In the early 20th century, there was a dark small road, off Yio Chu Kang Road 6th milestone, that led to an old cemetery with a terrifying name – Phuah Pak Tiong (剖腹塚), which in Hokkien, means “a cemetery for those whose stomach have been cut open.”
It actually referred to the cemetery used by Tan Tock Seng Hospital before the Second World War, where the bodies, usually the poor and those who died of tuberculosis (TB), of postmortem cases were transferred from Moulmein Road for burial. Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong was the name of that road to the cemetery.
At the junction of Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong and Yio Chu Kang Road existed several families living in attap houses. A short distance away was Kampong Chia Keng, a large Teochew village that existed until the eighties. When the population living at Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong grew over time, the residents came to resent the name. They thought it was inauspicious and sound repugnant to outsiders. In 1951, after appeals by the villagers, the Singapore Rural Board decided to rename Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong as Plantation Avenue.
Plantation Avenue might sound presentable, but to many villagers, who largely spoke in the Hokkien dialect, the new English name was confusing and difficult. In the end, they still referred to Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong as their home address. Phuah Pak Tiong cemetery, meanwhile, was no longer used by Tan Tock Seng Hospital by the fifties, but continued to exist as a private Chinese burial ground.
Most kampong houses in Singapore in the fifties and sixties were attap huts. This made them vulnerable to fire hazards, and breakouts of fires and destroyed houses were common. Beside the occasional fire tragedies, crimes such as theft, robbery and gangsterism were also rampant at Plantation Avenue. In 1959, the police raided and busted a gangster hideout and its “armoury” at Plantation Avenue, confiscating a total of 16 parangs, seven spears, five motorcycle chains, 15 acid-filled bulbs and a large number of assorted iron rods.
In 1960, a four-men armed gang robbed a businessman at Chye Seng Tannery. The robbers drove off his lorry and dumped it at Plantation Avenue. 22 cases of crocodile skins, worth a hefty $110,000, were stolen from the lorry.
But the biggest crime news was perhaps the kidnapping and brutal murder of 49-year-old “Biscuit King” Lee Gee Chong (1911-1960), then chairman of Thye Hong Biscuit and Confectionery Factory, in April 1960. He was abducted by three men near his home at Garlick Avenue, and was brutally murdered with severe head injuries. His body was later found wrapped in a blanket and dumped at the Phuah Pak Tiong cemetery.
By the late sixties, the community at the 6th milestone of Yio Chu Kang Road was progressing well. There were crowded wet markets at Chia Keng and Lim Tua Tow Road. Several Chinese schools, such as Chong Hwa and Sing Hua, were established. At least two community centres were built, along Plantation Avenue and Jalan Teck Kee, to serve the growing population. Plantation Avenue itself had several shops, eateries and a sago factory named Bian Seng. In 1973, Plantation Avenue officially met Singapore’s public street standard after the Public Works Department levelled and metalled it, and added proper drainage and lighting to the road.
The forgotten cemetery of Phuah Pak Tiong was likely to be exhumed in the late seventies, giving way to new Serangoon’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats built between 1984 and 1985. The kampongs at Plantation Avenue and Chia Keng were also demolished; private houses began to sprung up at Plantation Avenue. In 1984, a landed property at Plantation Avenue would cost some $320,000. For comparison, similar houses at the same period cost between $430,000 (Serangoon Gardens) and $650,000 (Siglap).
Today, not many people are aware that an old cemetery with a gruesome name once existed here.
Read more about the old Chinese cemeteries in Singapore.
Published: 20 March 2016
Updated: 07 April 2019