07 December 2012

I See Dead Things: A Walk Through Singapore's Chinatown


When I was in Singapore recently I took a walking tour through Chinatown and learned some wonderful - and morbid - history about the neighbourhood. See, as much as I loved being a walking tour guide, I love taking walking tours even more.

I am an easy sell. I have always credited my excellent sales skills to the fact that I myself am so easily excited by the prospect of being sold to. This is similar to the way I feel about tour guiding. As a seasoned tour guide myself, people expect me to hold fellow guides to an impossibly high standard and lampoon them when their storytelling skills are not up to par, but au contraire. As long as a guide has a reasonably good grasp on what they are talking about, I am a dream guest. I smile and nod and my eyes glitter with happy tears at the mere mention of architecture, events of historical significance and unique cultural quirks. I ask questions. I laugh on cue. I tip.  


Joo-Ling was a great guide, a retiree she was bursting with facts and quirks about the city state that she clearly loves. She led me on a two and a half hour tour of information about a neighbourhood that parallels the Chinatown in Vancouver in so many interesting ways.

Now, I spent a few hours last night explaining to you how I have come to terms with my morbid side (just call me Wednesday Adams, y’all) and I think that this deep introspection was inadvertently triggered by Joo-Ling. And she has no idea.

We were standing inside of Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist temple and she was explaining the Singaporean custom of combining these normally separate religions (“Never can have too much good luck!”) when she began talking about some of the darker emblems and talisman contained within the temple walls. “See, you know yin and yang symbol? You see how there is always hope, right? Inside the darkest times, there is always a little bit of light. But, and even in the best times, you have to remember that there are negative things too, otherwise you become a jerk!”

“You can’t have the good without the bad. They always go together, at list a little bit. And the little bit of black in the white side of the yin yang symbol makes the good things even sweeter.”

Now you see where my head was at when I wrote this.
 
*****
We wound our way through streets lined with Chinese shop houses, up a tamarind shaded hill and then back down into hectic central Chinatown. After visiting a traditional apothecary, we headed right down a street referred to as the Street of the Dead. Immediately my inner goth girl perked up, and I giggled to myself. This was a perfect segue from the Taoist philosophy (lite) that Joo-Ling had been espousing inside the temple. I think it helped to click that I AM GENUINELY INTERESTED IN WEIRD THINGS, and that that is actually a positive part of who I am and not just a facet of arrested development. Consequently, a lane called the Street of the Dead was like tourism crack to me.


Until the 1960s, “death houses,” places where the poor literally came to die (like the ones pictured above), were big business on Sago Street. When Singapore went through a massive sanitization campaign the death houses were outlawed but a whole new death industry sprung to life and cashed in on the already morbid reputation of the area.

To illustrate this, one of our next stops was a store selling funerary supplies. Most Chinese Singaporeans are cremated, and so this store doesn’t do a swift trade in coffins and shrouds but rather joss sticks and paper effigies.
 



Back in ancient times, rich and powerful men would plan their burials in elaborate terms – which often included the burial of slaves, armies and material goods to keep them safe and happy in the afterlife.  Eventually, this practice was abandoned in favour of effigies (Terra Cotta Warriors, anyone?) These days no one is really in need of a battalion of soldiers as much as an iPad, ammiright?

This is a place where Singapore’s consumer culture comes crashing into ancient custom, and it all happens in a very matter of fact way.  Death is not something we should avoid and pretend doesn’t exist – it is an inevitable part of life. And if you have Blackberry in the afterlife, a pretty fun one at that.

Next time you are in Singapore, I highly recommend taking a walking tour. You just never know what you will discover about the city – and about yourself.
 
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