Tag Archives: cultural customs

Monkey time and a stroke of good luck.

This week welcomes in the Chinese New Year. If you live somewhere – as I do, in Brunei – with a large Chinese population, you can’t help but be aware of the New Year coming in.  Fire crackers and fireworks are let off riotously at the stroke of midnight; a real time for celebrating!  As a mother with two sleeping children I can’t help but wince at every single one, as I hope and pray that they continue their slumbers undisturbed!  Even so, I find the cultural significance and complex symbolism of Chinese New Year endlessly fascinating.


Chinese astrology revolves around twelve animal zodiac signs, each of which is associated with a year in turn.  Each animal zodiac sign has their own set of characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, which they bring to bear over the year.  Each year is also dominated by one element – earth, fire, metal, water or wood.  The Chinese believe that your personality and your destiny are determined by the zodiac sign and the element that you are born under. So for example, a child born in 2016 will be a Fire Monkey. These are the most adventurous and ambitious of the five elemental monkeys, but they are also the most irritable!

Another big part of the symbolism of Chinese New Year is in gift-giving and receiving. We went out for lunch the day before and were given oranges wrapped in red paper as we left, to bring us luck and prosperity during the coming year.  There are also some gifts that you should never give because they are believed to bring bad luck in some way.  Time-pieces such as clocks and watches are amongst the list of taboo gifts, as the recipient would perceive it as an indication that their time is running out.

If I was Chinese I think I might be tempted to take it as a really auspicious omen that on the first day of Chinese New Year I saw a whole troupe of these beautiful Silvered Leaf monkeys.  I have been in Brunei four and a half years, and I have seen hundreds of macaques, but not a single one of these gorgeous, gentle monkeys. So I was practically holding my breath and trying not to jump for joy when I came across this alpha male and his troupe of female and baby monkeys. They were a delight, and more than happy for me to get within metres of them, snapping away.  I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to finally see them, having hoped for an encounter since we first arrived.  They took their time, but the wait was well worth it!  And if they were a sign of a good year to come, then that’s even better.

Word for Wednesday: T is for truculent.

Part of the expat lifestyle is getting used to the community ebb and flow, and the new patterns of daily living.  December here is a real shut-down month. There’s a frenzy of Christmas related activity and socialising during the first two weeks, and then there is virtually a mass exodus as the schools close for three weeks, military personal take block leave, and anyone who can, either heads off on holiday or returns home for a brief break.

My usual ‘are you doing anything nice for Christmas?’ question has thrown back a whole host of exciting travel plans from friends out here.  A lot seem to be going to Bali this time; possibly due to the new availability of a direct flight. Bali is one of my favourite holiday destinations to date.  It is such a beautiful country, full of fascinating culture and lovely people, and there is so much to see and do.  There really is something for everyone.

The first time we visited, we took a trip out to a traditional Balinese village called Tenganan.  It is a Bali Aga, where ancient Balinese traditions and customs still live on.  It was an incredibly interesting insight into Balinese culture, and gave the opportunity to see Balinese artisans at work.

There was also a whole row of these tall woven baskets. Inside each, a brightly painted cockerel.  They might look pretty, but these birds were seriously feisty! They eyed each other with contempt and hostility as they strutted about in their confinement cage, awaiting their moment in the fighting ring. Cockerels in baskets which had been spaced inadvertently close to the next were pecking fiercely at the sides of their baskets nearest their enemy, as if they’d like to get an early start on the fight.006a_893 copy

Truculent (adj).

  • easily annoyed or angered and likely to argue
  • disposed to fight; pugnacious
  • expressing bitter opposition; scathing
  • disposed to or exhibiting violence or destructiveness; fierce
  • aggressively self-assertive
  • fierce; cruel; savagely brutal
  • brutally harsh; vitriolic; scathing
  • aggressively hostile; belligerent.

Derivation: Latin truculentus, from truc-, trux savage; perhaps akin to Middle Irish trú doomed person. First Known Use: circa 1540.

“He strutted, stiff-legged and truculent about the body of the fallen enemy”.
 (Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Son of Tarzan).

Cock fighting is an ancient spectator sport, which is still found in many countries around the world. It can be pretty bloody and barbaric, and in Bali as in many other countries, it is no longer permitted for gambling purposes (although many illegal cock fights do still take place each year).  Unlike cock fighting for sport and gambling purposes, ceremonial cock fighting remains an essential part of Balinese spirituality and religious ritual.

Animal symbolism and spirituality is a significant feature of Balinese Hinduism. Cock fighting, known in Balinese as ‘tabuh rah‘ (‘pouring blood’), is a revered form of animal sacrifice.  It is a religious purification ritual, believed by the Balinese to expel evil spirits.  As such, cock fighting is an integral part of temple festivals and religious ceremonies all over Bali.

Cockerels in their woven pre-fight baskets are a very common sight in villages all over Bali. They are highly prized by their breeders and owners, and the more truculent of character and brilliant of plumage the better. In many villages, their presence is inextricably interwoven with the fabric of traditional living there.  Speaking in an interview with a reporter for the Jakarta Post, one village head said in an interview with the Jakarta Post that :

“After we harvest our rice or other crops, we can’t dig the soil before we have sacrificed the birds.  When the soil is dry, it must be left fallow for a few months and we are not allowed to plough at this time.  Our rule is after the ceremony we can start to plough and plant again. This occurs every year and is special to our village.  Our belief is that this is the traditional way to farm. We must make the ground holy so that hopefully we will have good harvests. This belief is ancient, but we still hold it to this day.”
(I Ketut Ludea, head of Malet hamlet).

I have never seen a cock fight, for which I am grateful.  As interesting as I find the religious and socio-cultural significance of it for Balinese tradition, I don’t think I could stomach the sight of two animals literally trying to rip each other apart, in a fight to the death.

I feel deeply divided about cock fighting as a continuing practice.  Obviously I am appalled by the vicious brutality of cock fighting, and find it quite upsetting to think that this is something that is widespread in Bali, both legally and illegally, to this day.  But I am also impressed by the conscious effort that the Balinese make to preserve their tradition and culture, which is so unique to the island and their very special brand of Hinduism.

Have you ever seen a cock fight?  How do you feel about cock fighting as social and religious custom and ritual?

Travel theme: shine

This young girl is part of a Balinese Legong dance performance.  She is captured here in a brief moment of regal serenity. Balinese dancing, and Legong dance in particular, is epitomised by highly exaggerated facial expressions, and intricately sinuous hand movements and footwork.  Even without the ornate costumes and theatrical hair and make-up I imagine that the stars of the show would still shine; my take on Ailsa’s ‘shine’ travel theme.


The star of the show, shining.

It is fascinating to watch these beautiful dancers move.  They do not speak, so everything is conveyed through movement and expression, and the accompanying music.  The girls performing are usually not old – often only young teenagers.  But dance, music and the arts are integral to Balinese culture, and deeply revered.   Legong dancers are well-respected, with many of them commencing intensive training for this very prestigious role in early childhood.

There are two different possible translations for the meaning of ‘legong’.  One is ‘something that makes people happy’.  The other is a combined derivation of the Indonesian words for ‘dance’ and ‘gamelan music’, the very distinctive percussive music of Bali and Java which accompanies the dance. Although the second option is more explanatory, I think I prefer the more whimsical nature of the first one.  I certainly felt happy, sat in an open air courtyard in Ubud on a balmy Balinese night, watching the pageant unfold as the stars of the show shone.