A personal account by Aylwin Tan who witnessed the exhumation of his grandfather and aunt at Bukit Brown on the morning of Wednesday, 8th January,2014.


I received a phone call from the exhumation office about 1.5 hours after I had registered. Picked my Dad up and went directly to the gravesite.

The green tentage is that of my aunt Tan Siok Hwa (aged 10) and the grey is my grandpa, Tan Cheng Moh. Both were killed during a Japanese raid; a bomber scored a direct hit on the bomb shelter where my grandpa had put his entire family, including his close relatives. Apparently, grandpa’s thinking was that they should all stick together and if they all died, so be it.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 8

Exhumation at grave of aunt (photo Aylwin Tan)

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Exhumation at grave of grandfather (photo Aylwin Tan)

Their funerals were carried out in haste. A number of traditions were abandoned for fear of being caught out in the open by the Japanese bombers e.g. mourners alighting to perform rites at every bridge along the way to the burial ground.

Mr Lee (the gentleman in yellow boots seen in the first photo) told me that the coffins and remains had disintegrated and had merged with the soil. Not surprising, given that they had passed about 70 years ago. The gravediggers gathered some earth and put it in plastic bags for the purposes of cremation.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 7

(photo Aylwin Tan)

I was curious to know how the gravediggers knew that they had dug deep enough to reach the remains. Mr Lee explained that the gravediggers would know once they reached a flat surface as this was the bottom of the coffin.

The gravediggers were also able to tell that my aunt died when she was a child. If you look at my aunt’s grave, you can see a ‘step’ indicating that the coffin was shorter than an adult’s.

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The grave of 10 year old aunt with a “step” ( photo Aylwin Tan)

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Measuring the depth of aunt’s grave   (photo Aylwin Tan)

(photo Aylwin Tan)

The grave of grandfather dug until a flat even  surface was reached, where the coffin had been laid   (photo Aylwin Tan)

I was worried that Dad would not be able to negotiate the uneven terrain to the grave sites but the path worn out by the gravediggers proved manageable. Mr Lee told me that these gravediggers are the last of their kind in Singapore.

Dad spent some time telling his story to the gravediggers while I sorted out with Mr Lee the items found in the graves. Dad’s chair was provided by Swee Hong, the company that won the exhumation tender, a testimony to their planning and attention to detail. Also, you can see how they used the umbrellas to shield the boxes from the sun.

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Umbrellas shading the remains from the sun as required by traditional practices. Aylwin’s father (seated) chatting with the grave diggers (photo Aylwin Tan)

The gravediggers recovered a chain and part of a bowl from my aunt’s grave. The bowl was probably used in the funeral rites. Mr Lee asked if I would donate them for research. I shall have to ask my elders’ permission first.

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Items recovered from graves (photo Aylwin Tan).

My grandpa’s grave yielded a bullet and a piece of metal which looked like a cone with the top portion cut off. I had to surrender the bullet as it was not a spent round. The gravediggers surmised that the metal piece came from the bomb but I wonder where the bullet came from. Dad said that the metal piece was not the cause of grandpa’s death; a beam had fallen on grandpa’s head and cracked it open. Death was instantaneous. The sight must have been extremely traumatic for the family. Dad was only 11 or 12 then.

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A bullet recovered from grandfather’s grave (photo Aylwin Tan)

One unexpected development came about when Dad suddenly said that my great grandfather was also buried somewhere in Bukit Brown. Dad did not know his name or the location of the grave site. Apparently, only one of grandpa’s brothers had this information and he had since passed. According to Mr Lee, great grandpa’s remains will be exhumed and disposed of if unclaimed after a period. Mr Lee also said that there was still hope if someone in my family could remember great grandpa’s name as the tombstone would surely state grandpa’s name. I’ll try my best to ask my relatives but am not very hopeful.

I will miss the 2 “Yodas” guarding grandpa’s grave. The other 2 guards look kind of effeminate.

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(photo Aylwin Tan)

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(photo Aylwin Tan)

The left panel of the tombstone lists grandpa’s sons and daughters. Dad is ‘Geok San‘, which means ‘jade mountain’ in Chinese. In accordance with Chinese tradition, the sons and male cousins in the same generation have the same identifying name. In my Dad’s generation, the name is ‘Geok‘. In mine, it is ‘Wee’, which means ‘great‘ in Chinese. I understand that these names are predetermined by the Chinese Almanac.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg inscription

Inscriptions of the names of 3 sons and 3 daughters (photo Aylwin Tan)

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The start of exhumations this morning 8 January 2014 (photo Aylwin Tan)

The exhumation ended on a quiet note. After I had given written confirmation of the items from the graves that I had retained, I was given printed photographs of the two grave sites and that was it.

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The end of exhumation (photo Aylwin Tan)

I was very impressed with the professionalism of the Swee Hong staff. They were attentive to my requests and sensitive to religious aspects of the exhumation. They worked fast but were in no hurry, allowing claimants all the time they needed to carry out their religious observances. Thanks to them, the exhumation process went smoothly.

– Aylwin Tan-

Additional Information : Both grandfather and aunt  died on 18 Jan 1942.

Grave of  Tan Cheng Moh 陳青茂 #769 (photo credit The Bukit Brown Cemetery  Documentation Project )

0769  Tan grandpa Documentation site 0769-2 Tan grandpa documentation site

Grave of Tan Siok Hwa  陳淑華 #763  (photo credit  The Bukit Brown Cemetery  Documentation Project)

0763 Tan aunt documentation site 0763-2 Tan aunt documentation site

Editor’s note: We would like to thank Aylwin Tan for giving us permission to reproduce his personal account on the blog. If you are a descendant who has ancestors staked for exhumation,   please share your story with us.

Email us: a.t.bukitbrown@gmail.com



Han Yi Jie 寒衣节

By Victor Yue

4 November, 2013

Han Yi Jie, which means “warm clothing event”, is a Chinese tradition when  the start of winter  reminds the people that their ancestors and departed loved ones would also be experiencing the cold. And so, they make offerings of food and warm clothing for them.

In Singapore, where it is always warm (hot in fact), such a tradition hardly exists. But, Xuan Jiang Dian 玄江殿, a Chinese temple dedicated to Xuan Tian Shang Di (玄天上帝), known as God of the North, continues with this tradition. For a a long time now, every year without fail, on the first day of the tenth lunar month (moon), this temple, with its devotees would visit Bukit Brown Cemetery to make offerings to the wandering souls. To the Chinese, the first day of the 10th moon marks the beginning of Winter.  (Wandering souls are souls of the departed who do not have anyone (descendants) making offerings to them)

This year the first day of the 10 lunar month, fell on 3 November. As has been their tradition,  members of Xuan Jiang Dian 玄江殿 went to Bukit Brown Cemetery to make offerings to the wandering residents of the cemetery. This year saw a bigger offering. Could there have been an increase in the number of wandering souls? Devotees of the temple contributed warm clothings, money (in the form of joss papers) and food. Some Brownies also contributed towards the offering of the warm clothings (in the form of paper robes).

This year, Shan Cai  Tong Zi 善才童子, through a spirit medium, came along to offer sermon (dharma) to the invited souls at the gathering by the Ole Rain Tree. Shan Cai Tong Zi is a deity who is  one of the 500 assistants to Guan Yin.. In S.E,Asia, he is a popular deity who  is trance by spirit mediums. He is only 3 years old and the older folks, especially old aunties, like him, because they can be less formal, unlike the warrior deities.

Shan Cai Tong Zi, through his ancient Hokkien and mudras offered blessings to the gathered souls. Offerings which ranged from  various kinds of kueh kueh, joss sticks, coins to  rice were made.

Shan Cai Tong Zi giving sermons to the gathered souls ( photo Victor Yue)

Shan Cai Tong Zi giving sermons to the gathered souls ( photo Victor Yue)

Shan Cai Tong Zi giving sermons to the gathered souls ( photo Theresa Teng)

Shan Cai Tong Zi giving sermons to the gathered souls ( photo Theresa Teng)

Offerings which ranged from  various kinds of kueh kueh, joss sticks, coins to  rice were made.

Food offerings (photo Victor Yue)

Food offerings (photo Victor Yue)

Before the start of this event, respects were also accorded to the guardians of the hills.

Altar of the Deities responsible for the after-life (Victor Yue)

Altar of the Deities responsible for the after-life (Victor Yue)

The warm clothings and money offering (photo Victor Yue)

The warm clothings and money offerings (photo Victor Yue)

After the blessings and offerings to the wandering souls, it was time to bless the living souls who gathered to contribute towards this event. Good health and good luck were amongst them being blessed onto the members gathered. Members were offered the five different beans (known as Gor Tao 五豆 in Hokkien) to bring back home. A big “Huat Kueh” (a traditional Hokkien cake made with yeast and flour through steaming) that was made in the temple by members for this event was offered to all present to take bit to eat, for good luck and “jia peng an” (吃平安) meaning eating to get the peace”)。

Huat Kueh for all - Huat Ah! Huat Ah! (photo Victor Yue)

Huat Kueh for all – Huat Ah! Huat Ah! (photo Victor Yue)

Remaining part of the Huat Kueh to be brought back to the temple (photo Victor Yue)

Remaining part of the Huat Kueh to be brought back to the temple (photo Victor Yue)

With the impending construction of the 8 lane highway through Bukit Brown, this is likely the last time that Han Yi Jie will be conducted at the ‘ole rain tree. But we still hope it will not be the last at Bukit Brown.

Han Candles by the barricades (photo Andrew Lim)

Lighting the way by the barricades erected in preparation of the start of exhumation (photo Andrew Lim)

Han Lotus (photo Theresa Teng)

Lotus Lights (photo Theresa Teng)

Han Lotus 1 (photo Theresa Teng)

Devotees of  Xuan Jiang Dian (photo Theresa Teng)

Han photo Theresa Teng

(photo Theresa Teng)

The burning of offerings ( Victor Yue)

The burning of offerings ( Victor Yue)





The Hindu Day of Remembrance

by Sugen Ramiah

 1 November 2013

Like the Chinese who observe the annual “qing ming” or tomb sweeping festival in April, the Indians also honour their ancestors with a visit to their ancestors tombs on the Hindu day of remembrance. It takes place the Sunday before Deepavali, the festival of lights which falls on  2nd of November, Saturday.

On Sunday 27th November, I visited the Hindu cemetery located in Lim Chu Kang to pay respects and place offerings on my ancestors’ tombs.

My grandparents to date have a total of 125 descendants but sadly only 4 turned up, two cousins, my brother and myself.

The trip usually lasts for about two hours, as we’ll clean up five tombs, four in the Hindu Cluster and one in the Catholic cluster. Simple offerings including fruits and sweetmeats were placed on a banana leaf. With the lighting of an oil lamp and incense, the Indians remember their dearly departed.

In the evening at home, the entire family would gather. A feast that consists of eight dishes – chicken, mutton, eggs, fish, prawns, squid, crabs and vegetable, together with fruits, sweetmeats and Indian Peranakan delicacies such as the “kueh wajek”, will be laid before portraits of the ancestors. New cloths would be placed beneath the portrait, incense lit and finally the family members would eat the food that were offered.

Traditionally our forefathers from India were cremated , so there was never a need for tomb stones  like the Chinese, Muslims and the Christians. The deceased were usually cremated within the day of death.  But if they were wealthy, they would be given a burial. In the Hindu custom, the dead is also remembered on their death anniversary, known as a “theethi’”where a “mocham”  lamp (light of liberation) is lit as a sign of remembrance.

Hindus have more than one festival to remember and honour their ancestors. On the full moon of the sixth lunar month of ‘Puratasi’ which falls in September/October, there is the ‘Mahalaya Amavasay’ also known as the fortnight of the ancestors. Hindus pay homage to their ancestors and offer prayers for the repose of their dearly departed at temples.

Some Hindus commemorate the dead during the Matu Pongal, on the second day of the “Pongol” Harvest Festival. The Indian Peranakans, known as the Chitty, celebrate the eve of Pongal with Bhogi Parachu – the ancestral worship festival. Since there were a few festivals to remember the dead, the local community here and in Malaysia decided that the Sunday before Deepavali will be the  day of remembrance.

My grandfather, a wealthy merchant born in 1884, came to Singapore and contributed greatly to the Indian community of Singapore in the 1900s. He started the first dairy business here and contributed to the  Sri Mariaman Temple in South Bridge Road He married my grandmother who was a Chitty-  Indian Peranakan – from Melaka(Malacca) and she was the matriarch of the family. The honorary title is currently held by my aunt who is 85 this year.

As a Brownie, I have been moved by the descendants who return every year to Bukit Brown during “qing ming” to clean the tombs and pay their respects. I am also sadden by the tombs that lay neglected, which have been forgotten, and I hope more descendants will come forward and reconnect with their ancestors.

I am blessed and grateful to the friends/volunteers of Bukit Brown, who have kindly showed me how to appreciate and understand my own heritage and to be proud of who I am. This was the first time, my brother marked the remembrance day for our grandparents and it was for him an eye opening and  moving experience.

Dawn at the Lim Chu Kang Hindu Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Dawn at the Lim Chu Kang Hindu Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)


A view of the Hindu tomb stones against the morning sky (photo Sugen Ramiah)


A Shrine dedicated to the Guardian of the Cemetery – Goddess Kali (photo Sugen Ramiah)


A Shrine dedicated to the Guardian of the Cemetery – Muneeswarar (photo Sugen Ramiah)


A pathway leading to the graves (photo Sugen Ramiah)


Grandfather’s tombstone at the Hindu Cemetery, simple offerings of fruits, sweetmeats and roti prata were offered on top of a banana leaf (photo Sugen Ramiah)


Grandmother’s tombstone at the Hindu Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)


The uniform design of Hindu tombstones (photo Sugen Ramiah)


The uniform design of Hindu tombstones (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Sugen Ramiah is a teacher by training and his interest includes   observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples.

Read his blog posts on Salvation for Lost Souls here and  here



An Unusual Tableau


Dateline” 21 October 2013

The carvings on the tombs at Bukit Brown are commonly drawn from the 4 Chinese classics. Brownie Yik Han spotted one particular carving on an altar table which intrigued him.

The Tableaux of Virtues  (photo Ang Yik Han)

The Tableau of Virtues (photo Ang Yik Han)

His observations  of the characters depicted in the tableau taken from the Romance of Three Kingdoms and what they represent:

Instead of the usual set of suspects this tableau has a rather unique combination of figures which I have yet to come across in other tombs.

The one in the middle seems to be Zhuge Liang from his garb and feather fan. On the right is almost certainly Shun and the white elephant which helped him till his fields. And I guess the one on the left of  Zhuge Liang is Liu Bei as he looks rather regal. Now, each of these characters exemplify a certain virtue: Zhuge Liang – loyalty (忠), Liu Bei – benevolence (仁),Shun – filial piety (孝), so there we have part of the traditional set of virtues 忠孝仁义, the last being righteousness which is as close to the meaning in chinese as we can get in a word.

If the martial figure to the right of Zhuge Liang represents 义, the question is who can this be as it certainly is not Guan Yu, the usual poster boy for that virtue. Of course, this interpretation assumes the two figures at the extreme left are calefaire.

Editors note: If you would like to weigh in on the mysterious characters which have not been clearly  identified, please add your comments on this post.

Your can read more about other tomb carvings by Yik Han on The Wayang in the Tombs , Romance of the Three Kingdoms,  

The Four Professions, 

The Four Loves, 

The Four Appointments, 





At Bukit Brown, one often finds couplets on the “pillars” of the tombs. They embed  auspicious  meanings and also tributes to the departed.

The tomb of Chen Yen Soon has a pair which speaks of the rewards which await those who live a good life.

为善百世興 Hundred years of prosperity for kind acts.

Chen Yen Soon 为善百事兴 Ee Hoon.jpg 1

積德千年好 A good thousand years for those who accumulate good deeds.

Chen Yen Soon 积德万年好 Ee Hoon

積德千年好 A good thousand years for those who accumulate good deeds. (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

An  inscription  found in a temple in Silat Road on a photo of the Earth Deity or Tua Pek Kong, evokes the same sentiments.. Brownie Fabian Tee summarises:

The couplet reads fortune with virtue inspires respect from a thousand families (from many) the uprightious shall inherit the earth as deities for innumerable (ten thousand) generations. When read together, it’s an allegory to 福德正神。


Temple in Silat Rd with inscriptions_Fabian Tee

Temple in Silat Rd with similar inscriptions (photo Fabian Tee)


More examples of couplets here

Mid-Autumn Festival Night Walk Report

To celebrate the mid-Autumn full moon we had lanterns, mooncakes, sparkles and a bunch of great people who joined us up to Ong Sam Leong’s grave at Hill 3. We went in 2 groups – group 1 with the early birds who had their lanterns ready to go just after 7pm, the rest of us in group 2 left the gathering point at the good ol’ raintree around 7.30pm. On the way just before reaching the caretaker’s hut, we saw a Brown Hawk Owl flying past and landing on one of the graves. We had a good look at the owl and then moved up the hill to Ong Sam Leong.
After that it was back to the entrance and everyone went their ways.

A few pictures below of this year’s event:

the moon rising (photo: Bianca Polak)

the moon rising (photo: Bianca Polak)

group photo of group 2 at Ong Sam Leong's tomb (photo: Bianca Polak)

group photo of group 2 at Ong Sam Leong’s tomb (photo: Bianca Polak)

candle lit Jade Girl (Photo: Bianca Polak)

candle lit Jade Girl (Photo: Bianca Polak)

Khoo Ee Hoon made a short video clip of the fun we had at Ong Sam Leong’s grave: click here.

For more photos of this year’s event see:  Bianca’s album

And see here Lawrence Chong’s album (on facebook).

============================== the original event notification below =========================
Friday 20 Sept –  7.00pm – 9.30pm
Meeting Point: Bukit Brown Under the Rain tree at the roundabout

The evening of 19/9 marks the fifteenth day of the eighth month on the Chinese calendar, which we will celebrate on 20/9. The traditional Singaporean way of celebration would be to carry lanterns and enjoy a session of drinking tea, and eating mooncakes, pomelos, etc.

Participants are strongly encouraged to bring their own lanterns, as well as contribute mooncakes and other food, for a family day session at BB.

We would be walking along Bukit Brown in the evening with our lanterns, and share with you stories that can be found on some of the pioneers’ tomb panels along the way.

We will start to gather from 7.00pm onwards, and begin the tour once it gets dark.

Mid-Autumn Lanterns (photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Mid-Autumn Lanterns (photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Bukit Brown. More than a cemetery. More than a Chinese cemetery.
Come discover our heritage, history and habitat.

LTA has released news on exhumation and tender for road building. Take this opportunity to experience Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery as it is now.

How to get there and handy tips here: http://bukitbrown.com/main/?p=1347

By agreeing to take this walking tour of Bukit brown cemetery I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so. To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward)

Registration: Our weekend public tours are FREE …
Optimally the group size is 30 participants (15 individuals/guide).

Please click ‘Join’ on the FB event page to let us know you are coming, how many pax are turning up. Or just meet us at the starting point at 7pm.
Brownie Code: We guide rain or shine.
The tour:
Bukit Brown Heritage Park is about 173 acres in extent, bordered by Lornie Road, Thomson Road and the Pan-Island Expressway. It lies just to the south of the Central Catchment Forest, being separated from it by Lornie Road and includes Singapore’s only Chinese Municipal Cemetery. With more than 100,000 graves, Bukit Brown is also one of the largest Chinese cemeteries outside of China.
Here is a map of the grounds:


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.


June 2016
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