One of the great adventures of my life was living in Singapore in 1979 and 1980. Jesse was working for GATX and we relocated to Singapore when he was offered the opportunity to manage the company office there. I only lived in Singapore for a little over a year, but my experience there as an expatriate changed me forever and provided a treasure of memories.
Singapore in 1979 was a beautiful modern Asian city. Skyscrapers towered over the Singapore Strait, pure sparkling drinkable water flowed from the taps and new model cars filled the roads. And yet, there was always something old, something mysterious around the corner. The tropical air carried just a whiff of decay and heaviness blending with the delicious aromas of curries and stir fries.
Home for me, Jesse and our infant son, Brian, was 34 K Cairnhill Court. This was a modern multistory building with two rows of townhouses facing a central courtyard and pool. We lived in a spacious flat on the tenth floor. Leaving our property, we strolled down the historic Emerald Way lined with traditional townhomes and small family businesses to the bustling Orchard Road filled with modern department stores and shopping. Lives and cultures, the old and the new, mingled in our little corner of Singapore.
Baby Brian rose early and many mornings I took him out to enjoy the “cooler” air. We sat in the courtyard with the amahs and their little charges, who were enjoying the pool and lawn. Most spoke English and I enjoyed our conversations. I was considering hiring a live-in amah and asked the group for their advice. They immediately wanted to know which flat I lived in. “Oh”, they exclaimed, “No one will work for Missy if you live on the eighth floor.” I explained that this wasn’t a problem for me, as I lived on the tenth floor, and curiously inquired about the eighth floor’s problems, expecting to learn about plumbing problems or broken elevators.
“No one will work on the eighth floor because of the ghost! Only foreign amahs will live in this building!” exclaimed one amah. Others chimed in, “Oh yes, this is true Missy, many have seen this ghost. Just ask Mr. Lim. He will tell you.”
“Really? A ghost? Please, tell me more…,” I replied. The amahs explained that several years before the resident of the eighth floor had killed his wife, put her body in a trunk and kept her there. When the trunk was opened the murdered wife’s spirit escaped, and now she haunts this building.
Like most cultures, ghosts have a strong presence in Chinese folklore. A violent or unhappy death can lead to a lingering, sometimes malignant spirit. The corpse and especially bones remain powerful and it is vital to perform proper burial rituals to avoid a wandering and hungry ghost.
Curiosity piqued, I asked the building manager, Mr. Lim, about the ghost. Well, yes, there had been a corpse on the eighth floor, but I should not be troubled by this. Purification rituals had cleansed the building of ghosts and any day he expected to have the unit rented. “But, Mr. Lim,” I persisted, “tell me about this murder. How did our building acquire a ghost?” Mr. Lim gently shook his head and moved on.
Later, neighbor and new friend, Sue Green, shared that security guards and amahs sometimes reported seeing the ghost of the murdered woman. No local would rent the apartment and expatriates couldn’t get help, so they also refused to live there. The ghost was the only occupant of the eighth floor of Cairnhill Court. Jesse’s GATX colleague and friend, Wong See Ming, related that a British expatriate had murdered his Thai wife and stored her body in his eighth-floor flat.
Recalling our eighth-floor ghost, I recently turned to digital newspaper archives to learn more about this gruesome tale. It is chilling and had I known all of the facts I, too, may have wondered about ghosts in the night.
Michael Charles Cully, a 47-year-old British citizen, his 44-year-old Thai wife, Linda, and their fourteen-year-old son, Charles, arrived in Singapore in January 1974. Michael was a refrigeration expert and managed the Asian operations of an American firm. The couple had been together since at least 1958 when they flew TWA from London to New York. Their US arrivals cards indicate Michael was doing business with Westinghouse.1
In May 1974, the couple had been living in a Hilton Hotel suite in Singapore for four months. Hotel life may have been particularly challenging for Linda. Their son, Charles, described a stormy relationship and said Linda was incensed about Michael’s (professional) relationship with his secretary. She demanded that he fire her.
Reflecting on the eighth-floor tragedy 38 years later, it is apparent that the strains of an expatriate life contributed to the murder. Moving to a new country in the pre-internet society could be stressful and isolating. Singapore provided one employment visa per household, and in 1979, this usually went to the husband. Managing an overseas operation was challenging, engrossing and exciting, providing many opportunities for socialization and engagement. The “at home” spouse was sometimes isolated, adrift in a strange country with no friends or family for support. A fragile or unhappy relationship can easily explode in this environment.
Charles last saw his mother on a May morning about 7 am, when he left for school. Late that afternoon, when Charles returned home, Michael told him he had murdered his mother. Charles loved his father and chose to protect him from a certain execution by hanging. He told no one. Michael and Charles moved to 34 E Cairnhill Court and Linda’s body accompanied them. She was dismembered into 13 pieces and sealed in four plastic packages and placed in a wooden box. The box was concealed in a metal trunk, sealed with fiberglass and tar. Michael and Charles lived with Linda’s body on the eighth floor.
Michael died of a heart condition two years later on April 16, 1976, while on a trip to Australia. Charles, then 16, returned home to Singapore and informed the police about the location of his mother’s body. Much to the chagrin of Cairnhill Court residents, police opened the trunk on April 21, 1976 and revealed its gruesome contents on the eighth floor, releasing spirits and mystery to haunt Cairnhill Court.
Cairnhill Court was demolished about 2010 to make way for new luxurious high-rises. All is new and glistening on Cairnhill Court, but I wonder, does a hungry ghost of a once passionate Thai woman slip among the shadows?
- New York State, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1917-1966, Ancestry.com
Read articles about the murder at the National Library of Singapore’s newspaper archive website:
The Smell of Death, New Nation, 22 April 1976, Page 1