Chinese death rituals from history: Sago Lane

Alexandra Ciufudean August 21, 2020
The story of Sago Lane

In Singapore’s Chinatown, there is a street called Sago Lane, where, during the first part of the 20th century, poor and middle class Chinese immigrants came to die.

Chinese death rituals at home were costly and complicated affairs, which only the very rich could afford. According to superstition, a death “contaminated” the house with evil spirits and brought bad luck to its remaining occupants.

To exorcise it, the family had to burn an offering of valuable items, including joss sticks and piles of paper money. By the time they recovered from the cost of one exorcism, another relative would die and the ordeal started all over again.

The Chinese death houses on Sago Lane overflowed with people who couldn’t afford this process or simply had no one to care for them in their last days.

Death houses for immigrants and the poor

Chinese migration into Singapore had decreased a lot since the start of the Communist regime and earlier generations of migrants were growing old poor and far away from home.

Artist Yip Yew Chong’s drawing of his childhood memories of Sago Lane. Photo by Yip Yew Chong

One example of this are the Samsui women, who came to Singapore between the 1920s-1940s looking for industrial and construction work. Many of them never managed to return to their home provinces and ended up dying in the sick-receiving houses on Sago Lane.

Inside a Sago Lane death house

At its height in the 1950s, Sago Lane was home to 7 businesses catering to every step of the Chinese death ritual. The bottom level shops sold coffins and funeral paraphernalia – joss sticks, paper effigies – while on the second floor, the terminally ill and dying stretched out on hard beds supported by little stools at each end.

The rooms were dormitory-style, one for men and one for women and offered little in terms of privacy or comfort. Still, it was preferable to dying alone. 

Though there wasn’t much in the way of medical treatment, a doctor came in every day to check on guests, and employees worked round the clock to make them as comfortable as possible. If a deceased didn’t have any family present, the staff would pray for their soul and make offerings at the funeral to secure its safe passage.

Photo by Mr Yip Cheong-Fun

Chinese death rituals on Sago Lane

When a guest’s relatives did come, however, the whole family all but moved into the place for days leading up to the funeral. They would eat, sleep and entertain guests on Sago Lane, throwing dinner parties in the street to show their loved one that they hadn’t been forgotten.

The richer the family, the more elaborate the table spreads and festivities, sometimes extending well into the street with nightly music and dancing.

One of the death houses along Sago Lane in 1960. Photo by National Archives of Singapore, Wong Ken Foo

Chinese death rituals on Sago Lane culminated in a noisy and colourful funeral, where relatives, friends, staff and Taoist monks all spilled out into the street.

Most processions had a brass band and mourners, but some of the more lavish ones went all-out with flowers, deafening gongs and stilt-walkers to accompany the coffin and turn the event into a defiant celebration of life. 

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Alexandra is Head of Entertainment at The Focus, managing a growing team of outstanding graduate and experienced writers. She has worked previously as an editor, writer and content specialist across web, video and social platforms and has a bachelor's in English Linguistics and a master's in Comparative Literature.