After two years of conceptualisation, and supported by the National Heritage Board, the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery was officially opened in June 2018, showcasing the history of Peck San Theng Cemetery, and its transformation into the vibrant Bishan New Town.
Early Cantonese Cemeteries
The early Cantonese and Hakka communities in Singapore had their roots traced back to the early 19th century, when they arrived in batches from China’s seven prefectures – Guangzhou, Huizhou, Zhaoqing, Jiaying, Fengshun, Yongding and Dapu.
In 1824, the Cantonese and Hakkas built the Fuk Tai Chi Temple, a place of worship that also served as the headquarters of the two communities. Over the years, their populations grew, leading to higher demands for burial grounds. Hence, between 1820s and 1870s, three Chinese cemeteries were established. They were the Cheng San Teng (青山亭) Cemetery, Loke Yah Teng (绿野亭) Cemetery and Pek San Theng (碧山亭) Cemetery. The three cemeteries were located at present-day Maxwell Road, Bukit Ho Swee and Thomson Road areas respectively.
After the Second World War, until the 1970s, Peck San Theng Cemetery had covered a large 324-acre (1.31km2) area, almost equivalent to 180 football fields and two-thirds of present-day Bishan New Town. The cemetery was also home to Kampong San Teng, which was largely made up of Chinese families as well as a small number of Indian and Malay residents. The village itself was self-sufficient; there were provision shops, a soy sauce factory, clinic, school, wayang stage and a large coffee shop named Peck San Tea Pavilion.
Also known as Peck San Teahouse, the coffee shop was housed in a single-storey building with distinctive tapered roof that modelled after the teahouses in rural China. It mainly served as both an eating and gathering place for the residents of Kampong San Teng.
Peck San Tea Pavilion was particularly bustling during the annual Qing Ming Festival, when the members of the extended families came together for drinks and meals before their tombsweeping activities at the cemetery. One of the popular dishes the coffee shop was selling were their steaming hot dim sum.
Kampong San Teng
The Kampong San Teng residents lived scatteredly beside the Peck San Theng Cemetery, which was demarcated by 12 pavilions. The Cantonese families stayed around Pavilion 1 to 3, while the Hokkiens and Teochews’ homes were located between Pavilion 4 and 7. At Pavilion 8 was another small number of Hokkien families. Most of the villagers’ homes were attap houses; the better off families lived in wooden ones with zinc roofs.
The kampong residents mostly worked as farmers at the small plots of lands beside their homes. Others reared and sold livestock such as chicken, ducks and pigs at the nearby markets. A small number of skilled craftsmen also resided at Kampong San Teng, engaged in specialised jobs such as tomb inscription for the cemetery.
In the sixties and seventies, many young men from Kampong San Teng preferred to venture out of their village, travelling further to work at the electronic factories, Sembawang shipyard and Sembawang Naval Base.
For much of its history, Kampong San Teng had inadequate amenities and a lack of proper sanitation. Accessibility was also an issue for those residents living at the inner parts of the kampong, a long walking distance away from the village’s entrance. Overall, life was difficult but generally safe and simple. By the early seventies, Kampong San Teng reached its population peak of about 1,000 residents.
Chinese Public School
Peck Shan Ting School was established in 1936 by the Kwong Wai Siew Federation to provide free education for the children of Kampong San Teng and the nearby villages. Lee Min, one of the school’s founders, wanted the poor families’ kids to have access to education so that they could have better prospects in life.
The students of Peck Shan Ting School were taught their subjects in Chinese. In 1956, the school built a new single-storey building with six classrooms to accommodate morning and afternoon classes. A year later, Peck Shan Ting School was incorporated into the national education system, becoming a government-aided school like most other Chinese public schools in Singapore.
The school premises had its own basketball court and running track. Beside studies, the students engaged in many sports and games. Hence, the school’s Sports Day was an important annual event.
Many former students would fondly remember their carefree schooldays; each day was made up of games such as five stones, fighting spiders, catching games at the small hills and pavilions, or flying layangs (kites) at the cemetery areas.
Peck Shan Ting School had three long-serving principals in its 45 years of history. The last principal was Kwok Ming, who witnessed the closure of the school in 1981 due to the resettlement of the kampong residents resulting in a dwindling number of students.
There were 13 burial hills at Peck San Theng Cemetery. The burial hills were named after “xin jia po guang hui zhao bi shan ting yu lan sheng hui” (新加坡广惠肇碧山亭盂兰胜会), which referred to the Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Ullambana Festival. There were 13 characters in the Chinese name; hence, each burial hill was named after the characters in sequence.
The 12 symbolic pavilions were built at the open areas between the burial hills, serving as stopovers or resting points for the visitors. The pavilions were named one to ten, with the additional New Pavilion 5 and New Pavilion 7. Constructed in different periods, the pavilions had distinctive architectural styles. The older ones were simple shed-like structures, whereas the newer ones, such as New Pavilion 5, had elaborated hexagonal roof.
Pavilion 10 and New Pavilion 7 were built in 1957. Among the 12 pavilions, two were named after distinguished figures – New Pavilion 5 was also known as Wong Fook Hill Pavilion (named after Wong Ah Fook), while Pavilion 9, or Loh Poh Lum Pavilion, was named after Loh Poh Lum.
Pavilion 4, previously located beside the present-day Bishan Stadium, was the last surviving structure of the former cemetery. By the eighties, it was in a dilapidated state. Moreover, numerous haunted tales regarding the pavilion ran rife, spooking the new town’s residents who eventually requested the pavilion to be demolished.
Exhumation of Cemetery
As for the cemetery itself, its 100 years of serenity and tranquility finally came to end with the redevelopment plans arriving at its doorstep. The lands occupied by the cemetery were included in the government’s proposed town plans for Toa Payoh and Bishan. By 1973, the government had stopped all new burials at Peck San Theng. The cemetery was officially acquired in 1979, with a compensation of $4.9 million to Kwong Wai Siew. The exhumation of Peck San Theng Cemetery kicked off three years later, in 1982.
Kwong Wai Siew tried to initiate negotiations with the government for the preservation of its temple and the establishment of new crematorium and funeral parlour. After several rounds of negotiations, the government eventually granted Kwong Wai Siew a 3-hectare land with a 99-year lease for the construction of a new columbarium. It could also proceed to preserve its ancestral temple. The new modern-looking columbarium was officially opened during the Qing Ming Festival in 1986.
The establishment of Peck San Theng Cemetery could not have succeeded without the efforts of numerous influential Chinese community leaders, such as Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay (胡亚基), Boey Nam Sooi (梅南瑞), Ng Sing Phang (吴胜鹏), Yow Ngan Pan (邱彦宾) and Boey Ah Sam (梅湛轩). Together, they were involved in the donations, fund-raising, land purchasing, planning, construction and development of Peck San Theng.
A handful of notable persons were buried at Peck San Theng Cemetery, including Wong Ah Fook (黄亚福) and Cao Ya Zhi (曹亚志). Wong Ah Fook (1837-1918) was a famous contractor in the late 19th century, involving in Singapore and Johor’s building projects such as the Victoria Memorial Hall and Istana Besar. Jalan Wong Ah Fook, a street in Johor, was named after him.
As the founding member of Kwong Wai Siew federation, Wong Ah Fook was buried at Peck San Theng Cemetery after his death in 1918. His tomb, located near Pavilion 5, was the grandest of all.
Cao Ya Zhi (1782-1830), on the other hand, had a disputed existence. It was said that he was a Chinese carpenter working on Sir Stamford Raffles’ ship that arrived at Singapore in 1819. Raffles assigned him to led a reconnaissance team to find out about the hostility of the natives and whether the island had been occupied by the Dutch. Cao Ya Zhi successfully completed his mission and raised the Union Jack on the top of Fort Canning Hill, signalling to Raffles’ ship to make its official landing on Singapore.
Cao Ya Zhi settled permanently in Singapore and founded the Ning Yeung Wui Kuan (Ningyang Benevolent Association), which later collaborated with other clans to form Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng. He died in 1830 at an age of 48, and was buried at one of the early Cantonese cemeteries before his grave was shifted to Peck San Theng.
Another legendary tale at Peck San Theng was the seven Cantonese heroes who sacrificed their lives protecting the cemetery and defending the interests of the local Cantonese community. Previously buried at a common grace, their urns are now placed at the columbarium’s pavilion for visitors to pay their respects.
Second World War
Not known to many, Peck San Theng Cemetery was one of the sites where intense fighting took place during the Second World War. After invading Singapore from Peninsula Malaya, three divisions from the Japanese’s 25th Army were rapidly advancing from three sides – Jurong, Bukit Timah and Thomson – to capture the city area.
On 13 February 1942, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Peck San Theng’s “Hill 90” (present-day Raffles Institution), where it was defended by the British’s 2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment, 5th Royal Norfolk Regiment and 5th Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. Both sides suffered considerable casualties and damages, but the British would eventually surrendered two days later.
After the brief intense battle, the Japanese withdrew and did not return to the cemetery, possibly due to their reluctance to disturb the dead. As a result, Peck San Theng became a refuge place, not only for the Cantonese, but also for the nearby Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka communities who would hide among the tombs to evade the Japanese brutalities. However, it was not entirely safe. There was an occasion when the Japanese aircrafts flew and dropped their bombs on Kampong San Teng, killing dozens of lives.
A New Town
The development of Bishan New Town began after 1983, with the construction of new Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats at Shunfu, its first neighbourhood. A temporary bus terminal with several bus services was established; it was later replaced by the new $5.5-million bus interchange in 1989. Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system included Bishan in the first stage of the North-South Line. The Bishan MRT Station, opened in 1987, was initially called San Teng MRT Station.
Junction 8, the popular shopping mall that was opened in 1994 beside the MRT station, had its name inspired after N8, Bishan MRT Station’s original code. Bishan MRT Station’s code was changed to NS17 in 2001.
During its early development, there were worries that the new Bishan town would not be popular as it was built over a former cemetery, but the concerns proved to be unfounded as Bishan quickly became one of Singapore’s up and coming new residential estates. It remains popular today, after 30 years. The former old cemetery has successfully transformed into a vibrant new town.
The Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery is opened between 930am and 4pm daily, and from 930am to 1pm on public holidays. Admission is free.
Published: 23 December 2018