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.

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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:



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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


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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.


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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.


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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.

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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



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“雲绵绵兮柔顺” (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)


“岩峭峭兮蒼磊” (photo Khoo Ee Hoon”


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.”



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“The Letter”


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.

Here is the letter transcribed in Pe̍h-ōe-jī  by 卓育興 Yu Hsing Jow

Ha̍k-ḿ siu
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

Many thanks to 卓育興 Yu Hsing Jow  for the transcription and his time spent in helping to translate the letter. He has since included the letter to the Wikipedia on Singaporean Hokkien

About the letter:

The Letter was donated to the exhibition Bukit Brown: Our Roots,Our Future, by a descendant of Tan Boon Hak, cousin of Tan Kah Kee)

“The Letter” donated to Our Roots, Our Future ( photo Charlene Tan)

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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.

“Temple of Sweet Dew” (photo Ang Yik Han)

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.

Lui Bei’s sends off  Xu Shu (photo  Ang Yik Han)

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.

The Third Madam teaches her son (三娘教子) (photo Ang Yik Han)

A movie based on the opera can be found here


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April 2014
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