Then and Now: Orchard Road

By Jovern


As sure as a start of another day, the sun rises from the east. Fact.

Most things erode with the sands of time. Fact.

All men will die. Fact.

No matter rain or shine, whether the graveyard is bustling to welcome another or whether deathly silence prevails, the fact is that we, guardians of the dead, keep the balance by sweeping the graves clean and pulling out overgrowing weeds.

Everyday. A duty. Like the generations before who carried it out dutifully.

Unchanging Fact.

With no respite under the unbearable tropical heat, I put aside my rake, taking a breather from the arduous work. Leaning against the girthy trunk of the Saga tree, protected by its thick foliage. Gazing at the swarm of visitors streaming through the cemetery gates, some walking stiffly, their faces sombre, weighed down. They trekked along the coarse soil paths, breaking away into their own groups as they moved toward different headstones artfully arranged along the side of the hill. I, visibly wincing as the inconsiderate few decide to take a “shortcut” at the expense of the newly trimmed grass.

It is the hungry ghost festival, the day of the seventh lunar month, when the spirits wander the world of the living. It is the day for those who believe in it to honour the dead, to let them go in “peace” by freeing them of their earthly resentment.

These family members and friends kneeling in front of the tomb stones pray as they light incense and place offerings. I see them leaving relaxed and renewed, leaving their burdens behind. They are in a world of their own, oblivious to the very man who kept this place clean and tidy, a presence less dense than air. The day passes fast like any other. As the last person left, I was once again left alone in the empty grave. Year after year I toil unnoticed, unappreciated with not a single thank you to be shown for my work. I could only sigh in resignation.

I trudged back to my little shack, falling on my bed that welcomed me with a warm embrace. Listlessly I lay, sinking ever so softly into a dream. A sweet dream away from dreadfully monotonous work awaiting me the next morning.

The bright light of the new morrow streamed through the dusty blinds and woke me from my dream. I was greeted by something that was atypical. At the door of my decrepit little shack was an inconspicuous newspaper article with Government tearing down cemetery written in dark bold.

It read in the most patriotic of ways:

It is with a heavy heart that the government has included the demolition of the Ngee Ann graveyards in the remodelling of Orchard Road. Singapore, a land and natural resource scare country, must use whatever it can to develop to keep pace with foreign powers. While some might be upset about the disturbance to their ancestors’ graves, it is for the sake of those living that these sacrifices must be made.

It was all too soon before the dingy yellow metallic monstrosities came in waves. Their only objective: squashing the flora and fauna that dared block their path. They raised their hands high, smashing them down on the stone, shattering it. Again, and again, the machines dug, ravaging the earth and removing the coffins.

The unearthed coffins were unceremoniously tossed into a fire, for disposal. The flaming inferno gobbled the coffins up, swelling in size after each one, illuminating the pre-dawn sky. The wood hissed and crackled as it burned to black, letting out tortured screams.

The fields, once green, turned a barren brown Stones scattered. Family members stood, fist clenched, wishing that they could advert the destruction before them. Yet, a single flimsy red and white strip blocked all advance.

I stood there among the masses, oblivious to their anguish. As the clanking of metal stopped, the roar of the fire quietened to crackling embers, the dust starting to settle, and they left… one by one… I still stood rooted. This was what I wanted, yet there was an abject feeling of loss. The eerie, looming possibility of the unknown.

Like a person that had stared at a white wall all his life, finally accessing a world of colour so vibrant and full of possibility—overwhelmingly and scarily so.

The sun rays filtered over the horizon, painting the sky hues of orange and yellow. Golden warmth slowly inched up me, first from my feet, washing away my worries. I could only clench my fists and steel myself, preparing to stride into the unknown.

Time waits for no man, the world will keep turning with the cycle of day and night, ups and downs till the end of our time. That is an unchanging fact.


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