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 with soles from old car tyres.

Glitter light-up sneakers

My friend, who is petite, bought this pair of glitter light-up sneakers from the children’s department. They were nice, comfortable and cheap, and there were 3 pairs left in her size. So she bought all 3 identical pairs.

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Glitter light-up sneakers (photo by Leonie Kueh).

I’m always slightly envious of adults who can buy footwear from the children’s department, because children’s shoes are usually cheaper and have more cute designs than adult shoes. I could not wear children’s shoes even when I was a child. Before I was 10 years old, I could already fit adult sizes. So that makes me ask, ‘Why don’t they make them in my size?’

Glitter light-up sneakers (Photo by Leonie Kueh).

Sneakers with lights in the soles (photo by Leonie Kueh).

I think this pair of light-up sneakers is pretty cool. They have colourful glitter straps across the front. Do manufacturers think that adults don’t want to wear glitter? Even cooler, in my opinion, are the lights in the soles. The soles of the sneakers light up in different colours every time the wearer takes a step. There are batteries in the soles that power the lights. Considering that there are lights and batteries in the soles, these sneakers are not heavier than regular sneakers. In this particular pair of sneakers, the batteries are not replaceable and there is no way to turn the lights off. I have seen other light-up children’s sneakers that come with an on/off button in the heel, which would prolong battery life.

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Sneakers with lights in the soles (photo by Leonie Kueh).

I think these light-up sneakers are very cool, especially when worn in low light. It’s a bit like having your own disco on the soles of your feet. So shoe manufacturers: ‘Why don’t you make them in my size?’

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Sneakers with lights in the soles (photo by Leonie Kueh).

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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

Red Socks Day

This month, I’m writing about Red Socks Day. No, this is not related to the Boston Red Sox baseball team. This is Red Socks Day in New Zealand, and it is related to the late Sir Peter Blake.

Sir Peter Blake was a New Zealand-born yachtsman. In 1991 he was conferred an OBE, and in 1995 he was knighted for his services to yachting. He is most famous for leading Team New Zealand to victory in the America’s Cup yacht race. He led the team to victory in 1995, and again in 2000, becoming the first non-American team to successfully defend the title. He also set the fastest time for sailing non-stop circumnavigating the world.

After Sir Peter retired from competitive sailing, he focused on the environment and looking after the earth’s waterways. In December 2001, he was shot and killed by pirates in Brazil while on an expedition to examine the effects of global warming and pollution on rivers in South America.

Sir Peter Blake was known for his red socks. In 1995, his wife gave him a pair of red socks, and they became his lucky red socks. Every time he wore the red socks, he won his race, and when he didn’t wear the red socks, he lost his race.

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An official pair of Sir Peter Blake red socks.

Today, red socks are a tribute to Sir Peter Blake. On the 8th of July this year, it is Red Socks Day in New Zealand, and this year marks the 21st anniversary of Red Socks Day. People are encouraged to buy and wear a pair of red socks. On this day, Kiwis wear red socks to remember Sir Peter Blake, to celebrate the success of a small country, and to support the work of the Sir Peter Blake Trust. The Trust was set up in 2004 to honour Sir Peter’s leadership and love for the environment. The Trust works to inspire and motivate young Kiwi leaders, adventurers and environmentalists to dream big. You can buy an official pair of red socks here.

To find out more about the work of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, go here.

The packaging of the red socks, inspiring you to 'dream big'.

The packaging of the red socks, inspiring you to ‘dream big’.

Promotional jandals

My friends and family will tell you that I’m a bit of a sucker for advertising-type promotions. I’ll buy things I don’t need just to get a free gift. There doesn’t even have to be a free gift. Sometimes I’ll buy things just for the chance to win something, or to enter a competition. The most extreme case was when I bought something I didn’t need, to win something that I couldn’t use. Funnily in that case, I actually did win, and I ended up just giving away the prize.

Currently, there is one shop here that has a promotion for V energy drink. Buy any 500ml bottle of V energy drink and get a free pair of jandals. Jandals is a New Zealand term for thonged sandals or flip flops. This term was believed to originate in the 1950s, an amalgamation of the words ‘Japanese’ and ‘sandals’, as the style of these sandals with thongs is similar to traditional Japanese footwear. Personally, I call this type of footwear ‘slippers’, as this is the term that I grew up with. The V promotion kind of made no sense for this time of the year, as it is now winter in the Southern hemisphere, and people will not want to wear jandals in the cold.

The V promotion - Buy any 500ml bottle of V and get a free pair of jandals.

The V promotion – Buy any 500ml bottle of V and get a free pair of jandals.

As I said, I’m a sucker for promotions. So I bought a bottle of V energy drink, even though I don’t even like the drink. Just so I could get a free pair of slippers that I’m not going to wear now in the winter months. I also don’t really like advertising for V energy drink on my footwear. But apart from that, these slippers are quite soft and comfortable. I just have to wait a few more months for warmer weather to be able to wear them.

Mexican pointy boots

This month, I thought I would write about something Mexican, in time for Cinco de Mayo. Only for my Mexican friend to tell me that Cinco de Mayo is more of a celebration in the USA than it is in Mexico. But no matter. It is the month of May, and I’ll write about something Mexican, just because I may 🙂

Cinco de Mayo is Spanish for the 5th of May. It is celebrated (funnily enough) on the 5th of May. It commemorates Mexico’s victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla on the 5th of May 1862. Even though the French ultimately won the war, the Mexican victory on the 5th of May was important because the French army was much better equipped and outnumbered the Mexican army. Despite this, the Mexicans still managed to defeat the French.

This month, I’m writing about a funny type of footwear from Mexico. They are called ‘botas picudas mexicanas’ (literally: Mexican pointy boots) or ‘botas tribaleras’ (tribal boots). These boots originated about 5 or 6 years ago in the north of Mexico. Matehuala, a city in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí has been credited as the birthplace of these boots.

As the name suggests, these boots are very pointy. They are leather boots with a very long, pointy tip. They are associated with tribal guarachero music, which is a type of electronic dance music. Botas tribaleras are worn by men when dancing to tribal music. It has given rise to male dance groups who wear cowboy hats, matching costumes with skinny jeans, and of course pointy boots, while dancing to this music.

But why am I writing about these boots, when you can see them in all their hilarious glory in the following short documentary.