Getting Granny ready
for home

At daybreak, I help one of my aunts to buy more prayer supplies. After lunch, exhausted by the heat and the crowd, I take a long nap and it is already dark when I get up. The place is now bustling with activities as more distant relatives and friends arrive. Everyone is talking, swapping anecdotes and updating memories. The occasion is bright, lively and totally unmournful. A Chinese funeral celebrates life in the midst of death.

In her lfietime, Grandma had countless friends and relatives among the clannish Hakka community. I like to think they are here to pay a final call on a very distinguished kinswoman and well-loved friend. Many had at one time or other rented rooms in her house at 77 Amoy Street in the heartland of Chinatown (photo, right). For those who left China before the War, Grandma's was their first home in Singapore. They had all known her boundless hospitality.

This evening, the abbess and her assistants read the Soul-Returning text summoning the soul not to wander but to return to the old familiar place of home. So passionate is the reading that most of us are moved to tears. More people come, a final mass is said and the entire family join in chanting Buddha's sweet name.

Later, the paper-and-bamboo articles depicting luxury cars (including stick figures of uniformed "Ahmads" or chauffeurs), multi-storeyed mansions, clothes, treasure chests and all the materialistic stuff for a comfortable after-life, as well as stacks of Bank of Hell's billion-dollar banknotes, are brought behind the vegetable plots, and burnt in one magnificent conflagration.

Accumulating a large monetary hoard on earth is beyond most Chinese but they can still carry paper-made representations of material wealth into the next life, which, to their practical turn of mind, shouldn't differ much from this life. And bureaucrats on earth or in Hell are equally willing to smooth things over for the chap who has sufficient money to grease them.

It is a bright, hot morning. At 11 o'clock, the coffin is lifted onto the lorry and I was suddenly gripped by the realisation I would never ever see Granny again. As long as her body was laying in the courtyard, I didn't really feel sad. Now that the undetaker is hauling her away, I burst into tears.

Granny's body has been cremated but her spirit still lives in memory. Despite financial hardship and the task of raising a large family, she enjoyed life to the max – going to the movies and open-air street operas, munching durian by the roadside, playing late-night card games, telling ghost stories to her grandchildren, supervising the womenfolk in making bak-chang (meat dumplings) in the Fifth Month, playing the master-of-ceremony role in the funerals of friends who had died, celebrating Guanyin Bodhisattva's Birthday, and, in the mid-1960s, making a sea voyage to China and returning with presents for everyone, and a toy drum for me.

– Francis Chin. The account, from my 1975 diary, was published in the local paper on Feb 4, 1979, and updated for the Web on Nov 3, 2001.

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77 Amoy Street, taken in mid-1970s when most of the families had moved out to government housing estates.
77 Amoy Street nestles in the heartland of Singapore's Chinatown where Grandma as landlady, presided over more than a dozen families living in cubicle rooms in this three-storey building in the 1950s and 1960s. The back had a courtyard and common kitchen where communal cooking and dining took place. In the long, hot afternoons, people gathered around the Rediffusion set (cabled radio) to listen to news, soaps and narrations of kungfu tales, broadcast in Cantonese, Hakka and other Chinese tongues.

Picture above, was taken in 1979 for my newspaper article on Granny's funeral.
Amoy Street today (1999), where the rows of immigrant houses are now replastered and airconditioned as offices for dot-com Web developers, PR and advertising firms, and other transient yuppie companies.