Last Hakka cemetery may have to make way

Clan members have suggested remaking site near Holland V

Published on Dec 21, 2012

By Janice Tai And Melody Zaccheus

RIGHT in the middle of a housing estate, just a stone's throw away from the hip and bustling Holland Village, lies a cemetery with nearly 3,000 graves.

The Yin Foh Kuan cemetery's location on Holland Close, nestled on prime land in a residential area, bears testimony to how it once escaped the onslaught of development.

The land, belonging to the Hakka association Ying Fo Fui Kun, was once a sprawling 40ha.

When the state began acquiring Chinese clan burial grounds for development in the 1960s, the clan managed to wrestle a 1.8ha patch - about the size of two and a half football fields - to rebury the exhumed graves.

But the perennial tussle for land in this land-scarce country means the cemetery may not be so lucky this time.

Plans to build a multi-storey building at the site have been suggested and the fate of the last Hakka cemetery in Singapore now remains uncertain.

Association members told The Straits Times that while some of them wish to preserve the cemetery as a heritage site, others have suggested erecting a kindergarten or clinic in its place.

The association's assistant secretary Loh Kwan Ling said: "There are no specific plans now, but some members had ideas of clearing out the cemetery by rehousing the urns in a columbarium and developing the land for an additional source of income."

Mr Loh, 82, is the supervisor of the Holland Close compound which, besides the cemetery housing exhumed graves, comprises a 125-year-old ancestral temple, a memorial hall for the Hakka clan and a stand-alone columbarium where the urns are stored.

He explained that the income generated could go towards ongoing upgrading efforts and maintenance of whatever is left of the compound.

"But of course we also have to take into account the historical heritage of the cemetery," said Mr Loh, adding that any development efforts would likely be a long drawn-out process.

Pressing development and economic imperatives may herald the cemetery's disappearance sooner rather than later. The city is fast encroaching on the tranquillity of the land. A nondescript chain-link fence marks the thin line between the living and the dead.

The Straits Times visited the cemetery last Saturday and came across Mr Loh Guan Siong, 63, who was there with his extended family.

Mr Loh Guan Siong, who used to accompany his father to visit his grandparents' graves in the 1960s, recalled: "It used to be a tall hill, about four storeys high. I was just 10 years old then and we had to climb all the way up to get to the graves."

The hilly land was later flattened out when the Government acquired it.

Though one white mosaic-clad tombstone could be easily confused with another in the uniform grid of about 65 rows, Mr Loh Guan Siong made a beeline for his grandfather's grave. "I have been here so many times, I know where it is. The neat rows remind me of terracotta warriors," he said. According to him, the cemetery was designed by the Housing Board.

"We are proud that there's a dedicated plot for our ancestors and have a lot of respect for the committee then who fought for it in the past and for the association which has been around since Raffles landed in Singapore," he said.

Mr Loh Guan Siong's family group of about 10 included his nephews Andy, 17, and Tommy Loh, 18.

"We have been coming here during important festivals since we were young and though we are not very sure of all the rites, we do offer joss sticks as a sign of respect to our ancestors," said Andy.

There are four important festivals in the annual Chinese calendar - the Hungry Ghost Festival, Qing Ming Festival and the Spring and Autumn festivals.

Said Mr Loh Kwan Ling: "Two to three hundred people come down during the Hungry Ghost Festival and we stay open till late at night."

However, few drop by on regular days though the clan has some 2,000 members.

The caretaker of the grounds, Mr Teo Ee Koon, affectionately known as Ah Koon to part-time workers on the grounds, has been around for decades.

He grew up on the cemetery's grounds, as his father had been its caretaker since the 1980s. When his father died in 2007, Ah Koon took over. He lives there alone with a dog, which comes in handy whenever there are intruders.

When asked if he has had any spooky encounters over the last 30 years, the 58-year-old grinned and said in Hokkien: "I don't walk around at night and keep to my room. When the dog barks, you know there may be something."

But it is hard to ignore the intrusions of the outside world, corporeal or not.

A footpath runs through the cemetery and residents use it as a short cut to the nearby Commonwealth MRT station and New Town Primary School. "I cut through the cemetery to go to work and to the market. I don't find it scary and sometimes walk past it late at night at 10pm too," said Madam Ling Mei Lan, 71, a part-time domestic helper who has been living at one of the blocks next to the cemetery for the past 40 years.

Whenever she cooks her meals or hangs out the laundry, she sees the tombstones from her kitchen.

Most residents say they have got used to death being at their doorstep.

Said cashier Alice Teng, 46: "We look out of our window often as it's quite scenic, there's wind and an unblocked view, unlike other more built-up estates."

But some other residents are uncomfortable with its proximity. "I used to be afraid that I would trip or step onto the offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival," said housewife Asmah Alwi, 66.

Mr Loh Kwan Ling acknowledged that the association had received complaints from residents in the past.

"The town council informed us of complaints about four years ago of crows swooping in for food offerings that were left behind after Qing Ming. But since then, we have made sure that the food is cleared by the end of the day," he said.

As Singapore progresses and becomes more crowded, the spaces where cemeteries are located near homes are dwindling. The few remaining such places are scattered at locations such as Kampong Bahru Road, Siglap and Bedok South.

Just 50 years ago, it was not uncommon to have cemeteries a short walk away from kampungs.

"That is what I used to see but they are no longer around in Singapore's urban landscape. I hope that this cemetery will remain for the younger generations," said Mr Loh Guan Siong.

Mr Charles Goh from Asia Paranormal Investigators, which conducts regular cemetery tours for the public, said: "Even if it does not clear out now, the Government will most likely take back the land after its 99 years are up. It is a pity because this cemetery has a long history and heritage."

[email protected]

[email protected]