Monday, December 20, 2021

The Nadir of the Year

 Ovidia--Every Other Tuesday

Only today isn’t just any other Tuesday—Tuesday 21st December is Dōngzhì, meaning the most extreme low point of winter.

Traditionally, Dōngzhì is the festival celebrating the Winter Solstice and marking the shortest day and longest night of the year—at least for those in the Northern Hemisphere. Here in Singapore, we’re just one degree north of the Equator, meaning our shortest day is only eight minutes shorter than our longest.

This year especially, there doesn’t seem much to have a festival about. Omicron has arrived with over twenty imported and three (all airport staff) local cases. This means social get- togethers will remain limited to 5 fully vaccinated / pre-event tested individuals and the travel, hospitality and service industries will continue to suffer with their staff and their families bearing the brunt. And across the causeway up North, our neighbours in Malaysia are suffering the aftermath of flooding with over 20,000 people displaced, thanks to ‘the worst in one hundred years’ monsoon rains.

I have such happy memories of my year end school holidays that I’m especially sorry for today’s schoolchildren as this situation drags into another year. What kind of memories are these kids going to have? 

To top it off, in a surprise ban on Singapore travellers, Italy’s changed Singapore’s Covid-19 risk classification to ‘higher risk’.
No, I didn’t have plans to visit Italy, but it still feels like a snub. Plus my seventeen year old doglet is losing her eyesight, hearing and continence and figuring out doggy diapers is making me feel really old too. 

But the one really important thing about Dōngzhì is that it’s a reminder that things are going to get better from here on. 

The solstice, today’s absolute nadir is the turning point. Anyone who reads or writes mysteries will recognise it as the All Is Lost point where it looks like you’re about to be overwhelmed by the bad guys with better muscles/ connections/ zombies. This might be the end of you if you’re just a subplot. 

However, as all readers know, if you’re the protagonist of your own story, all you’ve got to do is hang on and keep turning pages. You know that if you just survive today, this Tuesday, the worst is over (for now) and things are going get better. But just as the ancient Chinese believed you had to invite positive energy to return to Earth, you should make sure you do something for yourself in your own story, so you aren’t dismissing yourself as a subplot.

For myself, I’m making tang yuan.
‘Tang yuan’ literally means ‘soup rounds’. In Cantonese it sounds like ‘Tuen Yuen’ which means ‘united togetherness’.  These soft glutinous rice flour balls with sweet fillings are shared with family and friends at Dongzhi to symbolise and celebrate our shared togetherness.

My late mother wasn’t fond of cooking, but luckily Mrs Next-Door was a super home cook. Since I was just one day older than her daughter, I remember getting to join in the making of their festive tang yuan. There would be immense batches of gleaming white and pink sticky dough in basins on their dining table. We children were allowed to help roll them into small ping pong ball sized balls that you thumbed an indentation in, pressed a spoonful of filling into, then pulled, kneaded and re-rolled to seal.
(This was after days of work soaking and grinding glutinous rice by hand and roasting and crushing the fillings. All I remember of that part of the process is being told to stay out of the kitchen).
These balls were then popped into a boiling vat of sweet soup and, after they were ceremonially offered to the ancestors on the family altar (another thing my Methodist mum didn’t approve of) we got to eat them. They look a little like mochi—but mochi are light and powdery and tang yuan are dense and slippery and always served in soup.

 Much as I love tang yuan, I’m not up to making them from scratch. Luckily, the supermarket came to my rescue.

But I am making my own soup. I’m trying to reproduce my favourite sweet ginger soup, boiling smashed old ginger and red dates, then adding yellow rock sugar to taste. And I cheated by using pandan essence out of a bottle instead of using pandan (screw pine) leaves, something that I know will get me into trouble with old schoolmates who grow them just for cooking!

The tang yuan sink when you first put them in, but bob around beautifully once they're done. 

Both the ginger soup and tang yuan turned out rather well, I must say. And I know what I want to do with them.

Two days ago on Sunday, Loh Kean Yew became the first Singaporean ever to win the World Badminton Championships—and he did this despite injuring his right ankle in the quarter-finals. This was a huge surprise because he was an unseeded underdog. 
What’s maybe less surprising is all the people (kids, grandparents, everything in between) now outside playing badminton despite the wind, inspired by our new hero's win. A little inspiration is a wonderful thing. And from what I can hear up here, it sounds like they're all creating wonderful memories.

After I'm finished here I’ll go down to see if anyone would like some tang yuan soup. The great thing about festival food is, even if we can’t share it with family far away, we can still eat with people close by who then become family. 

PS. We’ve just had a blip of good news re: Italy banning Singapore visitors. Mr Mario Vattani, Italy’s Ambassador to Singapore, reportedly told news agency Adnkronos: “It’s a mistake. Here in Singapore, cases are now at a minimum level, almost 100 per cent of the population is vaccinated. I want to believe that these (the restrictions on Singapore travellers) are the result of a clerical error or a typo.” 

Maybe I’ll read Transient Desires tonight. The latest Donna Leon is still the closest I’ll be getting to Italy for some time. Happy Dōngzhì Festival everybody!


  1. Once more welcome, Ovidia! We'd delighted to be meeting the tastes and issues of your part of the world!
    In South Africa, it looks as if the Omicron wave is peaking, but not before we were banned by everybody. It's ironic that the UK now has more new cases than we do. Maybe we should close our borders to them?
    Happy Dōngzhì to you too!

    1. Thank you Michael! Sorry it took me this long to find comments here!

  2. I was in Denmark when your Singaporean badminton player defeated the world number one, who was Danish. House was rather glum after that. What a magnificent player! I am beginning to feel a little glum myself, because from now on daylight gets shorter and shorter. Sigh.

  3. Yum! (And yes, here at about 45 degrees north, I'm very much looking forward to longer and warmer days. :-)

  4. We here in the re-established US Epicenter for Covid--NYC--wish you safe travels soon again. Until then, Donna Leon, ginger soup, tang yuan, and a new found national hero seem a lot more comforting way to sit out this Omicron wave than CNN. WELCOME!!