Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Tales from the Crypt
SINGAPORE (AFP) - - Wong Shun Feng says he has seen spirits, been afflicted by supernatural phenomena and taken advice from gods -- and that it's all just part of the job.
Affectionately known to his friends as "Tua Ya Pek" after a Taoist god of the spiritual underworld, Wong is a gravedigger who exhumes the bones of the dead to make way for development in Singapore.
According to Taoist belief, Wong is among the first to greet the dead when they embark on their journey beyond the grave.
But instead of guiding the spirits towards reincarnation, nirvana (transcendence) or the "nine hells," he sends them to a new earthly resting place as cemeteries make way for roads, housing and public services.
The dead are not always willing to move, he says.
"I've seen spirits hovering beside me as I dig their grave, heard them whisper to me 'Ah Tee (young man), please don't move me'," Wong recalls matter-of-factly.
But not all spirits are so benign, he said.
The 53-year-old, who has been a gravedigger for almost 30 years, says he once saw a tree standing over a grave he was exhuming "shaking violently when trees next to it were still -- and there was no breeze".
He said once he was even "punished" for disrespecting the dead when he swore at a grave.
"In the evening after the dig, my left forearm was completely stiff even though I did not injure it, like the forearm of a corpse, and it was only after midnight that I regained use of it," said Wong, gesturing to the affected area.
Nevertheless, he says he is not afraid of the supernatural.
"As long as you have a good heart, they won't harm you," he said.
Neither does he care that people here might look down on him as an anachronism in a Westernised society, despite the fact that superstition has deep roots among ethnic Chinese, who account for 75 percent of the 3.6 million population.
"People might think that this type of work is taboo but I'm fine with it. I like the rugged life," he said.
A stocky man, Wong cuts an imposing figure with a variety of tattoos, the most prominent of which are the images of Tua Ya Pek and Li Ya Pek emblazoned across his chest and back.
The images of the two Taoist deities, who are said to be in charge of keeping spirits in line, are not there for decoration.
"I respect the gods, that's why I tattoo them on my body," said Wong, who claims to have seen apparitions of the gods and received lessons on life and work from them.
On a recent exhumation conducted by the Singapore Land Authority to clear a Chinese cemetery in northern Singapore for redevelopment, it took Wong and three colleagues nearly three hours to dig a narrow hole about four metres (12 feet) deep.
Using simple tools such as plowshares, crowbars and wicker baskets, they burrowed through soil, sand and cement, which the rich used in the past to seal their graves, before finally reaching the coffin.
Prying open the lid, Wong and another gravedigger picked out the bones and washed them with rice wine before handing them to the family, who gave them red packets containing token sums of money in appreciation.
These envelopes are the main source of income for gravediggers because the 100 dollar (65 US) payment for each exhumation only goes to one individual and the gravediggers take turns receiving it.
"The income is not fixed. It depends on how generous the families are with their red packets," said Wong.
As the work is not stable he supplements his earnings with odd jobs such as house painting and repairs.
But he has his hands full for the moment as the 70,000-square-metre (753,000-square-feet) Guang Xiao Shan Cemetery, near the border with Malaysia, has been earmarked for conversion into a train depot.
The pace of Singapore's development has meant that between 1970 and 1998, more than 240,000 graves in 100 cemeteries were exhumed, the latest available estimate shows.
And according to Wong, all the deceased, including the current "residents," must be placated.
"Ghosts are the same as human beings," he said. "They have feelings and emotions as well. How would you feel if you had to shift after living in the same place for 50 years?"
When asked about his own mortality, Wong shrugged as he pointed to the tattoo of the deity Li Ya Pek smiling serenely on his chest.
"I haven't really thought about it. Let's see what my big brother says," he said with a laugh.