Beware of old ladies selling crackers, haunted MRT stations and the evil eye. How many superstitions in Singapore have you heard of?
Despite Singapore being a modern city, we’re quite a superstitious bunch. It’s true; we enjoy ghost stories and we’re home to urban legends that have lingered forever. Here are some local superstitions we’ve unearthed in Singapore. And yes, it’s okay to admit you’re a believer…
Local superstitions and urban legends in Singapore
1. Rain, rain, go away
Chilli is beloved in Singapore, especially among spice fiends. But some say that it can do more than just give your stomach a fiery kick. It’s believed that chilli (and onion) can help stave off the rain gods. The legend, which has Malay origins from the island’s kampung days, says that you should place both items under a tree (or possibly put them on a stick first). Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once cracked a joke about it during a Formula 1 interview in 2008. There’s no scientific proof, but hey, no harm in trying it if you really want a sunny day.
2. “Eh, touch wood”
Have you ever said something ominous to a friend, only for them to respond with “touch wood” before frantically looking for a piece of wood to tap? You’re not the only one. Although the act of knocking on wood may seem random, it actually stems from ancient pagan practices. The belief is that spirits live in trees, and if you knock on the tree, you’re calling on the spirit for help and good fortune. Or, in our case, preventing something bad from happening.
3. The rules of a gambler
For anyone who enjoys the occasional thrill of poker or mahjong (or any game that involves money and a bit of luck), you might’ve encountered that one person at the table who insists there are certain rituals or acts that bring in luck. To attract it, players may wear pieces of clothing that are red or bring along a lucky item.
However, other things can block luck. If you’re watching a game unfold, make sure to keep your hands to yourself. The Chinese believe touching a gambler’s shoulders washes away their luck. The same goes for counting your money while you’re still gambling or leaving your seat before the game is done, even if it’s to use the bathroom. So if you’re on a winning streak, you might want to hold it.
4. Flee from uninvited guests
We’ve all heard our mums telling us to head straight to the shower after coming home. Apart from it being a good hygiene habit, there’s another reason why staying clean keeps you in good books. Any guesses? It literally means washing away spirits that may have tagged along from the outside world. Other variations include washing your feet (especially around the heel) or cleaning your face and feet three times and saying a prayer before entering your bedroom. Yes, it’s very precise.
Things get a little serious if you’re coming back from a funeral. Urban legends say you can only enter your house after washing your hands and feet and sprinkling water on your head.
5. Don’t gift clocks or shoes!
In Mandarin, the phrase “giving a clock” sounds the same as “attending a funeral”. That’s why clocks and watches are considered taboo presents in Chinese culture as they’re a reference to death. What about shoes? Also originating from Chinese beliefs, the pronunciation of the word “shoes” sounds exactly the same as the word “evil” in Mandarin. That’s why it’s not advisable to buy a new pair of kicks on the first few days of the Lunar New Year. Not to mention, gifting someone a pair of shoes is a sign the receiver will walk away from your life. We won’t take any chances!
6. Dos and don’ts when on vacation
There are plenty of number-related superstitions that find their way to our vacays. Many holiday-goers avoid staying on the 13th floor as it’s deemed bad luck. Some even go as far as staying away from flight seat numbers. Apart from that, it’s also believed that the number four attracts bad luck as it sounds a lot like “death” in Mandarin.
Before you set foot in your hotel room, it’s apparently advisable to take off your shoes and place one of them with the sole facing up so that wandering spirits won’t follow you in. Many hotels (especially old buildings) are believed to have spirits attached to hotel rooms, so you’re encouraged to knock on the door three times to announce your presence and apologise for intruding before entering.
7. We all carry a lucky charm with us
Have you ever seen the $1 Singapore coin? It’s inscribed with an octagon, which looks like a Chinese “bagua”. That’s the tool used in feng shui to learn which areas in your home or office building correlate with particular aspects of life. It’s also used as protection against negative energy and creates good fortune and harmony.
When the construction of the MRT tunnels through downtown Singapore first began, feng shui masters said that would have a negative effect on us. The cure? Carrying a “bagua” around at all times. However, since it would be impossible to get everyone across all races and religions to adhere to this Chinese belief, the design was allegedly incorporated into the $1 coin. That way, everyone would have a “bagua” on them. According to hearsay, this was the idea of none other than the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
8. MRT stations are home to… ghosts?
Are you even surprised? Singapore is tiny, so chances are high that your workplace, home or favourite hangout spot used to be a cemetery. Brace yourself, because these MRT stations were apparently former cemeteries: Orchard, Woodleigh, Newton, Bishan, Novena, Caldecott and Tiong Bahru. We’re pretty sure there are more, too. At Bishan and Novena, there have been alleged sightings of headless spectres and phantom passengers on trains. Don’t go home too late tonight!
9. Never open your door for the makcik keropok
It’s a superstition that surfaces time and time again in Singapore, involving makciks making the rounds in a neighbourhood. It apparently starts with a knock on the door and the greeting “kum kum” (a shortened version of the Muslim greeting “Assalamualaikum” – a makcik keropok can’t say this because she is an unholy person). But sometimes, it’s an old lady selling crackers.
The kum kum is said to be a lady obsessed with youth and beauty, so her main agenda is to feast on the blood of virgins (very original). The makcik keropok is said to have a pontianak as her “assistant”, so if you buy her keropok, the consequences will be pretty dire. All that said, no one really wins. And it does sound like an alternative marketing PSA formulated by the National Environment Agency to stop us from buying food from unlicensed vendors.
10. The haunting of hungry ghosts
During Hungry Ghost Festival, people avoid stepping on offerings or joss sticks on the ground. Stranger practices include not tapping on someone’s shoulder during that month. The explanation? Chinese believe that there are three “flames”: One on the forehead and one on each shoulder. It’s bad for these “flames” to go out, which can happen when someone pats you on the shoulder.
Another belief: you should stop swimming during the seventh month in case spirits try to drag you down. It’s basically a month when the Gates of Hell open and all the ghosts are released to visit their loved ones or wander around. So yeah, we suppose you could just stay at home to be safe.
11. The third door
Anyone who has served their National Service (NS) would’ve heard of this infamous local superstition. The short version: A recruit who was ill went on a march through the forests of Tekong. But when it was time to do a headcount, his platoon realised he was missing. One frantic search later, his body was found under a tree – and this is where variations come in. Some say his field pack items were neatly displayed on the mud, while his internal organs were torn out and arranged beside the tree. Gnarly.
The thing is, said recruit allegedly returned to his bunk as an angry spirit and disturbed the others. He was trapped in the bunk, but upon consultation with spiritual advisors, a third door was built for the spirit to let himself out. We haven’t heard any follow-ups yet, so let’s hope he’s found peace at last.
12. Never point at the moon
We’re not sure how this folklore came about. But as the saying goes, you shouldn’t point directly at the moon, especially a full moon, as the back of your ears will be snipped off while you’re asleep. Pretty sure this urban legend is busted with no reports of mutilated ears. But hey, if you want your little kiddos to behave, you know what to do.
13. Pissing in public is a no-no
When nature calls, you have to answer. But if there’s no toilet in sight and you happen to relieve yourself in a public space, do take note that firstly, the act is punishable by law. And secondly, you might actually be disrespecting a spirit’s home. So if you can’t really hold it in, it’s best to apologise – that’s the least you can do when you piss on someone else’s property.
More one-liner superstitions in Singapore you may have heard of…
- If there’s a mirror in front of your bed, cover it before you sleep or your soul won’t return to your body.
- For women who are pregnant or couples trying to have children, don’t keep an empty stroller in your house to avoid bad luck.
- If you want to marry someone attractive, you know what to do – finish all the food on your plate!
- Don’t cut your nails at night… you may just shorten your lifespan.
- Don’t look directly at trees when walking at alone night unless you want a surprise.
- Sleeping with your feet or bed facing the door brings bad luck.
- Don’t shake your legs; you’ll lose your luck.
- Don’t take photos in three as the person in the middle will be the first to die.
- Don’t change seating arrangements when having a meal, unless you want multiple divorces and rotten luck in love.
- Don’t whistle at night ‘cos spirits on the street will follow you home.
Know of a local superstition or urban legend in Singapore we didn’t mention? DM us @Honeycombers!