I have previously shared a number of strange tales about my grandmother's house in Cairnhill, with its shadowed past. During WWII, when Singapore fell under the Occupation from 1942 - 1945, several violent deaths had occurred in the area. Such troubled memories can linger on.
My elder sister, Lily and I attended school in the Cairnhill locale during the 1970s, when Singapore was not as heavily populated, nor were there as many tall buildings along Orchard Road, the main thoroughfare of the CBD. Our school comprised a series of rambling colonial-style buildings on a hill, situated off Orchard Road. A number of stately mansions from the same period lined that steep incline, under the dark shade of leafy trees. It was a quiet secluded area, with the traffic sounds from Orchard Road dying away almost as soon as we stepped onto the narrow footpath.
There was one property in particular that caught my attention. It had a sprawling overgrown garden like the one at my grandmother's house, a tropical jungle with tall grass, lush banana plants, slender nibong palms, an umbrella-shaped flame-of-the-forest and a few angsana trees. At the very front, overlooking the path, was a huge banyan tree with trailing adventitious roots that looked like a grumpy old man with a long beard. I called him Old Man Tree. Remember Treebeard, the Ent from Lord of the Rings, the shepherd of trees? In my mind, he would have taken the form of an ancient banyan tree.
A wooden shelter, complete with a roof and mounted on a platform, sat behind the curtain of roots. It looked to be a small tree house built for the children of some wealthy family, abandoned after they had grown up. I was never tempted to wander off the path and venture any closer to explore it. There was something that warned me to stay away.
From the size of the banyan tree, it had probably stood there for over a hundred years or more. It could even have dated back to the days when Singapore was covered with mangrove swamps. My Primary School classmates whispered vague warnings about Old Man Tree and how that little house was supposed to be haunted. As there was not much detail, I took them as just stories.
In the years when Lily was with me, all would be well. There was safety in numbers. But then came the day she went to Secondary School and had classes at a different time. I was left to face Old Man Tree on my own.
It was almost midday and I was in the afternoon school session that year. I would have been about ten at the time. I was on my way to school, climbing up the hill and approaching the garden when I heard someone softly call my name. The voice did not sound familiar and I could not tell if it was from a man, or woman. But I was certain it came from the direction of Old Man Tree. I could not see anyone there. To be honest, I did not want to spare more than a cursory glance.
The day was hot and humid, but it was cool in the shade. Almost cold for a few seconds.
Suddenly, I was afraid, very afraid. My senses screamed at me to run!
In a panic, I scrambled up the hill as fast as my short legs would take me. My heart was pounding, my schoolbag bumping hard into my back with every step. I ran all the way towards the protection of the main school gates, expecting at any moment someone, or something, would grab me from behind.
But no one stopped me. By the time I was seated at my desk in class, I was halfway convinced nothing had happened. Even so, in the days that followed, I would quicken my pace when I neared the banyan tree and then dash past it.
Nothing else happened for a while and I began to relax, taking my time walking up the hill. But when it was least expected, I would hear my name being called again. Quietly. With no one in sight. Unnerved, I would make a run for it. I never stopped, never looked back.
Lily showed me another route to school when I told her I did not like going up that road. The other way took me to the back gates on the far side of the property, through the Secondary School section. It was a much longer, more roundabout way from the bus stop to school, but it enabled me to avoid going anywhere near Old Man Tree and that creepy little house.
For years, I did not mention those incidences to anyone, not even to my classmates. It was easier to tell myself it was just my imagination. I simply did not want to think about it.
Then my younger sister, Cara started Primary School and was warned by her friends to beware of the spirit who lived in the old banyan tree. She came home and talked to me about it, and we decided to ask Lily.
'Lily, remember that old banyan near the Primary School?' I asked.
She gave us a guarded look. 'Yeah, why?'
'People from school say that the tree house is haunted,' said Cara.
'Don't listen to those stories,' she chided. 'It's a spirit house, that's all.'
Just then, our mother walked into the room and heard us. 'Oh, that old place. Your Uncle and Auntie knew the people who used to live there.'
Our parents had lived in Grandma's house at Cairnhill, before I was born. Mum confirmed that the spirit house had been erected as a shrine to Sun Wu-kong, the Monkey God.
It is still the practice in IndoChina and other Southeast Asian countries to appease the spirits by providing shelter for them. Offerings are placed there to show due respect, in the hope that the spirits will not cause any trouble.
Was I imagining things all those years ago? Or was it a mischievous trickster god who gave me a scare?
Note: all names mentioned have been changed.