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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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