An Oddly-placed Cemetery

Tombs in the Commonwealth heartlands.

30 Nov 2012
An Oddly-placed Cemetery

Holland Village – everyone knows it as a bustling enclave of bars and restaurants. Yet just a short walk away, through an HDB estate, lies nearly 3000 neatly and uniformly arranged graves bordered closely by residential flats.

A Chinese graveyard built this close to a residential area in Singapore – that struck me as odd. The only cemetery near a densely populated area I’ve come across here is the Muslim cemetery next to Masjid Malabaron Victoria Street.

With cemeteries typically located in far-flung, obscure places in Singapore, I’d taken for granted that cemeteries should be built far away from where people live. Wouldn’t residents find living just metres away from a gravesite unlucky, disturbing?

But then some, ahem, digging and a chat with some people afterwards would reveal a picture quite different from my assumptions. What began as simple curiosity about the location of a cemetery would unearth a whole host of other things.

The Caretaker and the Supervisor

Before anything else, the personalities that take care of this cemetery deserve mention. On the day that I discovered the place, I was with a friend taking pictures of it when a man in a red shirt and a straw hat beckoned us over to the temple nearby.

He was all smiles and very animated but didn’t talk much. Stuttering in bits of Hokkien (I can understand a little) and as if sensing a language barrier, he was happy to simply mime and gesture towards parts of the temple that he wanted to highlight: The grand yet understated main hall; the simple, humble architecture; the clean white walls with the red accents; the green fishpond with some koi swimming in it; the ancestral tablets, some from a time when the men still wore ancient long traditional Chinese tunics and ancient hats (imagine this communicated solely through a game of charades).

He subsequently led us to the supervisor of the grounds, Mr Luo Kwan Ling, an 82-year-old retired civil serviceman who was just as keen to share with us the temple’s background, verbally this time. He seemed more comfortable in Mandarin, but spoke to me in English when I explained I understood English better.

Mr Luo tells me that the man in the red shirt is Ah Koon, the caretaker of the grounds. Piecing accounts from Ah Koon and Mr Luo together, I find out that Ah Koon has been on the job for decades, and has lived on the premises for as long – his father had lived there as the caretaker before him, for close to 20 years. Ah Koon was his father’s assistant back in the day. When his father passed away, he took over, and has been the sole caretaker for over 10 years now. He’s in his 50s now, and lives there alone with his two huge dogs who double as alarm systems. He gets occasional visits from mah-jong buddies, but there was no mention of family.

And he’s Hokkien. Language spoken being the obvious clue aside, Mr Luo also points this out as the property (consisting of ancestral temple, memorial hall and cemetery) belongs to the Hakka clan association Ying Fo Fui Kun, so the place is only for people of Hakka descent. He says that the clan is, however, fine with employing and housing Ah Koon as “he has a good heart”. I am guessing his father was held in similar regard. It was a pity I couldn’t speak much Hokkien, or I would have asked Ah Koon more about his background. You don’t often hear of a father-son legacy of caretakers in Singapore today.

Then there’s Mr Luo. While he hasn’t served for as long as Ah Koon, he has been supervisor for about eight years. He does it voluntarily, for simple and modest reasons.

“Because I’m retired, I’m free you see. This is a good way to give back to the community… This is a good way to pass the time. I like it because there is no regimental life. Because I don’t get paid, what time I come is up to me,” he says.

Eight years is a long tenure for a volunteer. I point that out and it’s like a revelation to him. “I don’t notice. Now that you mention it, yes eight years is a long time.”

He has served a longer term than his predecessor, who served three to four years, from what he recalls. The man he took over from, Mr Kow Hua Chang, is still a member of Ying Fo Fui Kun.

It can get boring as the temple is quiet for most of the year except on special occasions like the Spring and Autumn ceremonies and Hungry Ghost Festival, but he’s “used to it”. He takes pride in making the place more “beautiful”, keeping it neat and tidy. But he still remembers that when he first joined, it had been more challenging to keep the temple and cemetery as clean as it is today.

“Back then we had to put up a lot of posters telling people to clean up after themselves after their prayers,” he says, referring to the food and burnt offerings people would leave behind after prayers. Having all those posters up was quite unsightly to him, and the clan still had a lot of cleaning up to do afterwards.

So he decided on a change of strategy. He reduced the number of posters and made a concerted effort to clean up after visitors’ worships were over, with the hope that people who visited would see a clean and tidy place and want to keep it that way. Over time, it worked. The place looks exactly that and he receives hardly any complaints these days.

Given that this is a spiritual place, he says friends have joked about his ancestors not giving him winning lottery numbers after volunteering for so long. But, he says, “You’re healthy, that’s good enough.”

The Temple on the Hill

Then there is this understated, humble structure nestled quietly in front of the cemetery that I was so intrigued about. Mr Luo tells me it is the ancestral temple of Ying Fo Fui Kun, also known as the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu Ancestral Hall. It is over a hundred years old (125 years to be exact), so it’s been around for longer than everything else surrounding it.

“It’s very unique, you see. Within the city you have a piece of land like that. This is part of Chinese culture. You see the temple’s structure, pattern – similar to the ones in China. The shape, the structure, the fishpond in front. Normally in China, same thing – there must be a fishpond in front of the temple.”

In 1887 the Ying Fo Fui Kun association bought about 100 acres of land to be used as burial grounds for Hakka kinsmen from the Jia Ying prefecture Canton, China. The clan named the land Shuang Long Shan (Double Dragon Hill), and built this ancestral temple. Subsequently, villages joined its landscape in the early 1900s.

The Chinese Burial Customs, Singapore-style

It was the burgeoning Chinese population in the 19th century that led clan associations to seek out more land for use as burial grounds. Cremation in Chinese culture is also traditionally uncommon, so burials were naturally preferred back then. The location of burial grounds was selected based on principles of ancestral worship and fengshui. For example, the Chinese consider it good fengshui to have their cemeteries built on hills – the higher the grave, the better. Fengshui requirements and the need for space to worship before the grave mean that the plot cannot be too small either. That would explain the sprawling Chinese cemeteries and their current and former location on hills here – Bukit Brown and “Double Dragon Hill” being prime examples.

But land scarcity was already a problem during Singapore’s colonial days; directives had been issued as far back as the 1930s to halt the issuance of licenses for private burial grounds. Cremation was already encouraged back then. However, colonial authorities had it tougher negotiating with the Chinese community because of weak legislation and the aforementioned cultural sensitivities. Illegal burials were common.

This tussle for land would explain the uniquely Singaporean situation of Chinese graves near Chinese homes – going against the fengshui principle that it is bad luck to live near graveyards.

Picture this: A village with cemeteries nearby, that existed well into the early 1960s. To someone born into an already highly-urbanised Singapore, with skyscrapers everywhere and cemeteries out of sight and out of mind, it can be quite hard to imagine that just 50 years ago, cemeteries just a short walk away from kampongs was not an uncommon sight. This is what my mother saw. Just 50 years ago, there were over 20 cemeteries scattered around Singapore, many owned by clan associations.

The Game Changer

As Singapore gradually took over the reins of government, things would change. From 1960, a “Master Plan”, involving large-scale zoning and compulsory acquisition of land in the name of national development, would be created and enforced.

This time, the Chinese and other communities were engaged with as citizens of a nation-state with accompanying obligations. They had to take the interests of the country to heart. This made it more difficult for the different communities to maintain their distinct religious and cultural discourse on burial space.

The Yin Foh Kuan Cemetery Story

The land Ying Fo Fui Kun owned in the prime Queenstown/Commonwealth estate, which included a few cemeteries, were targets for national residential development. In 1965, the year Singapore gained full independence, negotiations between clan and state began and drew on until 1969, which inevitably ended in the state acquiring all 100 acres.

However, because the Hakka people had just this one cemetery, they didn’t want to see it “extinguished” and objected to using the government-owned Chua Chu Kang Cemetery Complex for re-burial. So the clan requested to keep the existing ancestral temple and retain about five acres of land for a memorial hall and cemetery for re-burial of the exhumed graves.

“There were no objections (to the clan’s request), because the urns had to be relocated. If the government won’t allow this, where do we put them?” Mr Luo says.

The government acceded to this request. That parcel of land was let to the clan under a 99-year lease and construction of hall and cemetery soon followed.

So nearly 3000 graves were moved to this site, and Yin Foh Kuan Cemetery was born. Twelve of these graves are coffins; the rest contain urns. That the urns were interred like so instead of being placed in a columbarium is all part of the government’s concession. The cemetery, with its uniform rows and identical tiled tombstones, was in fact designed and built with the help of the Housing Development Board. However, to prevent a precedent, it is designated as a public burial ground and no fresh burials are allowed. This means we will never see another arrangement like this in Singapore.

Mr Luo adds, “We don’t allow the tombstones to be moved. Occasionally people will ask for permission to exhume a grave because they want to move it to somewhere else. We don’t allow that because if you dig out one tombstone, it’s like losing a tooth. Looks ugly, so we don’t allow. Some are stubborn. So I say, okay, you ask HDB. If HDB allows, we’ll allow. But they can’t get the green light from HDB. So it remains.”

The Living Residents

A few years after the cemetery was completed, clusters of blocks started appearing near the cemetery, with Block 32 right next to it – all part of the Master Plan.

So I wondered how residents of Block 32 felt about living so close to a graveyard and having tombstones as the view from their kitchen window. Yet when I asked several of them over a couple of nights, many responded with a resounding, “Nothing.” Even the younger ones.

The ones I spoke to have lived there for anywhere between seven to 30-odd years – some upon its completion in the late 1970s or early 1980s, some since birth. Kim, 30, claims to have cycled among the graves in his younger days.

“Why? You want to find someone who’s met ‘somebody’ is it? I haven’t met yet but I want to, so I can ask for a ‘prize’,” said a middle-aged man who declined to be named – the “prize” being lottery numbers of course.

Very good, very peaceful, quiet and clean were other responses. No complaints about burning of offerings at all, even though the cemetery does get more visitors during the Hungry Ghost month.

“The dogs only lah,” says Muhaimin, 21, of his only problem when walking through the cemetery as a shortcut to and from Commonwealth MRT Station. He’s referring to Ah Koon’s two alarm-sounding dogs. They bark, but they’re kept in a fenced-off garden.

“When the grass gets too long, there will be a lot of mosquitos and other insects. That’s my only complaint,” says Ong Ah Kee, 67, of the grass that lines the fence separating the block from cemetery grounds. Otherwise she finds the location very good and peaceful. She is one of the first occupants of the block.

To get a better feel of the area, I walked through the cemetery one night. It was unlit, but there was enough light streaming from the nearby HDB flats to illuminate the place. It didn’t feel creepy at all. But Ah Koon saw me and came up to me while I was sitting at the void deck of Block 32, miming that I shouldn’t walk through the cemetery at night, lest I be dragged under by some ghoul among the gravestones. Surely I couldn’t take that seriously! He is such an animated and cheerful fellow; I highly doubt you’ll come across another Singaporean caretaker who can enact stories the way he does.

The Way Forward

While nearby residents and the government are now at peace with the cemetery, Singapore’s tendency for rapid change could mean the old HDB flats might disappear in the next few years. Many more changes can happen around the site in the next few decades. Sentiments can change. What are the chances of the ancestral temple, memorial hall and cemetery staying put once the lease is up?

“We’ll wait and see,” Mr Luo says. “There are plans to redevelop the whole place. We would like to build a multi-storey building…a clinic or kindergarten. That’s the plan, but whether it can go through or not, we don’t know. In the meantime we hope that the government will allow us to retain this land for the Wu Shu (five districts) Hakka people (of the Jia Ying prefecture). Otherwise where will we go? We have so many urns.”

Yes, where will we all ultimately go? It would seem, if your preference is burial, lamentations about lack of choice are pointless, really. For those who prefer burials, or who are forbidden by religion to cremate, such as Muslims, their only option now is the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery Complex – the only cemetery still open for burials.

And even that isn’t spared from future government intervention. My maternal grandmother was buried there in 1976, but about five years ago my family received a letter from the authorities stating that her grave might have to be exhumed in future to make way for developments. No action has been taken yet, but it could be any day now.

Words & Images Diane Wong

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