Sunday, November 13, 2005

My Memories of Chinatown (Part 2) - Chu Chun Sing

Victor commented that Part 1 was an anti-climax. I did promise that I would share later why I was morbid of the Sago Lane (沙莪巷 ). Indeed as the colloquial name spelled, Street of the Dead [死人街] where funeral parlours (Cantonese clan) were housed speaks much for itself. Incidentally did you know that the colloquial name for Sago Street where I lived is also known as ‘ 庙仔街’ ? Sorry, not to digress your thoughts.

There was one incident I recall happened when I was on my way home (I was 7 or 8 then). I took the challenge to myself of walking past Sago Lane one evening. Funeral parlours were located on the ground floor of this colonial 2-storey terrace blocks along that street. The upstairs were converted as hospice where the dying was housed till they depart. Immediately the corpse would be removed to the floor below and the necessary procedure to be addressed by the undertaker.

The old Singapore under the British colonial rule then, offered no proper hospice-type of premises for the dying, and Chinese migrants were not favoured to die in their homes. Hospital treatment was not popular among the traditional Chinese migrants in those days so the only place they could utilise was the upstairs of these funeral parlours. If these people could afford they would prefer to return to China (where their home land was) to retire. But after the communist regime had taken control of the whole of China after the 1948, the Chinese in Singapore had no way but to stay behind instead of returning to their home land. This also explains why the Chinese cemeteries were left empty all those years till the 50s came along. This was observed by my late father. I remember him telling me that the Pik San Teng [ 碧山亭坟场] cemetery ( located off Thomson Road and Braddell Road) was generally scarce and scanty with graves but beginning from the early 50s it began to get crowded. That Pik San Teng had now become the land for the living…the Bishan housing estate, and the mass rapid transit (underground subway) runs through it, geographically dissecting through the whole area.

Ironically enough, the ex-occupants of this area were underground. Now the MRT runs through it above ground, in fact, this is the first train station where it begins to surface above ground after all the city stations that are underground. This route winds its way round the north and western part of the island of Singapore (all above ground) till it returns to the city area in an almost anti-clockwise format. Again this is just an observation.

Looking at the upstairs of one of the parlours that evening I saw this old woman with her frail sickish looking face starring at the people on the street and probably so, looking at me. I was not the only soul on the street, of course, but probably the only person who took attention at her dying state. One side of the street was arrayed with hawker stalls while the other side was lined with these parlours including a coffin sellers. In fact it was a busy evening as usual while the hawkers were busy setting up their stalls on one side while the other side (the parlours) was busy at their activities.

In my recollection there were at least 2 coffin shops. Some of you who may not have seen what a Chinese coffin would look like. Tell you, it is not the best looking sight of all.

I dared not take the second look after that…but walked hurriedly straight on for home, which was just the next street anyway. But that sight till today I have not forgotten one least bit. It was a morbid thought that this woman was passing away. I did not want this woman to leave this world because I was not sure where she would go and neither did I know any one would go then.

That woman seemed to be telling me to treasure this life because her life was ending and she would not know where she was going too. She may have thought to herself how wonderful it would be if she could rewind the clock to go back to the age where I was then, a child of 8 years old so that she could start life all over again.

I promised myself not to ever walk that street again…but I did in fact in my later life to attend my aunt’s funeral wake in 1979 and in between I missed several of my relatives’ funerals for that reason! I was grown up then…so that was all right.



This is a photo of Sago Lane in the 60's. On one side, you will see the parlour which they have a nick name .... “convalescence centre”. On the other side are hawker stalls. I will narrate an experience with one of the stalls in next episode.

I used to recall what my own mother described her experiences while wake watching in our relatives’ funeral wake. Like what Victor mentioned, if it was your relative or loved ones for that matter, you would sit through the night till day break either in the parlour or along the street placed with tables and stools munching either ‘Wan-Li-Wang‘ groundnuts (with husks) [万里望花生 ] or quazhi [瓜子 ] (dried melon seeds) and sipping green spot (an orange flavoured drink served in glass bottle) [绿宝 ]

She said of morbid experiences of ‘sighting’ spooky figure hanging about in the toilet located at the back of the parlour and to get to answer your nature’s call one had to walk past the bodies some were not even placed inside the coffin. Accordingly there were usually more than one funeral wakes all held in the same parlour in order that the owner could make a few dollars.

In funeral wake of the Cantonese tradition, Taoist monks who were generally odd-jobbers during the day would gown themselves with the deep yellowish Taoist attire and chanted their due for a couple of hours accompanied with drum and cymbal and even Chinese flute with their usually litany and who knows what they were chanting. For all we know, they may not even understand what they were chanting about.

I had once witnessed a ritual procession in the middle of Sago Street which accordingly the Taoist monks (about 5 or 6 of them in all ) were ‘enjoying’ themselves in this so-called sacred act of ‘por-de-yu’ (break through the nether world to rescue the dead) [破地狱]。  There were lines of little oil lamps lid up with a tiny flame on the floor each lamp was aligned with some ceramic-like roof tiles which we were supposed to take it as ‘gates of the nether world’ [ 鬼门关 ] My contemporary, Ah Fei [ 阿辉] (who was of the same age hence my regular playmate at that tender age told me that if I wanted to see the dead coming to life, all I needed to do was to get near to these make-shift monks and wipe my eyes with their gowns. To be honest I was very much tempted to do that but guessed that I did not have sufficient guts to do that then.

But what really caught my eyes was one of the ‘dancers’ (monks) was giggling embarrassingly. So were they serious or having fun instead? Mind you they would walk away with a hefty sum that evening, paid by the family of the dead whom they were supposedly to be chanting the know-not-what litany.

I heard from older folks that according to the traditional Chinese folklore, there are 18 levels of punishment in the nether world and each level is facilitated with its respective gadget of punishment to the dead who did unjust things while they were alive. These monks were supposed to rescue that dead from the darkest level of hades in order to reduce the amount of suffering.

No one wants to die or perish eternally yet we all have to die one day. That thought used to frighten me … just as the Bible says..’ as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgement’.

I can honestly say that I have found the answer to this life-long question of life after death…..

See you in the next episode; if you bother to stick around for more stories…

10 comments:

Lam Chun See said...

Wow - Its looks like while I was preoccupied with catching fighting fishes and spiders, my friend Chun Sing was grappling with the weighty questions of life.

frannxis said...

I think the monks do know what they are chanting. I find the verses or the mantra they recite quite melodious. Those that I heard were in cantonese.

Depending on what you believe, death is not the end of things.

Victor said...

The sequel came surprisingly fast, almost like the daily instalments of 李大傻 and it certainly did not disappoint at all. I will definitely be staying tuned for the next episode.

I particularly like the very well-taken colour photo of the street. I remember that in those days, colour processing was very expensive, maybe more than $1 per photo. (Even the on-line photos of Sago Street/Lane at the National Archives website are mostly in black-and-white.)

Yes, this version of the story is similar to what I heard over the radio some time ago. Hence the streetname can also be translated into English as either 'street of the dying' or 'street of the dead' depending on which state the person was in.

What Frannxis said about the monks' chanting is quite true. I know because during my mum's funeral more than 2 years ago, we hired one whose Cantonese chanting was so clear and melodious that I thought he would make a very good opera singer. My sister was so touched by some of his words that she could not hold back her tears. Of course depending on who you hire, you may also end up with one whose chanting you couldn't make any sense of, which is all the better for my sis, in my opinion.

heartlander said...

I have no qualms with what Chris commented...I was a boy when I heard those chanting back in the late 50s then. This was just noise to me at that age.

Sure...will try to keep coming...with more stories....I had actualy written some few thosuand words on this score...but had deleted them all accidentally.

Simon

Lam Chun See said...

Hey Chun Sing, looks like you managed to create an account - got some help from your son is it? (It was my son who taught me how to insert pictures initially)

But why do you sign off as Simon? You are confusing the other old timers here man.

Chris said...

When I was growing up in Club St in the 70s, whenever we kids saw tents being built on the empty lots in the neigbhourhood, it could mean two things - either a wayang show would follow very shortly to appease the Gods or especially on the 7th month, to appease the 好兄弟. Or it could mean that someone in the neighourbhood had just died. I was too young to know of funeral palour; and it certainly wasn't something that was practised in the neighourhood where I grew up. But how sad it was to die alone, in destitute and in a "hospice" above the funeral palour!

Edward said...

I have only one memory of Sago Lane. We were driving past during the late 50’s when I heard loud wailings coming from one of the houses there. My mother said that they are professional mourners hired by the family of the deceased in the funeral parlour. It was really scary. I wonder if this practice is still done today?

peter said...

In Singapore not that I know of but in Taiwan there are professional mourners.

JJ said...

Hello,

I was the one who mentioned remembering the thomson flyoer hawker ("tiank kio kar") and whom my aunt remembered the smelly lor chuan...

here is a link with photos on the death houses on sago lane...

im actually reading all the posts n comments chronologically, from 2005....im now at 2007, hahaha

JJ said...

sorry, here's the link

http://aliciapatterson.org/stories/aged-singapore-veneration-collides-20th-century