Saturday, April 15, 2006

Of Beetles and Chinese Cemeteries

Chinatown Boy's fond recollection of the Volkswagen Beetle and the very, very popular movie, Love Bug (Herbie is at it again!), brings back some memories.

My family used to own a beetle. But sad to say, it had many problems (I must clarify that ours was an old, second-hand model). Once, I attended a party in the Officers' Mess in Mandai camp. I drove the family car but when it was time to go home, it wouldn't start. It caused considerable embarrassment as I was supposed to fetch some ladies home. Fortunately, my platoon was around that evening. And having whipped them into tip-top physical condition through months of combat engineers training, I got to reap the rewards of my labour. It was no sweat for my boys to push start the beetle.

The car also brings back some memories about our grave-sweeping days in Bishan. As this is the Ching Ming (清 明)period, I might as well take the opportunity to educate the youngsters about the Bishan cemeteries.

My father used to bring us each year to Pek San Teng ( 碧 山 亭) or Kampong San Teng, as it was called those days, to pay respect to his elders; most of whom we do not even know. It was always a very tiresome affair. The weather was usually hot; and it was made worse by the burning of joss sticks and papers and even grass; as well as the traffic jams. It was also hard work to locate the graves and cut the over-grown lallang. Many hours were also spent to prepare the worshipping paraphernalia and food (for offering) and paint for the faded words on the grave stones, sharpen the sickles and so on.

One of the most frustrating parts of this annual exercise was to locate the graves. Based on what I can remember, the system of organising the cemeteries was really lousy. My brothers agree with me. Let me explain a bit about the system.

The entire area was divided into a series of 'hills' and 'pavilions'. For example, one of the hills was located at the spot behind the old Braddell-Toa Payoh flyover (where there used to be a petrol station) So to locate a particular grave, you must know the name of the hill and the pavilion number; for example 黄福山, 第五亭 (Wong Fook Hill, Pavilion No. 5). Then comes the difficult part of finding the exact grave in this section. And it didn’t help when we were not sure of the exact words written on the grave stones. As it was an annual event, my father often had difficulty remembering all these details from a year ago. Oftentimes, the writing on the graves were faded. In fact, finding the hill itself in the vast Bishan area was quite an achievement in 'topo' as the army boys would call it. Anyway, I was too young at that time, and I merely followed where the older ones led.

Another thing I remember about this annual exercise was the grass cutters. These people will pester us to let them cut the over-grown lallang at the graves and charged an exorbitant sum. Often they simply will not take no for an answer; and occasionally this led to ugly incidents. What they would do was to hop on your car bumper to get a ride to your destination. And their favourite car was the Volkswagen Beetle because it had an extended stainless steel bumper which provided a convenient standing platform for the bumpy ride.

And for all our hard work, we were rewarded with a big makan session when we returned home.

Last week, I had a meeting with the other friends of I met Kenneth who stays in Bishan. Like many young Singaporeans, he knows of the history of Bishan as a former burial ground, but he just could not picture it. I hope this post has helped a little. Unfortunately, I do not have any photos to illustrate.

Before I end, I would just like to take a moment to clarify that I no long practice ancestral worship. As Christians, we are commanded to honour our earthly parents, but we are only to worship our Creator God and not humans. However, to honour the memory of my parents, and to express the value that I place on my relationship with my siblings, I accompany them each year to Siong Lim Temple where my parents' ashes are kept; and where they do the worshipping. After that we adjourn for lunch to catch up and have warm fellowship.


As I type, it’s starting to rain outside. Suddenly, I recall this famous Tang (Dynasty) poem about Qing Ming

清明 (杜牧作)


Translation: (Source: Learn Chinese Stories, Idioms, Sayings: Chinese Poem - Qing Ming by Du Mu)

It drizzles endless during the rainy season in spring,
Travelers along the road look gloomy and miserable.
When I ask a shepherd boy where I can find a tavern,
He points at a distant hamlet nestling amidst apricot blossoms.

My friend Simon Chu used to recite a very funny, but crude parody of this famous poem. I will ask him to share with you later.


pinto said...

Yes, your post has helped! Thanks for writing about this.

What does the poem mean?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful poems. Did you translate the second poem yourself. Bravo .

Chris Sim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chris Sim said...

My late uncle (actually he was my cousin but we were more than 20 years apart) used to drive a white beetle. He and his wife, both teachers would bring us kids, a horde of them squeezed into the car, to places of interest in Singapore, somtimes went swimming at Changi beach. That was in the 70s. I remember we kids would all break into songs in the journey singing songs like "My Bonnie" (incidentally, that's my uncle's name), and "Working on the Railroad". That was lots of fun. And that was why the Beetle (not the new ones though) will always have a special place in my heart. Each time I see one, it reminds me of my uncle and those fun-filling days. One fine day, I'm gonna get the old beetle for myself.

fr said...

tomb-sweeping is indeed a tiresome afair... in the earlier years we even cut the weeds ourselves

looking for the tombs was not much of a problem as we remembered the location and the numbers of the tombs.

Victor said...

Chris, your family relations sounds very... erm... complicated leh. An uncle can be a cousin too meh? Can he also be a nephew? :p (Scratching my thinking head.)

I remember my family once went to the cemetery in a Mini Clubman (not mine, I think it was borrowed). The car also broke down along the way. The body of the car was so hot from the scorching sun that we can't even give it a push - our hands burnt when we placed them on the car. But being always so innovative, we found some coconut husks by the roadside and used them as insulation to protect our hands.

Lam Chun See said...

Emma, There is only 1 poem. The translation is taken from the site mentioned in brackets.

Lam Chun See said...

The Volkswagen Beetle is indeed a unique car. The car boot is in front and engine is behind. The batteries are hidden under the backseat.

Lam Chun See said...

Chris, I think most Sporeans our generation remember the wonderful Changi Beach and Tanah Merah. One day must try to recall the "map" and blog about it.

My good friend Simon used to be attached to a camp there called Telok Paku Camp.

Lam Chun See said...

I came across Ravi Zacharias’ memoirs (a Christian testimony actually) by an Indian gentleman probably around my age in Dee's blog (Life in Singapore)

These words are very meaningful for our young people this Qing Ming period:

"For one, I wish I had talked more to my parents about their past and about my ancestors. What did they know? What were the stories of their lives? What made each one the way they were? Now it is too late for that, for my parents have both passed away."

I believe there is a Chinese idiom which says much the same. Maybe Simon can help me here.

iml said...

My dad in law owns a beetle and Proud of it. An automatic which he has done so much on it, that the exterior is the only thing that has not change. He never fails to get attention everytime he takes it for a spin.

Victor said...

Chun See, here's a Madam Hong's account of Qing Ming Festival from the Tourism Department of Penang's website. Madam Hong is a Roman Catholic. According to her priest, a Christian carrying a joss stick as a mark of respect for the deceased is acceptable but carrying a joss stick and praying to the deceased is not. It is the intention that matters.

Lam Chun See said...

Victor, the Catholic priest you quoted was probably right in principle. But, in practice, it is up to the indiv to draw his own line. Time and space does not permit me to go into details.

Anonymous said...

I bought a volks from an Englishman for $3000.00 way back in the sixties, after he completed a round trip to Cameron. The beetle had armour-like features. On one occasion, while my car was climbing a slope, a taxi (Jap.make) slided down accidentally onto my car front bumper. The result: No damage to to my car bumper but his car back bumper was dented right up to the body work. He must have regretted his negligence. My Malaysian cousin told me that for an advertisement, a beetle was thrown right into the Klang river, and it stayed afloat! How come ? It was because this car was under-seal. I believe the story.

pinto said...

Chun See, I was just wondering... If Pek San Teng is roughly translated to Kampong San Teng, why is Bishan's name taken from the first two characters? From what I understand Pek San Teng is also Bi Shan Ting (or something like that).

Also, I'm not sure if I've previously pointed out this post-World War II map of the Pek San Teng area. Best viewed large! This is part of a huge Singapore map at Memories at Old Ford Factory.

Lam Chun See said...

Hi Kenneth, that is an excellent map of the area. I will make some comment there later.

As for Pek San Teng - that is the name in Cantonese. Bi Shan Ting is in Hanyu Pinyin (Mandarin pronunciation). Our govt at one time tried to be too smart and wanted to change all the dialect names to Pinyin; e.g. Nee Soon to Yishun, Ou Kang to Hougang etc.

Teng/Ting literally means pavillion. As I mentioned, the cemetries were organised into a series of pavillions. I suppose Kampong San Teng was the official English name for the area. Don't know why they dropped the 'Pek'.

One of these days, I will blog about the old Braddell Road. Saw some old fotos at NHB archives.

Anonymous said...

the last time i went the PST association had a pictoral exhibition of its past. they hv pics n pics of hills w gravestones.. n my mom was telling me tat was how pek shan teng was like in the past. they also had ST articles abt the land clearance.. interesting!

Anonymous said...

You have totally misunderstood the notion of 'ancestral worship'.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much! My new smart kept flashing "Kampong San Theng" (never heard of!) whenever I returned home in the evenings (I moved to Bishan in 2010...lived in western part of S'pore since childhood)) & I was wondering what was happening!! So I googled & came across yr blog. Very informative...Thanks!!