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.
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
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.
Co-existence of Culture and Nature: This is a wonderful moment where smoke from the incense emerges amidst the hanging roots and leaves
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.
Brownie Khoo Ee Hoon found these poignant inscriptions on this tomb stone:
Originally born in China
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.
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.
For further reading:
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.
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.
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
At Bukit Brown, one often finds couplets on the “pillars” of the tombs. They embed auspicious meanings and also tributes to the departed. The above couplets reads:
Translated by Tay Hung Yong from the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery FB group, t reads
“Soft and gentle are the endless clouds;
The rock stands solid for eternity.”
Hung Yong says, “It signifies ever lasting love for the decease.”
A letter in Romanized Hokkien , or Pe̍h-ōe-jī as it is known, on display at the exhibition Our Roots, Our Future, piqued the interest of many. But no one could fully decipher its meaning. A challenge was sent out to the Singapore Heritage Bukit Brown Cemetery FB group. It caught the eye of 卓育興 Yu Hsing Jow who is a Taiwanese living in Singapore researching on Hokkien culture here. He alerted an expert from Xiamen, Lim Kian Hui. who was able to help decipher and translate the the letter.
卓育興Yu Hsing Jow translated it into Mandarin, and from Mandarin, we finally have an almost full English translation by Brownie Ang Yik Han. It reads:
Hàk-ḿ: (the letter is addressed to a woman named Hak)
I received a letter out of the blue which covered many details. Your uncle’s health is better, please don’t worry. If his son can return it will be better, as your uncle can teach and encourage him. He is young and susceptible to temptations, hopefully he will be wiser when he is older, please don’t worry. As for the relatives, they are not in good condition when I visit them in Amoy every week, but I am not too concerned. Your senior is not here now, I have no wish to inform her as well, but she will be back in the first lunar month. How are the sisters-in-law? They are so young, I wish they can be back every year. Also, there is the matter of the $100. The teacher is not in school, I will enquire about him later. As for this mark (unclear what this is) , please do not send it to me in the future, it takes a lot of effort. Take care.
The content is representative of letters that would have been exchanged by families and friends separated in the Chinese Diaspora. It covers in one page an update on financial matters and the domestic situation at home, but the tone of the letter also expresses care, concern and reassurance.
Jí-bô phah-sǹg ê tiong-kan, chiap-tio̍h lâi phoe chit hong, lāi-bīn sō kóng long chai siông-sè . lūn lín hiân-chek ê sin-khu, kūn lāi ū khah iōng, lín bián khoà-lū. lūn jī á nā-sī khah kín tò-lâi pó khah hó. Nā tò-lâi chia, ū sî iā thang hō͘ in hiân-chek khah I kàu-hùn, bián-lē. sǹg hiân-sî nî-hè iáu chió, bē bián tit-siū ín-iń, ng-bāng nî-hè kàu gia̍h i chiū ē bat siūⁿ . lí m̄-thang khoà-lū. lūn chhin-chiâⁿ goá ta̍k lé-pài lo̍h khì Ē-Mn̄g thām thiā, long boē hó-sè. Tā-chiah chia bān-bān koh chhōe, goá iā chin tì-ì . lūn su-chē hiân-chai bô tī the, iā thang chai ié ī-sū. Lái heⁿ lun̄ mā ái kóng hó, chiaⁿ-ge̍h chiah beh tò-lâi. Lūn chō sō ê seng-khu ū ióng-ióng á-bô. Chin siàu-liân ǹg-bāng mê-nî ē long tò-lâi, koh $100.00 kho ě sū. Suá bô ti-teh thēng hāu-lâi,góa chiah mn̄g I ê siông-sè, chit ê kì-hō,lí chai āu-pái m̄-thang kià kòe lâi sàng góa, ū chōe chōe êhùi khì. Chhéng an put it.
Ông pheh lîm
About the letter:
The Wayang in the Tombs (2)
by Ang Yik Han
The Wayang in the Tombs 1 continues, as Yik Han unravels more iconic scenes from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other popular stories.
“Temple of Sweet Dew” (Gan Lu Si – 甘露寺)
Zhou Yu, Sun Quan’s viceroy, wanted to lure Liu Bei over to the kingdom of Wu and then incarcerate him, on the pretext of marrying Sun Quan’s younger sister to him. Liu Bei’s advisor, Zhuge Liang, saw through this and ordered Zhao Yun, one of Liu Bei’s generals, to accompany him for protection. At the same time, he sent word to Sun Quan’s father-in-law to get Sun Quan’s mother along so that she can view her prospective son-in-law at the Temple of Sweet Dew. With the old lady around, Zhou Yu’s mischief came to naught and Liu Bei and his lady successfully got hitched.
Bowing man on left is Liu Bei, seated lady in the centre is Sun Quan’s mother, man on the right is probably Sun Quan’s father-in-law.
Editors note: An insight on how Yik Han deciphered this panel.
“The costumes especially the head dress are clues. If you look at what the man on the left is wearing, you can tell he is not just another official. For some tine I thought the figure in the middle is a male till I looked more closely at her headdress which is what you will expect a more senior lady of high social status to wear. Put these two together and you have a high ranking older male, probably some lord, paying respects to an old woman also of high social status. All the other identified panels from this tomb are based on the Three Kingdoms, and there is one famous part of the novel which has this setting, so that’s how I identified the scene. If you area Chinese opera fan, you may also recognise it easily.”
Here’s an animated excerpt from the opera
Lui Bei’s Farewell to Xu Shu
Compared to his warlord contemporaries, Liu Bei was handicapped by the lack of an able advisor. Fortunately for him, a brilliant strategist named Xu Shu joined him and helped him achieve some small victories. Just when things seemed to be going well for Liu Bei, his rival Cao Cao found out about this and he managed to get someone to send a forged letter to Xu Shu, purportedly from Xu Shu’s mother. The letter claimed she was in Cao Cao’s custody and her life was in danger unless Xu Shu abandon Liu Bei and join Cao Cao’s camp. The filial Xu Shu had no choice but to obey and the inevitable farewell came. On the day Xu Shu left, Liu Bei saw him off with his retainers and followed behind him for part of his journey. Upon reaching a forest, Liu Bei exclaimed “I want this forest to be cut down!” When his retainers asked him why, Liu Bei replied that this was because the trees blocked his view of the departing Xu Shu.
Here’s an opera you can view on the sending off.
The panels are from the tombs of the Teo Family located in Hill 2
The Third Madam teaches her son (三娘教子)
During the Ming Dynasty, there was a businessman by the name of Xue Guang who had a wife Mdm Zhang and two concubines, Mdm Liu (who bore him his only son Xue Yi) and Mdm Wang. Xue Guang conducted his business far from home. One day, he asked a man from his hometown to deliver five hundred taels of silver to his family. Instead of doing so, the man took the silver for himself and told the Xue family that Xue Guang had died. As they believed the report to be true and there were no news from Xue Guang, Mdm Zhang and Mdm Liu remarried after some time due to the family’s slide into poverty.
Only Mdm Wang chose to remain and take care of Xue Yi even though he was not her flesh and blood, together with an old servant Xue Bao. She weaved cloth to support Xue Yi through school. Xue Yi was however mocked by other children in school as the boy without a mother. Losing his temper, he took it out on Mdm Wang when he got home, saying that she had no right to punish him as she was not his mother. In fury, she slashed the cloth on her loom into two, signifying the serverance of their relationship, shocking Xue Yi and Xue Bao who hurriedly interceded on his young master’s behalf. Xue Yi came to his senses and promised to apply himself to his studies diligently, and even offered the cane to Mdm Wang to punish himself. In years to come, Xue Yi gained honours in the imperial examinations.
A movie based on the opera can be found here
It’s that time of the year to get ready for Qing Ming, the tomb-clearing rituals that take place each spring in China. Grass is cut, tombs are cleaned, tiles are scrubbed and inscriptions painted over. (Preparations have started onsite but Qing Ming takes place for 20 days starting March 26.)
This is the last Qing Ming for almost 4,000 tombs affected by the proposed 8-lane highway to be built this year. There are many poignant rituals at Bukit Brown this year as many descendants contemplate their last Qing Ming rituals.
Come and enjoy Bukit Brown, observe these rituals and understand our heritage and history.
We suspend public tours during this time for 2 reasons:
1/ out of respect for descendants, to reduce intrusion into their private moments
2/ out of practical considerations due to the heavy traffic there, and burning of offerings that may affect asthmatic participants and young children.
Nonetheless we walk about quietly to observe and learn. Often families do invite observers to explain the rituals. See if you are lucky enough to meet a welcoming family.
Catherine met Mr Chua who said it will take him about 2 hours to paint the characters. And so far he has cleared and cleaned about 130 tombs ready for Qing Ming
The Wayang in the Tombs
by Ang Yik Han
(Popular tales performed in Chinese Wayang carved in iconic scenes on tomb panels.)
In the ” Romance of the Three Kingdoms” General Guan Yu is immortalised as the epitome of loyalty and righteousness. He played a significant role in the establishment of the state of Shu Han during the period of the Three Kingdoms.
Legend? Embroidered truth? It does not matter, over the ages from at least the Ming Dynasty, the image of Guan Yu smiling and sipping his wine while Hua Tuo scrapped his arm bone has been a source of wonder and encouragement for many.
This tomb is located in Hill 2 and belongs to the Teo Family.
More tombs featuring Guan Yu, here
From Madam White Snake :
From Nezha conquers the Dragon King :
The panels can be seen at the tombs of Poh Cheng Tee and his wife, and mother, in Hill 1, stake numbers 1017 – 1019. Exhumation of staked tombs in the way of the 8 lane highway is expected to begin after April 15th