Friday, July 25, 2008

Never Keep a Coffin Waiting

Folklore has it that it's bad luck to display an empty coffin. Now most of us would never be faced by this problem but the National Museum of Singapore was when it created an exhibition to showcase Chinese funeral rites.

On display was a real coffin on a real hearse used here in the "old days". Not wanted to tempt fate, the museum filled the coffin with pieces of wood just to be on the safe side.

If you look at the picture above carefully, you may notice several paper umbrellas at the head of the hearse. According to legend (and this was news to me - thanks Angeline ...) if you want to bring a spirit outdoors (for whatever reason), it needs to be protected from the rain! So you need to provide the spirit with an umbrella for it to seek shelter while on the go.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Can you prove spirits don't exist?

Singapore may be modern country but there are still many people – ordinary, level-headed folk who lead normal lives – and yet, when caught in circumstances beyond their control, they are willing to believe in the supernatural and the effects they can have on the lives of the mortal.

In the early to mid-80s there was a spate of police reports - people said they were cheated out of jewellery worth thousands of dollars and cash by self-professed mediums who claimed that they could see spirits.

The typical story went like this ... the medium (for want of a better term) would befriend someone... usually a person down on his luck and eventually gets himself invited to the victim's home. Once there, the medium would claim that the home is haunted or that a spell was cast on the victim which accounted for him losing his job, his failed relationship, losses at the track – basically whatever was ailing the poor man at the time.

Now in the cold light of day when someone tells you your home is haunted or a hex was placed on you, it's easy to say "Nah - I'll never fall for that". But when misfortune tends to lurk at every corner in your life, you begin to wonder if there could be some truth in this. To make his case even more convincing, the medium usually throws in a dose of proof. Sometimes this can be in the form of "magic stones" that change colour when dipped in water (a sure sign of the supernatural at work - claims the medium) or slicing open a fruit only to expose some bloody innards. These are the usual sleight of hand tricks but they work on those who want to believe that some external force is responsible for their run of bad luck. Once in a while, as in a case I had, the victim would actually be shown the spirit in person. How this was done beats me.

So, convinced something was afoot, the victim would hand over valuables or whatever was left of his life's savings in a sad attempt to be rid of the back luck, spirits – whatever you wish to call it. The medium then says some prayers, makes some offerings allegedly bought by what the victim had given him. He later pronounces the home spirit-free. The victim eventually confides in someone else what happened, realises (or thinks) he was conned (or he feels just foolish) and a police report is made.

The cops treat such cases as cheating under Section 420 of the Penal Code. Statements are taken and sometimes someone is caught. I investigated one such case while at Ang Mo Kio Police Division around 1984/85. The suspect was arrested on a warrant late one night (these things always happen at night) and I was called in to question him.

Questioning usually takes a couple of hours at best - you go back and forth, getting him to repeat the story in minute detail looking for inconsistencies. Handcuffed to a chair, this guy looked ordinary enough and he freely admitted everything ... well almost - meeting the victim, going to his home, telling him that the flat was haunted, taking cash to buy some stuff for a cleansing ritual - the whole works. But he stuck to his guns resolutely stating that he indeed saw the spirit, even showed the spirit to the victim (who admitted this) and he got it to leave after saying some prayers.

Okay... fine... describe the spirit, says me. Female, young, long hair (of course!), dressed in white (no surprises there) with long fingernails. I was bored ... so how long were they? "Five feet long" he says in a very matter-of-fact way. Hmmmm - no wonder spirits walk thru' walls - they can't work the door handle with nails like that!

"You don't believe me? I can call her up now - here - in your office!"

Damn - It must have been about 2am, my coffee was cold and I wasn't expecting such a challenge! "Nah, its okay - you'll get your chance to prove it in court." Quite safe an answer I thought.

So I finally get the paperwork done and I charge him in court a few hours later. In keeping with my luck, he claims "not guilty". The case goes through the system and eventually a trial date is set. Now investigators have to discuss up-coming trials with a Deputy Public Prosecutor assigned to the case. Let's just say mine was less than enthusiastic.

You see the difficulty is this... everyone's innocent until proven guilty and the onus of proof lies on the prosecution. To prove his guilt, you need to satisfy the court that there was never a spirit in the house to begin with (and my star witness - the victim - was going to swear under oath that he saw one - damn!!); that the money given by the victim did not go to the intended cause - buying the stuff for the ritual. Unfortunately the victim in his statement said he followed the man to buy whatever it was that was needed for the ritual (I can't remember what these were). The third criteria was that we needed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused knowingly and with premeditation, intended to deceive the victim. Now I had no doubt in my mind that the accused was guilty as hell - just out to make a quick buck at the expense of the gullible but suddenly what seemed to be an open 'n shut case started to fall apart.

“So we need to prove that there wasn’t a spirit? Damn damn!” The case was beginning to look rather -iffy. Nobody likes to lose. On the day of the trial, we had a little discussion with the accused. We reduce the charge to a lesser offence, he pleads guilty and because he had some prior convictions, spends three months in prison. Sometimes things just work out that way.

It was only several weeks later when I happened to be chatting over a beer to the cop who was in charge of the lock-up that night when the guy was arrested, that the rest of the story emerged.

It was a slow night and the cells in the station were empty when I brought the suspect up to my office. According to the cop, just after I left, he heard someone banging on the cell bars and a woman's voice coming from what was supposed to be an empty cell. Why he didn't freak out? - I have no idea - he said he's been "through this before". Great! Anyways the hitting of bars and occasional wailing continued until just before I brought the suspect back to his cell. After that all was quiet.

Folklore has it that some mediums can "keep" spirits to do their bidding says the cop.

Now – years later – I wonder what would have happened if I took the suspect up on his offer and said "Okay prove to me that you can call up a ghost" Well I'm glad I didn't. There's a fine line between bravery and stupidity ...

Friday, July 18, 2008

The "Haunted" Staircase

Here’s a little more about the infamous spiral staircase at the National Museum of Singapore …

Legend has it that the staircase was originally found in a private residence. The engraved patterns are said to resemble a similar staircase in the Victorian Albert Hall in London.

The staircase at the second level, is reputed to be the most haunted part of the museum. Apparently many sightings have been made at or near the staircase.

The best known spirit reputed to reside in the museum is none other than its last expatriate director Carl Gibson-Hill. He was a keen naturalist and dedicated scientist. Plagued by ill health and personal problems, he was thought to have committed suicide in August 1963. His death was covered in a small front page report in The Straits Times. It said he died of an overdose of sleeping pills in a bathtub at his home in Seton Close. However some believe the man actually hanged himself in his museum office. Why the discrepancy is anyone’s guess. Since Gibson-Hill’s death, many museum staff, according to legend, have seen his spirit in the halls of the museum.

Here’s another take on the haunting of the spiral staircase … rumour has it that someone died after tripping and falling down the staircase. Eye-witnesses have reported seeing a “priest-like” figure roaming the vicinity. People who have tried to climb the staircase said they felt an unseen hand pushing them down – and that’s why it still remains closed off to the public.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Village of the Beautiful

I grew up in a house in the prime Bukit Timah area. It was a great house - big - huge garden - lots of "wildlife" - snakes, monkeys and such and a dark history to boot.

It was a long way from the main Dunearn Road. To get there you either had to drive or walk along Binjai Park and pass the homes of millionaires or take the other road called Jalan Kampong Chantek.

To me Jalan Kampong Chantek was just a name. The translation from Malay means - Road to the Village of the Beautiful - or something like that (my Malay still stinks). It didn't strike me as anything significant until much later when I began hearing the stories ...

At the very end of Jalan Kampong Chantek is a small Malay village - a kampong with about 200 people staying in atap houses. Our driver Dollah was the local village bomoh/witchdoctor/sharman - whatever you call him - he probably was the one that came out with these stories in the first place.

So anyway - as the story goes - the beautiful people refers to the ever-popular Pontianak - she appears as a beautiful young woman who then changes into a horrible old decrepit lady ghost (like some of my primary school teachers I guess).

Now Jalan Kampong Chantek is a long and winding road - over a mile long much of it cutting through jungle. Hitchhiking was common back then. People didn't think twice to stop their car and offer a lift to some poor soul walking the long road. There is a sharp bend in the road before you get to a hill.

This bend is Pontianak territory. You have to slow down at night - it's almost a 90 degree bend - and that's when - if you are unlucky - you will see a young woman trying to flag down your car (Ghosts like the rest of us probably hate walking too).

So a cute girl - late at nite looking for a lift - okay so you oblige. You stop the car, she gets in. Of course she wants to go to the kampong at the very end of the road. When you get there, you turn to her and she's gone - disappeared. Sometimes there's a sweet sickly smell in the air, sometimes just leaves are left on the seat.

And so you freak out - drive like a bat out of hell and swear never to stop for another hitchhiker no matter how good she looks.

Are these stories true? I have no idea. Taxi drivers avoid the area like the plague. But I did come across a woman at that bend late one night sometime in the mid-80s. I'm not sure if she was thumbing for a lift or just minding her own business as she walked home. Still the sight of her with the instant reply of Pontianak tales in my head, did give me a fright. Of course I didn't stop - my mother didn't raise no fool!

The area has changed now. The jungle is largely gone replaced by bungalows. The name of the road still remains along with that infamous bend - I wonder if the people who live there today are aware of the area's unique ... errm .... history?

Let's Scare The Kids

Growing up in the 60s and 70s - before computers, the Internet, cable TV and all, people - I mean adults - needed to find inventive ways to have fun... and what better way of doing just that than scaring little kids. It wasn't very much fun when you are on th receiving end. Anyways ... this was one such story I remember... it doesn't make much sense now but they scared the crap out of us back then ...

Don't play hide and seek at night - the momok (that's Malay for some kind of ghost - I don't know why a bunch of Eurasians couldn't just say 'ghost' - maybe the Malay word make it sound more authentic) will get you. That's what all kids my age were told. I guess our parents didn't want us running all over the place when it was time for dinner.

And what would happen if you disobeyed this rule? Well the story went like this...

There was a family living down the road (they always give you a local setting to make the story more convincing). There were two young girls who played hide and seek late one evening (well after the witching hour of course).

The first few rounds of the game were quite normal. Then in one round, the "seeker" couldn't find her sister no matter how hard she looked. Worried, she eventually told her parents. A search party was organised (Notice back then we always did things the proper way. We didn't just run about in panic - we organised a search party - now that's what I call style - okay back to the story...). They searched through the night but came up empty-handed. (Must prolong the suspense you see for all the kids listening in eager anticipation ...).

The next day she was found ... well what was left of her... her body was found squashed into a small milk tin - apparently this was a well-known calling-card of the momok.

Like I said, the story doesn't make much sense now - how a whole human body can be squashed into a condensed milk tin is beyond me.. but for scare tactics on gullible kids, it certainly worked like magic!

The long-term psychological damage all these stories of ghosts, blood, gore and guilt had on us kids (and yet they still wondered why so many of us were afraid of the dark!) probably didn't account for much back then ...

Memories of Times House

Just about every old building in Singapore has its supernatural history or so it seems.

The old Times House at the junction of Kim Seng Road and River Valley Road was no exception. The area dates back well before World War II. It seems Allied POWs were forced to build part of River Valley Road during World War II.

Staff working at The Straits Times newspaper occupied the lower building while the Tower Block housed most of the other English and the Malay newspapers.

The ghost story goes like this .. if you work late at night - well after the "paper has gone to bed" and everyone has left the building, you will hear some strange noises - like someone banging away on typewriters or keyboards (depending which decade you were in when the story was retold).

Okay so odd noises in an old building are not unusual and can be explained away. Then came the kicker ... be aware of the "Subs area" at the back - where sub-editors worked. "Many people" - I don't know how many - have seen a British soldier walking around in that area. Now apparently this guy is not very people-friendly and literally just walks by you without a glance. He probably has greater things on his mind.

I haven't come across anyone who actually saw this spirit firsthand - it's always "I heard it from someone who saw it" ... but the story is just one of the endearing memories of that old sickly yellow building which sadly, is no longer with us.

I've often wondered what became of that soldier ... I guess he's still on guard somewhere in what is now an overpriced condo.

In Search of ...

The National Museum in Stamford Road is an imposing building. More than 120 years old - she's certainly the grand old dame of Singapore.

Reopened again in 2006 after extensive renovations - the innards of the museum reflect Modern Singapore - new, sleek, high-tech but it also seems to have lost part of its soul - that old charm that made it special.

Back in the "olden days" for me that was the 70s, a trip to the museum (all our schools were within walking distance from the museum and entry was free) was actually a codeword for "let's go look for ghosts" and a great excuse for some mega goofing off. Nevermind it was 1.30 in the afternoon (when school was over). The National Museum was always dark and ethereal-looking at any time of the day. And it didn't hurt that there were corpses everywhere.

You see the old museum was very into "natural history" so there were lots of stuffed animals and birds in dusty showcases. Hell there was even the skeleton of a whale suspended from the ceiling. And so with death already in the air, what better setting could one ask for when doing a spot of ghost hunting!

Now bear in mind that none of us ever saw anything remotely spooky, no disembodied voices or headless corpses floating by. It really didn't matter. We were there to manufacture our own kind of fun. So when there were no visible ghosts to be had, all you are left with is the imagination. And being kids, ours were always locked into overdrive.

We questioned things that we did not know and since there was never anyone around to tell us different, the more ghostly the answer the better.

I remember there was one of these old winding staircases that leads up to the attic I guess. The entrance was always blocked off. That makes sense - today - you didn't want a bunch of nosey kids trooping all over your attic looking for ghosts. But to us, the reasons were always more X-File-ish, always more sinister - "It's blocked off because someone died there... kids went up and never came down ... a coffin was found there with a body inside. Any reason we had to speculate, must have a some ghoulish explanation. So it was fun making up stories as we went along.

If memory serves me correctly, there was a room filled with body parts stuffed in those bottles you find in science labs. One contained a human fetus floating in some yellowish liquid - probably formaldehyde - Okay maybe it wasn't actually a human fetus - it could have been an animal.

But to an eight-year-old ... wow ... think of the possible stories. Does the baby cry at night when no one was about? Does it climb out of its bottle looking for little children to take its place? You would drive yourself silly thinking up stuff like this and that was exactly what we did - exactly the whole point of the outing.

So is or was the National Museum ever haunted? .... Nah but I would like to think that the spirits of some innocent kids out on an adventure, still live on somewhere within those hallowed halls ...

St John's Island

Trust the cops to always dish out a good yarn ...

Working in a newspaper in the early 1990s (or thereabouts), I had an assignment once to follow a Police Coast Guard boat out on patrol for a night to see our guys in blue in action again illegal immigrants which was a hot topic at the time.

So with a photographer in tow, we set off for what we hoped would be an eventful night. It didn't quite turn out like that. The seas were calm, the moon was big 'n bright (apparently not a good time for these people smugglers to be out and about) and well... nothing happened.

So to pass the time, we started yakking with the crew on the bridge (I guess you could call it that but it was a pretty small boat ...) about nothing in particular. Of course being stuck on a boat in the middle of well ... nowhere, the conversation eventually drifted to what else ... good ole tales of the supernatural. Okay I was game... I don't remember all the details of the many stories but one stuck in my head all these years.

Now remember that these were the days before a handfone became an essential body-part - at least it was when this "incident" happened. The crew was made up of some young officers I guess. The night-shift must have been another bore and so someone had the notion to give his girlfriend a call.

The boat stopped off at St John's Island at the end of a pier and the guy trotted off to a public fone booth at the end of the dock. Midway through his conversation, he glanced up and saw his crewmates waving frantically for him to come back. Apparently he wasn't too bothered (or he didn't want to waste his 10 cents) and continued with his call. Finally (I guess he ran out of coins) he returned to the boat and it sped off.

Only when they had put some distance between them and the island did they tell the now confused chap what they saw. While he was engrossed in conversation, his mates could see (apparently quite clearly) a woman in white - yes complete with long hair and all, standing next to him ...

Geez thanks guys for sharing that story and scaring the @#$%^& out of us...

Notice once people get on a roll telling ghost stories, it just goes on and on.... I decided to call it quits and grab some shut-eye at my usual seat outside on the open deck near the engines.

Of course they had to wait for me to get nice and comfortable before one of the older officers "advised" me that maybe I shouldn't sit on the starboard (right) side of the boat. The reason ... later on that nite (yes we are now back to the original ghost story) ... they all saw the same lady in white ... sitting there ... looking out to sea.

Now this got me thinking ... since spirits can float - why are they always looking out for free rides from us mere mortals??