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Oct 3, 2014

Ancestors Gave Way To Space For The Living

How could anyone imagine how this stretch of Orchard Road in Singapore look like 100 years ago?

If I were to be an author to write a fiction horror story based on that time in this location, it would describe this same place in darkness at night ... eerie and scary to make one's hair stand on end.

There were no buildings, no street lamps, no vehicle or human traffic along the road ... just a cemetery with tombs as burial ground for the dead.  But Orchard Road was a graveyard in old Singapore, not a movie.

That was the Tai Sun cemetery where hundreds and thousands of the deceased Teochew ancestors in Singapore bury in the ground.

Photo courtesy of the Ngee Ann Kongsi Singapore

The land is owned by the Ngee Ann Kongsi, the Teochew association in Singapore with members and committee officials who are among the richest Singaporeans at present since the early days.  The Singaporean Teochew are the successful businessmen, entrepreneurs, industrialists, property owners,  and professionals in Singapore who help to develop and build the community for generations.  Many of them are philanthropists who donate generously in cash and kinds for our society for generations.

However, the Ngee Ann Kongsi membership for Teochew community regardless of their social status, the rich and not-so-rich.

 The Living and the Dead

The achived newspaper clips are blog here with the courtesy of NewspaperSG, National Library Board.

At last Singapore's living are to get a change of being freed from the stranglehold of Singapore's dead.  Legislation, it is reported, is to be introduced to control graveyards.

This follow acceptance of the report of a committee which dealt with, among other things, the permitted sizes of burial plots, mass exhumation and the building of a crematorium.

None of these ideas, designed to check the growth of graveyards and restore disused burial grounds to profitable purpose, is new.  The need for a crematorium especially, was recognised many years before the war, but proposals to build one never went beyond the talking stage.

Today, however, social conditions make it imperative that action must be taken.  The Colony's most urgent need is for land.  Land for industrial expansion, for houses for playing fields and parks.  Yet hundreds of valuable acres - excellent building sites all of them - are taken up by disused cemeteries, in many of which are graves so ancient that no one knows to whom they belong.

Reclamation of these grounds will release big acres for profitable development, but the more important effect of Legislation will be to check the growth of graveyards.  Singapore must be thankful that certain beliefs and customs have yielded to the argument that the dead cannot be forever denying living ...

The Straits Times dated 13 August, 1950.

The surprise discovery of about 1,000 unknown Chinese graves has held up for a month the completion of $120,000 mass exhumation scheme undertaken by the Ngee Ann Kongsi (Teochew community in Singapore) to clear the site for proposed extensions to Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

In the exhumations, which started in June 1950, it was estimated that only about 4,600  bodies would have to be re-interred.  But after re-burying all but 100 of the number originally expected, workmen located another group of 1,000 graves.

The identities of bodies buried in the latest group of graves i not known.  Kongsi officials believe these to contain the remains of Chinese killed during the Japanese attack on Singapore and a few unknown paupers.

Most of them seemed to be buried in hurriedly constructed shallow graves.

The new find of graves has caused the Kongsi to cease work until a rush order for 1,000 earthenware urns in which to bury the remains is completed.  It is now expected that exhumation of all bodies found in the disused cemetery will be completed early September, 1950.

Re-interment will take place in a graveyard at Seletar.  All the urns will be buried in neat rows of hundreds so that Kongsi officials will have no difficulty in locating the resting place of all known dead.

Special service

Each urn is numbered by a piece of burnt earth placed inside and this ensures a lasting record.  Full particulars where available, of those buried near the Tan Tock Seng Hospital are also recorded in books to facilitate future claims of relatives.

The remains found in each grave are carefully wrapped in special Chinese paper and then tightly sealed in the urns.  The mixture used for sealing is composed of tung oil and concrete - an ancient Chinese formula which is guaranteed to be leak proof.

The Honorary Secretary of the Kongsi, Mr Lim Kim Seng, told the Straits Times that as soon as all the exhumed bodies are re-buried, the Teochew community will hold a special burial service at the new graveyard.  A suitable memorial will also be erected to commemorate those who die in their new graves.

Twice a year during the Spring and Autumn festivals.  Mr Lim added, his Kongsi will arrange ceremonies of worship for the dead at the new cemetery.

So far about 400 of the bodies already exhumed have been identified and claimed by relatives.  The Kongsi has provided alternative accomodation for re-burial and also contributed $50 towards expenses to each claimant.

The Straits Times dated 2 September, 1951.

More than $500,000,000 went up in smoke on 1 September, 1951 morning, during the ceremonial opening of the mass exhumation project.

The money, however, was not Straits currency or any legal tender, but ordinary paper - gold and silver in colour - which were offered by the Teochew community to their dead.

Early in the morning joss sticks were burnt, to inform the dead of the meeting.  A simple altar and food offerings were made ready inside a hut along Orchard Road.

The religious ceremony, conducted by  Buddhist priest, Reverend Miao Chung, of the Sam Lim Ji Temple in Kim Keat Road, was so simple that passers-by were unaware what was taking place.

At the start of the ceremonial rites, the Reverend Miao Chung climbed to the summit of the hill to invite all the dead to be present at the hall in the erected shed.

Joss sticks were then burnt and stuck into the ground to form a road to guide the spirits from their resting places.

Officials of the Ngee Ann Kongsi then paid their respects and informed the dead:  "Please take no offence.  We beg to remove your palaces to another and better resting place.  May you all be placed in Heaven."

Prayers were then offered by the priest to the God of Earth and to the dead, and this was followed by the burning of the paper money together with heaps of paper clothes.

Labourers working on the project ended the ceremony by digging the earth to signify commence of work.

The site for the exhumed bodies relocated to the Teochew crematorim at 10 Ubi Avenue 4, Singapore and is open to members of the Teochew community as well as the general public who wish to perform funeral rites for their departed relatives.

The Ngee Ann Kongsi, a charitable association representing the Chinese Teochew community, was incorporated in 1845. In the same year, the Kongsi purchased 72 acres of land on Orchard Road for use as a cemetery called Tie Swah Ting (Tai Shan Ting, 泰山亭).  The cemetery was bounded by Paterson Road (Tanglin), Orchard Road, and Grange Road.  A temple (泰山亭伯公宫) stood on the cemetery grounds.

The cemetery was cleared in 1957, and some portions of the land were acquired by the government.

The Kongsi built a 10-storey Ngee Ann Building on the site, which was demolished in 1985. The Ngee Ann City commercial and shopping complex was subsequently built there, with construction beginning in 1989.
Constructed in 1989 at a cost of $2 million, the distinctive looking yet modern building is a testament to the times.

Early on, the Kongsi bought many large parcels of land in less-populated areas of the city to be used as burial grounds, with the exception of Tai Shan Ting cemetery on Orchard Road where Ngee Ann City now stands.

Ngee Ann City was officially opened on 31 August 1993 by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

Traditional annual prayer sessions at the Ngee Ann City

The Ngee Ann Kongsi officials conducting the traditional annual prayer sessions at Ngee Ann City.

The related "Singapore Teochew Festival 2014" blog  here .



Blogger petunias said...

Interesting info ! I read on another site that the building was built in the form of a traditional Chinese tomb and the 5 flags represent 5 joss sticks, the water in the fountain, wine. Is this true or just coincidence?

December 5, 2016 at 7:29 PM  

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