The Chinese Tomb Sweeping Festival, or Qing Ming, is here once again. It is a period when tens of thousands of local Chinese make their way to the major cemeteries and columbaria to pay their respects to the deceased.
Today, land-scarce Singapore still has several plots of cemeteries remaining. But comparing to four or five decades ago, the older Singapore was a land of cemeteries, where large and small burial grounds were scattered all over the island. By 1978, there were still as many as 213 cemeteries in Singapore, occupying 3.7% of Singapore’s land size.
The early Chinese were segregated into major dialect groups with their own clan associations, ancestral temples and burial grounds. Those burial grounds were mostly named san/suah (山), teng/ting (亭) and tiong (塚), referring to the burial hills, pavilions and tombs respectively, features that were typically found in the old Chinese cemeteries.
For the Teochew community, they were represented by Ngee Ann Kongsi, established in 1845 to look after the needs of early Teochew immigrants, including their religious beliefs, ancestral worships and funeral rites. The kongsi (company in Teochew) later became the largest owner of Teochew burial grounds in Singapore, owning some 363 acres of burial lands by 1933.
The first cemetery set up by Ngee Ann Kongsi was Tai Suah Ting (泰山亭). In 1845, the kongsi bought a large piece of land, bordering present-day Orchard Road, Patterson Road and Grange Road, from the East India Company. Tai Suah Ting lasted more than a century, until 1957 when it was cleared for commercial and luxury residential development. The site was later leased to the Orchard Theatre, Mandarin Hotel and Wisma Indonesia. A 10-storey Ngee Ann Building was also built at the former site of the cemetery.
Ngee Ann Kongsi, throughout the rest of the 19th century, purchased many plots of lands to be used as burial grounds. The six main ones were:
- Kwong Yik Suah (广义山) at Serangoon Road 5 milestone
- Kwong Siu Suah (广寿山) at Bukit Timah Road 7½ milestone (present site of Ngee Ann Polytechnic)
- Kwong Hou Suah (广孝山) at Woodlands Road 12 milestone (near present site of Gali Batu Depot)
- Kwong Teck Suah (广德山) at Sembawang Road 12 milestone
- Kwong Ying Suah (广仁山) at Upper Changi Road, near former Mata Ikan Village
- Kwong Eng Suah (广恩山) at Thomson Road, near Tan Tock Seng Hospital
Many of the Teochew cemeteries gave way to urban redevelopment after the Second World War. Kwong Eng Suah was exhumed in 1956, while Kwong Hou Suah was the last to go in 2009. Another cemetery Kwong Teck Suah, established in 1909, was closed in 1977. Most of the remains in the cemetery were exhumed and, along with the remains from other Teochew cemeteries, relocated to the 6-acre Yishun Memorial Park along Yishun Ring Road.
At the memorial park are two obelisks, erected in 1953 and 1962, to commemorate the overseas Teochew pioneers and the early Teochew migrants who arrived in Singapore in the 19th century and early 20th century. Yishun Memorial Park was refurbished in 1986, and is one of the places in Singapore where Qing Ming rituals and prayers are held annually.
In addition to the Yishun Memorial Park, Ngee Ann Kongsi also built the Teochew Funeral Parlour in 1989. Other places for the Teochew’s ancestral worships and performance of gong teck (rituals) would be the temples and siang tng (charitable halls), which also act as columbaria for housing of urns and ancestral tablets. One of the better known siang tng in Singapore is the Toa Payoh Seu Teck Sean Tong Temple, founded at Boon Teck Road in 1942 and shifted to Toa Payoh in 1958.
Other Teochew cemeteries elsewhere in Singapore included the Wah Suah Teng (华山亭). It had two burial grounds at Upper Changi Road 10 milestone and Upper East Coast Road 8½ milestone. Wah Suah Teng was established in the late fifties, together with the Hokkien Hock Suah Teng (福山亭), to serve the Teochew and Hokkien residents living at the Somapah Changi area.
The plot of Wah Suah Teng cemetery at Upper East Coast Road was situated beside a Muslim cemetery that provided the burial needs for the Muslim residents living at the kampongs around Jalan Bilal, Jalan Haji Salam, Jalan Greja and Jalan Langgar Bedok. Both burial grounds were accessible by a small road called Hwa San Road (expunged), named after the Chinese cemetery.
Wah Suah Teng and the Muslim cemetery were later exhumed and their sites redeveloped into Kew Green Condominium in the late nineties.
A short distance away from Wah Suah Teng and Hock Suah Teng was a smaller cemetery called Lui Chwee Suah (雷水山), located near Jalan Lembah Bedok (expunged). Lui Chwee Suah was one of the many cemeteries in Singapore closed in 1973 by the government for redevelopment purposes.
The Hokkiens also had their large parcels of burial grounds in old Singapore, the most famous being Bukit Brown Cemetery. Also known as Kopi Suah (coffee hill), probably named after the coffee plantations at Mount Pleasant, the site was bought in the late 20th century by three wealthy Hokkien businessmen Ong Kew Ho, Ong Ewe Hai and Ong Chong Chew.
The municipal government acquired the land in 1919 and opened it three years later, as a public cemetery for the local Chinese community, especially the Hokkiens. Over the decades, Bukit Brown Cemetery grew to contain 100,000 graves, making it the largest Chinese cemetery outside China. It reached its full capacity and was closed in 1973, accepting no new burials since then.
In 1965, some of cemetery’s graves were exhumed due to the realignment of Lornie Road. Part of the cemetery was affected again in 1971 for the construction of the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE). More than 1,700 graves, off Lorong Halwa and Kheam Hock Road, had to make way. In 2018, many of Bukit Brown Cemetery’s graves, once again, were removed for the construction of the new Lornie Highway.
Kheam Hock Road, which cut through Bukit Brown Cemetery, was also known in the past as the venue for plots of cemeteries named Tai Guan Suah (太原山) and Hokkien Lao Suah (福建老山).
Kheam Hock Road, Upper Serangoon Road and Choa Chu Kang were home to some 20 tombstone makers in Singapore in the sixties and seventies. The inscription engravings on granite or marble tombstones using the hammer-and-chisel method were extremely laborious and tedious; by the eighties, there were less than 10 tombstone makers left in Singapore.
Other former Hokkien cemeteries in Singapore included:
- Bu Lim Suah (武林山) off Old Jurong Road (until 1996)
- Seh Lim Suah (姓林山) at Bukit Merah (1890-1967)
- Hong Lim Suah (芳林山) at Bukit Merah (1870s-1960s)
- Leng Kee Suah (麟记山) at Leng Kee Road (1885-1963)
- Hiap Guan Suah (协源山) at Telok Blangah (1882-1967)
- See Kar Teng (四角(脚)亭) at Jalan Membina, Tiong Bahru
- Heng Suah Teng (恒山亭) at Silat Road (1828-1941)
- Sin Heng Suah Teng (新恒山亭) at Toa Payoh (1880s-1920s)
- Phuah Pak Tiong (剖腹塚) off Yio Chu Kang Road (until 1970s)
- Hock Suah Teng (福山亭) at Upper Changi Road 10 milestone (1950s-1990s)
Heng Suah Teng (恒山亭), located at Silat Road, was a century-old Hokkien cemetery that was exhumed during the early 1940s due to the expansion of the Singapore General Hospital.
The nearby Tiong Bahru was also a large cemetery, established in 1859. The name itself means New Cemetery in Hokkien and Malay, taking reference to its older neighbour Heng Suah Teng, which became known as Tiong Lama (old cemetery). Part of the Tiong Bahru cemetery was exhumed in the late 1920s, when its burial hills, swamps and squatters were demolished and replaced by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats.
The Tiong Bahru-Bukit Merah vicinity, in fact, was made up of many Chinese cemeteries, consisting of Seh Lim Suah, Leng Kee Suah, Hong Lim Suah, See Kar Teng, Heng Suah Teng, Hiap Guan Suah and Loke Yah Teng. Some of these cemeteries were privately-owned, such as the Hiap Guan Suah, also known as the Seh Yeo cemetery, which was used for the burial of many members of the Yeo Clan in the early 20th century.
Located at Stirling Road was another private cemetery named Hong Lim Suah. Established in the 1870s, it was owned by the family of wealthy businessman Cheang Hong Lim (1841-1893) until the mid-sixties when the 41-acre burial ground was acquired by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Most of its 9,000 graves were exhumed and re-interred at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.
Present-day Plantation Avenue, off Yio Chu Kang Road, was home to the former Phuah Pak Tiong (剖腹塚) cemetery. It was used, during the early 20th century, as a burial ground for Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where the bodies of the poor and those died of tuberculosis (TB) were transferred from Moulmein Road after their postmortem cases. This history gave rise to its Hokkien name, which literally means “cut open stomach tomb”.
By the fifties, Phuah Pak Tiong was no longer used by Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and it became a private Chinese cemetery. A village was established beside the cemetery, even though the residents hated its inauspicious name. In 1951, the Singapore Rural Board renamed Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong, the road leading to the village and cemetery, to Plantation Avenue. The cemetery was exhumed in the seventies, making way for the new public flats at Serangoon.
Peck San Theng (碧山亭) was one of the most well-known former cemeteries in Singapore, due to its legacy and association with the Bishan New Town today. The cemetery, along with the other two burial grounds in Cheng San Teng (青山亭), at Maxwell Road, and Loke Yah Teng (绿野亭), at Bukit Ho Swee, were established in the mid-19th century by the early Cantonese and Hakka communities.
One of the earliest Chinese cemeteries, Cheng San Teng once housed the tombstones of Singapore’s first batch of Chinese settlers – 31 of them were said to have already settled on the island before Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Located at Tanjong Pagar’s Peck Seah Street, the cemetery was surrounded by small hills – Duxton Hill, Mount Wallich and Scots Hill – which were later levelled for the Telok Ayer reclamation.
Cheng San Teng lasted until 1907 when its site was acquired by the British colonial government. The remains of the 31 Chinese pioneers, along with the others, were then re-interred at the Hokkien Heng Suah Teng cemetery near Tiong Bahru.
The other Cantonese/Hakka cemetery Loke Yah Teng was set up in 1840 on a piece of land, near present-day Bukit Ho Swee, awarded by the colonial government. Part of Loke Yah Teng was acquired in the 1910s for the construction of railway tracks. In 1957, the cemetery was bought by the Singapore government, resulting in the exhumation and relocation of its 11,518 graves to Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery.
As for Peck San Theng, the burial ground was utilised for more than a century before it stopped receiving fresh burials in 1973, after which the site, stretching from Thomson Road to present-day Bishan, was acquired by the government. Exhumation began after 1982, with the tombs making way for the development of Bishan New Town. Most of the remains were later stored at the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Columbarium built in the mid-eighties.
Loke Yah Teng, a Cantonese-Hakka collaboration, became full in 1880, and new burials at the cemetery were no longer possible. By then, the rapid increase in their respective populations meant that the Cantonese and Hakka communities had to part ways and seek and establish new sites for their own burial needs.
Hence, the Hakka moved on to set up the Fung Yun Thai Cemetery (丰永大坟山) in 1882 and Shuang Long Shan (双龙山) in 1887. Both Hakka cemeteries were located off Holland Road, where there was a sizable Hakka population living in the vicinity.
Also known as Yu Shan Teng (毓山亭), the 142-acre Fun Yun Thai Cemetery, with about 20,000 graves, was acquired and exhumed in 1975, and has been left vacant till today. The ancestral temple Sanyi Ci (三邑祠) was retained, and in 1991, a columbarium was built to store the niches of the remains from the cemetery.
Over the years, the columbarium has been given a series of renovations; the latest was completed in 2015 with a new appearance that resembles a tolou, a type of Hakka earthen building in China. The new design is aimed to reflect the Hakka culture in Singapore.
Shuan Long Shan used to have massive burial grounds with an ancestral temple. In 1966, the government acquired its burial grounds for the development of the Commonwealth and Buona Vista housing estates. The remains were exhumed and consolidated in urns, and were stored at the new cemetery and columbarium. Ying Fo Fui Kun (应和会馆) Cemetery is currently the last Hakka cemetery in Singapore.
Cemeteries of Other Dialect Groups
The smaller dialect groups of the local Chinese community, such as the Hainanese and Hock Chew, had their own burial grounds too, although they were not as large and numerous compared to the Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka ones. The Hock Chew had its cemetery at Hock Chew Suah (福州山), formerly located at Lim Chu Kang. Much of its 110-acre land was purchased by the government in 1970. By 1987, the cemetery was fully acquired and exhumation began in the early nineties.
The Hainanese, on the other hand, established the Yu Shan Ting (玉山亭) at Thomson Road. Also known as Hai Nam Suah (海南山), there were two Hainanese cemeteries along Thomson Road; the original one was set up at Thomson Road 5 milestone in 1862. 30 years later, in 1891, a new extension of the cemetery was established at Thomson Road 5½ milestone. Both cemeteries were exhumed in 1980.
Hock Eng Seng Cemetery (福荣山) was a private cemetery at the Bukit Timah Road 6 milestone area. Located at Lorong Panchar (expunged), off Sixth Avenue, the cemetery contained some 600 graves, many of those belonged to the Chinese patriots and victims during the Second World War. In the fifties, plots of its burial lands were sold, often at discounts, to the local Chinese communities.
The government bought over Hock Eng Seng Cemetery in the nineties, due to its location within the prime Bukit Timah district. Many of its remains, including a well-known Second World War tomb memorial, were exhumed and re-interred at Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery.
Chye Teng Teoh Cemetery was another private cemetery near Bukit Timah Road 6 milestone. It was located at Anamalai Avenue.
Cemeteries on Islands
The Chinese populations living on the outer islands of Singapore, such as Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin, had their cemeteries as well. Pulau Tekong, before its demarcation into a restricted military training zone in the eighties, used to have numerous Malay and Chinese villages with thousands of residents.
Running self-sufficiently, the island villages had their schools, provision shops, markets, places of worship as well as burial grounds, which numbered as many as 18 at their peak. Many were exhumed and demolished after the resettlement of the residents to the mainland. In the early eighties, there were eight cemeteries left at Pulau Tekong, all of which were gone by 1985.
Like Pulau Tekong, Pulau Ubin has its own burial grounds – both Chinese and Muslim cemeteries – for the various kampongs that once flourished on the island. One of the Chinese cemeteries, Kampong Sungei Tiga Chinese cemetery still exists on Pulau Ubin till this day, situated on a gentle slope and under the dense cover of durians trees.
Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery
Opened in 1947, Choa Chu Kang Cemetery occupies almost 318 acres of lands at the western side of Singapore, along Old Choa Chu Kang Road, Lim Chu Kang Road and Jalan Bahar.
The huge burial area is made up of Chinese, Muslim, Ahmadiyya Jama’at, Christian, Hindu, Parsi, Jewish and Lawn cemeteries, and is the only cemetery in Singapore still opened for new burials. However, since November 1998, the cemetery’s burials are limited to a period of 15 years, after which the remains will be exhumed and cremated.
Today, the Chinese section of the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery has about 35,000 tombs. Along Track 14, off Old Choa Chu Kang Road, is another smaller plot of Chinese cemetery. Beside the burial grounds are military camps, fish farms, factories and warehouses. In 2017, the government announced that the graves of Choa Chu Kang Cemetery will be progressive exhumed. A third of the cemetery will be making way for the expansion of the Tengah Air Base.
There is a well-known Second World War tomb memorial at the Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery. The memorial was erected to commemorate the Chinese victims who perished in early 1942 at a village near Bukit Timah 5½ milestone’s Little Bamboo Lane (竹仔巷). It was estimated that about 2,000 to 3,000 Chinese were killed in this horrifying massacre committed by the Japanese invaders.
The victims were buried in mass graves, and their remains were rediscovered in 1962. They were exhumed and given a reburial in six large urns at the Hock Eng Seng Cemetery at Sixth Avenue, near the 1942 massacre site. Hock Eng Seng Cemetery was acquired in the nineties; the remains of the victims were then relocated in 1996 to Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.
Columbaria and Others
Since the implementation of the burial limitations in 1998, many local Chinese preferred the cremation option and had the niches or urns of their dead family members stored at private or government-run columbaria, such as Mandai Crematorium and Columbarium Complex and Choa Chu Kang Columbarium.
Previously, there was also the Mount Vernon Columbarium and Crematorium, but its services were ceased in late 2018 after almost 50 years of operation.
Temples, charitable halls and monasteries, including the well-known Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery and Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery (Siong Lim Temple), also offer the storage of niches. As cemeteries become fewer in Singapore, it is more common, nowadays, for the local Chinese to pay their respect and offer their prayers at the columbaria instead of cemeteries during the Qing Ming festival.
There are numerous individual Chinese tombstones in Singapore. While the large Bukit Brown and Choa Chu Kang cemeteries are the final resting places for many prominent pioneers, leaders and public figures, others have their private burial grounds. Some have been isolated and undisturbed for decades, waiting to be rediscovered.
At a small slope along Outram Road is the grave of famous pioneer, businessman and philanthropist Tan Tock Seng (1798-1850). When Tan Tock Seng died in 1850, he was buried in an unknown location. His son Tan Kim Ching (1829-1892) acquired the Outram Road plot in 1877 as a family burial ground.
Tan Tock Seng’s remains were later exhumed and re-interred at the Outram Road burial ground, which also contains the graves of his daughter-in-law Chua Seah Neo (wife of Tan Kim Ching) and granddaughter-in-law Wuing Neo.
At MacRitchie Reservoir Park is the tombstone of war hero Lim Bo Seng (1909-1944), who helped to set up Force 136, a resistance group, to fight the Japanese during the Second World War. He was later captured, tortured and died in a Perak jail. After the war, his remains were brought back to Singapore and reburied on a small hill at MacRitchie Reservoir.
In 2012, the grave of early Teochew pioneer Seah Eu Chin was discovered by tombstone hunters Raymond Goh and Charles Goh. It was located on a small hill known as Grave Hill at Toa Payoh West, next to the Bukit Brown Cemetery.
Published: 07 April 2019