The sound of the recess bell travels across the empty school corridors. Doors opens and feet clad in white socks and identical black velvet slippers step out of the classrooms. My right hand meets my best friend’s grasp and my other hand reaches into the pocket of my uniform. I feel the softness of worn cotton in my hand, and rub the grains of rice between my fingers, almost like a prayer ritual. Yes, all five of them are there. We find a quiet corner and set ourselves down, cross-legged, on the terracotta tiles warmed by the midday heat. The sun casts shards of light across the open arches of the school walkways. The fan is audibly rotating over our heads.
“Black, white, catch!” says my friend. And so we play; one throw after another, one sweep after another, one round after another.
My family migrated to England when I was just nine, but this memory of playing five stones as a schoolchild in Singapore remains pure and simple. Although we lived abroad, we still maintained strong familial links with Singapore. During the long English summer holidays, we would return to Singapore to stay with grandparents and enjoy all those special treats that could only be enjoyed back home. Every year, my aunty would make me a set of five stones from old cotton remnants. Each set was different - one was blue and white, whilst another had the checkered pattern of a sarong. But the ritual was the same.
SG50 ICON: Five Stones
A few days after arriving, when the tiredness of jet lag had lessened - along with the fussing of relatives – my aunty would sit me down at the round table in the middle of the kitchen and let me choose cloth for a new set. Under the watchful eye of the Kitchen God and the ancestral tablets, she would take out a heavy pair of metal scissors, rusty with time, and cut out five squares. Each year the five squares would grow along with my hands. Then she would sit at the old Singer sewing machine, and sew up five little pouches, her feet pedaling in short spurts. Together we would then fill the pouches with transluscent grains of rice. I had always preferred a loose filling, and to a child, one extra grain could mean the difference between winning or losing a game. Once satisfied with my “fit”, my aunty would twist the pouch to form the distinctive pyramid shape and sew up the fourth edge. This new set of five stones would last me through the school holidays, after which they would be safely packed in my hand luggage on the trip back to England. My brother and I became very adept at playing five stones on the foldaway tables of a Boeing 747 from the 80s.
Curious about its origins, I googled five stones before I started writing this article Clicking away the Five Stones Hostel in Beach Road and the dream engagement ring from Tiffany’s, I discovered that this simple game was played in ancient times, with Sophocles ascribing its invention to Palamedes, a prince of Nauplia, who taught it to the Greeks during the Trojan War. According to Greek mythology, even Zeus enjoyed a round or two. Like many childhood games, five stones is known throughout the world by many other names – kugelach in Israel, astragolai in Nepal and beş taş in Turkey. Its original name, however, is knucklebones, which refers to the material from which the knucklebones were made. Namely, the knuckle bones of sheep. I must admit that “How about a round of kugelach?” sounds more appealing than “Fancy a game of knucklebones?” Local culture even played a role in the naming of the different challenges. I can’t imagine the “char kway teow” level being all that popular in Turkey.
However, what remains consistent in all these variations is its simplicity. And it is this simplicity that I cherish. With the omnipotent presence of the Internet and rushing of social media in our lives, and the lives of our children, the passing of time by throwing and catching bags of rice is indeed priceless. Two days before National Day, I gave birth to my fourth child. The weeks before were spent preparing for the new baby, and squeezing in final trips abroad before that crucial “36 week” ban from flying. After which we were stuck at home for most of the summer holidays. Hot and tired, it was difficult to keep the children entertained. But guess what? Like my aunty, I found some old cloth – in my case, an old tea towel – and cut it up into ten squares. A set each for my two daughters, with one smaller than the other. I made ten little pouches and my daughters filled them each with rice. We twisted them into pyramids and sewed each pouch up securely. With my tummy stretched beyond redemption, I sat down with my two daughters and taught them how to play five stones. I was once again that schoolgirl in recess time.