In Singapore, change deprives many in my generation of the pure joy one finds in reconnecting with the places of one’s childhood. For many of us, we find our connections to a world that increasingly is hard to feel at home in, only through our precious memories and perhaps through fragments from our childhood that have somehow survived.
One very small fragment I was surprised to find intact, having not seen it for three and a half decades, is the house at No. 3 Bassein Road. While I may not have had any interactions with the house, it was one that I caught sight on numerous occasions from the car. The house, perhaps for the mystery it held, has somehow remained etched in my memory.
Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. I would be driven past it on the many visits to my godmother’s place, which was up the hill at Akyab Road. As I passed, my attention would always be drawn to it. All I would get to see of it were the upper parts. Except for inscriptions in Chinese around a shut pair of red door and its octagonal windows, both of which suggested that it may have been a temple, there was little otherwise that hinted at what the house had been used as.
With little reason for me to visit the area after my godmother moved away in the mid-1970s, it wasn’t until a random drive I took through the area some five years back that I was reacquainted with the house. With much of what surrounded it changed, it came as a pleasant surprised to see that the house was still intact three and a half decades or so since I last caught sight of it.
An article I was alerted to, was to help unlock the mystery of the house, which as it turns out was not a temple, but a Buddhist women’s vegetarian hall or zhaitang, the Chan Chor Min Tong. Named after its founder, it was the sister lodge to article’s main subject, a men’s zhaitang at Jalan Kemaman, which shared the same founder and also the same name.
This chai tong, as its Cantonese speaking residents would have referred to it, was established in 1936. This came ten years after the hall at Jalan Kemaman was founded. While the latter provided lodging to men who might otherwise have to live their twilight years on their own, the Bassein Road hall catered to unattached women. Both zhaitang have since ceased operating as places of lodging, and are today maintained by their trustees as religious halls.
The opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about the place came with the Chinese New Year. The festival, I had been informed, is the only occasion during which the red doors are opened for visitors. This allows its beneficiaries, supporters and members of the public an opportunity to pay their respects to the hall’s deities and its elders.
Stepping through its red doors, the air of calm and contemplation, as one would expect of its seclusion, is evident. There was also a sense that it was a parallel world I had ventured into, one in which time seems to have been forgotten, and one rendered surreal by the shadows of the all too obvious emblems of the modern world that are cast on it.
Even if it is dwarfed by what now surrounds it, the generous proportions given to the two-storey hall does not escape notice. Of a design typical perhaps of the time of its construction, and yet untypical for its mix of styles, the house has verandahs running along its length on both levels, front and back. The insulation this provides its inner section, in combination with the ventilation of its ample openings, maximises cooling while allowing light to stream in – considerations no longer valued in the energy guzzling buildings of the modern world.
The house’s proportions gives away its communal purpose; evident also in how the house has been laid out. It is blessed with large common spaces, hallways and landings, around which smaller rooms affording a measure of privacy have been arranged. Service areas are equally spacious. One, a courtyard around which a wash area is arranged, for some reason, brought on a sense of deja-vu.
Furnishings found scattered around the house are largely from an age of much simplicity. Some, the conveniences of yesterday, would by standards today, probably be taken as inconveniences, such as wooden washstands. Complete with decorated enamel washbasins in their recesses, several were set against the parapet of the back verandah. There were also meat safes from the now inconceivable pre-refrigerator age to be found.
While the last resident of the zhaitang, the zhaigu, may have last walked its hallways in the 1970s, there is no escaping their presence in the hall. Black and white photographs hung on the walls remind us of the women from Canton (Guangdong) province’s Shun Tak (Shunde) district who were the house’s occupants. I was also alerted to a white curtain in the main hall, behind which the urns of the zhaigu, as the residents were referred to, have each a place on the shelves.
The mention of Shun Tak, brings to mind the majie, who were also from the district. Identifiable by the white samfoo top and black trousers they wore, these amahs were one of several groups of women from Canton who were known to have taken vows of spinsterhood, vows some of those in the chai tong would also have taken.
This practice was apparently quite common in Shun Tak, a name once synonymous with the production of silk. The industry, which gave women from the district the independence necessary for some to turn their backs on the traditional family structure, collapsed in the 1930s. This prompted many women previously employed in the industry to brave the journey to the Nanyang.
For women who chose spinsterhood as a life’s path, or were forced by circumstances to live on their own, living outside the structure of the traditional family would have deprived them of the social support that the arrangement may have guaranteed. A place the chai tong, maintained either by payment or through services performed for the respective halls, or a combination of both, compensated for this.
A British cultural anthropologist Marjorie Topley described in a 1954 essay how such halls would provide “care while alive and a funeral at death”, thus fulfilling an important social function. Mrs. Topley, who was also a curator of anthropology at the Raffles Museum in the early 1950s, carried out studies on such halls in Singapore and in Hong Kong.
Remarkably, in a country where change now seems an only constant, the hall at No. 3 Bassein Road, despite remaining empty for as long as it had been in use, has also remained a constant. Time, which the hall has thus far resisted, as we know it, can be a cruel thing here in Singapore and it now may be just a question of when, not if, it goes. For now at least, it remains an oasis for the spirits and teh memory of the zhaigu and those who find peace in it. It also remains for me, one of a few places in which I can find sanity; the sanity that comes from knowing that what I remember from my days of wonder, is real and has not been imagined.