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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.