Fragments of the old tiong

13 01 2015

In a Singapore where we seem to be fond of displacing both the living and the dead, it always is a nice surprise when bits and pieces of the displace turn up in a space whose use has evolved. A recent set of such discoveries on the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) was made by Singapore’s foremost tomb hunters, Raymond and Charles Goh; discoveries that connect the land on which much is now done to aid the preservation of life, with a time when it served as a place where those whose life had passed were put to rest.

A recent discovery on the grounds of SGH.

A recent discovery on the grounds of SGH.

The elevated grounds of SGH, made it an obvious choice for a institution for treatment and convalescence; having been identified as “high and dry”, “admitting of easy drainage” and “open to all prevailing breezes”. And, it was where the General Hospital and also a Lunatic Asylum was moved to in the 1880s.

Participants on the trail negotiating the slopes of Tiong Lama.

Participants on the trail negotiating the slopes of Tiong Lama.

The terrain around the site, described by a 1875 Municipal Engineer’s Office report as one of undulating hills of clay and laterite, also made it a choice location as a Chinese burial site, 29 acres (about 12 ha.) of which had initially played host to a Hokkien cemetery, one of the first Chinese graveyards in Singapore, that came to be known as Tiong (or Teong) Lama. The report also stated that what it described as a well kept site, had been closed for 16 years and had “its joss-house and priests”.

A fragment of the past  found on the hills of Tiong Lama.

Another fragment of the past found on the hills of Tiong Lama.

The “old cemetery”, as tiong lama, a combination of Hokkien in the “tiong” (cemetery) and Malay in the “lama” (old), translates into; had by the time of the report been supplemented by a new cemetery to its east, referred to as “Tiong Bahru”, a name that now brings to mind its offerings for the living rather than ones intended for its early occupants.

A head stone of the grave of a member of the Khoo clan from 1842.

A head stone of the grave of a member of the Khoo clan from 1842.

I was to find out more of the Gohs’ discoveries during a walk organised by the Tiong Bahru Heritage volunteers that the brothers led over the weekend; discoveries that might perhaps have made the visits to hospital grounds, of which I made many as a child to see a relation in the nursing profession living in the nurses’ quarters, a little spicier.

Raymond speaking to the participants of the walk, with Charles looking on in the background.

On the eternal slope: Raymond speaking to the participants of the walk, with Charles looking on in the background.

Just a stone’s throw from one of the quarters, which I realise was very recently pulled down, is the area once referred to as Eternal Hill, Heng San (恆山). At the foot of its slope, which a stretch of Hospital Drive (previously a section of Silat Avenue) runs through down to Jalan Bukit Merah, stood the Heng San Teng (恆山亭).

Heng San Teng before its destruction (National Archives of Singapore).

The temple, founded in 1828, was the focal point for the Hokkien immigrant community in Singapore prior to the Thian Hock Keng assuming the role, and stood watch over the cemetery. The historic temple was destroyed by a 1992 fire, well after the cemetery was exhumed in the early 1900s. All that has survived, are a few pieces of the cemetery, discovered by the brothers, that have somehow been left behind.

Heng Sua today.

Eternal Hill today, eternising life.

Of the remnants of Tiong Lama, one is a head stone belonging to the grave of a lady from the Khoo clan that dates back to 1842. It now lies on a part of the slope, close to evidence of a more recent activity that took place on the slope: rectangular troughs of brick and cement. These, as confirmed by an ex-resident of the area, were water troughs used by an Indian dhobi, who took on laundry work provided by the hospital. A few blocks of concrete can also be found on a terrace just above the troughs which the ex-resident said were used to support laundry drying poles.

The troughs used by dhobis and a broken piece of relief from a grave.

The troughs used by dhobi, with a broken piece of relief that would have been from a former grave.

The loose headstone.

The loose headstone on the slope.

What is perhaps also interesting, is a curious little shrine against one of the trees lining the road. Painted in red, it bears the Chinese characters 黃姑娘 in gold, which Mandarin-ised, reads as Huang Ku Niang, reputedly a resident of a nearby village who had lived around the turn of the last century. Miss Huang or Ng, as she would have been known in Hokkien, had been a cleaner turned nurse, who had received her training from a doctor at the General Hospital. Her dedication to saving lives had apparently extended beyond her hospital duties and whilst attempting to rescue a fellow villager from a fire, the house she was in collapsed on her, ending her life prematurely.

The shrine to Huang Ku Niang.

The shrine to Huang Ku Niang.

Huang Ku Niang’s dedication seems to have also extended into the afterlife. Her spirit has often been sighted roaming the area of the slope, seeking to further her cruelly interrupted mission. Many afflicted with illnesses, offer a prayer at her shrine. The deitised Huang Ku Niang is reputed to have the ability to deliver her devotees, from their ailments.

The slope where the dhobi operated. Concrete blocks used to support laundry drying poles can be seen on the upper terrace.

The slope where the dhobi operated. Concrete blocks used to support laundry drying poles can be seen on the upper terrace.

From Hospital Drive, the walk continued east down Jalan Bukit Merah, to the slope where the old tiong met the new tiong. The area is close to where towering blocks of the newest additions an urbanised Tiong Bahru are now coming up, in stark contrast to an area of seemingly dense vegetation separating it from the hospital. In part of the green area, recently cleared of its trees, is the area where a cluster of uncleared graves from the second half of the 1800s, were also recently discovered by the Gohs.

An area of dense vegetation at the edge of the hospital's grounds.

An area of dense vegetation at the edge of the hospital’s grounds.

The graves, four of which are marked by simple single head stones (two of which has fallen) placed from the 1860s to 1878 (more information can be found in this link), also includes one that still lies hidden in the trees. The latter has a more elaborate structure bearing a closer resemblance to the Chinese graves we see today, and dates back to the 1890s. The graves are the remnants of a burial site belonging to the Chua clan, occupying a private strip of land sandwiched between Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama that would have been referred to as Seh Chua Sua.

The first of the Chua graves.

The first of the Chua graves from the 1860s.

The second from 1872.

The second from 1872.

Raymond Goh showing how he uses flour to bring out the faint inscriptions on the third headstone.

Raymond Goh showing how he uses flour to bring out the faint inscriptions on the third headstone.

The flour enhanced inscriptions.

The flour enhanced inscriptions.

A fourth grave.

A fourth grave.

The Chua grave hidden in the trees.

The Chua grave hidden in the trees.

A tablet marking the altar to the earth deity placed next to the last grave.

A tablet marking the altar to the earth deity placed next to the last grave.

A fragment of the past.

One half of a pair of lion guards that has somehow merged into root of a tree.

Close by is one further discovery unrelated to the burial site made by the Gohs – a wall that is thought to have been the perimeter wall of the Lunatic Asylum that would have been built in 1887, part of which has recently been removed. What would have once been a wall that towered three metres high, it is only a section of the top of it that can now be seen.

What's left of the wall of teh Lunatic Asylum.

What’s left of the wall of the Lunatic Asylum.

Part of the wall lies partially hidden by the dense vegetation.

Part of the wall lies partially hidden by the dense vegetation.

Across Jalan Bukit Merah from the site of the Lunatic Asylum is Silat Estate, where Kampong Silat also known as Ku Ah Sua (龟仔山) – the village that Huang Ku Niang had apparently hailed from, was sited. A hillock, which gave the village its Hokkien name, which translates into Little Tortise Hill, was where the walk was to end.

Tai Yeong Kong on Ku Ah Sua.

Tai Yeong Kong on Ku Ah Sua.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong.

Nestled on the hillock are two temples that connect the hill to the now missing village. Lying now in the shadow of a block of HDB flats, the hill is dominated by the yellow structure of the Tai Yeong Kong (太阳宫). Dedicated to the sun god, the syncretic temple is housed in part in a structure that resembles a beach side villa from the early 20th century. Within the temple, devotion extends beyond the Taoist deities, to a Hindu god along with ancestral deities and several images of bodhisattvas.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong - a reminder of an old world.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong – a reminder of an old world.

The dragon deity under the main altar.

The dragon deity under the main altar.

Ancestral tablets and deities, including one with a neck tie.

Ancestral tablets and deities, including one with a neck tie.

A Hindu deity outside the temple.

A tantric deity outside the temple.

The other temple on the hill, Chia Leng Kong (正龙宫), the main deity of which is the god of the North Star, Xuan Tian Shang Di (玄天上帝), actually sees several Taoist temples associated with Ku Ah Sua merged into one. The temples operate on Temporary Occupation Licenses on land that belongs to the Housing and Development Board and it may be possible that the links they have long provided to the area’s past, may in the future, be broken.

Xuan Tian Shang Di.

Xuan Tian Shang Di.

The crest of the little tortoise hill where a cemetery once existed.

The crest of the little tortoise hill where a cemetery once existed.

Extract of a 1920 map. The extent of the burial grounds at Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama can be seen. The location of Heng San Teng is marked as "Temple" on the lower right of the map as is the Lunatic Asylum, which is seen in its vicinity.

Extract of a 1920 map. The extent of the burial grounds at Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama can be seen. On the map is the Heng San Teng location, marked as “Temple” on the lower right. The Lunatic Asylum can also be seen in its vicinity.





Documentation work at Jalan Kubor

31 12 2013

Spotted by a friend at the cemetery at Jalan Kubor on the side of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah – raffia string being strung around grave stones, sparking some concern that the site may be cleared soon. The site, along with the Old Malay Cemetery across the road, is of historical significance with links to the early days of modern Singapore and is slated for future residential development (see a previous post: Grave losses). As I now understand it, the laying of string and tags that is seen, is the beginnings of what is now a important documentation project that being undertaken by Dr Imran Tajudeen, that will map the site as well as involve a study of the inscriptions on the grave stones.

JeromeLim 277A0261

JeromeLim 277A0246

JeromeLim 277A0258

P.S. For further information, kindly refer to a report in the 3 Jan 2014 edition of the Straits Times: NHB project to document Malay cemetery


More on the cemeteries at Jalan Kubor:


 





Grave losses

20 12 2013

Of late, I seem to have taken to wandering around spaces for the dead of late, spaces that my irrational fears would usually keep me well away from. I now find myself drawn to them, seeking out the stories they hold of a past we in Singapore have discarded, in the knowledge that the existence of such spaces in an island nation obsessed with building for a soulless future, can only be temporary.

The old Muslim cemeteries at Jalan Kubor provide a gateway to a discarded past.

A gate at a mausoleum like structure at the Old Malay Cemetery at Jalan Kubor – cemeteries provide gateways to a discarded past.

We in Singapore would be well aware of the brouhaha surrounding the former Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery. While that hasn’t prevented the intended construction of the road through it, which can perhaps be seen as the beginning of its probable end (work to exhume graves affected by the road has just started), it has raised awareness of the historical value of what may possibly be the largest concentration of Chinese graves outside of China. More significantly, found among the estimated 100,000 graves, are several of ethnic Chinese luminaries associated with modern Singapore’s development.

Tree clearing at Jalan Kubor. Several historic grave sites in Singapore are under threat of being cleared.

Tree clearing at Jalan Kubor. Several historic grave sites in Singapore are under threat of being cleared.

Besides Bukit Brown, another concentration of graves under threat that is thought to be of historical value, can be found close to the heart of the city, straddling Jalan Kubor, on the fringe of the historic Kampong Glam district. While much of the Kampong Glam area, once the seat of Sultan Hussein – the British installed Sultan of Johor and Singapore, has been identified as a conservation area, the two cemeteries at Jalan Kubor are located on the wrong side of Victoria Street – which delineates the northern boundary of the conservation area.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

Keeping a watchful eye on history?

Keeping a watchful eye on history?

On the eastern side of Jalan Kubor is the plot of land on which what is referred to as the Old Malay Cemetery lies, along with what has become a very distinctive Masjid Malabar at its southeastern corner. While the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013 does identify the mosque as being considered for conservation, the land on which the cemetery rests has for several revisions of the 5 yearly Master Plan including the current draft, along with the second cemetery across Jalan Kubor (which translates from Malay into “Grave Street”) from it, been identified for future residential development (with a plot ratio of 4.9).

DraftMasterPlan Jalan Kubor S

The cemetery, is also the plot identified in early maps of British Singapore, as the “Tomb of Malayan Princes”  – a reference perhaps to the raised burial plot found in the site that is reserved for the family of Sultan Hussein. There are also several graves of significance on the site, about which Dr. Imran Tajudeen, an academic who has devoted much time to the study of the area and the cemeteries, has shed some light on in a talk on 7 July 2013 (which has been posted on YouTube).

The "Tombs of Malayan Princes".

The “Tombs of Malayan Princes”.

Amongst Dr Imran’s findings, are the links the graveyard does have with the early immigrants from the Islamic world around us, including connections with the Bugis and Banjarese traders who were prominent members of the communities that grew around the Sultan’s compound. He also mentioned finding gravestones bearing inscriptions written in the Bugis script, Lontara – a indication perhaps of the use of the Bugis language in the early days of the settlement of Kampong Glam.

Inscriptions on a gravestone.

Inscriptions on a gravestone.

Older wooden grave markers are also found amongst the gravestones.

Older wooden grave markers are also found amongst the gravestones.

Another wooden grave marker.

Another wooden grave marker.

The are several interesting structures, otherwise mysterious, that Dr Imran has also identified during his talk. One, is the house-like structure under a banyan tree just behind Masjid Malabar. That contains the graves of a Bugis merchant, Haji Omar Ali and his wife. The grave of Haji Omar’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh, is also found there, placed under an awning at the structure’s entrance. 

The back of the structure housing the grave of Bugis merchant Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

The back of the structure housing the grave of Bugis merchant Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

A view of the front of the structure where Haji Omar Ali's son, Haji Ambo Sooloh can be found.

A view of the front of the structure where Haji Omar Ali’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh can be found.

The mausoleum like structure above the grave of another Bugis merchant.

The walled compound which contains the second cemetery at Jalan Kubor does also have several rather interesting stories. Referred to as the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, after the Islamic School nestled in its northwest corner, the land on which this (and the Madrasah) sits on a Wakaf that was donated by Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Aljunied, a prominent Arab pioneer of modern Singapore. Besides being where Syed Omar and many of his descendants were buried (Dr. Imran mentions that the family has since exhumed the graves), the cemetery was also where Ngah Ibrahim of Perak was buried. Implicated in the murder of the first British Resident of Perak, James Birch, in 1875, Ngah Ibrahim died in exile in Singapore. His remains have since been moved back to Perak. 

The presence of the grave sites close to the city does draw the curiosity of visitors to the area.

The presence of the grave sites close to the city does draw the curiosity of visitors to the area.

Structures which once contained the graves of the Aljunieds.

Structures which once contained the graves of the Aljunieds.

The cemetery is also associated with an incident in 1972 during which two gunmen, brothers at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, took their lives  after being cornered by the police. More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.

A view of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery.

A view of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery, which was the scene of an incident in December 1972.

It probably is only a matter of time before the two sites, and the links to history they do hold, are erased from a Singapore that is reluctant to recognise the significance of its pre-independence past. As mentioned above, the URA Masterplan including a current draft, does point to the land on which the sites are on accommodating future high-rise residential developments. A check on the land ownership status with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) maintained OneMap site, does also show that the land is already in the hands of the State. With the acceleration seen in pace of development that is taking place in and around it area, it is likely that time will soon be called on a world that takes us back two hundred years.

A view down Jalan Kubor - the pace of development in the area is gathering pace.

A view down Jalan Kubor – the pace of development in the area is gathering speed.

Another view towards the structure housing the graves of Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

Another view towards the structure housing the graves of Haji Omar Ali and his wife.


Some spaces for the dead that are under threat:


 

 





The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’

16 07 2013

Lying somewhat obscurely and hidden at Jalan Kubor off Victoria Street is the Old Malay Cemetery. The cemetery, which is across Jalan Kubor from the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, another old Muslim cemetery better know perhaps for an incident in 1972 involving two gunmen, is the oldest Malay burial ground in Singapore on record. Quite prominently identified on maps dating from the 1820s and 1830s, it is shown on J. B. Tassin’s Map (Map of The Town and Environs, Singapore) of 1836,  as the ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’.

IMG_1525b

The burial grounds are described in a heritage trail guide put together by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on Kampong Glam:

MALAY BURIAL GROUNDS AT JALAN KUBOR

In the early maps of Singapore, these burial grounds were marked as “Mohamedan cemetery” and “Tombs of Malayan Princes”. According to 19th century reports, there were three distinct burial plots here – a 5 1/3 acre Malay cemetery, the 3-acre Sultan’s family burial grounds located within the Malay cemetery and a cemetery for Indian Muslims. In 1875, the municipality closed down the Malay cemetery but agreed to the Sultan’s request that his family could continue to use the royal burial grounds. The sultan’s burial grounds were walled in and the graves were situated in elevated plots. It was noted in the early 20th century that non-Muslims were not allowed to enter them.

An extract of Tassin's map of 1836 showing the location of the "Tombs of the Malayan Princes".

An extract of Tassin’s map of 1836 showing the location of the ‘Tombs of the Malayan Princes’.

More information on the cemetery also came to light during a recent talk by A/Prof Imran bin Tajudeen of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Architecture. A synopsis written for the talk also provides some insight into the area and the cemetery:

Several old settlements existed in Singapore besides the Temenggong’s estuarine settlement at Singapore River before Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Among these, Kampung Gelam and the Rochor and Kallang River banks were also sites of historic graveyards related to old settlements of Singapura both before and during colonial rule. The Jalan Kubor cemetery is the only sizable cemetery grounds still largely undisturbed. It belongs with Kampung Gelam history but has been excluded from the “Kampong Glam Conservation District” boundary, and is important for several reasons. It forms part of the old royal port town that was developed when Tengku Long of Riau was installed as Sultan Hussein in Singapore, and is aligned along the royal axis of the town. It is also the final resting place of several traders of diverse ethnicity from the old port towns of our region – neighbouring Riau, Palembang, and Pontianak, as well as Banjarmasin and the Javanese and Bugis ports further afield. Some of these individuals are buried in family enclosures, mausolea, or clusters. Conversely, there are also hundreds of graves of unnamed individuals from Kampung Gelam and surrounding areas. The tombstone forms and epigraphy reflect this immense socio-cultural diversity, and were carved in Kampung Gelam by Javanese and Chinese stone carvers, except for a number of special cases. Several large trees of great age are also found in this lush ‘pocket park’.