Moths, Durians and Other Local Old Wives’ Tales

It is the “moth season” in Singapore recently, with hundreds, even thousands, of moths spotted all over the island. Known as the tropical swallowtail moths, they are the second largest species of moths found in Singapore, and are generally flying around in larger numbers between May and August.

moth

Many cultures around the world believe moths are the symbols of death. In Singapore, there is a popular belief that that moths are the spirits of the dead who have come back to visit their loved ones. Another local old wives’ tale of moths is that the powder that coat their wings can cause blindness, and kids are often warned not to disturb these winged insects. In reality, the “powdery” wings of the moths are made up of thousands of tiny modified hairs called scales.

Other than moths, there are dozens of old wives’ tales and taboos in Singapore. Some may sound illogical, while others are probably originated from superstitions and folklore. The purpose of this article is not ridicule but to explore this interesting aspect that has been part of our Singaporean culture for many generations.

How many of these have you heard of?

Durians Have Eyes

Old Wives’ Tale: Ripe durians will not fall on anyone’s head.

Possible Explanation: There are probably not many reported accidents of anyone hit by falling durians. But such accidents do happen every now and then. In 2001, a Malaysian newspapers reported that a 49-year-old man was knocked unconscious by a falling durian in a plantation.

durians

Cutting Fingernails at Night

Old Wives’ Tale: Many Singaporean mums would prohibit their kids from cutting their fingernails at night. For the Malays, cutting nails at night may shorten one’s lifespan, while the Chinese believes the kids will develop a phobia of the dark.

Possible Explanation: As most kampongs had dim lighting, fingernail-cutting might be a little dangerous in the past, especially with scissors at night. You won’t want to accidentally cut your fingers instead, so it would probably be more advisable to cut the nails during daytime.

A Lizard’s Tail

Old Wives’ Tale: A frightened house lizard’s tail will jump into your ears

Possible Explanation: House lizards are commonly found in homes. When feeling threatened, a lizard will drop its tail off. It is a defense mechanism known as autotomy. A new tail will be regenerated in a couple of weeks. However, the chances of the broken tail jumping into one’s ears are extremely low.

Three’s a Crowd

Old Wives’ Tale: Taking photographs of three people is a no-no. The one in the middle will die soon.

Possible Explanation: The origin of this taboo is undetermined. A similar old wives’ tale also exists: when walking in a group, three people should not walk side by side. Like the taboo mentioned, the one in the middle will suffer an early death.

Sweet Floral Scent

Old Wives’ Tale: The smell of frangipani indicates the presence of a spirit nearby.

Possible Explanation: This originated from the Malay belief that a pontianak gives off a strong smell of frangipani when she is close to her victim.

Hot Bus Cushion Seats

Old Wives’ Tale: Hot bus cushion seats give your piles

Possible Explanation: In the old days, we often see the elderly spanking the bus leather seats vigorously before sitting. Many of them believed that the seats warmed by the previous commuters would give them piles. There is no such problem today, especially with the buses fully air-conditioned and fitted with new fabric seats.

old bus cushion seats

Eyelids’ Twitching

Old Wives’ Tale: There will be good fortune if one’s left eyelid twitches, while right eyelid twitching symbolises bad luck.

Possible Explanation: Its origin is unknown, but this old wives’ tale is not unique in Singapore. It is a popular belief in many other countries, just that it exists in different variations. In medical explanation, the twitching of eyelids indicates the tiredness, stress or allergies of the eyes.

Night Swims

Old Wives’ Tale: Avoid swimming at night. The water spirits will make you drown and claim your soul.

Possible Explanation: In the past, the mothers would warn their kids to discourage them from playing at the rivers or longkangs (canals) after sunset.

Finish Your Food!

Old Wives’ Tale: Finish all your rice, or else your future husband/wife will be mo peng (face scarred by pimples)

Possible Explanation: A good tactic used by the mothers to ensure their kids do not waste any food.

Pointing Finger at the Moon

Old Wives’ Tale: A warning from the elderly: “Don’t point your finger to the moon, or your ear will be cut“.

Possible Explanation: In many religions and beliefs, the moon is as much-respected as the sun. Probably that is why it is considered rude to point at the moon.

urban legend - moon

Bad Luck Underwear

Old Wives’ Tale: It is unlucky to walk under the undergarments hanged at the rear of HDB flats.

Possible Explanation: This perhaps originated from another popular belief: If you wear a panty on your head (why will anyone do that?), you will get bad luck for 7 years. In any case, it is still not advisable to walk at the rear of HDB flats due to the chances of falling bamboo poles that are used for hanging clothes.

Peeping Tom’s Punishment

Old Wives’ Tale: You will get stye (commonly known as eye needle or ba zham in Hokkien) if you peep someone bathing. In the fifties, people used to use a few grain of rice to rub their affected eyes as the cure for stye.

Possible Explanation: Peeping at someone bathing is immoral and illegal. In medical explanation, stye is caused by the bacterial infection of the skin around the eye, and probably has nothing to do with peeping.

Painful Head

Old Wives’ Tale: Use your fist to knock against the bottom of your jaws gently if you are hit on the head.

Possible Explanation: Perhaps in doing so, it may have a psychological effect in soothing the pain. Just like hopping on the spot after being hit on the groin.

“Excuse Me”

Old Wives’ Tale: Mumble “excuse me” when peeing near a tree.

Possible Explanation: In the olden days when there were more jungles and plantations than public toilets, people often had to answer their nature’s calls by the trees, but they were afraid of offending the tree spirits. This practice is still common among the NS personnel today, especially during the jungle trainings. In any case, it is good to respect the nature too.

Knock Knock!

Old Wives’ Tale: Always knock on the door before you enter your hotel room or any other empty rooms.

Possible Explanation: It is to warn any spirits or other unknowns lurking in the room beforehand, and hope they will not disturb the one who is going to stay in that room.

hotel corridor

Nailing Disallowed

Old Wives’ Tale: No nailing during pregnancy

Possible Explanation: The Chinese, especially the Cantonese, believe that nailing during pregnancy will cause deformities to the unborn baby. In fact, drilling and shifting of furniture should also be avoided.

Tiger Cure

Old Wives’ Tale: Write the Chinese character of “tiger” (虎), preferably by an adult born in the year of Tiger, onto the swollen cheeks of the child who is suffering from mumps.

Possible Explanation: Mumps are commonly known as the “swelled face” (猪头皮) in Chinese. Pigs, naturally, are afraid of tigers, and therefore in the olden days, this was a popular folk remedy when professional medical assistance was not easily available.

Tooth Fairy

Old Wives’ Tale: When his/her baby tooth dislodges, the child must stand up straight and throw the fallen tooth out of the window, so that the new replacement tooth can grow well.

Possible Explanation: A possible local variation of the western folklore Tooth Fairy?

Clocks as Gifts

Old Wives’ Tale: Giving clock to others, especially the elderly, is strictly prohibited

Possible Explanation: Giving a clock as gift, to the Chinese, sounds like providing a burial to the parents (送终). Which is why the elderly are particularly pantang (superstitious) about this.

clock

Bad Gossips

Old Wives’ Tale: If you suddenly sneeze, or have an itchy ear, or accidentally bite your tongue, it means someone is talking bad of you, or gossiping about you

Possible Explanation: Nil.

Umbrella Taboo

Old Wives’ Tale: Opening an umbrella inside the house may attract a ghost (Chinese beliefs), or a snake will appear from the inner center of the umbrella (Malay beliefs).

Possible Explanation: This is not unique to the local Chinese and Malays. The Egyptians also believe opening an umbrella indoors will bring bad luck. Anyway, few will do it unless it rains inside the house.

Choking Remedy

Old Wives’ Tale: If a person chokes while eating, knock a pair of chopsticks (upright) against an empty bowl held slightly above his head.

Possible Explanation: This old wives’ tale seems to have originated from Hong Kong, where the Cantonese believe in doing so, it will clear the windpipe and ease the choking.

Others

  • Do not take photographs of someone sleeping, as his soul may be trapped.
  • A mirror placed in front of the bed will confuse your soul when it returns to your body upon waking.
  • Some local Chinese and Indians believe that if your palms itch, you will receive some wealth or good fortune soon.
  • A young girl, according to Malay beliefs, should avoid singing in the kitchen or else she will marry an old man as her husband.
  • Whistling while walking home at night may attract ghostly presence.
  • Hearing a cat cries at night spells bad omen.

Published: 01 June 2014

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7 Responses to Moths, Durians and Other Local Old Wives’ Tales

  1. I had to stifle my giggles when I saw an old lady patting the MRT plastic seats before sitting down-old habits hard to kick.
    The practice of patting hot seats can really be explained scientifically. I being a motorcyclist do that all the time. It really helps to transfer some heat from the seat to your hand and of course give you some indication of how hot the seat is before you sit on it.

    • found this interesting news article from The Straits Times dated 22 May 1982…

      An expat named R.D. Evans appealed for an explanation of what he observed: “There is one common local custom which has puzzled me… the practice of violently beating the seat in a bus before one sits down.”

      A week later, The Straits Times published a section of the 28 replies they received from the public. Some of the explanations given were:

      1. The whacking is meant to create vibrations around the hot seat so that the resultant airwaves will absorb and remove the heat from the seat, making it cool and comfortable to sit on.

      2. Smacking is a way of eliminating the bad chi (energy)

      3. It reduces the risk of hemorrhoids.

      4. It is a practical way of re-inflating the flattened seat.

      🙂

  2. sgparlay says:

    PM Lee said chilli and onions can stop rains…. Lol

  3. Paul Radcliffe says:

    I have a question…………i was told about the step and mirror in a traditional house to ward off ghosts……….which as been confirmed as a true superstition/practice, but I have also heard that some of the buildings in Singapore have holes or portals in them, so that the spirits can travel without interruption……….did I imaging this or is there some truth in that story..thanks

  4. S$1 coin tales says:

    Ever wonder why the S$1 coin has an octagonal shape on it? Just google “S$1 coin” and “octagonal” and you will get tales about it!

  5. PY says:

    Here is another one…
    Chinese believe that when people are sleeping, their legs should not face the door as they believed that leg facing the door is for people who has died and waiting to send for funeral.

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