Since this is my first blog, I’ll start with a walk down memory lane. I’ll describe the place where I lived my first 14 years – Sago Lane (硕莪巷), better known as “street of the dead” (死人街) .
Morbid and taboo to many people, it kindles fond memories for me. It was aptly called “street of the dead” because shops lined both sides of the street sold everything needed to prepare people for death, for people who had just died, and for everything else thereafter. Indeed a ‘one-stop convenient death mart’!
Coffins, Effigies & Funeral Parlour
I was often amused rather than scared of these shops. There was a sick bay for the poor and sick to wait out their final days. Complementing it were shops where coffins were carved, mourning clothes sewed, and paper effigies of servants, mansions, cars, ships and planes crafted. These paper “luxuries”, together with bags of origami “gold and silver ingots” would be delivered to the ‘Hell address’ of the deceased by burning them on the last night of the wake. (This rite is still practised today, and interestingly enough, include paper iPhones and iPads!) Last but not least, the centre-piece shop – the funeral parlour – would organise and conduct all the necessary rites for the wake and funeral to ensure a proper send-off.
My family lived just above the paper effigies shop, so we got the “circle seat” view of the rites in action. Almost every night, the vivid sounds of wailing relatives, shuffling of mahjong tiles, chanting of priests and the ringing bells of tourist trishaws would reverberate through the street. You may wonder – how did we manage to study, watch TV and sleep? Firstly, you should know that I passed my PSLE 🙂 and secondly we got so used to it that without the sounds, the whole street would seem ironically ghostly! Towards the funeral, the tempo would build up with more elaborate rites, my favourite being the acrobatic “break the Hell” (破地狱) rite whereby the Taoist priests (南無佬) would circumambulate a fire pit which represented Hell. They would spit into the pit to create fireballs and then jump over them like acrobats.
The Funeral Procession
The noisiest of all the rites had to be the funeral, which was also the climax of the entire process. Most funeral processions had a blaring brass band of drums and trumpets, but the more elaborate ones had deafening gongs and dancing stilt walkers. Finally, long lines of relatives and friends trailed and wailed behind the flowery decorated vehicle which carried the coffin, to give the deceased a rousing send-off.
Are you afraid of seeing corpses? I never was, because I passed them by everyday at my door step for 14 years. However, I remembered two incidents which chills me even today. On one occasion, the police came to investigate and opened a nailed coffin. The stench of death filled the whole street for days! On another occasion, when an ambulance from a mortuary had just arrived and its doors flung open, we heard people shouting and throwing stools about. We didn’t know what had actually happened but our neighbours subsequently told us that apparently, the corpse had sat up! bbrrrrr…
In those days, my family didn’t have a camera. So I researched and refreshed my memories of the details from browsing archival websites and drew the above composite drawing from my imagination. In late 1983, just before the government relocated all the residents and trades to the nearby Chinatown Complex and demolished the shophouses, my dear cousin Sim borrowed a camera and took some photos of the street. By then, most of the residents and trades had already moved out, but at least we managed to capture a few precious images of our old home to preserve our fond memories to this day.
And finally, a bonus pic of myself (with food in my mouth 🙂 )