[Alice Renez Tay, ‘A certain wonderland that illuminates rather just shines …’, 2013]
Chili in the Onion: Myths and the Virginity Condition
by Brendon Fernandez
To prevent the rain from falling, do this:
Find an onion, as big as your hand, with a flat base so that it will stand on its own. Cut a hole in the top, as wide as your index finger. Next find a chili, large and red. Push the fat end of the chili into the hole in the onion. The tip of the chili should point upwards, towards the sky. Four of these charms are needed in all. One must be placed at each corner of the patch of open ground to be warded against rain. The chilies and onions may be prepared by anyone who knows how. But (and this is the crucial bit) to give the charms their power, they must be placed by a virgin.
Let’s be clear on what we’re dealing with here. This is ritual. An honest-to-goodness circle (or ‘oblong’ to be pedantic) of power. This is domestic abjuration, kampong sorcery – practical and benign. The belief in the magic of the mundane. The transmogrification of the natural into the supernatural through ceremony and belief. This is the stuff of the occult, the pagan, an antiquated rite, a throwback to the bomoh shamanism of Southeast Asia. A world in which faith, not empiricism, forms the basis for logic. Where communities demonstrated their desires to the greater world around them through the acting out of old stories, in which every member was simultaneously audience and spectator, witness and participant. It is not surprising then that my first encounter with this ritual in modern-day Singapore was through the auspices of Theatre.
I was a member of a youth theatre group. We were putting on an outdoor performance for children, in which I wore a latex mask and played a pig (“Hamlet”). For a week in June, from about mid-morning to mid-day, we wanted clear skies. And so chilies and onions were brought, a few quick whispers were exchanged for surreptitious nods of confirmation, and finally one of the younger actresses was nominated as our ritual virgin.
Now, this last step was more challenging than it may seem. Consider that we were a troupe of 16-25 year-old actors, a profession whose members may typically be classified as people who are comfortable with our bodies, expressive with our emotions, chronically insecure and desperately seeking affirmation. To my knowledge, no actress has ever qualified for chili-and-onion duty two years in a row.
It worked. For a week in June, the sun burned down with merciless fury. The sweat pouring down my brow soon dissolved the flimsy costume glue attaching the pig mask to my face. In one show, it fell off completely in the middle of a scene. A child, no more than five, stood up and cried “It’s a person!” despondently, his faith in make-believe lost forever.
The ritual worked. And so, we continued to use it, year after year. Unscientific, perhaps. But, in our minds, proven.
Among those outside of the theatre scene (“normal people”), not so many know of it anymore. When the Reigning Lee alluded to it in an impromptu F1 interview,  most Singnettizens were quick to hop on roflcopters, proclaiming the incident another mee siam mai hum ] moment. Who could blame them? After confusing molluscs with condiments, any food-related comment was bound to be suspect. Chilies and onions to stop the rain?
But he forgot the most important part. The virgin! The trigger, the primer, the catalyst for the transformation of vegetable carving into weather totem. Or so I thought. What I eventually found was that while the chili and onion rain-proof charm is relatively well-established in our folklore, it seems no one else had ever heard tell of a virgin being involved. This story almost ended there: No virgin connection, no article.
Then I realised my mistake. We’re talking about myths here. My mind was still confined by the language of representative sample sizes and statistical variation, in which the beliefs and practices of my little youth theatre group would have to be justified against those of the majority. Statistically, our unique “virgin condition” would register as deviant, an aberration, negligibly represented, and ultimately as irrelevant as a Singaporean opposition party.
But myths don’t work that way.
At some point in the history of our little youth theatre group, whilst in the process of passing on the chili and onion ritual to the next generation of actors, someone had chosen to introduce the virginity condition. From that point on, the myth became less about the rain, or chilies and onions, and more about us. We had an excuse to ask for and share intimate details, and were bound to protect each others’ secrets lest our own be revealed. We were compelled to pass on the myth to new members, because as we matured we were no longer able to perform the ritual ourselves. The virginity condition modified the original chili-and-onion myth, giving it a new, intensely personal dimension, a social relevance within the group dynamic, and from that point forward, the guarantee of its own perpetuation, all in one fell swoop.
In myths then, the virginity condition functions as a “mythology augmenter.” First, it localises the myth that it modifies. You have to admit, the idea that you can use kitchen spices to prevent rain, or the belief that unicorns exist, or that the son of God once walked amongst us, or the promise that the faithful will receive palatial rewards in the afterlife, are, on their own, kind of wack. But add (respectively) the virgin as ritual activator, the virgin as chaste and worthy rider, the sinless virgin as Mother of God, or the 72 virgin Houri as a reward for the faithful (male) in Paradise, and suddenly we find that we have a reference point for these heretofore trippy concepts. Virginity is the most human of magics, at once familiar and sacred. We recognize it as a special state of being. It is a state of latent potential, of power. It is the condition (at least in the female) of purity, the state of treasured abundance, of having something precious, delicate and transient that, once lost, is lost forever. Our holy texts, our rituals and our folklore have elevated virginity to the realm of mythology, where it occupies a unique position as the only state that each and every one of us is born into, and thus guaranteed to experience, however fleetingly. From the moment we knew we had it, we were thinking of ways to lose it.
Second, because virginity is a condition that is increasingly difficult for a given number of people to satisfy as time goes by, any myth that is augmented by the virginity condition must at some point be shared with new people outside the original number, or it will die out. This dovetails perfectly with the nature of myths themselves. It is through the passing on of myths to a new generation of believers and practitioners that myths attain their status as artifacts of “tradition,” “custom” and “culture” within the shared consciousness of the communities that perpetuate them. In other words, for myths to survive we must share them with our children, and if the myths in question happen to contain the virginity condition, then our children are the only ones who can practise them on our behalf.
Of course, all of this is just idle conjecture.
Someone in the youth theatre group may just have wanted to identify the actresses who weren’t virgins anymore, as those who would be more likely to put out on a date.
 When he was asked by ITV’s Martin Brundle if he was expecting rain during Singapore’s inaugural F1 Grand Prix, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong replied “All our people put up chilies and onions to prevent the rain from coming down.” To watch the video, please go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ka6bxFw4pSY
 In his 2006 National Day Rally speech, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attempted a locally-themed witticism, with disastrous results. PM Lee (or his speechwriter) was probably going for the phrase “mee siam mai hiam”, which means “one order of mee siam (a local dish of vermicelli in light gravy), no chili”. What he said was “mee siam mai hum”, which means “one order of mee siam, no cockles”. Mee siam is traditionally served with salted soy beans, dried bean curd, half a boiled egg, tamarind, and garnished with spring onions and Chinese chives. It has never, ever been served with cockles.
If this note makes no sense to you whatsoever, don’t fret. Go to YouTube.com and enter “mee siam mai hum” in the search field. Enjoy.
Brendon Fernandez is an actor by profession. He is sometimes in films but most often in theatre, where no matter how hard he works the product is always called “play”. Twice a week, too early in the morning, he goes to not-teach his students. Most nights (except Tuesdays) he is a Draenei Shaman. He writes here in solidarity with his friend, Jeremy Fernando, championing alternative means of expression for Eurasians who are not radio DJs.
[this piece first appeared in the ‘Virgins‘ issue of One Imperative]