Bottles Tree: The Mystery of Tree Worship at Tanjong Pager

A so-called sacred tree man-made or by supernatural power?

Written by SPI team, edited by John Kwok, PhD candidate, History researcher

“Sacred” Trees in Singapore

In 2007, a road accident involving a roadside African Mahogany tree at Jurong in Singapore was published in the local press. The focus however, was not the tragedy of the accident, but the tree after its bark was stripped off as a result of the accident and revealed what looked like the head of two monkeys. Local Singaporeans interpreted it to mean a deity living in the tree. Dubbed the Monkey Tree, it inspired local cults to worship at the tree for good fortune, especially praying for winning lottery numbers. Devotees left offerings at the tree and the crowds of people to gather to make them often resulted in human and traffic congestion, much to the displeasure of the residents neighbourhood.

The Monkey Tree was popular in Singapore, but it was by no means a unique phenomena. SPI has discovered that another tree in Singapore, while not as popular as the Monkey Tree, featured evidence of tree worship. This tree was located in the heart of Singapore’s CBD at the junction of Kepple Road and Anson. It was not difficult to spot this tree for it stands at a busy junction. Of the many trees that line the Tanjong Pagar Complex, this one in particularly, near some office buildings and a hawker centre, was donned with dozens of water bottles hung from its branches. SPI agents made some enquiry from passers-by and office workers nearby. Surprisingly, most did not pay much attention to it or failed to notice the strangely decorated tree entirely. Indeed, it begs the question, why was this tree decorated in such a manner?

Observations

Each water bottle was connected to another by a long strip of orange coloured string. Each pair of bottles was hung from branches on the tree and was neatly spaced out; they were not clustered in one bunch. Each bottle was also filled and capped with a clear liquid, believed to be water. There were 32 bottles altogether – strung into 16 pairs. The conditions of the bottles suggest that they were all put up at the same time; there were uniform levels of corrosion on them. Furthermore, from physical examinations of the bottles, it appeared that they were recently strung up and hung on the tree. Further indications came from the contents of the bottles; the liquid was clear and showed only minute traces of contamination by pollution and weathering. This indicates that the bottles were all hung at one effort, possibly even by the same person or organisation. However, when empty bottles and string were found tucked and hidden away behind the tree, it suggests that more bottles would be progressively added to it, possibly in stages.

In addition to the hanging bottles were several decorated bottles placed near the tree. One in particularly featured detailed flower patterns and made to resemble a lantern. Another, in contrast, also resembled a lantern but was crudely made with plastic rings cut from mineral water bottles and joined together. At the foot of the tree was a strange object made from metal wire. The wire was skilfully woven into a circular object with the ends left sticking up, resembling a pair of pointed horns. A red make-shift tassel was attached to each end of the horns. In front of this strange object were burnt joss sticks stuck on the ground. There were also traces of joss papers and evidence that a large scale type of offering ritual had been performed at the tree. It reminds one of the offerings made to spirits during the Hungry Ghost festival. It is likely that the wire-framed object was representative of a tree deity or powerful spirit. But while tree worshipping or the making of offerings to spirits at nature objects is commonly performed in Singapore, the main feature of the tree, the practice of hanging filled bottles on a tree is not.

The Investigation

The bottles, filled liquid and hanging from the branches of the tree, reminds some SPI agents of the famous Wishing Tree in Hong Kong. Kenny recalled during a previous case that took him to visit the Wishing Tree in Hong Kong years ago:

The minute we alighted from our vehicle, crowds of aunties rushed up to me asking to buy their joss-sticks. They thought that we wanted to see the Wishing Tree and to toss on it a pair of oranges, tied together by a long red string, for good luck. We quickly and successfully avoided them and instead made our way directly to a make-shift counter set up near a large joss-stick urn.

A devotee at the counter quoted me several categories of prices for their iconic wish-making oranges that come with a stack of joss papers for burning as offerings. The prices reflected the types of wishes one would like to make i.e. individual blessings, family blessings or blessings for success in business. Each type of blessing commands a different price. And they did not come cheap. Blessings start at HKD88 and could climb to HKD1388. I was astonished that a pair of oranges and a small stack of joss papers could command such prices and wondered if I could bring my own offerings. After all, it’s the same kind of offering we are making to the same tree.  

It is unfortunate that making a wish or requests for blessings have been turned into well-oiled money making scheme at the Wishing Tree. Elsewhere, making wishes were accompanied by a simple gesture of tossing a coin into a well or fountain. Fortunately, however, recently I have heard that the Hong Kong Wishing Tree is now better regulated with the emphasis on preserving it as a unique local cultural tradition.   

When Kenny saw the filled bottles hanging from the tree in Singapore, he immediately drew parallels with the Wishing Tree in Hong Kong.

1. Evidence of burnt offerings at the foot of the tree reinforces the notion that this tree is recognised as auspicious or special like the Wishing Tree or the Monkey Tree mentioned earlier.

2. Oranges are regarded as symbolic representations of wealth, prosperity and good fortune. These are also popular wishes made by believers at the Wishing Tree. There is also a popular belief at the Wishing Tree that the higher the throw and the higher the orange is caught on the tree branches, one’s wishes would be better heard by spirits and the greater possibility that that one’s wishes would be fulfilled.

Singaporeans may have also adopted the tradition of tossing auspicious items on an auspicious tree. Instead of tossing a pair of oranges strung by a long red string up the tree for good luck, local Singaporeans toss instead bottles of water. A former SPI Cultural specialist believes that these bottles were a symbolic representation of a vessel that hold the dreams and wishes of one making the offering. However, there is a more plausible explanation that stem from the symbol of the oranges in Hong Kong; water in local Chinese culture represents wealth and fortune.

The person or organisation who hung the bottles on the tree in Singapore was very likely mimicking practices from the popular and famous Wishing Tree in Hong Kong. The Money Tree in Hong Kong proved very popular in terms of tourism dollars and the bottle tree in Singapore could be an attempt to reproduce similar results in Singapore.

The Consequence

However, the creators of the bottle tree in Singapore may not be aware that their activities have broken the law on littering in Singapore. According to the Environmental Public Health Act, it is an offense to litter at any public place or public street. The items left on and around the tree can be interpreted as litter. Littering as an offence in Singapore carries a maximum fine of S$1,000 for the first offence and S$2,000 for a subsequent offence. The offence may be compounded for S$150 if it is a first offense – the offender must attend a 15 minute briefing on how littering can harm the environment. In 1992, the EPH (Corrective Work Order) (CWO) Regulations was passed, under which litterers may be required to clean up a public place. As from Feb. 2, 1996, the power to arrest those who litter was extended to operators of public vehicles. In 1999, the number of hours which a person may be required to work under a CWO was increased from 3 hours to a maximum of 12 hours, but not exceeding 3 hours per day.

Will the creators of the bottle tree in Singapore return and continue what they started? Or have they realised the gravity of their activities in terms of breaking the law? SPI will keep you updated with these strange hanging bottles. 

Tree worship is a cultural belief that worshippers will receive blessings from spirits. Such spirits may directly reside in trees or through the tree they can be communicated in other realms. The spirits can reward worshippers of material requests such as winning lotteries or other wealth. Sometimes the tree spirits can give protection, for example healing illness or safety in transportation.

Tree worship is a matter of worshipping physical objects that is deemed nothing but superstition in skeptics’ eyes. Chinese religious folk beliefs are full of such magical stuffs. In ancient times, when indigenous people did not understand science, plus the fear from the natural environments around them, they placed huge respects on things that are larger than life or relate to their daily survival, such as thunder, rain, moon, sun, mountains, trees etc. Such respects became the primitive elements of shamanism and animism for hoping of some supernatural power would protect them against threats and dangers, that later evolved into a cultural practice. They worshiped most if not all natural substances from stone idols to biological plants and animals (ox, tiger, monkey, snake gods), often in admiration of their physical strengths.

Such physical strengths that appear greater than that of human which might be not understood (or explained) scientifically, were imagined to carry supernatural powers by our ancestors in the old days.

The Ghoulish Trail (3rd Stop)

Fort canning Park
Kampong Java Park
Bukit Brown Cemetery (Kopi Hill)
Mt Pleasant Cemetery
Devil’s Bend
Old Changi Hospital

History

George Henry Brown arrived from Calcutta via Penang about 1840.  He bought the area and called it Mount Pleasant.  Brown was a ship owner in Singapore trading to China and Japan.  He was a strong supporter of the Presbyterian Church where he played the organ which he had bought from the old London Mission Chapel at the junction of North Bridge and Bras Basah roads.

The organ later went to the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.  The land was bought by Ong Kew Ho and the Hokkien Huay Kuan who gave it to the She Ong Kongsi.  After much resistance from the kongsi, the government acquired the land in 1919 and opened it as a public burial ground which was managed by a committee led by Tan Kheam Hock and See Tiong Wah, compradore of the Hongkong Bank, on 1 Jan 1922.  Another commonly known name especially for taxi drivers is Kheam Hock Road Cemetery because it is situated along Kheam Hock Road.

The 213 acre Bukit Brown Cemetery was known among the Chinese as “kopi sua” or coffee hill.  The cemetery contained some very ornate graves, complete with “jagas” in Sikh dress to guard them.  In the 1970s the government began to clear the cemetery for redevelopment.  The clearing process has been stagnated recently.  Yet it remains as one of the oldest cemetery in Singapore.  You can see very old trees and unique plantation all over the hill.

Strange solitary sight

This muddy mound stands away from the other tombs on Kheam Hock Road’s Kopi Hill.  It has flower offerings and a flag covering it.  On the flag there is a Chinese verse saying “Seek Ye The One True God To Be Saved”.  Despite the odd grammar, it roughly means “Seek ways to be saved by some kind of god” in proper English.  Obviously its meaning associates with certain religious doctrines, and it surely has its purpose to be there.  A big joss stick urn is placed under the flag pole that makes it more like an altar than a grave.

As shown in the picture, the muddy mound is quite well maintained as the grass was trimmed in a circle around it.  And the patch of lawn near the mound was properly mowed too.  Perhaps that is the only place where you see has been tidied up, while the rest of the hill is left abandoned like a wild jungle.  That shows some people are making use of it and therefore well keeping it.

Boutique tombstones

Throughout the whole cemetery, you will see tombs scattering around the hill.  The tombstones are in grayish sometimes orange in color.  They are in lime-stones and some have slightly more content in sulfur.  Most of them are ornate in structure.  Ancient deities and gods images acting as “guardians” graced the tombs especially the Chinese ones.  For example, as in the first top photo, some wordings were engraved on each side of the pillars that says in Chinese “The vital soul travels to the west sky”, and “The jade body buried in the southern land”.  The Chinese believe that west sky symbolizes heaven, and a land situated in the south direction is of good feng shui that brings good luck.  Many tombstones of similar style can be found everywhere, but may come in slightly different shape or wordings.  The second top photo shows a tomb of the same kind but in dual mode, possibly for a couple.

In the first two photos on the second row, you will see tombs that are smaller and very old, covered by overgrown grasses.  Some tombs even got the front tablets pushed down by the weed plants.  And sadly speaking, nobody bothers to do any repair work for it.  They are among the majority of them receiving very little maintenance.  In contrast, the tombs that are shown on the last two photos stand brilliantly in good shape.  They look grand, clean and each one individually occupies quite a large area of land.  Their locations are of course prominent and near the main track, that usually have a good facing overlooking the valley on the down slope.  They are probably for the rich people, just like some live in luxury mansions, some in condominium and some in HDB flats while they were alive.  Realistic world, isn’t it?

Treasure land of Feng Shui

Regardless of shape, grade or color, all the tombs share one good thing: they all situated on the treasure land of good Feng Shui in Kopi Hill.  The 213 acre of land is of a large dome shape with a slight steep hill in the center and a long narrow water creek surrounding the whole land.  Such is a very good topographical feature in Feng Shui which helps collecting the universal spiritual breath (Ch’i).  The form of hill and the direction of watercourses, being the outcome of the molding influences of wind and water, are just right well balanced in Kopi Hill.  However, at the concentric center of the hill, trees have grown over many decades into a dense forest blocking the “Yang” part of the cosmic breath (sunlight).  The “Yin” energy gets exceptionally strong that cultivates many negatively charged entities.  In a material form, it manifests many insects (mosquitoes, spiders, ants) and very heavy mists.  Yes, there are sightings of mysterious smoke or mist that suddenly come and disappear in both daytime and nighttime.  And when the heavy Yin energy comes into spiritual forms, they Are Beyond Our Imagination…

Whether we believe in Feng Shui or not, it is true that those dead resting in Kopi Hill are the pioneer generation of Singaporeans who contributed building our nation.  Their siblings are blessed and live in good standard of living in today’s modern Singapore.

For the living or the dead?

We have some insider news that this treasure land will be converted into a prestige residential estate soon in the future.  The government is planning to exhume the tombs, probably after Bididari.  As for now, just outside the cemetery boundary there have already existed a number of bungalows and semi-D sitting just a few meters away from tombs (see the second photo).  Singapore’s land is a scarce resource.  Kopi Hill is truly a Feng Shui land that even the living wants to take it over from the dead!

To keep the souls and spirits in control, an Earthly God (Tao De Kung Kung) is placed right at the entrance.  Fruits and incenses are offered to him as a continuous supply.  However, a big rubbish bin is placed right in front of it that may have defected its power (see the first photo).

If we were asked about how haunted is Kopi Hill, we would like to answer by taking you there and let you see it yourself.  At night, it is pitch dark, no street lights, and the visibility depends much on the amount of moon light available on that night.  Even aided with strong torches, you won’t be able to see far because of the thick mist and fog that disperse the light.  Looking around, other than visions of plants and tombstones, you will “feel” that there is always something staring at you!  Most of our Ghoulish Trail guests said so.  In the 70’s Kopi Hill used to be a hidden place as well as a gathering arena for the gangsters of secret society.  These people who known to be the dare-devils whose business is to fight violently and brutally, even got mysteriously deterred from staying there later on.  Rumors said that they have encountered “something” more scary and more fierce than them!  Occasionally, police would patrol around the cemetery after midnight to safe guard the rich residents nearby.  They would have at least come in a troop of six with firearms!  Just imagine what kind of “enemy” they are anticipating when compared to airport patrols in a small group of 2 or 3 guarding against deadly terrorists.  Hope this little information would have given you hints about how haunted is Kopi Hill…