Tag Archives: Singapore

The Haunted Art House in Woodneuk

Context

My grandmother enjoys telling us stories of Singapore when she was younger, one of the stories she most enjoys telling is that of the haunted art deco house at Woodneuk. This story came about during one of our conversations.

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Performance

The following is translated and transcribed from a story told by the interviewee.

“When you go behind Holland Road there’s the old mansion. Now everyone goes there and takes photos but last time no one went there because it was haunted. It’s still haunted, but nowadays no one cares, no one respects the place. It’s an old house build for the Sultan a hundred years ago. The house was very big for time, and it meant to be a beautiful place. The Sultan had a Scottish wife, but when she died, he left the place, and he never bothered to go back. So it just sat there. And the place is haunted, the wife never left the house because she loved it so much and never wanted to leave it. But now kids go there and take photos and they are disturbing the wife.”

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Analysis

This is a fairly common ghost story told in Singapore about the abandoned mansion. There aren’t many abandoned buildings in Singapore as it is a small city with limited space and the government is proactive in ensuring that all the space available is used. Thus, the very abandoned places like the mansion in Woodneuk have many myths and tales surrounding it. Historically, the story is accurate. There was a Sultan with a Scottish wife that build the mansion, though the story gets a little blurry with whether the wife died and why the Sultan left the house. I think in the case of the Woodneuk mansion, the ghost story was put in place to scare people away from visiting it. My grandmother was frustrated with children going there to take photos and felt that they should’ve just left the house alone. The architecture in the house is traditional and unique and it would stand that there are those that would hope to protect it. However, because the government does not protect the house and make it a cultural landmark, people have spread ghost stories in an attempt to keep people away. In the age of social media and with the new generations believing less and less in superstition, this no longer works effectively. And instead, the idea that the place is haunted actually drives people to go visit it.

Tekong Stories

Context

Ghost stories or Tekong Stories as they are commonly known in Singapore are very often passed down in families or during military service. In Singapore, where there is mandatory national military service for every eligible male individual aged 18, ghost stories in the army camps are thus incredibly common and circulate widely around the community in Singapore. The following ghost story comes from my father recounting a ghost story he was told when he was serving the military in Singapore.

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Performance

The following is a story told to me by the interviewee.

“One of the Tekong stories is about a young girl and her grandmother that walk around the bunks and count the number of sleeping recruits. The grandmother is teaching the girl how to count. And they will count one… two… three… four… And as they come closer and closer to your bunk you’ll hear the number louder and louder five… six… seven… eight… And you cannot open your eyes because if you do they will take you away with them.”

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Analysis

Ghost stories are very common, but what specifically is unique about this one is that it is a military ghost story. Singapore practices mandatory military service for every eligible man, and thus military stories are much more widespread in the everyday community than it might be in other countries. Almost everyone knows of some kind of army camp ghost story, male or female. This ghost story in particular is given to new recruits. I belive it is meant to instil fear and make sure that the new recruits go to sleep instead of waking up in the middle of the night and trying to talk to each other.

Bo Tah Bo Lampa

Proverb: Bo tah bo lampa

Phonetic Translation: Boe tah boe lam pah

Translation: If you don’t chug, you have no balls

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US, but originally from Singapore. This piece of folk speech was told to me by the informant in a college dorm room.

Background: This informant is from Singapore, where the drinking age is 18. Because of this, he has gone to clubs and other places with his friends to drink. While out drinking at one of these clubs for the first time, his friends shouted this over and over while they were drinking, essentially telling each other to keep going over. He personally likes this piece of folk speech because or its origins. It did not arise in Singapore initially, but rather has roots in Cantonese bars.

Analysis: The first thing that struck me about this phrase was that, despite the informant identifying it as mainly Singaporean, its origin is in fact in Canton. Though Singapore is a mainly Malay-speaking region, this phrase has replaced other, native sayings. Furthermore, this phrase is an awesome view into how many pieces of folklore formed. In this case, Singapore and Canton share strong trade ties and relatively close geographic locations. That, coupled with the maritime nature of the two regions, meant that sailors temporarily onshore, as well as passengers, were most likely the ones to make the phrase well known. Personally, I think the phrase is crude, especially when translated to English, but still, I can see why it spread easily. Phonetically, it’s an easy and fun phrase.

Hungry Ghost Festival — Singapore

Interview Extract:

informant: “So in Singapore, around August or September, I forget which month but somewhere there, we have this festival sort of, called the Hungry Ghost Festival. And it’s where all our deadancestors come alive again for a day, but we sort of like, celebrate it for a whole week kinda. And what we do is we buy lots of paper money…it’s like square paper with a gold leaf…impression on it, and we’ll fold it into shapes, like ingots. It’s kinda like origami. And this represents money, which we’ll dump into bins that everyone has. Not like every person, but like, every apartment complex or every house. Like any public complex or space, we’ll dump the paper money shapes there.”

Me: “What does the money signify, or rather, why would it be necessary on the day the dead come back?”

Informant: “Oh, well in Singapore, when someone dies, you’ll burn paper money for them, sorta like to send them off with good fortune and wealth. And we do the same thing for like, when our ancestors come back.”

Me: “I see. So what else do you. You celebrate for a whole week?”

Informant: “Yeah. We’ll burn incense, have lots of food. Like there’s cakes, oranges, eggs…boiled eggs, I don’t really know why, but boiled ones, and rice and fruits, and just like, donations or offerings. It’s for the dead. And it’s really one day but we have the preparation last a while and there’s concerts and performances too.”

Me: “It’s a bit like Halloween or Day of the Dead celebrations.”

Informant: “Yeah, kinda. You have something similar here. But ours isn’t focused on like, creepiness so much.”

Analysis:

The Hungry Ghost Festival is indeed like Halloween, a day in which past spirits are recognized, but it is also much more like the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, where past ancestors are treated with respect and given offerings. The ghosts don’t seem to pose any danger to the people celebrating, and are in fact welcomed since these are the old ancestors of families. The donations and offerings are there as signs of respect and a way to ensure comforts of passed family members. The fact that there are performances and concerts, as well as a whole community effort to make the paper money shapes, demonstrates that this is a bonding festival, bringing people together.

My informant was very eager when talking about this festival. She especially seemed to enjoy paper ingots that she would make and that the whole apartments would collect. It is a very neighborly tradition, and brings not only families close, but communities. The ancestors’ ghosts become a communal experience, instead of just focusing on personal ties. Everyone participates in buying the special paper, folding it, and collecting it, also showing that this festival is extremely inclusive, and unlike Halloween, does not limit who can join based on age.

Had my informant been back in Singapore this past year during the festival, I’m sure she would have joined in on the celebrations. It seems like a tradition heavily embedded into South Chinese culture, emphasizing money and food, the basic things needed to provide comfort and security. Evidently, it is a kindness to bestow these things to those in the afterlife as well as the living.

僵尸 (Jiang Shi)

These are more commonly known as Chinese Zombies. Unlike the western concept of Zombies, these do not go around looking for human flesh. Instead, these are often the minions of magicians or sorcerers that do their bidding. However, like their western counterparts, they have no will of their own. Jiang shi tend not to be able to walk, but hop with their arms outstretched perpendicular from their bodies.  For cadavers to become jiang shi, the magician needs to paste a talisman with a spell on the forehead of the corpse. No one knows how these talismans are created. Supposedly, there are two ways to ‘kill’ these creatures, one of which is to destroy the talisman pasted on their foreheads, but this is excruciatingly difficult as these creature are more than twice as strong as a normal human and impervious to most weapons. The other way to destroy them is to kill their creators. It is recommended, instead, to throw glutinous rice at them. The rice is known to hurt them and therefore slow them down. It is not known why this happens but it does.

                  This creature was made known to my informant when he was growing up in China. He does not quite recall where he heard it from. However, these creatures are not just confined to China, as my informant has heard a version of these creatures when he arrived in Singapore as well. It is assumed that most countries with Chinese would have these creatures as they are made from corpses, and all you’d need to know is the talisman making ritual.

The magicians that create these are usually from the Taoist traditions. Strangely enough, there is no devil in this situation. Unlike most western and Latin American ghouls and creatures, no hint of Christianity has appeared in this particular piece of folklore. In fact, this black magic is based in the dark-side of things and the unnatural.

Chinese mythology does have demons and the devil, but they just balance each other out. A binary opposition because of the yin-yang, light-dark, everything has an opposite in nature. There are good magicians as well, but they draw on a different source of power in nature.