Today my eldest brother took mum and I to a columbarium in Choa Chu Kang in Singapore. It’s one of three government managed columbaria in Singapore. In Singapore, you don’t get many things for free, but a standard niche is free of charge for each claimed grave that is exhumed.
We paid respect to my paternal grandmother, my brother who died in infancy and a great uncle today. Their graves were exhumed a few years ago from Upper Ajunid road, due to government’s development plan.
The columbarium houses some 147,000 niches spreading over 18 four-storey blocks. It’s absolutely clean, serene, bright and spacious. The landscape is magnificent.
According to the website of the columbarium, the buildings span across the entire area like a Chinese fan, and are designed to achieve maximum natural cross-ventilation and natural skylight. The entire architecture was designed to emulate a natural park.
I truly sensed that this is a soothing place for reflection. Human life is respected and honoured.
My parents have 9 children. By the time I was born, all my grandparents had passed away. I have known practically nothing of my grandparents. My paternal grandmother had died a year before I was born.
This is my grandmother’s niche. Her name was Chinese Cabbage Lady 白菜娘. At first I thought this name was a joke, but it wasn’t. My 80-year-old mother nursed her for 15 years, from the year that my eldest brother was born 60 years ago. My mum, a hardworking, illiterate immigrant from China, was struggling to feed 8 children while nursing her paralysed mother in law.
Later we found my brother’s resting place. He died of leukaemia aged 4.
After the death of my brother in 1964, my grandmother (the Chinese Cabbage Lady) ruled that his middle name 仁 — meaning benevolence, must have carried misfortune, so she changed the first name of all future grandsons. (Note: Normally in the Chinese families, children carry the same first name, while their middle names differ.)
No one knew exactly what my brother died of. We were told he died of leukaemia, which is more likely to be a treatable cancer today. My mum and my eldest brother remembered vividly that the 4-year-old died with a balloon-like belly.
There wasn’t a photograph on my brother’s resting place. Probably the young soul never had a chance to have a photograph taken. Not even a photograph for a tragic young life. I never got to know him. I was born 4 years after he had died. As a typical Chinese, my father wished for another boy as a replacement, but what he got was me — what a joy!
We later visited my great uncle’s niche.
It was such a memorable way to end my one-month summer holiday in Singapore.
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- Letters from China: Part 5
- Letters from China: Part 4
- Letters from China: Part 3
- Letters from China: Part 2
- Letters from China: Part 1
- When did you last go home?
- A poignant visit to a Singapore columbarium
- Why are we all called Jade?
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