A Palace For The Dead

Baba Peter Lee muses on the Peranakan obsession with funerals and cemeteries.

At present, the remains of the dead, by their inability to contribute to the national GDP, have, literally, no place in the national cause; in a certain sense, their welfare and protection have become lower in priority than even trees, let alone animals. Trees have a national agency to protect them. Even dogs have the SPCA. Like the ultimate grim reaper, powerful enough to destroy even the dead, acronymed government agencies have gradually cast their shadows over, and claimed, all land where our departed rest. Who protects such vulnerable relics?

A Chinese cemetery in Singapore, possibly Bukit Brown, c. 1900.

“In Peranakan tradition,and for that matter,Chinese tradition, dying was as important as living.”

In the Peranakan universe, the Family is the spiritual epicentre around which everything revolves. Just look at a traditional house. The gods are not revered as supreme beings, but rather, as useful door guardians for, and as emissaries to give good reports about none other than… the Family!

The fearsome Guan Gong’s only job is to protect the most precious and revered altar in a Peranakan house, positioned in the most sacred inner sanctum: the ancestral shrine. The concept of family extends well beyond just blood ties. A person’s place or rank within the household hierarchy was defined in terms of family relationships. This structural model extended to society and state. Even an elder who was not a relation was addressed as ‘uncle’. Similarly, an ideal ruler was described as a ‘benevolent father’. Would it therefore be surprising that the most malign Hokkien hexes concern someone’s mother, father and ten generations past, present and future?

A photograph taken of an imposing grave, possibly in Bukit Brown, by the studio G.R. Lambert & Co., c. 1900

In Peranakan tradition, and for that matter, Chinese tradition, dying was as important as living. Funerals, graves and cemeteries were integral elements of what it meant to live as a ‘Chinese’. Ensuring a proper burial for yourself and your forebears, encompassing both rites and sites, and having or producing someone to pray for your and their souls, was, in the old days, virtually the only reason for living!


Don’t laugh, our ancestors took this very seriously. In 1706 a stone inscription in Malacca’s Cheng Hoon Teng explains that the then-Kapitan had acquired a hill to bury the poor souls who had left China and had no descendants. Bukit China in Malacca is perhaps the oldest Chinese cemetery outside the mainland, and is filled with graves from the Ming and early Qing dynasties. A later inscription from 1795 explains that the temple at Poh San Teng at Bukit China had been renovated that year as an act of compassion towards the many brave people who had left China to trade in the South Seas, only to die in Malacca, unable to be buried back in their ancestral villages.

Balek tng sua (Back to the motherland)

The classiest thing to do in the good old days was to go six feet under back in the old motherland. Many of course, were unable to do so. My dearly  beloved ancestor, Lee Kan, was one of the lucky few who could. According to the family genealogical book, he was born in 1760, left his village (Eng Choon, or Yongchun) for Malacca as a teenager in the 1770s, worked hard and cleverly wheedled his way as an “outsider” and “newcomer” into the older Chiang Chew (Zhangzhou) cliques, which had been around since the 15th century. Eng Choon people were nominally part of the Chuan Chew (Quanzhou) gang, another group of Hokkiens who had been around for centuries. But Eng Choon was really upcountry, suakoo. He was accepted as an “insider” and became a success by his 30s, as a partner in a company known as the Hai Kwan Kong See, which acquired the monopoly from the Dutch to collect customs taxes in Malacca, vacuuming in money like Sands, oh, sorry, I mean, sand. One of the partners was the Kapitan Chua Soo Cheong himself. He married a local-born girl whose father was from the same village, and had a son and several daughters. He travelled back and forth between China and the Malay peninsula, got two more China wives and had a new child every time he went on “home leave”. He retired from business in the 1820s, leaving his Nyonya wife and Baba son to run the family concern, went back to China and raised his ‘pure’ China-born boys as scholars, most of whom passed some imperial exam or other. He lived to a ripe old age as part of the local gentry, and when he died in 1844, had his grand wish: burial in his place of birth, near his ancestors.

Nowadays in Singapore it is even surprisingly possible for non-politicians to aspire to the ultimate ostentatious send-off ‑ a state funeral at the Istana, with gun carriage thrown in. But in the good old days, do you know that that was not really possible?

The only way for a rich man to show off big-time was to die and have a lavish, absurdly expensive funeral, which he had to pay for himself. Throughout the Straits Settlements and the Dutch East Indies, Peranakans organised the most ridiculously pompous ceremonies. Funeral processions became like mardi gras, with bands, giant puppets and magnificent hearses. Lee Kan’s grandson, my great great grandfather Lee Quee Lim, had a really fancy farewell in Malacca in 1890. The procession started from his house in Heeren Street, and made its stately way to the family burial ground, Pat Choo San (‘The Hill of Eight Sons’), in the distant suburb of Cheng.


The Straits Times provides a short but fascinating account:

Malacca, 17th April: Lee Quee Lim’s burial procession yesterday drew large crowds from town and country to witness the grand doings. Flags, banners and music enlivened the passage of the coffin to the family cemetery; an elephant with caparisons and driver showed to great advantage amid the moving throng. A free supply of drinks and refreshments at the place of burial heightened the general enjoyment, which came to nothing more or less than holiday making amid the funeral pomp and display of moneyed worth. (The Straits Times, 21 April 1890, p. 2)

Another lavish funeral that took place 13 years earlier may have been the town’s most dramatic event ever. A chaotic riot erupted during the procession accompanying the hearse of Madam Tan Leng Kiam, widow of the Baba tycoon Chee Yam Chuan, between members of the Hok Beng, Gee Boo and Gee Hin Secret Societies. We are reminded that Baba towkays in those days had to behave like mafia chiefs, in order to control the massive gangs of coolies under them. Many of these tycoons were pimps extraordinaire, controlling all the brothels and gambling dens in town, which were established as a form of coolie social control. Hey, come to think of it, this form of governing somehow sounds so familiar!


Back to the story: it must have been troubling times with these societies, as Baba Yam Chuan had been assassinated at the age of 42 in 1862. For Mrs Chee’s funeral, the head of the police had earlier called a meeting of the societies and determined that only the men from Gee Hin could carry the coffin, to which the other secret societies grudgingly agreed. Before the arrival of the funeral procession, the mandore of the burial ground ordered all the society flags to be taken down. As none of the members could see where they were meant to gather, some smart alec began raising his group’s flag, which was seen as an act of aggression, and a riot ensued. When news travelled to the funeral procession heading towards the burial ground, that there was a riot at the cemetery, the bearers and guards abandoned the coffin on the roadside and rushed to join the melée. British inspectors had to guard the coffin, as “there was much jewellery on it”. Fortunately there seems to have been no fatalities, except for a poor horse (Straits Times Overland Journal, 2 November 1877, p. 16). Anyway I am not sure what all the fuss in the press was about. All that boisterousness sounds like nothing more than a Malam Jolly at our annual Baba Convention.

No expense spared

No expense was spared for funerals. For example, according to the will of Baba philanthropist Tan Kim Seng, legacies of $10,000 each were bequeathed to his two daughters; and by comparison, he set aside $6,000 for his own funeral, a sum that wasworth the equivalent of some large properties he owned. Mrs Wee Boon Teck, the daughter-in-law of shipping magnate Wee Bin, set aside $10,000 for her funeral in her will dated 1920 (which her descendants kindly allowed me to inspect), which could probably have bought a row of houses.

Coffins were a large part of the expense, made of solid hardwood, and the best were imported from China. Many towkays bought their own coffins and had special “coffin garages”, where these massive boxes were parked.

This is a true story:

A dear uncle of mine told me when he had to exhume the remains of all his ancestors in his family’s burial ground, he filmed the process and was astonished to see his grandmother perfectly preserved, with her hair in place, wire rimmed glasses, and even the pearl jewellery and white silk baju and sarong were pristine within her massive namkau hardwood coffin when it was pried open, which was all caught on super 8. Talking about sarongs, I am reminded of an old court case presided by the Chinese Council of Batavia (Jakarta). In 1790 the grave of the wife of a certain Tan Tin was desecrated by robbers, and her corpse was dragged out of its coffin, and her sarong and silver jewels stolen!

The graves of my great grandfather Lee Keng Kiat, and his wife, Koh Gim Tien, in the family burial ground, Upper Serangoon, photographed by my uncle Lee Kip Lin in the 1970s.

Wealthy families all had their own private family burial grounds. Among the discreet old clans in Malacca, traditions that are hundreds of years old continue to be practised. I have had the privilege of being invited to these private cemeteries, and feel proud that the tradition still lives on. Peranakan families often reserved certain properties that would generate income in perpetuity for the maintenance of the ancestral graves and for the traditional offerings made at death anniversaries at the ancestral altar. For example in 1826, a certain Lee Soo Kam donated a house to the Cheng Hoon Teng, the rental income from which was used for sacrifices on behalf of his forebears. In 1884 my ancestor Lee Quee Lim signed an agreement with his siblings, some of whom were prominent members of society (the businessmen Lee Cheng Gum and Lee Cheng Yan, and the Chinese language journalist Lee Cheng Wee), to use the rental income from six houses in China and Pekin Streets for for the maintenance of the family burial ground in Malacca, Pat Choo San, and of the rumah abu or ancestral house, Hong Joo Choo, on Heeren Street. But decades later the whole deal fell apart when descendants started to squabble over money. Interestingly, on this old agreement, all the Baba brothers signed their names in Chinese characters.

“I wonder if a highway would one  day replace Kranji War Memorial and the Presidential Cemetery? Or would a spanking new short cut, laid right across the Istana grounds, ease congestion from Orchard Road?”

My grandfather Lee Chim Huck’s funeral procession through the family burial ground, 1958

My great-grandfather Lee Keng Kiat was among the first Babas to study English, and therefore signed his name in beautiful, calligraphic romanised letters. He moved  to Singapore, started a steamship company in the 1870s, went bust in the 1890s, and when he passed away, was not buried in Malacca with his ancestors, but in a new burial ground provided by his wealthy first cousin Lee Choon Guan, in Upper Serangoon. His sons, most of whom ran through whatever was left of his money, somehow scrambled together enough to build an impressive grave. As a child I remember the long car journey from home, the walk through coconut groves, and approaching a large, silent field bordered by dense, rustling greenery, and sited before us in the distance, the sombre grey granite tomb mounds of my great grandparents, set Vatican-like in an expansive semi circular shape with extending, embracing arms, and flanking it, an ornately carved pair of sentient stone lions. As a child it felt so massive, as if a football pitch could fit within that arc. Surrounding this were the graves of other family members, including that of my grandfather.

For the national good

Well, predictably, like many Singaporeans,we had to buy in to thestory that we must giveup our ancestors forthe national good. Inthe early 1980s, after we had to go throughthe trauma of a mass family exhumation, my grandmother, uncle, aunt and sister passed away in quick succession. Some family members felt these events were connected.

Their remains all ended up in different places. My ancestors were cremated and rehoused by the HDB in a depressing, hastily assembled concrete “urn condo” or columbarium filled with the remains of the exhumed dead, which during Cheng Beng, was always filthy, strewn with waste paper and plastic, and the air filled with floating “black snow”, the flying ash from too many burnt paper offerings. My grandmother had to go to Choa Chu Kang public cemetery. My sister rested at Mount Vernon.

After some years the family could no longer suffer this undignified situation the ancestors were in, and the elders decided to give all our dearly departed a sea burial. Only my late sister, who was a Catholic, would be moved to St Ignatius Church, as Mount Vernon had been earmarked for redevelopment. We first had to exhume the remains of my grandmother, who was all alone in the cramped and overcrowded concrete expanse of the Choa Chu Kang necropolis.

The exhumation was traumatic. I was in a daze. It was the rainy season. The gravedigger dug down the wet orange clay. They broke open the coffin,

which was flooded with milky orange mud water, the colour of teh tarek. There was not much space for the exhumer to work in. The hole he dug was only wide enough for him to stretch one hand down and fish for my dear grandmother’s remains, which caused a whirlpool effect in the teh tarek. I remember being totally mesmerised by seeing her batik sarong repeatedly appearing then disappearing in the churning muddy water, as though it were in a washing machine. Whatever they could gather together was put in a bag and sent for cremation.

After that, arrangements were made and permits applied for, and a Taoist priest was invited, in deference to the religion of the deceased family members. We boarded a boat in Raffles Marina, and one by one we released the ashes from the yacht into the sea, while the priest chanted prayers. The wind was not very kind to us, and kept changing its mind about its direction, often blowing ancestors back towards the boat. Clumsy as it was, it was nevertheless a very moving experience. My father and his siblings collectively released the remains of their mother into the sea, together holding the bag containing her ashes. One aunt, who was herself dealing with terminal cancer, sobbed uncontrollably as the fine grey powder vanished into Singapore’s murky green sea. After we got back on land, it was heartbreaking to see her daughter scolding her for being so emotional.

My grandfather Lee Chim Huck’s funeral procession through the family burial ground, 1958. My grandparents, Mr and Mrs Lee Chim Huk, and my aunts Joo Lee, Joo Har and Joo Leng, at the graves of my great grandparents, Mr and Mrs Lee Keng Kiat, c. 1950.But for the rest of us, there was a sense of closure. The ancestral musical chairs that we were made to go through, was finally over.

But I do miss those visits to our family burial ground. As you may have guessed by now, some people hang out in pubs, but, well, I hang out in cemeteries. Ever since I was a university student I was fascinated with this subject, and have a whole stuffed folder dedicated to it, a scrap book of gravestones. Several years ago I began to write about this topic (see The Peranakan, a Straits Chinese cemetery in Bangkok). It is a race to document all the information on tombstones. Luckily I have a dear cousin who lives in Australia who loves history as I do, and he has taken me on treks through Malacca grave sites.

The suburbs of the town are littered with very old graves, many inscribed with Qianlong reign dates. I wonder if a highway would one day replace Kranji War Memorial and the Presidential Cemetery? Or would a spanking new short cut, laid right across the Istana grounds, ease congestion from Orchard Road? It is not impossible considering that “Singapore is land scarce”, as we are constantly reminded. May your ancestors, may your hearth and home, be safe from our dear “friends with acronyms” (who, like Harry Potter’s arch enemy, I better not name).

They destroy important parts of ourpast, bulldoze our cemeteries, and sometimes even take our homes, in the name of development. We are all vulnerable and at the mercy of these terrifying supreme powers, and dread the arrival of that letter in the post, or that announcement in the papers.

What can we do? One thing we are empowered to do is to give our dearly departed a refuge in an untouchable place, deep within our memories. We can, and we must, refuse to forget.

Author: The Peranakan Association

The Peranakan Association Singapore was setup in 1900 “to afford facilities for the discussion of all questions relating to the social and moral welfare” of the Peranakan community.

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