Old Holland Road and The Hakka Clan

It is Qing Ming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day) again. I make my annual trip to pay respects at Fung Yun Thai Association Columbarium near Old Holland Road, where my grandparents’ funeral urns are stored. Also commonly known as Hakka Clan (客人邑), this is where the early Chinese Hakka immigrants had settled and lived for generations.

Old Holland Road

There are many “old” roads in Singapore, such as Old Yio Chu Kang Road, Old Upper Thomson Road and Old Tampines Road. In most cases, these roads were renamed after their roles and importance diminished over time and were replaced by the newer arterial roads of the same names.

In the sixties, a long stretch of the original Holland Road wound its way through a massive Chinese Hakka graveyard called Fung Yun Thai Cemetery (丰永大坟山), serving as a link between 6½ Milestone Bukit Timah Road and its main arterial portion at the junction with Ulu Pandan Road.

old holland road

When the cemetery was exhumed in the early eighties, part of Holland Road (see map below) was also demolished. A new road by the name of Holland Road North was constructed in the late nineties as an accessible route to planned private condominiums in the vicinity. It was supposed to be linked up with Holland Road South and Holland Road West, but the constructions were never completed.

Holland Road North was later renamed as Old Holland Road, as a continuation of the road that started off Bukit Timah Road. The incomplete Holland Road South and West, on the other hand, became rocky paths, and are out of bounds to motor vehicles today.

map of old holland road

The newer Holland Plain and Holland Link, as their names suggest, refer to the grass plain that has formerly the exhumed cemetery, and the link that joins Old Holland Road to the original Holland Road. The rocky paths are now a favourite route for joggers and dog owners, while many enthusiasts can be seen flying their kite and remote-controlled aircraft at the vast grass plain.

junction of holland plain and holland link

Shocking Crime

Durian plantations were once abundant off Old Holland Road; there were several cases of thefts of durians reported on the newspapers in the eighties. A horrific crime, however, shocked Singapore on 22 May 1985 when 18-year-old Catholic Junior College student Winnifred Teo Suan Lie (张碹丽) went missing while jogging near the exhumed cemetery. Her body was discovered naked and lying in the bushes along Old Holland Road the next morning, with six fatal slashes on her neck. The murderer was never caught.

fung yun thai association columbarium

Changing Landscape

The Hakka columbarium, completed in 1991 and tucked at the corner of Holland Plain and Holland Link, off Old Holland Road, has enjoyed undisturbed peace and serenity for the past two decades. In the last three years, however, the columbarium started to experience changes in its surroundings. Like other parts of Singapore affected by the construction frenzy, private development are now slowly engulfing the former graveyard that has been vacated and forgotten over time.

fung yun thai association columbarium 2010-1

Almost a forgotten place in Singapore, the Fung Yung Thai Association Columbarium receive few visitors in any days other than Qing Ming or other special occasions. Before 2011, its main ancestral hall was accompanied by a large garden, with a main tomb that probably buried a significant or wealthy Hakka figure of the past. Few would have expected these to vanish within two years.

fung yun thai association columbarium 2010-3

fung yun thai association columbarium 2010-4

fung yun thai association columbarium 2010-2

By April 2013, the latest private property project in the highly sought-after District 10 is almost ready. Named Eleven @Holland, the brand new strata-titled semi-detached houses are located such a short distance away that a tall circling wall has to be built around the columbarium, probably to prevent the new residents from facing its ghastly neighbours. The vanished garden and main tomb of the columbarium had become part of the premises of the new housing project.

fung yun thai association columbarium3

fung yun thai association columbarium 2010-6

An Old Hakka Association

The history of Fung Yun Thai Association (丰永大公会) dated back to the 19th century, when the early Hakka immigrants from the three counties of China (Fung Shoon 丰顺, Yun Teng 永定 and Tai Po 大埔), arrived at Singapore.

By the late 19th century, there were about 6,000 Hakkas settled at the areas around present-day Commonwealth and Buona Vista, a relatively small number compared to the three major Chinese dialect groups in Singapore. According to a population census conducted by the Straits Settlements government in 1881, the strength of the Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese groups ranged between 15,000 and 25,000 each.

yu shan teng cemetery temple 1980s

In 1888, for the price of 300 silver dollars plus an annual tax of 50 cents, the Hakkas purchased parcels of land off Holland Road from the Straits Settlements government for their ancestral temple (Sanyi Ci 三邑祠) and cemetery (Fung Yun Thai Cemetery 丰永大坟山, also known as Yu Shan Teng 毓山亭), with Fun Yun Thai Kongsi (丰永大公司) established to manage the properties.

The kongsi was re-registered as an association in 1906 in order to run the temple, cemetery and small surrounding clusters of Hakka villages effectively. In the fifties, the ancestral temple also functioned as Nam Tong School (南同小学) to provide elementary education for the Hakka children who lost their opportunities to study during the Japanese Occupation.

fung yun thai association columbarium 2010-5

fung yun thai association columbarium2

Acquisition of Cemetery

This lasted until 1977, when the entire cemetery hill was acquired by the Singapore government. Nam Tong School was discontinued, while the Hakka villagers were resettled elsewhere. A compensation of $1 million and a small 6.38 hectares of land, including the site of the temple, was reserved for Fung Yun Thai Association. Exhumation was then carried out four years later. In 1991, a columbarium was constructed within the designated area to house the exhumed ashes.

Together with another Hakka cemetery Ying Fo Fui Kuan, Fung Yun Thai Cemetery was one of two earliest burial grounds in Singapore to be acquired by the government for redevelopment purposes. It was rumoured that Lee Bok Boon, the great-grandfather of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was previously buried here, and the move was to demonstrate to other Chinese dialect clans that, should their cemetery hills be also acquired for redevelopment, they would have no reasons to object.

canal near old holland road

A large canal called Bukit Timah Diversion Canal, constructed in the early seventies, makes its way behind the columbarium. Half a century ago, this was a long stream, with farms and fish-rearing ponds on its either sides. Today, the long canal runs through the vicinity between the Bukit Timah Road Canal and Sungei Ulu Pandan, serving as a reminder of the olden days.

After being left vacated for more than three decades, the grass plain and greenery of Old Holland Road may soon be giving way for more private residential development.

Published: 09 April 2013

Updated: 13 April 2013

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23 Responses to Old Holland Road and The Hakka Clan

  1. karen says:

    Cool. Went there recently for qing ming too. Thanks for the information! :)

  2. Diana says:

    Thank you for the very interesting article.

  3. Andy Ho says:

    Thank you for the article.. I was looking at it on google map a while ago wondering what was on those open spaces previously…

  4. By the way, Fung Yun Thai Association has nothing to do with Thailand.
    The “Thai” in its name refers to Tai Po 大埔, where my Hakka ancestors came from. It should be “Tai” instead of “Thai”, not sure why there’s a H added :)

  5. ali ogoi says:

    Cool place …. even now. I remember riding thru the `old’ Holland Rd in the 80’s. It was one of the best roads in Singapore.

  6. yh says:

    Thanks for the pictures, bring back memories of my early years. We used to stay in villages just next to the cemetery.

    I remember on kite fighting along th e canal of the last picture ….. 40+ years ago

  7. Discovered a small hidden track off Holland Road (see map below). It’s Lorong Terigu, which runs along the former KTM railway tracks and ends at the other stretch of the big Bukit Timah Diversion Canal.




    According to http://pictures.nl.sg/, there used to have small villages with zinc-roofed houses at Lorong Terigu, but were probably abandoned by the early nineties.



  8. Janet says:

    Thank you for the article on Old Holland Road and for remembering Winnifred Teo Suan Lie. She and I were pen pals in the 1980’s.

    • Khairul Nizam says:

      Rest in Peace Winnifred…from a college junior, a decade on….

      I feel your pain Janet…

      • toddrone says:

        I was Winnifred’s neighbour in Maryland Drive. I was still in P6 and ride bike with her brother Gerald. in 1985, I came home from school and passed by their house surrounded with police cars, and didn’t realize till I saw it on SBC 5 news. I was shocked and didn’t dare to ride Old Holland Road again.

    • Sorry to hear that Janet…
      It’s really grave injustice that the murderers got away scot free

  9. 86123maxxi says:

    Old Holland Road. Go there on a saturday and you will see lots of RC enthusiasts flying their expensive helis and planes. If you are lucky you might see a crash or two!

  10. Holland Road 1964


    (Photo Credit: Facebook Group “On a little street in Singapore”)

  11. Eric Lim says:

    When I was a kid in the 1960s Qing Ming was one of the few family gatherings, My grandfather and uncle were buried there. I remember when we arrived at the grave site my late grand mother would shout for the caretaker in Hakka, a lady called “Wan Soe”, losely translated is sister in law “Wan”. Wan Soe will appear from the tall lallang, to clear the over growth at the graves and collect her annual caretaking fee at the same time.

  12. I used to work for an engineering company at 881A, Bt Timah Road and I ride my RX 100 on Holland Road. One of my colleague (Linda) lived in the kampong near the cemetery. I think Lien Yin Chow (the OUB boss) also stayed somewhere around Ewart Park? It was a big house on a hill.

  13. Philip Wu says:

    My parents are Tai Po 大埔Hakka. They lived in Singapore for over 60 years. My parents both die in Australia and both of them are now rested in Fung Yuan Tai columbarium. I am glad to read this article. I was told about the news that in 1997 Singapore government acquired the land. I believe the purpose of the acquisition was to use for government road redevelopment. The compensation was of $1 million and a small 6.38 hectares of land. I do not know what was the actual size of land acquired by the government. After the acquisition, I was told that the land was not wholly be used as the original propose of road redevelopment. From this article, the land is now subdivided for residential development presumably sold by the government. Under Singapore Law, if the land acquired by the government for certain purpose and subsequently the government do not need the entire land anymore, should the government return the rest of the land to the previous owner? The land now is surely worth more than $1 million.
    Philip Wu

  14. Philip Wu says:

    Any Hakka lawyer out there can comment on the Law?
    Philip Wu

  15. Loved your post! great pictures from the past!

  16. The Sanyi Ci in 1978… It was in a bad shape until its upgrading in the early nineties






    (Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore)

  17. Meanwhile, in our neighbouring country….

    Hakka village to be built in Penang
    It will mark Chinese dialect community’s arrival in Malaysia in the early 18th century

    The Straits Times
    Published on Oct 20, 2013

    A mosque that looks like a Chinese temple in Ipoh, Perak, and a Moroccan-style garden in Putrajaya are some of the foreign-flavoured landmarks that Malaysians are proud of. Now the Federation of Hakka Associations of Malaysia wants to up the ante by building an entire Hakka village in Balik Pulau, in the south-west of Penang island.

    The landmark will be a massive, circular building modelled on one in the famous Tulou village in Fujian province, China. It will be the first to be built outside China.

    Traditionally a large communal residence for Hakkas, the tulou, which means “building made of earth” in Mandarin, is synonymous with the community’s culture.

    Some of the structures in China have been around for 700 years, built as a dwelling place for a group of people who left their homeland in northern China to settle in southern China. These people are known as Hakkas, which mean “family of guests” in Mandarin.

    That is why the association wants to build something similar here, said Dr Cheah See Kian, deputy president of the Hakka federation.

    “We want to commemorate the Hakkas’ arrival in Malaysia since the 18th century,” he told The Sunday Times in a phone interview recently.

    Ever since a group from Taiwan identified Balik Pulau as the earliest Hakka settlement in Malaysia, he said, “it has been our dream to build a tulou”.

    Penang may be well known for its Hokkien community, but Balik Pulau, which means “back of the island” in colloquial Malay, saw the first Hakkas arrive in the early 18th century, before the British colonial era. Later, more Chinese Hakkas were brought in by the British to work, mainly in tin mines scattered across Malaya. Some Hakka communities also live in Sabah and Sarawak and many still speak the dialect today.

    Dr Cheah, who is the chief planner of the Hakka village, said an investor has donated an 8ha piece of land to house the tulou in this idyllic part of Penang, which is well known for its durian plantations. Another group of anonymous businessmen from Kuala Lumpur is funding the construction, estimated to cost RM20 million (S$7.8 million). The tulou, which will be ready in three years, will include a hotel, restaurant and a museum showing the history of Balik Pulau and the Hakkas in Malaysia.

    Hakkas make up about 20 per cent of the Chinese Malaysian population of seven million. They are one of the largest Chinese dialect groups in the country. Across generations, the Hakka community has branched into business, and at one point in time, was known for opening Chinese medicine halls. Some found their fortune in tin mining.

    “As most Hakkas were tin mine workers, they were among the first to live in and develop tin mining towns across the country, and some of these towns have now become Malaysia’s most prominent cities,” Dr Voon Phin Keong, director of the Institute of Malaysia and Regional Studies at New Era College in Kajang, Selangor, said.

    Perhaps the most famous Hakka is Yap Ah Loy, a tin mining tycoon who transformed Kuala Lumpur from a village into a commercial and mining centre in the 1800s. That entrepreneurial spirit that the Chinese Hakkas are known for is still visible today.

    Ms Maggie Fong, 45, originally from Johor, runs a Hakka-themed homestay in Balik Pulau, where guests sleep in traditional wooden houses and eat Hakka dishes. Since its opening in December last year, Ms Fong said, she has had about 1,000 visitors every month to her restaurant and homestay.

    “I want the world to know of Balik Pulau’s history,” she said. “After all, the Hakkas have historically been treated well as guests and so it is in our blood to be hospitable to others as well.”

  18. Rick says:

    Thank you very much for this article. I do not remember much of the visits to my grandfather’s tomb during Qing Ming. My memory was mostly at the columbarium.

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