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…