Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cost of a coffin in 1920's (Bukit Brown)

During one of my research on Bukit Brown, i became curious and wanted to find out what is the average cost of a burial for a layperson during the 1920's.  I came across this article that highlights Mr Aw Boon Haw (manufacturer of Tiger Balm) who gave away 300 coffins for relatives of the deceased and also free passage back to China for living persons above the age 60 to return to their birth place.
Straits Times and The Singapore Free Press
(source: NewspaperSG)

From the article, the gem that was gathered other than the philanthropy spirit of Mr Aw is the cost of a simple burial ceremony for a person in the late 1920's. As you can see, a simple burial at the time can cost as much as $27, with the bulk of it going to Coffin cost -$18.

Cost of living in the 1920's
How much can $18 buy you then and how easy can one make that kind of money? Well, in 1923, a tin containing 50 individual imported cigarettes cost 85 cents,  a night out in the movies -50 cents, a pair of tennis shoe's from Tan Kah Kee's company -$1.30 and finally an office shirt -$2.00.
Advertising of different items in the 1920's
(source: NewspaperSG)

Researching further, using an example of an unmarried rickshaw puller in the 1920's as a yardstick, coming as a "sinkeh" to Singapore, he has to fork out roughly $1.00- $1.60 to rent a small space in a lodging house in town that cramps together over 100 people in a 3 story house. The take home pay for a rickshaw puller is between 80 cents - $1.00 per day. The average amount saved by him per month after taking into account the cost of living expenses and bearing no circumstantial issues (e.g. sickness that might robbed him of his strength and ability to work, or worst still, his savings), is about $6-$8. This money is used by him to save or remit back to China or spend on himself or family.

 In a 1941 Straits Time article, Mr A. Kingdom Ward, a botanist who spend many years in China made a salient observation in which i quote "that in the West, the concern is on the cost of living, while in China or for the Chinese, it is the cost of dying".

So, now at least we know how much, roughly a simple tomb in the pauper section at Bukit Brown cost and the amount of hard work the love one of the deceased is likely to fork out back then.

Offer of Free Coffins. (1927, August 22) The Straits Times
Search for the Chinese "Coffin Tree". (1941, September 11). The Straits Times
Warren, James Francis.(2003). Rickshaw coolie: a people's history of Singapore, 1880-1940. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pages 46-48.

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