HDB corridor traditions in Singapore

2020 has been a tough year, with a global pandemic and recession in full swing. Yet, Singaporeans have managed to keep our spirits up by continuing to observe our own customs and festivities. Beyond proudly displaying the country’s flag for National Day, there are HDB corridor traditions unique to specific cultures.

These include adorning one’s home exterior with decorations during special occasions, or everyday symbols to showcase the faith and beliefs of those within the household. Keep this list of origins and meanings behind common HDB corridor traditions in Singapore handy next time you take a stroll along your block, checking out what your neighbours have on display.

1. Ketupat decorations – admitting one’s sins & seeking forgiveness

Ketupat Decorations Singapore Hari Raya
Image credit:
Kusu Island

Ketupat are rice dumplings wrapped in palm leaves, woven into the shape of a diamond. In the olden days, they were hung out to dry after cooking and wrapping. They can now be either purchased ready-made or home cooked then stored in the fridge, yet the cultural practice of hanging ketupat-shaped decorations during Ramadan season has remained.

The criss-cross weaving of the palm leaves is said to symbolise the sins committed by human beings, with the white rice within representing one’s purity and liberation from past mistakes after observing the fasting, prayers and rituals of Ramadan. Hence, ketupat serve as a symbol of admitting one’s mistakes and asking for forgiveness, as part of Hari Raya tradition.

2. Wall altars & joss stick holders – prayers for divine protection

Wall altars joss stick holders Singapore Buddhism
Image adapted from (L-R): Writers Brew & Libby Fu

Many Buddhist and Taoist households have a dedicated altar at home to perform regular prayers to statuettes of the various gods, but you may have noticed a smaller-scale wall altar attached outside some units. These are erected to pray to Tian Gong, a Taoist deity also known as the Ruler of Heaven, and the altar needs to be placed outdoors and facing the sky.

DIY Makeshift Joss Stick Holder Singapore BuddhismSome households even repurpose tin cans from condensed milk or Campbell soup to create makeshift joss stick holders. 
Image credit: Fair Fun

Myths describe Tian Gong as the monarch of all deities in heaven, and those of Buddhist and Taoist faith pray to him for everyday blessings as well as divine protection from the demons and evil spirits in the world.

3. Diya oil lamps – banishes darkness, welcoming enlightenment

Diya Oil Lamps - Deepavali Singapore
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

You may have thought they were regular candles along a corridor, but these little oil lamps commonly displayed during Deepavali are actually called diya. The receptacles are crafted from clay, and filled with either ghee or vegetable oil to contain a lit cotton wick. Simple in essence, they form quite the marvellous sight when lined up to illuminate the space.

Deepavali is also known as the Festival of Lights. And in Sanskrit, “deep” refers to diya while “avali” means a row of. Hence, decorating the outside of one’s home during Deepavali has become an age-old ritual signifying wisdom and enlightenment. It also reinforces the meaning behind Deepavali itself, celebrating the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness.

4. Cross on door – proclaims worship & grants protection

Christian Cross on Door - Singapore
Image adapted from (L-R): Julian Tay & Qanvast

The Christian cross is a universally recognisable symbol, not just at church but on everyday items such as jewellery and even stationery logos. As the symbol of the religion, it serves as a reminder of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, passion, and sacrifice of death for the sins of the world. 

When attached at the entrance of one’s home, the simple but powerful symbol proclaims the Christian worship of those residing within, and grants protection of the household. Little-known fact for those not of Christian faith: a cross with Jesus Christ on it usually represents Catholicism.

5. Red cloth banner – directing happiness & luck for new beginnings

Chinese Red Cloth Banner - Auspicious Feng Shui
Image credit: Geomancy.net

It’s no secret that Chinese folks deem red to be an incredibly auspicious colour, displaying crimson decor as far as the eye can see every Lunar New Year period. A red banner – or Ang Cai in Hokkien – can be draped outside one’s home beyond Lunar New Year, marking all sorts of special occasions or fresh beginnings.

These include moving into a new home, the matrimonial union for newlywed couples, and even birthdays of a household member to celebrate a new chapter of his or her life. The bright red banner is said to usher happiness, luck and wealth into the direction of one’s home.

6. Quran phrase decor – blessings & reminders of religious teachings

Quran phrase home decor - Singapore Islam
Image credit: Pinterest

Muslim households commonly display banners with phrases from the Quran, inscribed in beautiful and intricate Arabic writing. They serve as a reminder of Islamic teachings, and it is also believed that having it in the household will grant Allah’s blessings and protection from demons or black magic.

On top of full-length quotes, there are also decoration pieces which offer a more modern and minimalistic take of displaying one’s Islamic faith. These condensed displays could spell out meaningful phrases such as “Alhamdullilah”, which translates to “praise be to God”, or “Inshallah”, meaning “God willing/if God wills it”.

7. Chalk kolam – attracting prosperity and fending off evil spirits

Chalk Kolam Hinduism SingaporeImage adapted from: Kalai’s Lifestyle

Before chalk was adopted in modern times, kolams were drawn using coarse rice flour. This attracted ants, birds and other wild creatures to stop by for a nibble, rendering the kolam a sign of invitation to welcome visitors to the home. This was done in the hopes that the Hindu Goddess of Prosperity, Lakshmi, would swing by as well.

Apart from the belief that it directs prosperity straight to your home, folklore also states that kolam lines have to be carefully etched to ensure completeness and no open gaps. This symbolism prevents evil spirits from slipping through and entering the kolam shapes, thus keeping bad fortune from weaselling into the household as well.

8. Rangoli – welcoming Hindu gods into the home for good fortune

Rangoli Drawing Deepavali Tradition Singapore Hinduism
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

A colourful and more upgraded version of chalk kolam that you’d see during Hindu festivals such as Deepavali, rangoli patterns are created on the ground outside of one’s home using coloured rice, sand, red brick powder or flower petals. The designs can consist of geometric shapes, delicate petal drawings, and even detailed deity impressions.

Hindu women meticulously craft the patterns either at the entrance or the sidewalk lining their home, with the belief that it will welcome Hindu gods into the abode and bring fortune and protection. A wholesome family activity, this skill is usually passed down to daughters to ensure that the tradition continues throughout generations.

Celebrating cultural diversity with Deepavali events at Little India

One uniquely Singaporean aspect of daily life not to be taken for granted is our cultural diversity. Even a quick stroll through our HDB block is able to reveal the fascinating aspects of other cultures, in terms of racial and religious expression. 

In order to understand and appreciate the many different traditions a little bit better, we can also attend celebratory events of various cultures, not just our own. That’s the beauty of living in multicultural Singapore.

This post was brought to you by Singapore Tourism Board.
Cover image adapted from (clockwise): Wikipedia Commons, Kusu Island, Qanvast, Geomancy.net