The Dancing Lanterns by the Youths of  Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong

Sugen Ramiah

Apart from satisfying the hunger of the wandering spirits and entertaining them with boisterous live stage performances of the Getai, the seventh lunar month is also meant for the living. Business owners, wet market and hawker center associates, during  this period to pray for peace, smooth sailing and thriving ventures. The members of the Tanglin Halt Wet Market invited the Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong to conduct their annual seventh month rituals, which was held on the twenty ninth day of the seven lunar month (3rd of September 2013).

Akin to the Teochew rituals at Chui Huay Lim Club an entire day was spent to fulfill the needs of the wandering spirits. As dusk drew near, the focus was diverted to the living; as they recited the guan yin sutras, asking for bountiful blessings upon the supplicants. One of the highlights of the evening was the “dance of the auspicious lanterns” or also known as ‘kee hock pau teng‘ in Teochew


The youths bowing to the altar (photo Sugen Ramiah)

These are the common red lanterns found suspended at entrance of the house, oval in shape and adorned with golden tassels. In reality, there is no underlying dogma to this presentation; however this is done to extend their (the temple) appreciation to the organizers who engaged them and to amuse them with a little folklore.


The common red lanterns which are oval in shape, adorned with golden tassels which can be found hanging at the entrance of a house (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The performance began with the dimming of the interior lights of the temporary altar, to create the perfect ambiance. The youths of the temple, draped in white robes with green sashes across their waist, then marched in with the new lanterns.

It was accompanied by a beautiful Teochew repertoire of strings and percussion. As the tempo gradually increased, the youths sprang into acrobatic actions with their lanterns creating rhythmical movements. Every single movement found expression in their faces. The radiating positive energies exuded  by these young men were bound with the lanterns, thus transforming them into auspicious items.

This is the energy that burns in the passionate youths that makes the lanterns auspicious ( photo Sugen Ramiah)


This is the energy that burns in the passionate youths that makes the lanterns auspicious (photo Sugen Ramiah)


The final pose struck at the end of every piece, Kelvin (front) Yishun (left) and Matthew (right)  (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Flags of various colours were also carried in this ritualistic dance. These twelve pairs of auspicious lanterns and flags were then placed for bidding during the auction dinner the following day.

Flags used in the dance (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The ceremonial dance concluded with a roaring ‘huat ah’ by the youths as the organizers received and hung the lanterns on the bamboo poles. These lanterns purchased during the auction will be taken home and will be returned the following year.

Sugen Ramiah a teacher by training, has been observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples for the past one and half years.

More on  the Hungry Ghost Month from Sugen  here  and here .



Chui Huay Lim Club (where the Bukit Brown exhibition was held recently) had its own rituals for the 7th month during the Hungry Ghost festival. The rituals were conducted on Saturday 1st Sep’13 with prayers starting from 8.00am in the morning and concluded at the end of the day with a burning of the Da Shi Ye at night.

Some of the Brownies went over to have a look of the setting up of the altar and the preparations of the offerings and side panels on the evening before it all started on 30th Aug’13. See here some of the photos of the intricate embroideries of the main altar.

Main Altar (photo: Bianca Polak)

Main Altar (photo: Bianca Polak)


Da Shi Ye (photo: Bianca Polak)

Da Shi Ye (photo: Bianca Polak)


Preparing the prayer sheet (photo: Bianca Polak)

Preparing the prayer sheet (photo: Bianca Polak)


Offerings (photo: Bianca Polak)

Offerings (photo: Bianca Polak)

For the full album – see this link.


by Sugen Ramiah

The rituals (Part 1)  by Xuan Jiang Dian (Tortoise Hill temple)  had begun  with the gathering of lost souls, followed by purification and the granting of salvation.  Now what remained was the sendoff, the rites of passage for the souls to transcend into the final phase – reincarnation.

As the temple volunteers busied themselves with preparations, family members streamed in, with offerings of food, drinks and flowers – a final meal for the souls.  The menu included local delights such as the ‘apom’ (coconut pancake) and  ‘roti prata’ with curry.

Offerings included  ‘Apom’  or coconut pancake ([photo Sugen Ramiah)

Offerings included ‘Apom’ or coconut pancake ([photo Sugen Ramiah)

Taoist priests draped in beautifully woven majestic vestments  walked through the rows of tablets chanting the scriptures.

Priests chanting the final set of prayers (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Priests chanting the final set of prayers (photo Sugen Ramiah)

This was followed by the tossing of offerings (which had been blessed) to the “yeow kui (literally hungry ghosts). Offerings such as sweets, flowers, fruits, joss papers, a whole chicken and even pieces of pork belly were thrown before a group of supplicants waiting to catch them.

The tossing of offerings to lost souls and supplicants (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The tossing of offerings to “yeow kui”  and supplicants (photo Sugen Ramiah)

With the altar table emptied, the celebrants then performed  “mudras” –  a series symbolic hand gestures which are believed to be imbued with energies.

Performing "mudras" (photo Victor Yue)

Performing “mudras” (photo Victor Yue)

As dusk approached, we were treated to an uncommon sight of the ‘Ku-Dong’. The ‘Ku-Dong’ is a pair of big headed dolls, identical to the common ‘Dua Tow’. The commonly seen ‘Dua Tow’ has a gleaming smile and often bounces jovially to the sound of the ‘gongguan’ (percussion troupe). The Ku-Dong however, expresses extreme grief with tears streaming down its rosy cheeks.

The Ku-Dong crawls on its knees and wails plaintively to the sorrowful tune of a folk song. In Chinese funeral customs, the mourners, especially the women kneel beside the coffin and lament. It is an expression of intense grief, respect and loyalty to the deceased.

But has anyone grieved over the innocent – victims of massacres, of infant mortality and those whose bodies were never claimed and ultimately not given a proper burial? These acts of remembrance, assures closure for the souls. Having heard expressions of grief for their death, they can now move on.

The pair of ‘Dua Tow’ (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The pair of ‘Dua Tow’ (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The pair of ‘Ku Dong’ in lamentation (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The pair of ‘Ku Dong’ in lamentation (photo Sugen Ramiah)

They are transported on the ‘Ship of Compassion’  that saves sentient beings and ferries the souls to its final repose. An effigy of the Ship was positioned at the entrance of the tentage.  Family members were invited to bring their ancestral tablets and place them neatly in the lower deck. Those tablets without family members, like the tablet dedicated to the souls of Bukit Brown, were reverently  carried by the volunteers of the temple. Once the decks were filled and all “guests” were on board, the ‘Ship of Compassion’ was ready to set sail.

The Ship of Compassion (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The Ship of Compassion (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Volunteers of the temple with the tablet dedicated to Bukit Brown (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Volunteers of the temple with the tablet dedicated to Bukit Brown (photo Sugen Ramiah)

By this time the procession to accompany the souls had already lined up and the fifteen foot effigy of ‘Da Shi Ye’  (King of Ghosts) was carried together with the ‘Ship of Compassion’. The sending off procession led by the  gongguan , took a longer route as the ‘Da Shi Ye’,  wanted to ‘inspect’ the neighborhood.

Five fully loaded chartered buses arrived at East Coast Beach. The ‘Ship of Compassion’ was then carried to the shore, and  piled with  paper silver and gold. Two lanterns and bundles of joss sticks were placed and finally lit. As the flames illuminated the darkness, thoughts of impermanence clouded my mind.

The Ship of  Compassion, ready to set sail in East Coast Beach (Sugen Ramiah)

The Ship of Compassion, ready to set sail in East Coast Beach (Sugen Ramiah)

The three day intensive event drew to a close when we returned  to Bukit Merah to send off the King of Ghosts. Paper treasure chests, prepared as departing gifts were place in an orderly manner inside an enormous cage for burning. The effigy was finally placed in the center, and ignited.

The King of Ghosts and the treasure chest paper offerings – brings to a close  the salvation for lost souls with Xuan Jiang Dian (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The King of Ghosts and the treasure chest paper offerings – brings to a close the salvation for lost souls with Xuan Jiang Dian (photo Sugen Ramiah)

For me, it has been a rewarding experience, to understand the concept of salvation in an afterlife.  As paper burned into ashes and darkness turned to light, I prayed that the lost souls had now found, peace.

Sugen Ramiah a teacher by training, has been observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples for the past one and half years.



by Sugen Ramiah

It was the ninth day  of the seventh lunar month, and I have been busy documenting rituals and customary practices of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Every temple or ‘sintua’ (a group of devotees with no temple and who  gather in a place which host the deity statues and censers)  has its own designated date, to perform cleansing rituals for the wandering souls. Released into the human realm,  these are souls  who have no one to remember them and assuage their suffering by making them offerings.  This year I was fortunate to have been invited by the members of ‘Xuan Jiang Dian’ (Tortoise Hill) temple, to observe their seventh month memorial service.

Due to lack of space at the temple’s premises, a temporary tentage was set up in an open car park located in Bukit Merah View. Preparatory rituals had begun earlier that day, performed by visiting priests from China. These rituals were to cleanse and protect the holding ground from negative elements.

Preparatory rites at the tentage in Bukit Merah View (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Preparatory rites at the tentage in Bukit Merah View (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Members of the temple and fellow Brownies(the volunteers at Bukit Brown) gathered in the late afternoon and were greeted by the thunderous sounds of the temple’s newly formed gongguan (percussion) troupe.

Temples newly formed gongguan’ troupe (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Temples newly formed gongguan’ troupe (photo Sugen Ramiah)

We left the premises just before 7pm to gather lost souls from two different locations. The first was at the East Coast Park beach, followed by  Bukit Brown cemetery. When we reached our first destination, a temporary altar was set up and chanting accompanied by the sounds of cymbals and drums began.

The Chinese believe that once a soul departs from its mortal body, it loses its direction.  Lanterns help to light the way for the soul. Since they were going to call on many souls, a two metre long paper inscription fixed to an extended bamboo branch was used;  It was to ensure maximum visibility for the souls. As the priests sang, the branch was flagged rhythmically according to the melody. Once the lanterns returned to ashore, offerings of paper money were burnt and the gongguan troupe received the wandering guests with their music.

lanterns to be released into the sea (photo sugen Ramiah)

lanterns to be released into the sea (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Rituals at East Coast Park Beach (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Rituals at East Coast Park Beach (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The altar was  then dismantled and we proceeded to our next destination, the Bukit Brown Cemetery. As the convoy led by the gongguan transported on a brightly decorated  truck, turned into the Sime Road, the gleaming LED lights of the truck, glowed in the poorly lit road. The deafening clangs and gongs must have awakened the neighbouring residents including the residents of Bukit Brown. As the truck drove past the cemetery gates, the buses  stopped at the T-junction of Sime and Kheam Hock Roads with Jalan Halwa. A few of us alighted and ran through the cemetery gates with heightened anticipation.

As we entered, the vision of a trail of lighted candles against the backdrop of the night sky, took our breathe away.

Embracing Lost  souls (photo Victor Yue)

Embracing lost souls (photo Victor Yue)

Rituals at Bukit Brown Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Rituals at Bukit Brown Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)

The temporary altar was once more erected, but this time they placed a special tablet dedicated to the lost souls of Bukit Brown. As the priests chanted and called upon the countless souls, I was moved by their rituals. Unlike the powers that be who have abandoned them,  I was glad there were still Samaritans who remembered them.

These are the souls of ancestors who have been long forgotten, infants and the unsung heroes who died tragically during the war. To give them temporary lodging, meals to feed their hunger and prayers to purify their weary souls, is by far the greatest act of kindness and filial piety.

As the priests circled the roundabout, there was a sense of closure in the air, as though the souls have found the light. To conclude the rituals, paper money was burnt as an offering and the gongguan troupe signaled the close of the ceremony at Bukit Brown.

Rituals at Bukit Brown Cemetery (photo Suge Ramiah)

Rituals at Bukit Brown Cemetery (photo Suge Ramiah)

It was time to return to Bukit Merah for the concluding rites. We alighted along the main road, about five hundred metres away from the holding ground and lined up for a procession. The gongguan troupe on the glittering LED flower truck led the way. Following immediately behind,   the tablet dedicated to the wandering souls, the lanterns carried by  devotees and participants holding joss sticks. This drew the attention of the residents in the neighbourhood and the people eating at the hawker centre.

As we marched triumphantly down the street with our “guests”, we felt that we had accomplished something meaningful: We had  found and acknowledged in our hearts,  the forgotten souls of Bukit Brown.

Rituals at Bukit Brown Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Rituals at Bukit Brown Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Sugen Ramiah a teacher by training, has been observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples for the past one and half years.


Kusu Island Kramat

This is about Kusu Island Keramat (Shrine). Two Chinese men who contributed are buried in the Greater Bukit Brown complex.

Buried in Bukit Brown Cemetery: Kum Peng Huat. Buried in Seh Ong Cemetery: Ong Chwee Tow


Kusu Island Kramat (Photo: Raymond Goh)

Kusu Island Kramat (Photo: Raymond Goh)


The inscription in Malay reads, Deity grandma of Kusu is residing at the home of baba Hoe Beng Whatt no.140 Rangoon Rd since 1917.

“Judging from inscriptions found at the temple and shrines, Straits Chinese devotees seemed to be the main or more active group in sustaining the pilgrimage in its earlier years. At the Chinese temple, Straits Chinese tycoon Ong Sam Leong figures prominently among the top donors for contributing 100 Straits dollars to renovation works in 1909, while inscriptions at the malay shrines reveal that Nenek Ghalib’s shrine was constructed with donations from Baba
(a term of address for Straits Chinese men) Hoe Beng Whatt and others, after she “arrived at the house of” Hoe in 1917. This was taken to mean that she had appeared in Hoe’s dreams and asked for the shrine to be built in exchange for granting the donors success in business. This tale reflects the situation in which keramat worship came to depend almost exclusively on local Chinese patronage, despite being Malay in origin, as many Malay-Muslims renounced such practices as they became more orthodox in their faith.” (The Kusu Pilgrimage: an enduring myth by Lu Caixia)  … read more here 


Other sources:




Chinese Valentine’s Day

Welcoming the 7 sisters (Photo: Victor Yue)

Welcoming the 7 sisters (Photo: Victor Yue)

By Raymond Goh

(12 August 2013)

“It was the time of the year of The Seven Sisters Festival again.

Few would know that it was our Chinese Valentine Festival, the story of the Cowherd and the Weaver, an everlasting love story.

Ever since our ancestors came south to Singapore,  this festival has became an uniquely Cantonese festival, and every year around this time, the Seven Sister Festival in Chinatown will come to live….” read more.
At midnight on the 7th day of the 7th month with no one near
In the Palace of Eternal Life he whispered in her ear
In the sky we’d be two birds flying wing to wing
On earth we’d be two trees with branches entwining
(Bai Juyi)

Related reading:

The Story as told in the Stars

Double Seventh Festival



Every year on the 1st day of  the 7th month lunar calender, the Chinese believe the gates of hell are opened, and the spirits are released to the earthly realm.  Liew Kai Khiun shares his  reflections of the rituals conducted  at Bukit Brown Cemetery  for the wandering souls.

Remembering the Forgotten and Forsaken

I had the opportunity to participate in one of the rituals for the lunar 7th Month festival at Bukit Brown Cemetery. Known as the “Hungry Ghost Festival”, this is a time where souls are released from hell for a month to roam the human realm. Although considered an inauspicious month where no weddings and property transactions takes place, it is actually a time for the living to remember the forgotten dead. Even the practice can be seen to be feudal, it is actually a spiritual extension of acts of charity to the wandering and homeless souls.

Long before it was known to the larger public, devotees from temples have quietly organized rituals to commemorate the nameless souls from the pauper graves of Bukit Brown Cemetery. While I have participated in Chinese folk religious rituals since I was a kid (particularly during military service), being self-taught in Karl Marx, I am not a very religious person. But, since the finalization of plans to run a mega expressway through Bukit Brown Cemetery by the end of the year, I felt the need to apologize and beg for forgiveness for not doing enough to stop this soulless project of the living from penetrating into this soulful place of the dead.

The night with this particularly group of devotees and the priest has been my most soulful and spiritual experience in Bukit Brown Cemetery. As the priest blessed my car before I exit the premise in the wee hours of the morning, I have never felt so tranquil and at ease driving home. Although these activities are done away from the public limelight, I feel the need to pen my thoughts here to clear common misconceptions and prejudices of such practices.

I am also truly humbled by their continued efforts without any intention of public recognition whatsoever. For those who have been forgotten and forsaken in life, it is rituals and activities like such that we try to remember them in their after-life.

It is not the road, but the rich cultural and ecological diversity that gives Singapore a soul.

Hungryghost_Liew kai Khuin

Uniquely Singaporean:Fried Bee Hoon and Kopi-O (black coffee) for the souls (photo Liew Kai Khiun)

Co-existence of Culture and Nature: This is a wonderful moment where smoke from the incense emerges amidst the hanging roots and leaves

Hungryghost 2_Liew kai Khuin

Culture and Nature as one (photo Liew Kai Khiun)

Footnote: Unlike in HDB estates, these devotees do clean up and pack up after the rituals end

For more from Kai Khiun’s album, please click here

Since the news of the redevelopment of Bidadari Cemetery in the late 1990s, Kai Khiun has been involved in advocacy of Singapore’s built and natural heritage. As an academic, he has also been involved in the research and documentation of socio-cultural and historical issues in East and Southeast Asia, and has published some works recently on the use of the social media by conservationists in Singapore.



Finding Home in Nanyang

Brownie Khoo Ee Hoon found these poignant inscriptions on this tomb stone:

Born in China (Photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Born in China (Photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Originally born in China


Buried in a foreign land (Photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Buried in a foreign land.


These are the stories of the Nanyang Chinese – the diaspora who left for a better life and never made it home to their place of birth.



Reading the Chinese years

Chinese years (Photo: Chee Hiang Chua)

Chinese years (Photo: Chua Chee Hiang)


For those of us Brownies stumped when asked by participants on the tours for the years of birth and death in an ancient counting system, one CHUA Chee Hiang  has kindly stepped forward with this handy guide. Thank you, Chee Hiang!

He says, “Most of the dates on the tombstones follow the lunar calendar format – the 年(lunar) (followed by xx月, 初xx) vs. the 岁(solar). The Chinese calendar is lunisolar as the lunar calendar is constantly being updated with the solar calendar to keep the festival dates in tune with the climate.”


And for the Imperial calendars, this is the guide, with the Emperor’s regnal year being Year Zero. So 13th year of the reign of Dao Guang (1821-1850) on Fang Shan’s tomb = 1833.


Regnal table (Photo: Chee Hiang Chua)

Regnal table (Photo: Chua Chee Hiang)


Fang Shan at Qing Ming (photo: Claire Leow)

Fang Shan at Qing Ming (photo: Claire Leow)

Happy deciphering!

For further reading:

The Chinese Calendar 


Bio: Chua Chee Hiang is a geomancer, or feng shui practitioner. He writes a fengshui blog and a personal blog.

On a Saturday morning – 27 Jul’13 – a special tour was organised with a book reading by author John Hunt about Ong Sam Leong and his family’s involvement on Christmas Island. Ong Sam Leong, made his fortune on the island by recruiting “coolies” from Kwantung Province to work on the phosphate mines. John Hunt, author of “Suffering Through Strength” – the story of Christmas Island (1899 – 1948) emphasizing the Chinese coolie experience – shared some insights of their hardships at the Ong Sam Leong family cluster in Bukit Brown, where the tour started. This tour was held in support of a talk co-organised by the Singapore Heritage Society and Select Books by the author at 3pm the same afternoon at Select Books.

From John Hunt : I was very impressed by the tour of the cemetery on the 27th and delighted with the attendance at my talk at Select Books that same afternoon.  27 copies of Suffering through Strength were sold and a further 16 are being held in stock.  There is certainly interest in Christmas Island and if my book and the publicity help raise awareness of the need to preserve the Ong Sam Leong grave and others at Bukit Brown, I will consider my time in Singapore well spent.

Limited copies of  “Struggling Through Strength” are available at Select Books, 51 Armenian Street.  John has generously donated $10 for every book sold to the Singapore Heritage Society.

Photos courtesy of Mr.Lee Chit Seng of the tour can be  found here, and of the talk, here



Author John Hunt

Author John Hunt

It was a rainy Saturday morning, but it meant the weather was very cooling and the 50-odd participants didn’t mind this at all. Quite a few new faces who had come to Bukit Brown for the first time. After the book reading at Ong Sam Leong’s grave, we continued the tour in 3 groups, led by Peter Pak, Claire Leow and Keng Kiat.

Group listening to John Hunt

Group listening to John Hunt


Ong Sam Leong's family cluster

Ong Sam Leong’s family cluster

More photos can be found in this album by Bianca Polak.

Click here for the report by Rojal Librarian and thanks to James Tann for his vblog of the morning’s tour




July 2014
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