Tradition vs Modernity in the Serpent's Tooth

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“Tradition versus Modernity”
In The Serpent’s Tooth (Catherine Lim)

Tradition is defined as the elements of a particular culture that are passed down from one generation to another either by word of mouth or demonstration, such as their beliefs, practices, and modes of thought. On the other hand, modernity is a term that is related to urbanization; it refers to a more recent and contemporary quality of life, methods, and ideas. In The Serpent’s Tooth by Catherine Lim, the story takes place in the heart of Singapore. So, the theme of tradition versus modernity that will be discussed here are closely related to the Chinese society in the urban setting of Singapore. Tradition is portrayed mainly by Old Mother, whereas modernity is shown by other characters like Angela and Mark.

There are several issues included in the topic of tradition versus modernity in The Serpent’s Tooth. Firstly, there was the issue of superstitious belief. Superstition is a set of beliefs that are not based on logical reasoning or knowledge, they are usually based on the fear of the unknown and are practiced to dispel or avoid any form of bad luck and misfortune. The practicality and rational of superstitious beliefs are rarely questioned by traditional people because it has been passed down to them from their ancestors and they consider them to be a part of their heritage. However, this changes with modernity because civilized people will begin to doubt and question the reliability of the rituals or actions influenced by superstition. In fact, most modern people will dub superstitious beliefs to be ridiculous and ‘old-fashioned’. In the story, Angela hosted a grand birthday dinner for the Old Man but her dressing was scrutinized by Old Mother because the colour white is a sign of mourning and it seemed to be a reflection of the bad events that were about to follow – the Old Man’s death. Angela, of course, was insulted that her mother-in-law could say such a thing about her dress because it was pure silk and very expensive. In the Chinese society, most superstition are maintained and patronized by the temple mediums. Mediums will provide advice to the traditional Chinese folk who come to them for help, but modern people will feel that the mediums are making use of the naivety of others. For example, Ah Bock was the adopted son of Old Mother and his original name was Ah Hai. His name was changed because the word ‘Hai’ had negative connotations and it was changed to something positive. A red string was tied around his wrist to complete the ritual of changing his mother. Old Mother willingly adopted him out of kindness although he was an abnormal child; according to the temple mediums, without the adoption, Ah Bock will surely die due to his illness. Angela could not fathom the reason behind Old Mother’s actions because the child was disabled and it was troublesome to take care of him. Also, it was the temple mediums that told Old Mother that her son, Wee Tiong was bad luck to her husband. Angela was strongly against the mediums and felt that they should be ‘skinned alive’; whatever they tell Old Mother to do, Old Mother blindly followed their instructions, even if it involved mistreating her own son.

The next issue that was brought up by this story is the emergence and repercussion of education. Tradition and education are two opposing schools of thought. Traditional people who are not so highly educated will tend to decipher and explain the natural events of the world based on their own understanding and intuition; on the other hand, modernized people will interpret the world through the lenses of Science. This contrast of opinions is highlighted in The Serpent’s Tooth , displayed by Old Mother and her grandchildren, Mark, Michelle and Michael. Old Mother enjoyed telling stories to her grandchildren, especially stories that are related to Chinese customs and beliefs. Although Michelle and Michael are thoroughly entertained by Old Mother’s...
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