The Mexican Day of the Dead and Mexican sandals

In conjunction with the Mexican Day of the Dead, I am writing about something Mexican this month. This post is divided into two parts – the first part is about Dia de los muertos (Day of the dead) and how it compares with Chinese traditions; and the second part is about huaraches, a traditional type of Mexican footwear.

Today is the 1st of November, which is Dia de los angelitos (Day of the little angels) in Mexico. Deceased children and babies are known as angelitos (little angels), and on the 1st of November, the spirits of dead children are believed to return. Dia de los angelitos is followed by Dia de los muertos (Day of the dead) on the 2nd of November. Spirits of dead adults are believed to return home on this day. Dia de los muertos is an important day in Mexico and is a public holiday. To prepare for this day, Mexicans clean and decorate the family tombs. They bring offerings and flowers, especially marigolds, to the tombs, because marigolds are believed to guide the spirits to their altars. Mexicans also bring food, such as a deceased loved one’s favourite food. Mexican families will have parties or picnics overnight in the graveyard, while waiting for their departed loved ones to return.

An example of an altar for Day of the Dead

An example of a Mexican altar for Day of the Dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

Other activities for Dia de los muertos celebrations include parades and building altars to the dead. These altars can be built at home or at public places, like schools. On this day, Mexicans also write funny poems featuring death, and put on theatre productions of Don Juan Tenorio. Skulls and skeletons are common symbols of the Mexican Day of the Dead. There are special food associated with Day of the Dead, like chocolate or sugar skulls, used as offerings. There is also Pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a kind of sweet bun, usually baked with bones made from dough on top. In more recent years, people dress up with skull masks or in make-up resembling a skull. Prior to learning more about the Day of the Dead, I always thought of images of skulls or skeletons as something scary and frightening. But I have since learned that for Mexicans, these images do not carry the same connotations. A lot of people get confused, but this celebration is not connected with Halloween. It is a happy festival where Mexicans remember their loved ones and when their departed family members come home.

Sugar skulls for Mexican Day of the Dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jim

Sugar skulls for Mexican Day of the Dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) for Day of the dead.

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) for Day of the dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

In skull make-up for Day of the dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

In skull make-up for Day of the dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

It’s natural that when you come across something new, you will try and connect it with something you already know. When I first heard about Dia de los muertos, I thought it was a lot like two Chinese festivals: Ching Ming (also spelt Qing Ming), and also the Chinese ghost festival. I have since learned that while there are similarities, there are also differences.

Ching Ming (清明, literally ‘clear bright’) is a Chinese festival that occurs at the start of April. Similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, on or around this day, Chinese people honour their dead ancestors. Chinese people visit and clean the graves of their ancestors, and bring offerings of food and tea or wine. Chinese people also pray to their ancestors at altars at home. While Mexicans will build altars for Day of the Dead, altars in Chinese homes are fixed and permanent.

Another Chinese festival is the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is on the 15th night of the 7th month in the Chinese calendar. On this day, similar to Day of the Dead, it is believed that ghosts and spirits will visit the living. For this day, Chinese people will give food offerings and burn incense. It is also common for Chinese people to burn joss paper money and burn paper versions of things, like a paper house or a paper car. By burning these paper versions, Chinese people believe that the departed spirits can use these things in the afterlife.

Chinese people burn joss paper for their departed loved ones to use in the afterlife. This joss paper money features the Lord of Hell who judges the souls of the departed.

A $500000000000 hell bank note for use in the after life. Here 'hell' means the 'afterlife'.

Chinese people burn joss paper for their departed loved ones to use. This is a $500000000000 hell bank note for use in the afterlife. Here, ‘hell’ means the ‘afterlife’.

It seems that the Mexican and Chinese festivals share many similarities, but what I think is a major difference between the two is the feeling of these festivals. The Mexican celebration is a happy one whereas the Chinese festivals are more serious and solemn, almost an obligation towards the family. There are also many taboos associated with the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Even the entire 7th month is considered inauspicious and some Chinese people will avoid doing things like moving house and getting married during that month. Chinese people also won’t have parties overnight in graveyards like the Mexicans. Somehow I can’t help feeling that the Mexicans have a good attitude towards death and have a sense of humour about death.

This is supposed to be a blog about footwear, so I’m meant to be writing about shoes (I just got a bit side tracked writing about other things that interested me). After a very long-winded introduction, I am actually writing about traditional Mexican sandals, called huaraches. There is also a type of Mexican food called huarache, which takes its name from the sandals. Huarache (the food) is made up of a dough base with meat, vegetable and cheese toppings. This food is called huarache because the dough takes the shape of a huarache (the sandal).

The word ‘huarache’ comes from a Mexican indigenous language, and it means ‘sandal’. This footwear is believed to be hundreds of years old, and first worn by Mexican farmers and peasants. Huaraches are a very simple form of footwear, originally made of leather with leather straps. Traditionally, huaraches had uppers made from woven leather straps. The most basic design of a huarache is of a thick sole with 3 holes made in the sole for straps that tie to the wearer’s ankles. Huaraches can be made with soles out of recycled car tyres.

A man wears huaraches on a cold winter's day.

A man wears huaraches on a cold winter’s day (Photo by Chang Shih Yen).

The Tarahumara Indians, indigenous people from Northern Mexico, are well-known for long distance running. They traditionally ran long distances wearing huaraches as footwear. Here is a short video showing how the Tarahumara make huaraches.


Peranakan beaded slippers in Penang, Malaysia

Last month, I wrote about Chinese clogs in the state of Penang in Malaysia. This month, I am still staying in Penang, but this time I am writing about a type of footwear called Peranakan beaded slippers. Actually, these slippers are also known by many other names, such as nyonya slippers, ‘kasut manik’ in Malay, or ‘manik aey’ in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien. They may be spelt ‘manik’ or ‘manek’, which means ‘beads’ in Malay. I am calling them Peranakan beaded slippers because in my opinion, this is the most straight forward English term.

Peranakan is a Malay word that comes from the root word ‘anak’, which means ‘child’. Peranakan refers to someone born from the marriage between a native person and a foreigner. Originally, Peranakan was used to refer to the descendants of 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants to the Malay archipelago. But technically, the term Peranakan can refer to anyone born in the Malay archipelago as a result of an intermarriage with a local. These are the countries of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. Peranakan is still most commonly applied to Chinese people who have assimilated and adopted the Malay language and culture. Peranakan men are known as Baba while the women are called Nyonya. After writing that, I realized that people who are not from the region may have no idea how to pronounce the word ‘nyonya’. The closest I can describe it is that it is pronounced ‘neo-knee-ya’. Just say it really fast.

The Peranakans have a unique culture, a mix of Malay and Chinese, which seems to be slowly disappearing. Their language is a mix of Malay and Chinese. Their cuisine is famous. Known as Peranakan or Nyonya food, it is a fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisine. It existed way before the term ‘fusion food’ became fashionable.

The traditional dress of Peranakan women is the ‘baju kebaya’. If you don’t know what this looks like, female flight attendants on all the major national airlines in the Malay archipelago wear a modern version of the ‘baju kebaya’ as their uniform. These are the female flight attendants on Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Royal Brunei Airlines.

Shih Yen wears a vintage Nyonya kebaya with hand embroidery on the edges. This kebaya has no buttons, but is pinned with a kerosang.

At her graduation ceremony, Shih Yen wears a vintage Nyonya kebaya with hand embroidery on the edges. This kebaya has no buttons, but is pinned with a kerosang.

Close up of Shih Yen's kerosang or kebaya pin.

Close up of Shih Yen’s kerosang or kebaya brooch.

The traditional ‘baju kebaya’ consists of a sheer blouse with a batik sarong. The traditional kebaya blouse was always beautifully embroidered, especially all around the edges. The traditional kebaya blouse had no buttons. Instead, a 3-piece linked brooch was used to fasten it down the front. This brooch is called a ‘kerosang’ or ‘kerongsang’. There is a type of kebaya called the nyonya kebaya, worn mostly by Peranakan women of Chinese ancestry, especially in the Straits settlements. The Straits settlements are Malacca and Penang in Malaysia, and Singapore.The proper footwear when wearing a nyonya kebaya is Peranakan beaded slippers. There are two styles of Peranakan beaded slippers – covered or peep toe. These beaded slippers are handmade and time consuming to make. A design is first cross stitched onto the slippers, and then beaded over with very tiny glass beads called ‘manik potong’. Traditionally, nyonya women were proud of their cooking, embroidery and beadwork. A nyonya’s wedding day was an opportunity for her to show off her hand embroidery in her baju kebaya, and beadwork in her slippers.

Peranakan communities are found in Penang, Malaysia, so in this post, I will write about where you can buy Peranakan beaded slippers in Penang. One shop that sells these beaded slippers is Eng Ong Heong Trading on the eastern end of Jalan Burma, or Burma Road. I wrote about this shop last month, as it also sells Chinese clogs. This shop sells many things apart from Chinese clogs and Peranakan beaded slippers. This shop also sells Chinese prayer materials and retro things, like kerosene lamps, tiffin carriers and nyonya baskets. Nyonya baskets are tiered baskets, usually in a black and red colour, and are used for carrying food.


Peranakan beaded slippers sold at Eng Ong Heong Trading in Penang. The beaded slippers shown here are all in a peep toe style.

Another shop in Penang that specializes in Peranakan beaded slippers is Hong Kong Shoe Store. Originally located on Muntri Street, it is now on Kimberley Street. This shop is famous also for being the place where famed shoe designer Jimmy Choo started out as an apprentice. Other than Peranakan beaded slippers, this store makes beautiful bespoke shoes. Mr Wong, the shoemaker at Hong Kong Shoe Store, can custom make shoes to any design, and to fit any size or shape. He learned the craft from his father, the late Mr Wong Sam Chai. The prices at this shop are also very reasonable.

Hong Kong Shoe Store, now at Kimberley Street, Penang, Malaysia (Photo by David Lee).

Hong Kong Shoe Store, now at 20 Kimberley Street, Penang, Malaysia (Photo by David Lee).

Chinese clogs (木屐) in Penang, Malaysia

When I write a blog post, I never really know which posts will be popular. There are some posts that are popular, which surprise me. One of my most popular post is on Chinese clogs, which I wrote about back in January 2012. People are very interested in this type of footwear, and I have received many comments and messages about Chinese clogs. This is surprising to me because I feel that Chinese clogs are a slightly old-fashioned type of footwear, something that my grandmother would wear. But it seems retro is cool these days, so I am again writing about Chinese clogs.

Chinese clogs (木屐), or ‘mu ji’ in Mandarin, literally translates as wooden clogs. My family calls them ‘cha kiak’ as this is the pronunciation of ‘Chinese clogs’ (木屐) in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien that we speak. Chinese clogs is a very old type of footwear. Apparently, Chinese clogs pre-date the Japanese ‘geta’ or Japanese wooden slipper. Chinese clogs are unisex, worn by both men and women. But clogs with straight sides are meant for men, whereas clogs with sides that curve inwards as if the clog has a waist, are for women. The clogs are made from wood, and are surprisingly comfortable to wear despite the flat, hard wood surface. Because of the elevated sole, the clogs keep the wearer’s feet clean and dry. There is no left or right side to a Chinese clog; you can wear them on either foot. Traditionally two pairs of clogs, usually painted red, form part of a dowry for a Chinese bride.


Painted clogs. This pair is featured next to a live fish. The Chinese word for ‘fish’ (鱼) sounds the same as 余 the Chinese word for ‘plentiful’, so fish are a Chinese symbol of abundance, surplus and plenty.

Chinese clogs remind me of my childhood because they were commonly worn at my grandmother’s place. We wore regular unpainted clogs. I wore Chinese clogs as a child when I visited my grandmother and the clacking noise the clogs made on the floor reminds me of times spent at my grandmother’s shop. My paternal side of the family come from Hainan Island, and in Malaysia, we ran coffee shops, a very traditional Hainanese profession.

Chinese clogs (木屐) or 'cha kiak' from my grandmother's home

Plain, unpainted Chinese clogs (木屐) from my grandmother’s home.

This photo reminds me of my childhood at my grandmother's coffee shop.

This photo reminds me of my childhood at my grandmother’s coffee shop.

My father’s side of the family live in Penang, on the mainland side of the island state. It was a working class area, a bit rough, and when my father was young, gangs used to ask for protection money from the family’s coffee shop. The money was supposedly to ‘protect’ the shop, but if you didn’t pay up, it was the gangsters who would come and trash the shop. There were many gangs back then, with names like ‘see kang’ (four holes), ‘khong pek’ (08) and ‘ang hwa’ (red flowers). My aunt told me that back then even gangsters wore Chinese clogs. I find this funny because I don’t think of clogs as a tough guy gangster footwear. Rather, I associate them with something my grandmother would wear. Though I suppose one could use the wooden clog as a weapon, if you really wanted to. These days, the gangsters have moved into the loan shark business, rather than extorting money.

One of the questions that I get asked is ‘Where can I buy Chinese clogs?’ This is a hard question to answer because this is footwear that you would normally buy at the market or at a small sundry shop, which are becoming increasingly rare these days. But now I know of a shop in Penang which sells Chinese clogs. It is called Eng Ong Heong Trading on the Eastern end of Jalan Burma, or Burma Road. This shop sells many things apart from footwear. This shop sells Chinese prayer products, retro stuff, as well as traditional footwear like Chinese clogs and nyonya slippers (more on that in a future post).

If you want to buy Chinese clogs in Penang, you can't miss the entrance of Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road, with its gigantic clog in front of the shop.

If you want to buy Chinese clogs in Penang, you can’t miss the entrance of Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road, with its gigantic clog in front of the shop.

Chinese clogs are made by hand, but this is now a dying art as the traditional clog has to compete with modern footwear and the perception that clogs are old-fashioned and noisy footwear. There are very few skilled Chinese clogmakers these days, and clogmaking is a vanishing trade, going the way of TV repair men (remember them?).

An example of a Chinese clogmaker's workshop, where clogs are made by hand.

An example of a Chinese clogmaker’s workshop, where clogs are made by hand.

These days, clogs are more often sold as a souvenir item for tourists, rather than as actual footwear. You can also buy key chains and fridge magnets in the shape of Chinese clogs, if you feel that buying an actual clog is too much of a commitment.


Souvenir key chains and fridge magnets in the shape of Chinese clogs, also sold at Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road in Penang.


Uighur Food and Footwear

Yesterday was the first day of the Chinese New Year. So, I thought I would write about something Chinese. Well, about the Uighur people (also spelt Uyghur, Uygur or Uigur) who are ethnic minorities in China.

The Uighurs are found mostly in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, in the northwest of China. They speak a Turkic language and are mainly Muslim. The Uighurs have more in common with their neighbours in Central Asia, such as in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, compared with the Chinese.

Even though I am Chinese (from Malaysia), I really don’t know much about Northern China, and I know even less about the Uighurs. My ancestors were all from the southern areas of China, where people speak, dress and eat differently from the northerners.

I have recently discovered Uighur food and it is very unique and different from Southern Chinese cuisine. In the south of China, rice is the staple, whereas for the Uighurs, noodles, bread and dumplings are more common. They do eat rice, but the rice is spiced with cumin and contain raisins. I found Uighur food quite oily, and yoghurt was served with rice to balance the oiliness of the food. I also enjoyed handmade Uighur noodles, which are wider than any other noodles I have eaten before. The noodle dish was oily with a red oil, and spicy with whole chillies AND chilli flakes.

Xinjiang-style noodles, featuring wide handmade noodles with braised chicken and potato, whole chillies and chilli flakes.

Xinjiang-style noodles, featuring wide handmade noodles with braised chicken and potato, and lots of chillies.

To be honest, I only became interested in Uighur food and culture because I fell in love with a pair of antique Uighur boots, which was part of a museum exhibition on ethnic minorities in China. These knee-length Uighur boots are made of leather, wool and silk and come from Hetian, Xinjiang Autonomous Region. They were such beautiful boots with bright, intricate embroidery. I would visit the museum exhibition just to look at that pair of boots. They drew me like a magnet and sparked my interest in Uighur culture.

A pair of Uighur boots dating from 1840 - 1949 from Hetian, Xinjian Uighur Autonomous Region. These boots are made of leather, wool and silk.

A pair of Uighur boots dating from 1840 – 1949 from Hetian, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. These boots are made of leather, wool and silk.

Chinese foot binding (缠足) and lotus shoes

Last month, I wrote about huge, gigantic feet. This month, I am writing about the opposite – super tiny feet. Humans suffer a lot of pain for the sake of beauty. I just think of all the pain and blisters I have had from wearing uncomfortable shoes or from stuffing my feet into too-small shoes. This is nothing compared to the old practice of Chinese foot binding. Since Chinese new year is on 10th February this year, I thought I would write about the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding and the special shoes that women with bound feet have to wear.

I feel a connection to this practice as my maternal great-great grandmother, who was born in the 1870s, had bound feet. Personally, I think it’s ironic that my great-great grandmother had tiny bound feet, but in just a few generations, my unbound feet have grown so large that I struggle to find women’s shoes in Asia.

The Chinese custom of foot binding began in the tenth century. Foot binding was widespread during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) and continued for another 1000 years. Foot binding started for little girls when they were aged between 2 – 5 years old. Little girls’ feet were tightly bound with long pieces of cloth bandages to stop their growth. This practice was excruciatingly painful because it deliberately broke the girls’ toes and the arch of their foot. Girls and women with bound feet would never be able to run and could hardly walk. Instead, bound feet forced them to totter around, a walk that was considered attractive.

A replica of a Chinese woman with bound feet.

A replica of a Chinese woman with bound feet.

In January, I wrote about Robert Wadlow whose super huge feet was a hazard to his health and contributed to his death. Similarly, Chinese women with bound feet also had to be careful as they could suffer deadly infections from foot binding. The cloths that bound the feet had to be changed and washed regularly to prevent infections. For the rich, this was done once a day. For poorer people, this would happen 2 or 3 times a week. It was done by either a professional foot binder (yes, that occupation actually existed in the past!) or by an elder female relative. Apart from infections, other problems included rotting flesh in the feet and the stink associated with that.

Foot binding was a status symbol. It was a symbol of beauty, wealth, elegance and even sexuality. Chinese women who wanted to marry well or into money had to have bound feet as Chinese men did not want to marry women with large feet. Families who could bind the feet of their daughters were seen as rich as this meant they could afford servants, since daughters with bound feet would never be able to work and would need help to move around.

The ideal goal in foot binding was to have feet as small as 3 inches (7.6cm) long. These were called ‘golden lotus’ feet because the tiny feet resembled a lotus bud. Feet that were 4 inches (10cm) long were also acceptable and these were called silver lotus. Women with bound feet wore special shoes called ‘three inch golden lotus shoes’ (三寸金蓮鞋). These shoes were specially made, generally made of fabric, such as silk with cotton soles, and always beautifully embroidered.

These are not baby shoes, but shoes for women with bound feet.

These are not baby shoes, but shoes for women with bound feet. Close-up of a pair of golden lotus shoes.

There were various attempts to ban foot binding in the 1800s and early 1900s, though they were not very successful. This practice took years to die out. The last factory in China that made shoes for bound feet finally closed in the late 1990s because there was no longer any demand for the shoes as women with bound feet are dying off.

Nowadays, lotus shoes can only be seen in museums, or are sold as souvenir items. They are from a bygone era, as the practice of foot binding has become a relic of the past.

Examples of lotus shoes for Chinese women with bound feet, and a cast of a bound foot.

Examples of lotus shoes for Chinese women with bound feet, and a cast of an actual bound foot.

Chinese clogs (木屐)

It’s almost Chinese New Year. The Chinese use the lunar calendar and this year Chinese new year is on January 23rd 2012. This year is also the year of the black water dragon, which confusingly starts on 4 February 2012. Chinese new year comes early this year; the year of the dragon starts on ‘li chun’, which is the first day of spring. In 2012, ‘li chun’ is on 4th February.

Since Chinese New Year is almost here, I thought I would write about Chinese footwear. One example of casual Chinese footwear would be Chinese clogs or 木屐 which translates as ‘wooden clogs’. We call them ‘cha kiak’ in my family, which means ‘wooden clogs’ in the Hokkien dialect of Chinese.

Apparently, clogs from Wen Chang county on Hainan Island in South China has a very long history, centuries-old, and was the forerunner of the Japanese ‘geta’ or wooden slipper. Since my father’s ancestors came from Wen Chang county in Hainan province, my father’s side of the family wears clogs all the time. My paternal grandmother runs a coffee shop (a very traditional Hainanese profession) and she wears clogs around the shop, house and even to go next door. My uncle and aunt also regularly wear this type of footwear around the house and my aunt prefers them to slippers because according to her, her feet are cleaner while wearing clogs, unlike slippers which collect dust. Chinese clogs remind me of my childhood because their clack-clacking sound reminds me of my grandmother, and of the times I spent in her coffee shop.

There is no left or right side to the clog. You can wear them on either foot. They are very comfortable too. The design of the clog, with its elevated sole, helps to keep your feet dry. The wooden sole is also amazingly non-slip and is good to wear on wet surfaces. These clogs don’t come in any standard size. At the clogmakers, they generally come in big, medium, small or kids size. Clogs with straight sides are meant for men and clogs with sides that curve in (like in the picture) are for women.

Chinese clogs (木屐) or ‘cha kiak’ from my grandmother’s home

Interestingly, red wooden clogs are also included in a Chinese bride’s dowry. Two pairs of clogs, beautifully painted in red, make up part of a traditional Chinese dowry.

Sadly, making traditional Chinese clogs is a dying art. It is increasingly difficult to find these type of clogs as they have to compete with more modern footwear. Nowadays, these clogs are becoming more of a tourist souvenir item than everyday footwear.