A place that defies the passage of time

A place that defies the passage of time
A man praying at a grave in Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery.

Taoist priests, heritage lovers and documentary-makers gathered at the Bukit Brown Cemetery nearly two weeks ago on the eve of the Hungry Ghost Month, as rituals were performed for "residents" facing exhumation.

In contrast, hardly anyone goes to Choa Chu Kang Cemetery during the seventh lunar month, believed by the Chinese to be when ghosts are released from Hell.

When The Straits Times visited on Tuesday night, only a few migrant workers from nearby dormitories were spotted around the cemetery. And even the few living souls confessed to being nervous.

While it is less celebrated than Bukit Brown, which has to give way partially to a new road, the 318ha site, a third the size of Tampines housing estate, is an oasis of peace. The area in the remote north-west looks unlikely to be disturbed for some time.

"The cemetery is one of the rare places in Singapore that remain largely the same," said Mr Abdullah Awang, 81, superintendent at Masjid Pusara Aman, who has overseen the mosque's operations and conducted burial rites for the past 42 years.

But like the rest of Singapore, it is becoming more of a squeeze. "The tombstones are getting nearer to each other - that is the only change," he said.

The government-run cemetery is the only "live" burial ground that still accepts new arrivals, although historical graveyards are dotted across the island.

But the "tenants" cannot stay too long. Due to land scarcity, the National Environment Agency introduced the New Burial Policy in 1998, which limited the lease period of graves to 15 years.

At first glance, the burial site looks like a scene out of The Lord Of The Rings. The tombstones, marked by humps, resemble a hobbit's home. The area is divided into four major parts housing Chinese, Christian, Hindu and Muslim cemeteries, with two small sites for Jews and Parsis.

The snaking paths at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery are well-swept and maintained. Blood-red seeds from Angsana trees add a touch of pathos - they are xiang si dou, or seeds of longing, in Chinese.

In the past, graves were dug only when someone had died, said Mr Johnny Tan, 67, who has been making tombstones since 1970.

"It's like BTO-ing for Housing Board flats," he added, referring to the Build-To-Order scheme, where public homes are built only when there is sufficient demand.

But these days, the graves are precast to save time.

Mr Tan's family used to run two provision shops along Jalan Bahar Road before he decided to make the best out of living near Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. "I had a customer who knew how to make tombstones so I decided to ask him to teach me," he said.

His son Darren, 37, who grew up in the kampung opposite the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery office, remembers running around the burial grounds with his three siblings, neighbours and friends when he was young.

The younger Mr Tan said: "At about five years old, no one knows what it means to be scared." As he grew older and became more aware of the seriousness of rites and rituals, he stopped playing on the graves out of respect for the dead.

Besides tomb-makers and groundskeepers, other living souls near the cemetery are usually punters or migrant workers living nearby. Most workers prefer to keep away though, like Mr Asif Amin, 32, from Bangladesh, who said he was afraid to go into the cemeteries at night.

As for punters, they often turn up on Saturday nights, bearing offerings of fruit and joss sticks for the "wandering spirits" in the hopes of making a quick windfall, said Mr Johnny Tan.

While Choa Chu Kang Cemetery is hardly on people's minds except during Qing Ming, the festival of remembrance in April, the quiet place of stasis has become a kind of haunt for the Tan family.

Mr Darren Tan, for instance, still visits the area regularly as he is helping his dad with the business.

The elder Mr Tan drops by the cemetery for a walk every morning before he heads to work in Bukit Batok. He said: "This cemetery was where I started my business. There will always be a special place in my heart for it."


This article was published on Aug 8 in The Straits Times.

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