Many probably know Balestier Road for its surviving façade of traditional shophouses, where establishments offering bak kut teh, tau sar piah, and lighting accessories draw crowds to this congested stretch of the outer city. But not too long ago, a random turn into Jalan Kemaman, a cul-de-sac off the main street, took me back in time to a world of immigrant communities that once thrived in such quiet corners of the island.
What caught my eye was a house that stood out in its simplicity and sheer unobtrusiveness. Easily overlooked amidst the exclusive apartments and towering condominiums that have infiltrated this enclave, the house was a modest, one-storey affair. A wire fence abutted a loose hedge of flowering shrubs and fruit trees, which partially hid the dwelling from passer-bys, most of whom might have been deterred anyway by the imposing gateway with an arch of Chinese characters announcing this to be the abode of Chan Chor Min. The building appeared unoccupied, yet the garden was well-maintained, in an orderly but not manicured fashion, with a pavement that led up to a modest, well-swept porch.
Clearly, this was an architectural holdout from a time when lush gardens ringed the city’s homes, and private residences were built with a sense of scale that embraced rather than overpowered their surroundings. Few signs of activity were evident in the weeks that followed my discovery of this place, and the house continued to beguile me. Following my online pleas for information, Gilles Massot, an artist and photographer who has lived nearby for 15 years, replied that he had never seen a soul at the house – neither gardener nor caretaker even. Our curiosity piqued anew, we found ourselves rounding up a posse of heritage buffs to investigate further. Apart from Gilles, the gang included Victor Yue, moderator of the boisterous Taoism Singapore email list, his wife Doris, heritage guide Charlotte Chu, and Raymond Goh, lately the public and quietly persistent face of the drive to save Bukit Brown.
We arrived on a scorching Sunday afternoon, two days before Vesak last year. After a loop that brought us to some of Balestier Road’s lesser-known temples, we approached the lonely mansion, expecting little more than a chance to peer through its perimeter and second-guess its raison d'être. As luck would have it, a car was parked before the gates. Sauntering in the garden were a woman and a much older man clad in a white singlet and pyjama shorts. They seemed mildly bemused at our uninvited gaggle, but assented to our request to poke our noses around the grounds in the name of research and enquiry.
Speaking in thick Cantonese, Mr Chan, the aged gentlemen, told us he lives in Tanjong Pagar with his daughter. She had driven him here to his former haunt, a vegetarian lodge named after Master Chan Chor Min, a Cantonese master of fengshui and divination who came to Singapore from Guangdong in the 1920s. To some of his followers, Master Chan had been a religious patriarch and an incarnation of Buddha who established homes for the destitute and desperate in Singapore. Our host, Mr Chan (no relation) simply acknowledged his master as a teacher who imbibed the words of Confucius, Laozi and Buddha, and imparted the amalgamated wisdom to his disciples in Chinatown.
Master Chan died in his 60s, a month before the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, and Mr Chan later became the trustee of the zhaitang (as such vegetarian lodges were known) in Jalan Kemaman. He acquired a reputation of his own for divine foresight and a knack for choosing dates that would draw fortune and deter ill-fate for newlyweds and young households. He also cultivated an interest in herb lore, turning the grounds of the zhaitang into a pharmacopoeia of tropical remedies. Showing us around the garden that Sunday, he pointed to a bed of broad-leafed plants with a dark mark on each blade resembling the Chinese character for “human” (“ren”). “This is the poor man’s bird’s nest,” he said of its therapeutic qualities. Weedy, willowy, weathered and worn, the trees, bushes and reeds of this garden provide him with an array of botanical remedies against ailments from without and sickness from within. Some extracts fight microscopic parasites, he revealed, while others soothe the pain of inflamed organs or regulate the cosmic temperature of bodies in constant battle against the elements.
I could recognise a few of the trees: mango, chiku, bilimbing assam, lime, fig, ginger and guava – the staples of village apothecaries. But there were also herbs and fruit with evocative names and of unknown provenance: snakeweed, horsegrass, oxheart, snakegourd, charcoal mother, and others such as san chok, whose Cantonese monikers eluded my ability to unravel their taxonomy and ethnobotany. Perched on the tip of one stem was a dancing dropwing, a pretty dragonfly common in Singapore’s rural marshes but scarce in urban environments.
Lodged in memory
Established in 1926, Chan Chor Min Tong (“tong” means “association” in Cantonese) served as a zhaitang until its last resident died in the 1960s. An institution peculiar to a time of one-way migration from China to Singapore and Malaya, zhaitang emerged in the early 20th century as waves of women, particularly from Guangdong, arrived to seek their fortunes. Not every traveller prospered; many who lacked family connections or failed or refused to find a husband had to fend for themselves, having neither status nor much security on their own. Others, such as childless widows, abandoned concubines, dancers, actresses and prostitutes (the latter three were regarded then as equivalent) were effectively persona non grata in societies where charity was largely linked to kinship.
Many of these solitary women migrants came to live together in zhaitang, which drew upon a strain of independence with roots in a 19th-century movement in the Shunde district of Guangdong, whereby girls refused the captivity of traditional marriage and organised themselves into self-sustaining collectives. Vegetarian lodges soon sprang up in all major towns of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, granting mainly Cantonese women the right to a permanent home and the respectability of service to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy (the women often cited as their inspiration a legend in which Guanyin repelled her family’s attempts to marry her off and became a nun).
The zhaigu (as the residents were called) paid a regular fee to the lodge or gave of their labour – cooking, cleaning, caretaking or chopping wood for the communal good. Others tended vegetable plots, worked as amahs, told fortunes, performed odd jobs or ran their own businesses, which was permitted as long as these activities did not interfere with a general commitment to spiritual rituals and the learning of Buddhist sutras. At the end of their lives, the women received the assurance that their fellow zhaigu would carry out the full rites due to the deceased (including the sweeping of graves during subsequent Qingming festivals), a not inconsequential gesture for those who had chosen sworn kinship over the privileges of blood ties.
Neither temples nor nunneries, zhaitang offered a dose of asceticism and the promise of kin-like care that demanded little more than a shunning of meat. Marjorie Topley, who surveyed about 40 zhaitang in Singapore as curator of anthropology at the Raffles Museum from 1951 to 1954, observed in a paper in the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society that
… women living in vegetarian houses live a fairly free and easy life; they wear their own clothes, smoke if they wish and entertain visitors quite frequently … [they] are free to come and go as they please as long as they get their allotted work done and attend religious observances. The only other limits imposed on members are that they lead a pious life, learn the sutras and follow a vegetarian diet. If married they should have severed all connection with their husbands, or received their permission to live in the house.
(Topley is no less intriguing a subject; rejected from studying archaeology because of her sex, the Londoner turned to anthropology and went on to conduct seminal research on Chinese religious institutions in Singapore and Hong Kong.)
Like clan associations, zhaitang were typically organised based on the women’s home district or village in China, although there were also lodges where residents hailed from different dialect groups. Besides those built by female collectives or intrepid women of independent means, there were also zhaitang established as extensions of existing monasteries or nunneries, or seeded by philanthropists such as Master Chan. Not too far away from Chan Chor Min Tong, at the dead end of Jalan Ampas, is another former lodge known as Fei Hsia Tsing She (the “Lodge of Flying Roseate Clouds”, in Topley’s poetic translation), which was founded by a man from Guangdong’s Sanshui district. This zhaitang was said to have been the largest in Singapore, with room for 200 residents, both full-time lodgers as well as women who used it as a pied à terre. The premises were rebuilt in the 1970s and today are home to an active Buddhist temple and senior citizen’s home called Feeha Cheng Seah or Phang Pheng Mei. Pride of place in the temple goes to a lavish altar to Guanyin, and the abode’s former life is still evident in the ample space dedicated to the burial tablets of the former zhaigu, as well as faded portraits and archaic tributes to the founder, other benefactors and pioneering residents.
Houses of slumber
The house at Jalan Kemaman is not the sole surviving legacy of Master Chan. In 1936, he founded another zhaitang at Bassein Road, a hilly lane between Balestier Road and the former wards of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Here, within a high-walled compound and forbidding gate designed to shield its residents from prying eyes, I found a sprawling two-storey villa with a layered courtyard, broad terraces, ancient balcony shades and, most tellingly, octagonal windows that echoed the shape of the traditional Taoist pakua. Maintained by a sprinkling of ageing women, who serve as both caretakers and trustees, the house was sparsely furnished, with a generous hall that must have once enjoyed a regular stream of busy feet.
Now, altars honouring the founder and other luminaries dominate shuttered and silent rooms. The floors were covered by a veneer of patterned linoleum sheets, the sort once commonly used to give bare floors a dash of colour, and which were also simple to clean and easy on aged feet. Upstairs, the wings where the women once slept are quiet and still, and nothing appears to have changed since the last zhaigu passed away in the 1970s and joined her ‘sisters’ in a little niche where their portraits and scant personal belongings rest together. The caretaker, who professed little insight into the history of the place, pointed to framed photographs on the walls that depicted the founder with congregations of zhaigu seated before lodges in various parts of pre-war Malaya.
It should be mentioned as well that while the house at Jalan Kemaman was a zhaitang, it was one of a handful that catered to men. According to Topley, these rarities served old immigrants who were single or could not rejoin their wives in China. The house, like its sister lodge at Bassein Road, has long completed its mission and there is no need for such places of refuge in modern Singapore. Even at the time of Topley’s research, zhaitang were already on the wane as many of their younger residents (usually girls born under a bad sign and deposited at the lodge by their parents) took advantage of the greater work opportunities available to women in post-war Singapore, and left to make a living for themselves once they came of age. Those who remained were the widowed, childless and socially destitute. After they died, the lodges had no more reason to be. On his part, old Mr Chan, who demurred when quizzed about the men who once stayed at the house, continues to upkeep the grounds and, save our unannounced intrusion, opens its doors to outsiders only once a year, on the third day of the Lunar New Year.
We accepted his invitation to return at that more propitious time. Eight months later, Gilles, Victor, myself and a couple of curious friends arrived late in the morning to find the place alive with devotees. Mr Chan was clad in a long robe and attended to a constant stream of visitors beside an altar in the central hall, where he shared the blessings of his life of learning. One side room had been converted into a ritual passage, where guests were invited to crawl under a long table thrice in return for a future of brighter prospects. In another wing, crowds jostled to light joss sticks and make offerings to Guanyin.
After paying our respects, we were ushered by Mr Chan’s daughter to a verandah at the rear, where tables had been laid out and visitors were seated, awaiting servings of fried beehoon, noodles, spring rolls and vegetarian yusheng. A man at our table revealed that he was Teochew and had known of this ‘open house’ for years. We had, however, no idea how long this tradition, a second life of annual festivity for a retired home, would endure. It has been many decades since those for whom this house was built last dwelt within these walls, and it is probably only a matter of time before these halls, having outgrown their function and outlasted their residents, will fade away, leaving behind the untold tales of the men (and women) who once lived here.
Words Marcus Ng
Images Marcus Ng & Victor Yue