeeding essentials
From left: milk storage bags, bottle cap for expressed milk, container for milk, tongs for retrieving sterilised bottles, an electric pump together with accessories in bag, feeding bottle and accessories.
Dishwashing essentials
Use the large brush to scrub the bottles and the small brush for smaller parts such as teats. Remember to use baby-grade cleanser to wash everything.

If you plan to start on formula

Have a can of newborn formula on hand, preferably the same brand that your baby had in the hospital. Some hospitals also give out free samples of formula from various brands. If you can, get samples made from soy or goat’s milk in case the baby is lactose intolerant.

As with breastfeeding, ensure that you have clean, sterilised bottles and teats ready for use, together with baby-grade dishwashing liquid and brushes for washing the bottles.

Soy infant formula
I’ve only had to use soy formula once when my baby fell ill with stomach flu (germs from childcare, another post another time). Infants can become temporarily lactose intolerant after a major stomach upset so keep some soy milk around just in case.

Can mutton trigger epilepsy? | Confinement myths

a sheep
"If you eat mutton when you are pregnant, your baby will have epilepsy. You don't believe later you regret..."
Naggy Chinese auntie
Every Traditional Chinese Auntie

Dealing with superstitious beliefs is an integral part of the Asian pregnancy experience. Some of it is rooted in traditional medical reasoning; some are nonsense. The trick is knowing which is what. Today we’ll deal with one of my favourite pregnancy pantang – mutton and epilepsy.

Origins of the superstition

Epilepsy victims emit a sheep-like cry when they have seizures. Hence the Chinese term for epilepsy – Yang Dian Feng (羊癫疯), which translates to “sheep’s bleat disease”. 

But no Chinese physician ever said that mutton causes epilepsy

Traditional Chinese Medicine has been around for more than 2,500 years. There is no evidence that Chinese physicians have ever told a pregnant woman to avoid mutton because she might induce epilepsy in her child.[1] 

Believing that mutton causes epilepsy because of how the disorder is named makes no sense at all. It’s as nonsensical as bathing your baby in onions to increase his IQ.

Why? Because the Chinese word for clever is pronounced “Cong Ming” (聪明), which bears vague similarity to the Chinese word for onion (pronounced Cong in Chinese, or 葱).

FUN FACT: Modern perceptions of epilepsy in Hong Kong [2]

  • 17.5% believe that children have a higher chance of contracting epilepsy if their mothers ate mutton while pregnant.
  • 2% think that epilepsy is caused by evil spirits
  • 26.9% think that epilepsy is caused by prolonged computer use. 

“Pathogenic wind” causes epilepsy

Epilepsy is known as Xian Zheng (痫症), a disorder described as a “sudden loss of consciousness, upward staring eyes, drool foaming at the mouth, tonic convulsion, bawl and squall”.[3]

Epilepsy in infants is caused by “pathogenic wind”. One case study [4] describes the cause of epilepsy as such:

“A cold wind invaded the mother’s uterus, and hurt the foetus’s internal organs . When the baby was born, the pathogenic wind remained in the newborn’s abdomen and interfered with the baby’s vital qi. This caused the baby to have a seizure – stretching its body, breathing hard and crying out.”

– Sun Si Miao (AD 619-907)

Lots of other things can cause “pathogenic wind” – enough to warrant a separate post to explain the concept alone. But it is sufficient to know that mutton is not a cause for “pathogenic wind”.

In fact, one classic Chinese recipe for postpartum abdominal pain includes mutton, and helps to get rid of wind. It also cures menstrual cramps and dysfunctional uterine bleeding. Scroll to the bottom for the recipe.

The ancient Islamic view of epilepsy

Chinese physicians never believed that mutton was a cause for epilepsy. But physicians in other cultures did. 

According to Islamic scholar Ibn Qutayba (AD 828-889), fits are usually caused by the waxing and waning of the moon. However, consuming mutton could trigger fits outside the “usual time for a fit”. 

Read the full quote below:

“Mutton is very harmful to those that suffer from fits on account of bile, to the extent that it may cause a fit outside the (usual) time for a fit. The times for fits are the New Moon and the middle of the month. These two periods are the times that the sea rises and water and blood increase. The waxing of the moon, until it becomes full, has its effect on the increase of blood and brain and all (other) humidities.”[5]

Ibn Qutayba

A century later another Islamic scholar Avicenna (AD 980 – 1037) described epilepsy as a neurological disorder. Patients prone to seizures should therefore avoid triggers such as alcohol, indigestion, sleep deprivation and oversleeping. Under the “indigestion” category, foods to be avoided were those that were difficult to digest and those that were easily perishable. These included mutton, beef, fish, milk, onion, garlic, celery, radish, turnip, cauliflower, carrot, broad beans and lentils.[6]

Avicenna listed seven herbal therapies to delay and suppress seizures in epileptic patients. Among the more interesting ones are: truffles, wild boar meat and blood-letting.

FUN FACT: Modern perceptions of epilepsy in the Middle East [7]

Tehran, Iran

    • 39.1% believe that food had no effect on epilepsy.
    • 33.8% believe that vegetables, fruits and dairy products aggravated epilepsy.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

    • 40.3% of teachers and 50.4% of undergraduates polled believe that possession by Jinns (ie. mischievous spirits) is the cause of epilepsy.

    • 67.5% of teachers and 81.6% of undergraduates polled believe that reading from the holy Qur’an by faith healers is a form of treatment.

Your main takeaway?

Lots of things can cause epilepsy, including the moon and different types of food. Mutton is the least of your worries. Here’s your recipe for Dang Gui, Ginger and Mutton soup. 

Dang Gui, Ginger, and Mutton Soup

Ingredients

20g Chinese angelica root (当归)
500g fresh lamb ribs
100g old ginger
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
1 litre water

Directions

Place the lamb ribs in a sieve for about half an hour to drain the excess blood. This will reduce the gaminess of the meat.

Wash the ribs then blanch them with boiling water.

Scrub the ginger to remove all the dirt. Leave the skin on and cut it into thick slices. Wash the dang gui.  

Place the lamb, ginger and dang gui into a large pot. Fill up with about 1 litre of water and bring everything to a boil. 

Simmer on medium heat for an hour or more until the meat is tender and the soup is flavourful enough. 

Add salt and wine to taste. 

Serves 2.[8]

References:

[1] Epilepsy was first documented in the ancient Chinese medical text, The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di Nei Jing, or 黄帝内经). It was compiled sometime between the late Warring States period (BC 475-221) and the Han dynasty (BC 206 – AD 220). The book said nothing about mutton causing epilepsy.

[2] Fong CG, Hung A (2002), Public Awareness, Attitude, and Understanding of Epilepsy in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China in Epilepsia (vol. 43 no. 3, 2002), pp 311–316.

[3] Quoted directly from a textbook for Chinese physicians in Singapore. Also see Cai, L (2017), Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine for Epilepsy Treatment Should Be Administered According to the Seizure Type and Epileptic Syndrome, in Health (Vol. 9), pp 1211-1222.

[4] From Essential Formulas for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold (Bei Ji Qian Jing Yao Fang, or 備急千金要方) written by Sun Si Miao (孙思邈) during the Tang dynasty (AD 619-907).

[5] Stol, Marten (1993), Epilepsy in Babylonia, pp 124.

[6] Asadi-Pooya AA, Nikseresht AR, Yaghoubi E (2012), Old Remedies for Epilepsy: Avicenna’s Medicine, in Iran Red Crescent Med Journal (Vol. 14, No. 3, March 2012) pp 174–177.

[7] Mohammadi M, Meysamie A, Jahanian A (2010), How Do Parents Think about the Effect of Food and Alternative Medicine on their Epileptic Children? Iranian Journal of Pediatrics (Vol. 20, No. 2, June 2010), pp 193–198.

Obeid T, Abulaban A, Al-Ghatani F, Al-Malki AR, Al-Ghamdi A (2012), Possession by ‘Jinn’ as a cause of epilepsy (Saraa): A study from Saudi Arabia in Seizure (Vol. 21, Issue 4, May 2012), pp 245-249.

[8] Adapted from: Natural Remedies Center. 

Qi, wind and the common cold | Confinement basics

“Be careful of the wind” is one of the most commonly heard phrases in the Chinese lexicon, alongside “have you eaten?”. Wind-related illnesses include the common cold, a full-on flu, arthritis, rheumatism, migraine, stomachaches, stroke and so forth. The list is so extensive that you might wonder if “wind” is just a bogeyman for illnesses that have no other identifiable origin. 

But ask anyone who’s caught a flu after being out on a windy day. They’ll tell you that “wind” and its related illnesses are very real. 

Before we get to why the Chinese are obsessed with [avoiding] wind, you’ll need to have a good grasp of some fundamentals. Namely, the mysterious ethereal substance called qi (), the types of qi in the environment, and how wind can be “evil” when it is present in abundance.

What is qi?

Healers in prehistoric times believed that diseases were the result of demonic influence or possession. Lacking in medical knowledge, they sought solace from celestial powers and essentially relied on prayer for cures. With time and a few centuries worth of observation, the demons were replaced by the concept of qi, an energy loosely translated as “life force” or “vital energy”.

Qi is an energy that flows within one’s body and in one’s surroundings. The word itself (氣) has 2 components: “vapour, steam or gas” (气) and “rice or grain” (米), illustrating the symbiotic relationship between one’s energy and food. Today the traditional term for qi has been simplified to just the first component. 

Qi is generally used in 2 ways in Traditional Chinese Medicine: bodily qi and abstract metaphysical qi.

Bodily qi

Bodily qi is a pragmatic concept used to describe the functioning of various organs. For instance, a person with a bodily problem (eg. weak breathing patterns) may be said to have a disorder related to the relevant organ’s qi (eg. deficient in lung qi).

The flow of bodily qi is guided by li (), loosely translated as patterns or systems. The meridian system (jing luo, or 经络), is one such system.

Source: Wikipedia. Click on the image to learn more about the meridian system.

So if you were to be suffering from knee pain, an acupuncturist might diagnose your ailment as qi blockage in the meridian which runs from your middle toe, knee, lower back and all the way to your lower eye. He might then stick needles in your lower back and toe before moxibustion – to cure your knee. 

Metaphysical qi

On a metaphysical level qi is the “energetic foundation of the universe, analogous to the matter-energy theoretical constructs of modern physics.”[1] There are numerous categories of qi, including bodily qi (explained above). 

The practice of Chinese confinement is more concerned with upright qi (Zheng Qi, or 正气), postnatal qi (Hou Tian Zhi Qi or 后天之气), food qi (Gu Qi or 谷气) and qi in the environment.

Environmental Qi: Liu Qi and Liu Yin

Environmental Qi comprises six factors: wind (feng, or 风), cold (han, or 寒), heat (shu, or 暑), damp (shi, or 湿), dryness (zhao, or 燥), and fire (huo, or 火). We’ll refer to them as Liu Qi (literally, the six qi or 六气).

Wind has the worst reputation among all the six factors – quite unfairly so. We’ll get to that in the next section, after understanding more about Liu Qi.  

The composition of Liu Qi changes according to the climate and season. Wind is more present in autumn, the cold during the winter, heat and damp during spring, and dryness and fire during the summer. Ditto for tropical climates like Singapore (high humidity and heat) and polar climates like Antarctica (high cold and dryness). 

To stay healthy and disease-free, one’s bodily qi has to correspond with Liu Qi. This is harder than it sounds, given the complexity of the human body and the climate. 

For example, the human body is generally well-adapted to the summer climate in Beijing. This hypothetical person (let’s call him John) could walk outdoors wearing just a T-shirt and shorts and be perfectly happy. But come winter, when the cold and dryness factors of Liu Qi are more abundant, John had better bundle himself with a down jacket before heading out, or risk contracting pneumonia.

John is also likely to be a happy guy in Singapore on an average cloudy day. But come monsoon season, if he isn’t prepared to deal with the rain and wind (ie. abundant damp and wind), he’s going to be nursing a common cold on most days of the week. 

These changing factors of Liu Qi are the common causes of everyday illnesses. When environmental conditions adversely affect health, Liu Qi is known as the Liu Yin (literally, the six excesses or 六淫). Liu Yin is sometimes known as Liu Xie (the six evils , 六邪) when weather changes become extreme, or when people get more pissed off. 

External responses to liu yin

Witch doctors (or priests, monks, shamans etc) of yore used to deal with Liu Yin by conjuring spirits and gods that controlled the weather. Was there a thunderstorm today? Oh, let’s sacrifice a chicken to the Thunder God. Are the farmers all bedridden with breathing difficulties after being in the rain? Let’s kill a few more.

These days dealing with the changing weather has become general common sense. Wear clothing appropriate to the climate; deploy climate-control technologies indoors (heaters, air-conditioning, humidifiers etc) when the weather becomes unbearable outdoors. 

Internal RESPONSES TO LIU YIN

Another way of dealing with Liu Yin is to ensure that one’s bodily qi is well-equipped to adapt to it. This takes a different type of qi, called Zheng Qi (literally, Upright Qi or 正气). Think of it as the Chinese equivalent to your immune system.[2]  

A person with strong Zheng Qi can withstand, say, an afternoon out in a rainstorm without catching a cold. A person deficient in Zheng Qi, on the other hand, could fall ill after being exposed to some rain while waiting at a bus stop. Old people, postpartum women and babies all have a shortage of Zheng Qi.

"Wind is the cause of a hundred illnesses"

Wind is the cause of a hundred illneses 风为百病之长

Think of wind as a catalyst. Wind alone is not harmful, and is one of the six factors in Liu Qi. We need wind literally, to keep things moving. Wind helps to carry pollen to flowers; waves in the ocean create movement for aquatic beings; you need movement in the air to be able to breathe. 

However, wind also exacerbates the conditions of Liu Yin, making one more prone to falling ill. It is then known as an “evil wind” or pathogenic wind (Xie Qi, or 邪气). 

Let’s get back to John in Singapore. Stuck in the rain, he decides to make a run for the nearest bus stop before heading home for a warm shower. He’s already exposed to an abundance of cold and damp. But if he then faces a sudden gust of wind, his chances of falling ill multiply.

A more formal (and dramatic) way of describing the above is “wind-invasion”. According to the classic text The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di Nei Jing, or 黄帝内经):

When the body is invaded from outside [by wind], its defensive capabilities are weakened, causing a mismatch in the opening and the closing of the pores in the entire body, leading to the invasion of other pathogenic factors causing diseases with symptoms such as a headaches, nasal obstruction, painful and itching throat, facial edema, abnormal aversion to wind, and perspiration.”

The common cold vs. "wind disorders"

The common cold is one typical disorder caused by “wind invasion”. But, as anyone who’s been through endless visits to the neighbourhood GP, pharmaceutical medication sometimes just don’t work.

Chinese physicians have a different approach to the common cold, diagnosing each patient according to the factors of Liu Yin. Here in sunny-rainy-windy Singapore, there are 3 common wind disorders that are usually synonymous with the common cold. 

wind-cold disorder

Caused by: standing under air-conditioning with the fan blowing at full speed

Symptoms: an aversion to wind and chill and accompanied by fever, headaches and generalised aches, a runny nose, and a cough.

WIND-hot DISORDER

Caused by: exercising under the afternoon sun and then standing in front of a fan to cool off

Symptoms: fever, sweating, headaches, red eyes, sore throat, photosensitivity, thirst, a cough with yellow and dense sputum, respiratory problems, constipation, and epistaxis.

WIND-damp DISORDER

Caused by: running in the rain and then standing under the air-conditioning with wet clothes

Symptoms: sore limbs, listlessness, nausea, anorexia, and diarrhoea; can cause more complex diseases like arthritis.[3]

Simple herbal remedies for common wind disorders

Herbal remedies for wind disorders all work to either expel wind and disperse the cold (Qu Feng San Han or 祛風散寒) and to ward off further “wind invasions” by inducing sweat (Fa Han Jie Biao or 發汗解表). 

The best thing about these simple remedies is that they do not interfere with pharmaceutical medication. Drink the soup, eat the meds and settle down for a nice long nap with a blanket. 

Here are 3 of my favourites remedies: 

ginger and brown sugar tea

How to make: brew everything in a pot and drink while hot. Add dried orange peel for extra fragrance (there’s medicinal value too) or scallions if you’re adventurous. Substitute the brown sugar with honey if you like.

garlic,ginger,scallions + protein

How to make: stir fry ginger and garlic until fragrant, throw in a protein (fish works well, or oyster mushrooms for a vegetarian substitute), salt to taste and eat while hot. Remember to gobble up the ginger and scallions too. 

Chicken soup + white pepper

How to make: boil chicken bones with garlic and whole white pepper. Add scallions prior to serving together with noodles for a more filling meal. 

Notes

[1] The Qi Encyclopedia does a great job at explaining the fundamentals of qi and its categories. 

[2] Zheng Qi is both inherited, and then acquired over the course of a lifetime. Some babies, for instance, are born healthy while others are born with congenital disorders. As the babies mature into adolescents and then adults, they continue to acquire or deplete their Zheng Qi through nutritional and lifestyle choices. 

[3] Most confinement superstitions, such as avoiding baths, are designed to help postpartum women prevent illnesses caused by wind-damp disorders.

No one likes Benedictine DOM in their kailan but this is why we eat it anyway

Benedictine DOM is known as DOM in both Malaysia and Singapore. It is made from a highly confidential list of 27 herbs and spices which include myrrh (Mo Yao, or 没药) and angelica root (Dang Dui, or 当归).

Everyone thinks that Benedictine DOM is a core part of postpartum nutrition. Everyone assumes that it is medically essential and even “indispensable”. Some even assume that you have to finish an entire bottle within the 40 days after delivery.

But no one knows that this assumption is mostly based on a brilliant marketing campaign which took a life of its own. Curious about how a sweet French liqueur became a staple for Chinese postpartum recovery? Read on!

Did you know?

Benedictine DOM is sold globally in North America, Europe and in Asia (specifically southern China and Southeast Asia). But only in Asia is DOM used mainly as a confinement tonic among Chinese communities. Sales are divided almost equally between the regions.

This means that confinement women are consuming nearly 30% of Benedictine DOM’s global supply annually.

The beginnings: Benedictine DOM as a digestive tonic for European colonists

Benedictine DOM today may be synonymous with Chinese women in confinement, but it has its roots in the pretty coastal town of Fecamp in Normandy, France.

Fecamp Benedictine DOM
Fecamp, the hometown of Benedictine DOM. Image source: Tripadvisor

First launched in 1863 by a French aristocrat named Alexandre Le Grand, whose family ran a successful wine and spirits export business, the sweet 40% proof liqueur was marketed as a medical tonic based on an ancient elixir created by the Benedictine monks of Fecamp in 1510.

While some sources claim that the original recipe (purportedly created by a monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli) is now kept in a vault in Geneva, most have called bull on the marketing myth.

Either way, liqueurs, particularly those incorporating exotic herbs and spices, were incredibly fashionable as a status symbol among the European gentry at that time, DOM quickly became a hit. By 1864, Le Grand had trademarked both the name “Benedictine”, as well as the iconic bottle shape of the liqueur.

Three years later, DOM found its way from the bustling port of Fecamp to Singapore, which was also experiencing an economic boom. The steamship had just been launched and the British Crown Colony was enjoying rapid growth driven by entrepot trade.

Following the marketing strategy in France, advertisements of DOM were targetted at the English-speaking European gentry. In any case, the majority of the population (ie. the Chinese) were uneducated would likely have spent their salary on opium, not fancy liqueur.

benedictine dom advertisement 1866
The first advertisement of DOM in Singapore promoted the liqueur as a panacea for epidemic diseases, including cholera. #notsureifreallyeffective. Published in Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser on 26 July 1866. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

Sales of DOM in Singapore were slow in the first few decades after the launch. Even in 1898 (the date of the first available sales figures from the Benedictine archives), only 180 bottles were shipped to Singapore and another 180 to Penang.   

The first Chinese consumers of Benedictine: the Straits-born Chinese and newly wealthy coolies

The first Chinese company to make an order of DOM was Yong Lee Seng & Co., which ordered 120 bottles of Benedictine in 1908. As the shop was staffed with Straits-born Chinese who were fluent English speakers, it is likely that these were the first Chinese exposed to imported European liqueurs such as DOM.

Yong Lee Seng & Co benedictine DOM import
Yong Lee Seng & Co was a large grocery store which also functioned a bread supplier for the British army. It had two shops: at 27 Kling Street (bottom) and at 170-173 Orchard Road (right). Kling Street was later renamed Chulia Street. Image source: Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources (1908), Wright, Arnold, pp 721

But by the 1940s, particularly after World War 2, another key customer segment emerged: the middle class Chinese population that had grown wealthy from the post-war rubber boom.

The first Chinese advertisements of DOM made their appearance after the second world war in 1948. Featuring a cherub holding the iconic bottle, these were not entirely different from what was published in the English papers.

Tonic wines have been consumed by the Chinese since the invention of alcohol itself during the Xia dynasty (BC 2070-1600). Thus the introduction of DOM, a French herbal liqueur, was unlikely to have been a novel item for the Chinese population in the British crown colonies in Southeast Asia.

But as it was perceived as a luxury good available almost exclusively to the Europeans, or wealthy Chinese elite, DOM was naturally adopted as a status symbol by the Chinese middle class once there was an economic upswing.

To the surprise of the French owners of Benedictine DOM, it wasn’t the social climbing Chinese elites that formed Benedictine’s main consumer base. Rather, it was the humble coolies working in the rubber plantations and tin mines.

Eastern Agencies (1946) Ltd, the sole agent for DOM in the Far East reported the following in a letter to the Fecamp headquarters:

“Although Bénédictine is the most requested cordial in clubs, hotels and restaurants, this branch of the business remains very low and represents an unisgnificant percentage of the turnover. Most of the volume is sold in retail stores, one bottle at a time.”

But wait, but how would coolies afford to drink imported wine?

As a premium product imported from France, purchasing a bottle of DOM from the local store would have been regarded as a luxury and only done on celebratory occasions. For instance, during a particularly good year for rubber sales.

According to DOM’s sales records, imports in Malaya and Singapore peaked at 234,000 bottles in 1951 – an astounding year for the working-class in Singapore. 

That year, rubber prices more than quintupled to over USD 2 per pound compared to USD 0.35 per pound in 1949 while tin prices similarly had tripled during the same period.

Rubber price benedictine dom
Image source: The World Bank

 

In another letter to the Fecamp headquarters written in 1951, Eastern Agencies wrote:

“… there is a very considerable amount of additional money in circulation, and trading conditions have become extremely active. The workers who have gained good advantage from the boom are the rubber tappers and the tin coolies. Both these categories are known to be consumers of Benedictine.

… Now that people enjoy strong spending power, trade in Malaya is progressing on a very important scale and, for your information, I would point out that our successes have not been limited to Benedictine, but have also been enjoyed by many of our other lines which are consumed by the Chinese.”

Click on images below to see the letter, written on 16 Feb 1951. Document scanned and republished with permission from the Bacardi group.

The importance of Malaya and Singapore as a market soon became obvious to the management in Fecamp. In 1949, M Seward, the manager of Eastern Agencies visited Fecamp for the first time. Subsequently members of the Le Grand family visited the region in 1966 and again in 1969.

By then, the region then became the fourth largest market for Benedictine, after France, the USA and the UK. 

Popularity among new mothers

Besides the rubber tappers and tin miners, Eastern Agencies soon began marketing DOM as a herbal tonic to other sectors of the working class, including Samsui women and coolies working on the docks. The comics below, for example, explain how consuming DOM was beneficial as a preventive tonic for workers frequently exposed to the elements.

The trend soon caught on among new mothers undergoing confinement, a large consumer base for herbal tonics. While the original formula may have been created in France, the liqueur did contain one of the key ingredients essential in postpartum nutrition – angelica root (Dang Gui, or 当归), which is known as ginseng for women.

The potential for sales in this niche was apparent to Eastern Agencies, which proceeded to run a series of advertisements in both English and Chinese papers, promoting the herbal benefits of the liqueur for new mothers. 

The first advertisement targetted at new mothers appeared in 1954. Featuring a mother having a conversation with her daughter-in-law over a cup of tea, it extolls the virtues of DOM as the king of herbal wines, particularly for recovering postpartum women.

Nanyang Siang Pau on 12 May 1954. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

This continued into the 1960s and 1970s when Eastern Agencies continued to position Benedictine as the “King of Tonics”, touting the health benefits of the 27 secret herbs within the liqueur.  At this point, the ads targetted at confinement women continued to be run alongside more generic ads, and ads targetted at male workers.

That Benedictine was so readily adopted by Chinese women as part of their postpartum recovery came as a surprise even to the CEO of the company. In a 1969 report from his visit, the new CEO of Benedictine, Pierre Le Grand remarked (after complaining about the tiring tropical heat) that

“The way our liqueur is savoured by the Chinese community, especially Chinese women, is truly amazing…”

Longer excerpt of the letter here. Document scanned and republished with permission from the Bacardi group.

Aside from the popularity of the Benedictine, Le Grand noted that the liqueur was known among Chinese consumers as “DOM” and not Benedictine; a practice that still exists today.

Did you know? The prominent “DOM” on the bottle refers to “Deo Optimo Maximo,” the latin motto of the Benedictine order, which translates to “God infinitely good, infinitely great.” DOM also refers to the Latin word Dominus (Master) given to Benedictine abbots. So every time you refer to Benedictine DOM as “DOM” for short, you are effectively, praising a Christian god. Go figure!

1980s: “DOM” as a cultural tradition in Southeast Asia

By the 1980s, the association of Benedictine with the practice of confinement was so strong that distributors of the liqueur ceased to continue running product advertisements, relying mainly on giveaways of products related to motherhood.

An advertisement published in 1982, for example, touted a free gift pack with every purchase of the liqueur. The pack included Cussons baby power,  and two bars of soap worth $6.50.

Published in Sin Chew Jit Poh on 12 July 1982. Image source: Singapore National Library website

Another advert published in 1988 publicised a monthly lucky draw for anyone who purchased a bottle of Benedictine, displaying a deep understanding of Chinese superstition.

For instance, the advertisement campaign indicated that, aside from the monthly lucky draw when eight lucky participants would receive vouchers worth $500 each, there would be a “grand” lucky draw on the 8th of August that year. This was an especially auspicious date due to the conspicuous number of “8”s on the date 8/8/88.

The display of a male infant atop a dragon also showed an understanding that the 1988, the year of the dragon, was an especially auspicious year to have baby boys.

Lianhe Wan Bao on 25 March 1988. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

Disclaimer: Benedictine DOM is actually not a medically beneficial tonic

From a cordial concocted by a French aristocrat in Normandy to a confinement staple for Chinese women, the marketing campaign by Eastern Agencies took a life of its own.

Today the brand association of Benedictine with confinement is so strong that all Chinese women assume that consuming the liqueur is medically beneficial by sheer tradition.

A Google search for “DOM” and “confinement” bears testament to this. A post on motherhood website momswisdom.net for example, states:

Rice wine, sesame seed oil, old ginger, black vinegar, Dom Benedictine tonic are the most common condiments added to confinement food…. Dom Benedictine tonic is added to soups to help the post pregnancy body recuperate. The alcohol evaporates in the cooking, but drinking the Dom Benedictine tonic neat increases its efficacy.

… I only drank the soups with Dom Benedictine tonic added during my first confinement period. I don’t think that was enough. During my second and third confinements, I polished off more than 3 bottles of Dom Benedictine tonic during each of the 40 day confinement periods. Half was used in my soups, half I drank neat during my evening ’bouts of drinking’.

There are also numerous confinement recipes available online which show creative ways of incorporating the liqueur in dishes such as stewed chicken. Some confinement nannies even use Benedictine in stir fried vegetables or steamed fish (spoiler alert: both are horrible).

Yet all Chinese physicians will tell you that there are better ways of consuming angelica root (Dang Gui) and that the potential health hazards from consuming strong wines (Benedictine is 40% alcohol!) far outweigh any of its perceived medical benefits.

A marketing representative from Bacardi that I spoke to admitted that while Benedictine was indeed marketed as a tonic in the past, and that the perception of the liqueur having immense medical benefits for postpartum recovery has become custom, the company has not promoted the liqueur as such for some time. Especially since the World Health Organisation has classified Benedictine DOM as an alcoholic drink.

It would not be socially responsible, he said, revealing some plans to position the liqueur as a cocktail ingredient rather than a tonic, as it is in the rest of the world. He added (in a follow up email):

“While consuming alcohol in moderation can be part of a balanced lifestyle, we will never promote any of our brands as being beneficial for medicinal or therapeutic purposes…

Very clear guidelines are… giv[en] by our company and all our brands are following these guidelines, and so do our distributors around the world.

On one hand, as it is with all traditions, it would be a pity for such a custom to be lost as the Benedictine brand is repositioned. On the other, it’s about damn time we stopped using a sweet liqueur in a stir fry.

Note 1: Special thanks to the Bacardi group for information from the Benedictine archives! 

Note 2: Any copyright violations within this post are entirely my fault. If I’ve mistakenly posted what I shouldn’t have, please leave a message and we’ll get it resolved. Thanks!

Things to prepare for your confinement nanny (checklist)

Work permit

Angpaos

  • $100 to commence work
  • $100 to $300 at the end of service

Bedroom

  • Nanny’s bed: one mattress, pillow, two sets of bedsheets and pillow cases (one for use and one spare).
  • Baby crib: one mattress, two sets of bedsheets (one for use and one spare), rubber mat for diaper changes.
  • Bedside table: diapers, anti-bacterial hand gel, diaper rash cream, yu yi oil (如意油), baby moisturiser, wet wipes, cotton balls, talcum powder.
  • Baby clothes and towels: newborn onesies, socks, mittens, washcloths, towels, swaddles

Kitchen

  • Condiments
  • Fresh ingredients (to purchase upon arrival)
  • Chinese herbs (to purchase upon arrival, or order in advance from any major Chinese medical hall)
  • Pot for herbal bathwater
  • Wok or frying pan for stir fries
  • Pot for soup

Toilet

  • Baby bathtub
  • Baby soap
  • Baby-grade laundry detergent

Infant food

  • Pump + accessories + collection bottles
  • Plastic storage bags
  • Feeding bottle + teats
  • Baby-grade dishwashing detergent
  • Brushes for washing bottles
  • Can of infant formula on standby + whatever samples you can get from the hospital

Recover from your pregnancy with postnatal Jamu massage | Confinement Diaries

Sue Henshaw, a masseuse specialising in jamu massage
Behold, a 10-day massage experience awaits.

This is Auntie Sue. Auntie Sue learnt the art of Jamu massage from her Javanese grandmother. She also finished a postnatal massage course at the Mustika Ratu Beauty School in Indonesia.

Auntie Sue will push your uterus back to its original spot. With luck, a proper diet and some exercise, your tummy might shrink back to pre-baby size. 

You can start the massage as early as four days after delivery. But those who gave birth via c-section should wait three weeks before beginning their massage.

Disclaimer: about this post

 

This post is about Auntie Sue’s Jamu massage course and my very positive experience. I liked it so much that I booked her again, after I delivered my second baby about 2 years after I first blogged about this. 

Each course lasted 10 days and each session lasted 90 minutes. This post is not sponsored, and I did not get anything free from her. 

Note: Auntie Sue no longer does massages in the West side of Singapore. Drop me a message on the Contact page if you’d like her contact details. 

What is Jamu?

Jamu in Singapore is synonymous with traditional Malay postnatal massage. But it actually refers to traditional herbal medicine from Java, Indonesia.

Jamu drinks are general cure-all herbal drinks much like Chinese liang teh. Jamu Kunir Asam, for example, is a tamarind and turmeric drink to combat heatiness. Jamu capsules can also be prescribed by herbal physicians to treat more serious ailments.

Jamu Lady, Bintan
A lady sells Jamu drinks outside a shop in Tanjung Pinang, Bintan.

What's in the massage?

A basic Jamu massage has three parts:

  1. A full body oil massage to expel remaining lymphatic fluids and lochia.
  2. Two herbal pastes applied on the lower abdomen and forehead: tapel releases “wind” from the stomach and pilis releases tension on the forehead.
  3. A corset (bengkung) to bind your abdomen.

There are many massage centres in Singapore offering Jamu massage today.

However, what’s interesting about Auntie Sue is that she brings a fold-up bed to your house and comes over everyday with the herbs. She even brings a fresh bengkung so you don’t have to wash it after use.

Having your favourite Spotify playlist in the background and an essential oil diffuser helps to set the mood.

Sue recommends leaving the girdle on for six hours continuously. Which means you’ll need to feed the baby, have two meals and do your toilet runs throughout the day with your stomach tied up in the sweaty contraption.

The results

Was the pain worth it? Hell yeah. The results of the massage were visible after just a few days.

If I had to draw an equivalent, Jamu massage would be getting like a deep tissue massage the day after a major endurance race. But without the insults – the masseuse won’t call you a wuss if you yelp in pain.