Burning joss paper leading to lung cancer

From ‘Restrict incense burning to places of worship’, 15 June 2015, ST Forum

(Madam Wah Yan Chan): I AGREE with Mr Mckeena Neo (“Common corridors not the place for burning incense paper”; June 2). While our forefathers may have burnt joss paper and incense sticks as a sign of devotion, they probably did so without knowing that such burning produces a cocktail of harmful carcinogens that may cause conditions such as asthma and, in the long term, can lead to life-threatening diseases such as lung cancer.

Causing inconvenience and harm to others should never be justified on the bases of religion and tradition. Surely Singapore should have a law prohibiting the burning of incense and joss paper in common areas and restricting the practice to designated places of worship.

There are regulations in the Environmental Public Health Act that stipulate how many joss sticks and candles with specific dimensions may be burnt in premises such as an ‘enclosed space’ or a temple. When burning cancerous joss paper, however, the public is merely advised to use burning pits and containers provided by town councils and clean up their mess after satisfying the gods, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it just outside your HDB flat. The writer above is clearly convinced that burning joss paper increases one’s risk of cancer and should be banned from public areas. The problem is she’s somehow OK with people getting cancer in ‘designated places of worship’.

Whether or not joss paper has the same risk as cigarette smoke is up for debate, since I believe no one has done extensive epidemiological studies on joss paper as we have for tobacco. What is certain, however, is joss paper is a potential fire hazard, especially if people are appeasing their ancestors near a PETROL STATION. Even burning them in bins as recommended by the authorities may lead to explosions in your FACE if there’s a stray aerosol can lying within. In 1976, a blaze ripped through a Jalan Ubi village, rendering 16 locals homeless. It started when burning joss paper flew into a mattress factory. If only the Fire department had SPRUNG into action faster then.

You may think we’re relatively safe because we don’t live in attap houses anymore, but God help you if a stray hot ash lands on your curtain.  You could say a lit cigarette may cause hell on Earth as well, but the trajectory of burning ash in the wind is more unpredictable, and it’s harder to catch the culprit because it could have blown in from anywhere. It could be a little girl behind it following her parents’ instructions to send money to Grandma’s account in the Netherworld. Do we, then, need to wait for someone to perish from a freak joss paper fire, not to mention asthma or lung cancer, before we do something?

Curbing a religious practice may have, well, inflammatory repercussions, and may explain why the authorities are slow to crack down on joss paper burning, even doing little to stop worshippers from aggravating the haze and pissing off asthmatics some years back. Interestingly, one of the stories behind how joss paper was invented involves a con-job by a paper inventor Cai Lun, who tried to boost paper sales by faking his own death and getting his wife to bribe the King of Hell to return his soul through joss offerings. Today, it has morphed into a custom of filial piety and endearing superstition, though one incompatible with our bid for a ‘clean and green’ future. Then again, we’re still seeing ever more cars on the road, trees being cut down to be replaced by condos and people continuing to smoke like chimneys because the government has banned all ‘smokeless’ tobacco products. At least the burning of joss paper, for all its environmental damage, is a small price to pay if it stops ghosts, demons and the evil dead from popping out of hell portals in what’s left of Bukit Brown and haunting the shit out of us all.

I forsee the practice dying out by the next generation anyway, provided we all don’t die of joss-induced cancer, asthma or in a fiery inferno anytime soon.

Fernvale Lea buyers demanding for refund over columbarium

From ‘Upset over columbarium plans, Fernvale Lea’s future residents want a refund from HDB’, 4 Jan 2015, article by Samantha Boh, ST

Upset about an upcoming columbarium close to their future flats, some would-be residents of Fernvale Lea have asked the Housing Board for a refund. Their request came even after Dr Lam Pin Min, MP for Sengkang West, held a dialogue with residents on Sunday and said that there would not be a crematorium or funeral parlour services at the Chinese temple where the columbarium would be housed.

Some residents stood in line to leave their contact details with the HDB after a three-hour dialogue with Dr Lam and representatives from Life Corp, the company developing the temple. Residents at the dialogue said the HDB should have been more upfront about the Chinese temple housing a columbarium.

News of the columbarium, which is expected to be completed by 2016, had surprised many residents when it was reported last week. An online petition started on Tuesday to stop the development of the columbarium had garnered more than 800 signatures.

Speaking on the sidelines of the dialogue, Dr Lam said the authorities had been upfront, noting that it was indicated in the Fernvale Lea brochure for the new flats that the temple may include a columbarium allowed under the guidelines of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). “There is really nothing to hide,” he added.

Some residents had also asked why the Chinese temple is being developed by a private company. Dr Lam said URA guidelines did not restrict the type of company that can develop a religious institution and he understood from the URA that it has been done before.

Sin Ming residents can relate. When a funeral parlour was proposed to be built in the vicinity of a school, one resident complained that the estate would be henceforth known as the ‘Avenue of the Dead’. But it’s not just spaces for the deceased that get people upset, but also void deck elder-care facilities and sometimes even community HOSPITALS, where residents may get traumatised by the ‘smell of medicine’ in addition to the threat of impending doom.

Fernvale Lea’s selling point, according to its online brochure, is that residents get to live amid ‘lush greenery’, which also happens to be the kind of environment you want to ‘rest in peace’ within. It does mention the future placement of a Chinese temple, but leaves the interested buyer to interpret the disclaimers at his own risk, namely the statement that ‘the proposed facilities, their locations and surrounding land-use….are indicative only and subject to change or review. These facilities may include other ancillary uses allowed under URA’s prevailing Development Control guidelines.’ Which basically means HDB can do whatever the hell they want years after you’ve settled down in your new home, whether it’s building a private-owned ‘dragon and phoenix’ temple, a foreign workers’ dormitory, or a cut-and-paste shopping mall which turns out to be an foreign worker enclave. Heck, they could run a new highway or MRT line right next to your house and you can’t do anything about it.

In 1984, applicants of Clementi flats slammed the agency for keeping dead silent about plans to build a funeral parlour near the estate. It appears that HDB should know exactly the sort of reaction from people whenever you surround them with facilities reminding them of their mortality, but till this day continues to refrain from telling buyers straight in the face, like a property agent omitting the tiny detail of your flat being previously owned by someone who committed suicide in the living room. In any case, people are still going to hold void deck funerals right under your block anyway, columbarium or no columbarium.

If you’re diligent enough, you’d actually go the extra mile and read about URA’s ‘Development Control’. And by extra mile I mean sending an email to URA because I have no idea where these guidelines are from the website. Or, if you’re desperate for a house even if it means living next to a cemetery or a string of noisy pub/bars, you could look past the hazards of living near a storage for urns and maybe consider that you have quite a few decent schools nearby (e.g Nan Chiau), which may allay any fears of poor resale prices, since some parents would camp above a mortuary just to live 2 minutes’ walk away from a top school. You could also interview Yishun Ring Road residents if they had witnessed any creepy happenings living near a heartland columbarium, a mere 10 min walk away from the MRT station.

Ironically the developer of the ‘80% temple, 20% dead people’s ashes’ is called ‘Life Corp’.  People will continue dying in our ageing society and unless we move beyond the traditional way of remembering the deceased through tablets and urns, or loosen up on our superstitions, both the living as well as the dead will be fighting for space in this already very crowded city. Hopefully when it’s time for my demise, all I’d need to do is download my memories digitally into a thumb drive or upload my electronic ghost on a password-protected family cloud somewhere without having to hide in some basement of a posh temple designed to look like a shopping mall and scaring the shit out of the living around me.

UPDATE 29 Jan 15: In a surprising about turn, Khaw Boon Wan announced that there would be no commercial columbarium in Fernvale after all, as Eternal Pure Land (under Australia’s Life Corporation) was a private entity with ‘no religious affiliation’. Waitaminute. Earlier in the month, URA said that they did not restrict the type of company developing a religious institution and it has been DONE BEFORE, now Khaw says that this tender award to such a company without godly links was a ‘first’. So, has it been done before or not? Pray tell.

SIA’s post following MH17 crash insensitive and classless

From ‘ SIA says sorry for insensitive post on MH17′, 19 July 2014, article in CNA

Singapore Airlines (SIA) on Saturday (July 19) apologised for its social media postings following the crash of Malaysia Airlines MH17. “We are aware that our Facebook and Twitter update on Friday morning may have come across as insensitive to some,” an SIA spokesperson said in reply to queries from Channel NewsAsia. The post was in response to requests from customers who had asked for information about the airline’s flight routes, the spokesperson said in a statement.

…Following the MH17 crash, SIA had posted on Facebook and Twitter a single-sentence message which said: “Customers may wish to note that Singapore Airlines flights are not using Ukraine airspace”. It posted another message an hour later, which said: “Our thoughts are with the passengers and crew of MH17 and their families.”

But the first post had attracted a storm of criticism from netizens by then, who called the post “inappropriate” and “opportunistic”.

Facebook user Michael Reit said in a post: “How about at least acknowledging the terrible event and sending condolences to those families and friends involved instead of this cold, classless update?” Another user, Su Sripathy SIA, wrote: “Your posting was just tacky….and inappropriate at a time like this.”

That’s the problem with the 140 word Twitter limit. If SIA had combined the condolences and reassurance in a single post, it wouldn’t have drawn such flak, though practically speaking the info on re-routing planes in flight, in my opinion, was more useful for the purpose of placating the loved ones of their airborne customers than expressing shock and sadness at the catastrophe. It was a close call for SIA still, with SQ351 just 25km away from the ill-fated MAS airline, and even if they wouldn’t post it, executives in the boardroom must have been thanking their lucky stars that it wasn’t their plane that was at the receiving end of a surface-to-air missile. SIA’s post was ‘cold’ and restrained because it HAD to be. They’re in the business of sending people to places, not wreaths and well-wishes.

Even if I had lost someone on that plane, I would understand the purpose of SIA’s announcement. What I would find ‘insensitive’ and upsetting would be news of people escaping the tragic flight by the skin of their teeth, like ‘Phew, thank God I wasn’t on that plane’, rubbing salt on my wound. Or jokes for that matter. Malaysia’s own Chef Wan posted a ‘distasteful’ joke about a missing door of MH370 he found in Perth. American comedian actor Jason Biggs asked if anyone wanted to buy his Malaysian Airlines frequent flyer miles after the MH17 disaster. Until today, most of us only knew him as the guy who stuck his dick in a pie. Notorious parody Twitter troll SMRT (Feedback) couldn’t resist either.

Then there’s ‘satirical cartoons’, like this from the London Times.

The downing of MH17 is also conspiracy theory fodder, with some reports suggesting that the CURE FOR AIDS could have been on that plane following the demise of 6 top AIDS researchers on their way to a major conference. TNP went for a ‘spooky coincidence’ angle, pointing to the number 7 as an ‘uncanny’ recurrence, ignoring the fact that there is no 7 in the number of people dead. Where’s the public outcry here? Excuse me while I check the winning 4D numbers for this week (7949, 19 July 14). Gasp!

Of course, those people slamming SIA for being ‘insensitive’ and ignoring anyone else joking or garnering attention at the expense of hundreds of deaths are themselves doing absolutely nothing for the bereaved other than fighting for sympathy online. They’re probably never going to take MAS for the rest of their lives, nor will they petition the international community to bring the killers to justice. In times like these, it’s probably better to leave the condemnation and justice-seeking to the governments, and engage in more important things like spending time with your loved ones instead of complaining to the press about SIA’s ‘inappropriate’ post.

 

Folding paper ingots forbidden by some religions

From ‘Religion getting in the way of filial piety’, 22 March 2014, Voices, Today

(Evelyn Tan): My husband’s grandmother died recently at the age of 91. The last couple of years were difficult as she was bedridden and fading day by day….According to her wishes, the funeral arrangements followed Taoist tradition. This involved elaborate prayers, processions and folding thousands of paper ingots to send her on a comfortable journey to the afterlife. With that many offspring, one would have expected all hands on deck.

What materialised seemed to be a reflection of changing times and narrow beliefs. Several of her offspring have adopted other religions and refused to participate in any of the Taoist ceremonies, including the folding of paper ingots. I find this a strange phenomenon. Surely, what matters must be the wishes of the deceased, rather than the beliefs of the living?

As more Singaporeans become well-travelled, no one has qualms about visiting religious landmarks, such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan. In fact, many plan to visit these landmarks. As we progress in this society, we must remain tolerant of all beliefs.

Using religion as an excuse to distance oneself from religious ceremonies for a loved one seems to be a practice of double standards and the start of an intolerant approach.

Although the writer did not specify what religion her uncooperative relatives belonged to, it’s likely to be Christianity,  in which a related funeral custom, the handling of joss sticks, is frowned upon by some practitioners.  Some refuse to even touch a bag of it as if it were poison. According to a certain pastor ‘Steven Wong’, holding joss sticks is a symbol of ancestral worship, and God explicitly forbids ‘a relationship with the spirits of the dead (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). He goes so far to call the practice  ‘demonic and occultic’, and makes you a bad, bad Christian.

Joss sticks aside, burning ‘hell money’ is also discouraged, for its purpose is to ‘bribe’ the departing spirits and keep them from descending into our realm and peek at us from behind the closet. Tough luck for dead Granny if her only Christian child refuses to send a paper iPad up to her in heaven, which makes her more likely to come down and haunt your dreams. A baptised ‘child of God’ is also prohibited from kneeling before a corpse, because it’s an act of demonic supplication. All this coming from a faith where you ‘eat’ the body and ‘drink’ the blood of Jesus Christ, channel gibberish in fits of ecstasy, and you carry around wooden cross talismans as protection against vampires.

The Deuteronomy text is specific on what constitutes an ‘abomination’ in the eyes of the Lord: Divination, enchanter, witch, charmer, consulter with familiar spirits, wizard, NECROMANCER. There’s no disclaimer on conducting rites as a ‘mark of respect’ for a dead human being rather than a wandering garden deity. As long as you oblige your funeral hosts with the simplest of tasks like burning incense or folding pieces of paper, you’re deemed to be engaging in evil hocus-pocus and black magic, like you’re part of a seance communicating with dead punters for Toto numbers. By that argument, Christians are also forbidden from believing in fairy godmothers, or watching clowns perform magic in front of terminally ill children.

Christians are free to visit other places of worship, of course, as long as they don’t attempt to communicate with other spirits and look like they’re worshipping another invisible heavenly being. So there’s no ‘double standard’ to speak of. But it’s not just others’ religious rites that Christians condemn as cult behaviour. They may even be a wet blanket at wedding banquets. Christian forum writer Steve Ngo experienced one of a Chinese couple where it was forbidden to shout ‘YUM SENG’ because conservative Christians considered it ‘paganistic’. Even the 12 animals in the zodiac are not spared from accusations of occultism and idolatry. One Christian writer says it’s not right to even wish your loved ones ‘GONG XI FA CAI’. My God, can you guys even wish upon a star? Whether you’re Christian or not, we engage in little acts of ‘unholy’ divination every single day. We buy ‘lucky numbers’ at the pools, we refrain from lying on the bed of the dearly departed, we throw bouquets at bridesmaids in a wedding, we shake a pair of dice longer thinking we’ll get a better roll, we throw coins in a well, we seal a love letter with a kiss. If all these are signs of devil worship, then by all means, I’d rather be Satan’s little imp than an obedient servant of a nitpicky God. Life would be so boring without fantasy and ‘black magic’.

Refusing to abide by superstitious traditions, unlike what the title of the letter suggests, isn’t so much an act of impious rebellion (The author makes no mention of the words ‘filial piety’), than being a stickler to indoctrination.  Just making the effort to turn up or stand before the altar in silence is already a decent sign of respect and gratitude and no one has the right to force you to burn incence or follow a monk around a coffin if you don’t want to, for whatever silly arcane reasons. But if you look beyond these superficial rituals, you’d see such family activities not just as netherwordly appeasement, but they serve as a form of social bonding, and if it’s in your benefit to play along even if your religion labels it as sacrilegious, then indulge your relatives just for the moment.  If your God is the loving God that He claims he is, he’d understand your intentions. Of course most Chinese Christians don’t go so far as to rubbish the ‘Year of the Horse’ or refuse to wear red over CNY because it’s a sign of sucking up to Cai Shen Ye, a pagan magical troll in the eyes of the Lord, but if you’re the kind who thinks folding paper ingots is a satanic ritual, then you should be at least consistent in your beliefs, like, burning your Harry Potter books and banning your kids from watching the Wizard of Oz.

JEM mall using Feng Shui to reverse misfortune

From ‘Jem to reopen only when mall is risk-free’, 21 Sept 2013, article by Jessica Lim, ST

The boss of the development firm behind the Jem mall yesterday promised that it would reopen only when there is “no risk” of incidents like a burst pipe occurring again. It came as a team of experts flew in from Australia to assess damage at the beleaguered shopping centre – which is even considering hiring a fengshui master to revive its flagging fortunes.

Mr Steve McCann, group chief executive officer of Australian firm Land Lease, also refuted an accusation from MP Ang Wei Neng that his company may have taken short cuts in a rush to finish the mall, which was eventually opened four days late in June.

Calling the MP’s comment “unfortunate”, Mr McCann told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview: “We certainly do not put revenue ahead of safety.”

…Last month, the mall also made the news when three employees suffered burns in a deep fat fryer accident and a car went up in flames in its carpark.

He added: “It goes without saying that, (it is) unfortunate, but totally unrelated to the centre and quality of the asset.”

Following the collapse, MP Ang said he was ‘concerned that there was some rush to open the mall’ and that the builders ‘may have taken some short cuts’ (Collapse of ceiling: Jem closure worries shoppers, 20 Sept, ST). Though Lend Lease denies any accusation of doing a rushed job, the management should be faulted for bad planning from the very beginning, getting off to a shoddy start with a 4-day delay back in June due to ‘administrative issues’. In a 2011 MND press release on JEM’s website, the country’s third largest suburban mall was scheduled for completion in 2014.  But JEM isn’t the only building being erected in a jiffy these days. Condos, BTOs, offices and every other cookie-cutter mall are sprouting across the city like a mold infestation, and nobody notices when something catches fire, or walls collapse within them because they don’t name themselves after hard, precious stones.

I’ve passed through JEM just once, the self-proclaimed ‘CROWN JEWEL of the WEST’, and the recent incident would make any wary future shopper brace for broken slabs of concrete falling on their own crowns instead of window shopping. Designed to bring the retail buzz of Orchard Road to Jurong, it was built according to meet the requirements of the BCA Greenmark Platinum award, the country’s highest accolade for SUSTAINABILITY. Whatever that means. To most people who are unfamiliar with eco-jargon, a ‘sustainable’ design is something that doesn’t topple on your head. JEM Park consists of ‘green space and sky gardens’ across 3 levels, as part of a ‘100% green replacement strategy’. In air-conditioned comfort. If you want a true ‘green’ design, you’d build a much cheaper attap longhouse on stilts instead, with the same risk of things falling on your face.

So what good can geomancy do for what seems to be a cursed shopping mall? In 2008, feng shui masters advised that the Singapore Flyer spin in the opposite direction to wheel in fresh prosperity and blow the ‘qi’ towards the financial heart rather than sucking it away. In December the same year, the icon was hit by an electrical fire, followed by a lightning strike in 2010. It’s also technically out of business as we speak. Of course the fengshui experts may explain away these mishaps as a price to pay for what the direction change really intended to do, which is fan fortune our way at its own expense.

The prime example of fengshui-focused design is none other than Suntec City Mall, which has its Fountain of Wealth and towers arranged like a human hand. Business started to suffer since 2010 because of collateral events like the NDP and YOG, and has just reopened recently after a $410 million facelift. Another national icon the Marina Bay Sands also invested in feng shui on the selection of opening dates, which could have explained the phenomenal success of the casinos to date, but apparently didn’t ward off people plummeting to their deaths from over 50 storeys.

MM Lee once famously derided Feng Shui as ‘utter rubbish’, and anyone with a skeptical, rational mind can understand why, yet both bigwigs at Lend Lease and MBS are First World Westerners who subscribe to such magical thinking. Flailing revenues and accidents are part and parcel of the natural progression of any retail structure, but I guess a little superstition wouldn’t hurt. I’m not an expert in the ancient pseudoscience, but I question how effective geomancy is compared to say, getting religious leaders from every faith down to pray for JEM’s structural integrity and the safety of its tenants and shoppers. It seemed to have brought down the spate of Bedok Reservoir drownings.

It would be interesting to see how JEM incorporates feng shui in its remedial action plan, though the consultation fees could be better spent on securing water pipes. A name change would be awkward at this juncture, even though JEM rhymes with ‘(caught in a ) JAM’. Maybe all the sharp pointy leaves as part of their green replacement strategy has something to do with it.

Postscript: Jem reopened on 2 Oct 2013, after the BCA certified it safe for humans and a fengshui consultant instructed that a trolley bay be removed at the Jurong Gateway entrance because it was ‘blocking the flow of energy through the entrance’ (Jem mall reopens after 2 week closure, 3 Oct 2013, ST). Take note, future mall builders, that your interiors must be flushed with energy to prevent walls from falling down.

Bidadari new town should be renamed ‘Sunshine estate’

From ‘S’poreans unfazed by Bidadari’s past’, 1 Sept 2013, article by Rachel Tan, Sunday Times

…Once the largest grave site in Singapore, the 18ha Bidadari Cemetery is making way for a new Housing Board town and private estates. However, many young Singaporeans are not aware of its history. From a group of around 20 people in their 20s and 30s that The Sunday Times spoke to, only half knew it was a burial ground.

…Mr Gan Ying Kiat, 30, was looking to move to the Bidadari area with his wife. “I’m not bothered by its cemetery history,” he said. “I’m aware that other housing areas like Bishan were also cemeteries.

…Bidadari – meaning “angel” or “fairy” in Malay – had sections for Muslims, Hindus, Singhalese and Christians but burials ended there in 1972. Towns such as Bishan, Toa Payoh and parts of Bukit Timah were also cemeteries.

…Businesswoman Eunice Tan believes it will take a lot of incentives to entice people to live on a former graveyard. The 60-year-old said: “Frankly, I wouldn’t like to live on such burial grounds unless the prices and amenities are extremely attractive, especially for first-time buyers.”

She even proposed alternative names for the new development – including “Happy Estate” and “Sunshine Estate”.

Ms Sitifazilah Perey had similar sentiments. She wrote on Facebook: “Since there are a significant number of superstitious Singaporeans, it is better to change the name.”

Bishan today is more renown for an elite institution, a congested MRT interchange and an iconic park than a place where dead bodies were left to rot. It’s also known for maisonettes with sky-high prices more terrifying than the ghost stories we used to tell about the last train on the MRT line, or creepy tales about the said prestigious school itself. Not that supernatural urban legends or dug up skeletons will stop people from sending their children to RI, or making Bishan their home (because of wanting to send their children to RI).

Formerly the graveyard known as ‘Pek San Teng’, Bishan was renamed to its Hanyu Pinyin version as part of a $700 million facelift with the original intention of housing ‘LOWER and MIDDLE income groups’. Haunted or not, that didn’t stop ‘superstitious Singaporeans’ from flocking to what was touted as a ‘spanking new’, ‘state of the art HDB‘. Nobody cared if Kampung San Teng used to be a gangster hideout; Bishan was the future then and remains popular now, even if property prices continue to feel like bloody extortion.

Bidadari, a bird naturalist and cyclist haven, looks set to follow in Bishan’s footsteps, yet another relentless drive to turn our hallowed grounds into trendy estates, unabashed urban sacrilege for the sake of progress. History tells us that the government may tweak its name to help people forget about wandering spirits, but one shouldn’t patronise its morbid past by calling it the schmaltzy ‘Sunshine estate’, which sounds more like a retirement hub than an up-and-coming model for sustainable living.

I doubt they would turn a Malay word into Hanyu Pinyin either, because there’s no difference between ‘Bi Da Da Li’ and ‘Bidadari’. My only reservation with the sing-song ‘Bidadari’ is its inconvenient phonetics which encourages tongue-twisters, like ‘Hey Dar, I bid for Bidadari BTO already!’, and that it sounds like a lyric in a 90’s techno song . I have to admit I also typo-ed ‘Bididari’ and ‘Bidadiri’ while writing this post.  Who knows, there may be a competition for such things. How about ‘Vernon’ after the nearby columbarium? ‘Woodley’ as a hybrid of Bartley and Woodleigh (both neighbouring MRT stations)? Or Angelville?

Whatever it’s called, there will be urban legends, legends that our kids will remember more than what Bidadari actually once was.  But it’s not just the ghost of long-haired women in white that we should be worried about, but the ghost of ecological damage coming back to haunt us. Nobody cared about exotic birds or variable squirrels when Bishan was developed, and if voices against environmental holocaust go ignored this time, Bidadari, like Bishan, will within 30 years turn from promising ‘urban oasis’ to a cookie-cutter HDB town with smatterings of sterile, forced greenery where the only link it has with its cemetery past would be how devoid of a soul it is.

Compassvale Ancilla Latin for ‘girl servant’ or ‘sea snails’

From ‘Matilda Portico? HDB gets into the name game’, 19 May 2013, article by Daryl Chin, Sunday Times

A portico is a columned walkway that originated in ancient Greece. Nautilus is a shellfish and the name of Captain Nemo’s submarine in the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. What about ancilla? It does not exist even in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, but is said to have a Latin origin and apparently means girl servant, or sea snails.

…Among the latest Build-To-Order (BTO) projects announced in March this year was one in Punggol called Matilda Portico. Compassvale Ancilla in Sengkang Central and the Nautilus in Punggol are the other names the HDB has come up with in recent years. Others include Waterway Sunbeam, Punggol Spectra, The Periwinkle, Edgedale Green and The Coris.

These tongue-twisters may be a bane to non-English-speaking elderly folk and taxi drivers, but the HDB says it is all part of a long- term branding policy, which it hopes creates a special identity and builds a sense of community among residents. “The objective was to create local identities that residents can relate to and foster neighbourliness,” said a spokesman for HDB.

…The HDB said its guiding principles for names include the location of the estate, special design features and any interesting historical or cultural link. As much as possible, HDB would also choose names that are distinct from nearby developments to avoid confusion.

…The HDB even has a theme going for studio apartment projects, which are meant to provide seniors with affordable housing. All have the word “golden” in the first part of their names to indicate graceful ageing. The second part can come from local plants or spices, like Golden Saffron in Woodlands.

*Video stills from Stomp/Wah Banana.

HDB has been ripping off condo concepts for BTO branding for years, and since most words containing ‘water’ in them have already been taken, why not a name that sounds like a high-end Italian bakery? Matilda Portico is supposedly inspired by the nearby Matilda House, an abandoned and the only bungalow left standing in Punggol which as of 2012 has been converted to a clubhouse for a condo that calls itself A TREASURE TROVE . Imagine asking a taxi uncle to take you to ‘A Treasure Trove’. He’d probably ask you if you have a wooden leg and a parrot on your shoulder.

And what an ‘interesting historical link’ this Matilda House is, especially if you’re the superstitious sort. ‘Matilda’ was the mother of an Irish businessman named Alexander Cashin, who built the house in her honour in 1902. Alexander’s father, Joseph, was a 19th century expat who made his fortune out of OPIUM farms. Also known as Istana Menanti (The Waiting Palace), rumour has it that it’s HAUNTED and that several construction workers were killed mysteriously while trying to demolish it. In fact, so renown is its spookiness that it is one of the stopovers of the Singapore Spooky Tour organised by the Asia Paranormal Investigators, advertised as the ‘most haunted home in the city’. With the recent makeover, the only thing scary about Matilda today are the prices of the condos and ‘atas’ BTO flats surrounding it. With a name like Portico, I’d expect the facade of a Roman bathhouse at the very least.

Punggol Amityville.

‘Ancilla’, on the other hand, has as much cultural or historical relevance as naming another BTO after a fabled submarine. A quick Google tells us that it indeed refers to a genus of sea snails, while in Latin it also means maid, or girl-slave. I don’t know about the natural history of sea snails in Punggol or whether they have been eaten to extinction thanks to Pungool Seafood, but maids we have aplenty. If you Google IMAGE ‘Ancilla’, however, you don’t see gastropods or slaves, but THIS:

Ancilla, Playboy model

Ancilla, Playboy model

Goodness, HDB has unwittingly named one of its projects after a nude model. Let’s hope it turns out to be as sexy as it sounds. But remember, residents of Ancilla, it’s not pronounced AHN-SEE-LA, but AHN-KEE-LA (though both will confuse taxi drivers nonetheless). I bet some smart-alecks will attempt to say it like AHN-CHI-LA, as in CHINCHILLA. Those in the medical field will make nerdy jokes about how close it sounds to ‘axilla’, or ARMPIT. Meanwhile I would suggest HDB consult a marine biologist before giving BTOs such fishy names.

So it’s not just old people or taxi uncles who get confused about BTO and condo names, it’s the people who LIVE in these buildings themselves. Even deceptively simple words can have different interpretations, like Fernvale LEA: (LEE or LE-A). Don’t even get me started on D’Nest. You have BTO names which are a mouthful like WATERWAY SUNBEAM (not to be confused with Waterway Sundew),  or named after one of the 7 sins (Keat Hong Pride), a Wonder Woman accessory (Corporation Tiara), or a Superman accessory (Compassvale Cape). Not to mention frustrating clones like Tampines GreenTerrace, GreenForest and Greenleaf. All without the spacing in between. Like, you know, atreasuretrove. Kids, don’t try this in school.

There is also the trend of naming studio apartment for seniors with the word ‘Golden’ in them. I’m sure old folks can handle numbers and traditional names like ‘Kim Keat’ and ‘Choa Chu Kang’ easily, but forcing them to say ‘Golden Saffron’, ‘Golden Clover’ or ‘Golden KISMIS‘ is a form of elderly abuse. There’s even a ‘Golden DAISY’ which sounds more like a florist in People’s Park Complex than a home. What if they get lost and need help finding their way home but can’t tell us where they live? What if taxi drivers and paramedics end up at Golden Mile or Golden Village cinema instead? In any case, ‘golden’ is passe. Seniors now belong to the ‘silver’ generation. So how about Silver Crest, Silver Hills, Silvervale or Silver Waves? Wait, scrap the last one, that sounds too much like a tsunami.

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