I was fortunate to have been able to catch Royston Tan’s sequel to Old Places, Old Romances, at its premiere on Saturday morning. Old Romances, described by the director as ‘45 personalised love letters to forgotten places’, is not just about personal romances in and with each of the 45 places featured, but about continuing a love affair that has been rekindled by the making of Old Places for a Singapore we might otherwise have forgotten about. The 45 places are all, on their own, fascinating. They are places that many must have deep in their hearts in one way or another. While some, in the two years it took to complete the documentary, have become like that lost love, painfully present in our distant memories; there are many that are there for us to discover a love we might have not known is there.
One place that is featured in which I took the opportunity to find a new love in is the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue. The cemetery, said to be the largest burial ground for Japanese outside of Japan (it has also become the resting place for an estimated 10,000 war dead), is a space that I have found to be extremely interesting as a link to a world that we largely have forgotten about. It is however the tales that the sleeping residents tell that thoroughly fascinates me. The 910 graves found on the grounds does each have an interesting story to tell, and among it you will find tales of many extraordinary lives as well as insights into the early Japanese community in Singapore.
The cemetery now serves as a memorial park, having been closed to burials in 1973. It does have a long history and counts as one of the oldest cemeteries still in existence in Singapore, tracing its history to the end of the 1800s. Its owes its founding to three brothel owners, Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo, who in 1891 sought the colony’s approval to convert up to 12 acres of land including some of their own (they owned rubber estates in the area too) into a cemetery for the burial of destitute Japanese prostitutes, the Karayuki-san. Burials in the grounds do however predate its official establishment, Shibuya and Futaki had reportedly moved the remains of 27 Japanese from a mass grave to the grounds in 1888. Also in 1981, a survey conducted found three gravestones which dated back to 1889.
The cemetery is interesting also in contrasting it to the largest cemetery in Japan at Mount Koya or Koyasan which I also had the opportunity to visit recently. While many of the 200,000 graves in Koyasan are those who had a high station in life, many of the graves in the cemetery in Singapore are of those with a humble social status – at least a third of the graves belong to Karayuki-san.
The Japanese cemetery today occupies a 3 ha. (about a 7 acre) site. No longer set amongst rubber trees (a reminder of that is perhaps a cluster of rubber trees found in the grounds), it today finds itself in the middle of a residential neigbourhood. Stepping into the grounds, an air of serenity greets you. The well-kept cemetery is quietly beautiful and takes one far from the hustle of the urban world that is now at its doorstep. Much of what we see of the very well-kept grounds today is the result of effort undertaken in 1987 by the Japanese Association (which has maintained the cemetery since 1969) to beautify the cemetery in commemoration of its (the association’s) 30th Anniversary (post-war) using donations from the community as well as with assistance from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The largest structure we see in the grounds, is that of the beautifully constructed Prayer Hall or Worship Hall, built in 1986 on the site of two previous Saiyuji temple buildings. The Saiyuji was a Soto sect temple which traces its history to the arrival of its founding monk, Shakushu Baisen of Hyogo in 1892. The first building which was constructed in 1912 and was pulled down in 1960. It was replaced by a second building in which the altars of two disused temples in the city had found a home in. It is the second building that the secular Prayer Hall was built to replace.
The small cluster of rubber trees are the remnants perhaps of the 1000 trees the monk Baisen is said to have planted. That was done to honour the act of philanthropy of the cemetery’s founders, as well as to provide an income for the temple. The cluster can be found in the cemetery’s south-west corner. The corner is also where a set of three memorial stones erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War can be found. Behind the memorial, a single concrete gravestone stands, marking the spot where the ashes of the 10,000 war dead, recovered from the Syonan Chureito in Bukit Batok, lie buried. The largest of the rubber trees is one of two heritage trees found on the grounds. The other is a non-fruiting lychee tree found at the side of the Prayer Hall (next to the caretaker’s quarters).
It is in the gravestones of the voiceless that perhaps have the loudest voices. It is thought that a large proportion of the 494 graves of the identifiable graves which do not bear a date are those of the Karayuki-san. There probably were a lot more – a 1947 survey did show that there were 1270 graves and many of the graves of the Karayuki-san had simple wooden grave-markers (before they were replaced with stone) which could have decayed with age.
That a substantial number of the graves belonged to the Karayuki-san, provides an insight into the first Japanese nationals to arrive in Singapore – their first recorded arrival in 1877 coinciding with a period of development which began in the 1870s that provided opportunities which attracted many male immigrants to Singapore. The brothels that the Karayuki-san worked in were centered mainly in what is today the Bugis area (Bugis Junction), first on Malay Street, before spreading to Malabar, Hylam and Bugis Streets with as many as 109 brothels recorded in 1905 employing some 633 Karayuki-san. It was in the area that the early Japanese community was also to establish themselves – Middle Road was referred to by the community as ‘Chuo Dori‘ or ‘Central Street’.
Besides the many graves of the voiceless, there are several (some are memorials rather than graves) which belong to notable personalities. One is the grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army which swept across South-East Asia. Count Terauchi died in Johor as a Prisoner of War in 1946 and his ashes were sent back to his family in Japan. It is thought however that some of his remains and his insignia is however buried in the cemetery.
One grave that does have a fascinating story to tell is that of a certain John Matthew Ottoson. Described as an adventurer, Ottoson is does seem to have been almost a legendary life of adventure. Better known by his native name Otokichi, his adventures started at the age of fourteen in 1832 when he found himself cast adrift off the coast of Japan on a storm damaged ship, the Hojunmaru, on which he was a deckhand. He survived, but not before a fourteen month ordeal which took him across the Pacific to the shores of what is today Washington State. He and two other survivors found washed ashore and soon found themselves in the care of the native Makah tribe.
The next chapter in his adventures took him first to London, then to Macau, and on to Shanghai. It was in Macau that he is thought to have had a hand in the first translation of the Bible into Japanese. He became a British subject in the process, returning to Japan twice as a translator in the service of the British. His second return in late 1854 is significant in that it led to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United Kingdom and Japan. He married a Malay woman later in life and eventually found himself residing in Singapore where he was a trader in local farm products from 1862 until his death in 1867 at the age of 49. In 2004, Otokochi’s remains which had been relocated from the original burial site were found to be at Choa Chu Kang. The remains were exhumed and cremated. Some of his ashes were brought to Japan with a portion is kept in the charnel next to the Prayer Hall at the Japanese Cemetery Park. More about the life of Otokichi can be found in this Japan Times article (click here).
Among the other graves and memorial stones of the notable is one that is a memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei (二葉亭 四迷) in the south-eastern corner of the grounds close to Count Terauchi’s grave. Futabatei Shimei’s work published in 1887, Ukigumo (Floating Clouds) is regarded as Japan’s first modern novel and he was returning from Russia as a special correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper at the time of his untimely death in 1909. The memorial has apparently been a venerated spot, particularly with visiting Japanese newsmen. Next to the memorial, the unique gravestone belonging to the grave of Kantaro Ueyama can be found. Kantaro Ueyama, who perished in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942, was the first son of inventor of the mosquito coil, Eiichiro Ueyama.
Along the northern boundary of the grounds is the memorial plaza where there is a cluster of memorial stones placed to commemorate several well known figures. One is that of another somewhat legendary figure, a Terengganu born Japanese bandit popularly known as Harimau (Malay for Tiger), Harimau Malaya (Tiger of Malaya), Raja Harimau (King Tiger). Immortalised by the 1943 Japanese film Marai No Tora (マライの虎) or ‘Tiger of Malaya’, he was apparently notorious along the East Coast of Malaya and Southern Thailand where he led a band of some 3,000 Malay bandits and portrayed as a Robin Hood like character. Harimau, whose family had run a barber shop in Terengganu’s motivation in leading the bandits was to seek revenge for a sister Shizuko who was murdered by a Chinese mob angered by the Manchurian Incident. He later served as an agent for a Japanese Imperial Army intelligence unit and succumbed to Malaria at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore at the age of 32 on 17 March 1942. His remains are thought to have been buried in a Muslim cemetery near the hospital.
Besides the grave-markers that have vanished with time and the Saiyuji over which the Prayer Hall has been built, there would have also been a two chamber crematorium in the grounds of the cemetery that was also used for non-Japanese cremations and a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, of which there are no more traces of. The crematorium which began as a wood-fired one is possibly the first crematorium to be built in Singapore having come up in the first decade of the 1900s. For a period of time following the end of the war, the crematorium was leased to the Singapore Casket Company.
Despite not being fond of hanging around cemeteries, I did spend 3 hours or so at this one. The cemetery is one that I will certainly visit again for the little piece of calm in the storm that has swept across modern Singapore it offers and to perhaps seek more tales that the gravestones hold. The Japanese Cemetery Park (日本人墓地公園 or Nihonjin Bochi Koen) is located at 22 Chuan Hoe Avenue and is about a 300 metre walk in from the junction of Chuan Hoe Avenue with Yio Chu Kang Road. The park is open to visitors from 8 am to 7 pm daily.