On 2nd January, 2014, June Tan witnessed and photo documented the exhumation of her grandfather, Ong Kim Soon. She also shared with us the testimonial of how a promise was fulfilled to carry on the lineage of another family. It speaks to men and women of honour and ties of kinship which live on till today.
By June Tan
My grandfather was an ordinary man. He worked hard to make ends meet and was an honest man of principles. When he passed away at the age of 47 , he left behind his wife & 6 children aged between 6-22 years old then.
The story I want to share of my grandfather has to start from my great great grandparents.
My great great grandfather Ng died at a very young age. He was in his 20s then. He left behind his wife but no descendants. The women of that era usually did not remarry if their husband passed on. It was deemed to be their duties to take care of their in- laws .
However, my great great grandmother was a young lady in the prime of her life at that time. Her mother- in- law decided that she should not stay as a widow and allowed her to remarry. She, however, set a condition for the man (suramed Ong) who was to marry her- that the first son born by them had to take the surname “Ng” (黄). As a gratitude to the old lady, they readily agreed.
Soon after, my great grandfather was born and he took the Ng surname. However, great great grandfather Ong soon fell very ill and with his wife they were unable to produce a 2nd child. Their son, my great grandfather had no option but to reinstate his surname to Ong in order to perpetuate the Ong family line.
The older generation is a generation of principles. It was resolved that the next male child born in the family will carry the surname of Ng to honour the promise of my great great grandparents.
Years later, my grandfather was born and he adopted the “Ng” (黄) surname. In fact, of the 3 sons born in that generation, my grandfather and his 2nd brother took on the Ng surname as a gratitude to the Ng family.
At age 47, my grandfather passed away. All that he left behind was a meagre sum of S$24. The family was faced with the task of paying for a decent burial place.
Seh Ong Sua (which adjoins Bukit Brown) was the only cemetery with free burial grounds available for the Ong descendents . My grandfather’s brothers, my grand uncles, approached the person in charge of the Ong Clan then. However, only descendants of the Ong clan could be buried there. After hearing the origins of my grandfather’s surname, the Ong clan agreed to accord him a burial ground in Seh Ong on condition that that he had to use his Ong surname on the headstone of his grave.
Hence, the surname on his tomb is Ong (王) whereas his children will continue to take the Ng surname.
For these reasons, my great grandmother had “set” a rule for my mum’s generation that they are allowed to marry Ngs’ but not Ongs’ as that is the origin of their bloodline.
A few photos from June Tan’s album of her grandfather’s exhumation. The coffin was fully intact and the set of bones, nearly complete. With her permission, the complete album which she has captioned as a photo essay, is available here
Ong Kim Soon has moved to Yishun Columbarium. Rest in Peace.
Editor’s note: We would like to thank June Tan for sharing her photos of her grandfather’s exhumation and her family story with us. If you are a descendant who has ancestors staked for exhumation, please share your story with us.
Email us: email@example.com
You can read about another first hand account by a grandson, who witnessed his grandfather’s and aunt’s exhumations, here
Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice® 2013 Winner “Ranked #16 of 665 attractions in Singapore. “
6 November, 2013.
“Get there before its too late…This is a very special place – peaceful, beautiful, historic, and a natural wildlife haven”
Visit Bukit Brown cemetery while you still can – before the bulldozers move in to create yet another expressway. This is a very special place – peaceful, beautiful, historic, and a natural wildlife haven. Intricately carved statues guard many of the old gravestones, which are often adorned with gorgeous antique tiles painted with flowers and peacocks. There are several pathways to explore and so the cemetery also makes a lovely place just to visit for a ‘country’ walk. Kingfishers, monitor lizards, monkeys and nightjars are common sights, and some of the huge banyan trees are staggering. In recent months the ‘Friends of Bukit Brown’ have painstakingly signed and cleared pathways to the gravestones of many notable names from Singapore’s history, making this an even more interesting place to visit.
Visited October 2013
Singapore is a concrete jungle and if there is a garden, it is man-made, like Gardens by the Bay…..(except for) a historical site called Bukit Brown.
Today, I had the privilege of touring a historical site called Bukit Brown. Bukit Brown is a cemetery, where many of Singapore’s pioneer are buried and may soon be “awakened” from their peaceful slumber to make way for 8 lanes highway.
I toured with volunteers of Bukit Brown, and learn about the tombs of Tan Kheam Hock and his family. History is being collected as I write this review. The tour is made even more interesting with the descendants of Tan Kheam Hock in our midst. A definitely worthy visit for any tourist to Singapore, to see a side of Singapore which money cannot buy.
As Bukit Brown tour is manned by volunteers with a passion to preserve the heritage and culture of this little city state, one will need to visit Bukit Brown FB page to make enquiries of any tours.
Visited October 2013
It was like stepping back into another place and time. You can see rays of sunshine illuminating the misty verdant hills, rich smell of the forest and hear sounds of delightful birds. It was somewhat surreal in heavily urbanised city but the oasis of tranquility calms the soul and the mind is clarified. What a wonderful place to go for a walk!
I joined a friend to witness the Cheng Beng festivity and was overwhelmed by the throngs of people with their prayer paraphernalia and the heavy traffic winds patiently through the hills. It was BUSY!
Then some 3 months later, I took a trip with the Brownies who gave free guided walks through Bukit Brown practically every weekends! It was like stepping back into another place and time. You can see rays of sunshine illuminating the misty verdant hills, rich smell of the forest and hear sounds of delightful birds. It was somewhat surreal in heavily urbanised city but the oasis of tranquility calms the soul and the mind is clarified. What a wonderful place to go for a walk!
Yes, we have the crowded Botanic Gardens, the monotonous MacRitchie & Pierce reservoirs, the hot Sungei Buloh Reserve and Chek Jawa Park is a little too far to reach but Bt Brown is way too cool! If you dare venture off the main track, you will encounter unusual structure, designs, engravings, statutes, reflecting the various cultures, beliefs & eras. You might encounter a monitor lizard, horse riders and almost always expats walking their dogs. Join the Sats & Suns groups of 10-20 people on the guided walks like the one I’ve taken, listening to the passionate guides who are bursting to share with you the stories of the hills.
Visited September 2013
“The most beautiful place on earth”
Jo Prudence, descendant of George Henry Brown, after whom the cemetery is named.
A spectacular time-lapse aerial video of Bukit Brown
More beauty shots of Bukit Brown here
by Walter Lim
(Published in Zaobao on 1 November, 2013, translated by Fabian Tee )
Taking a Closer Look at Singaporeans’ “Interest in the Wild (side)”
I refer to the commentary by Mr Goh Choon Kang ( a media professional and a former MP) entitled “Looking from the sidelines at Singaporeans’ interest in the wild side” dated Oct 23, 2o13. In it he posed the question : “why did the dialogue between civilian and government not take place before unilateral action was taken by one party with the expressed hope of opening more channels of communication? Just reflect for a moment, how the official in charge of heritage affairs must be feeling right now.”
This article has created considerable public misconception. The Prime Minister, after all, had on the occasion of the opening of the Heritage Festival 2013 said that:
“The government does not own the Singapore heritage. It does not define the Singapore heritage. Our heritage is a collection of individual memories, woven together into a national story. It is something that belongs to every Singaporean, and which each one of us can contribute to and help to preserve, individually and collectively”. PM Lee.
Therefore, it stands to reason that any civilian initiative to help Singapore preserve its heritage should be a source of comfort for the authorities. Besides, the National Heritage Board’s Alvin Tan is a broad-minded and enlightened official, and not a petty/small-minded individual as implied by Goh.
In Goh’s article entitled “The basis and limits of dialogue”, he stated that “perhaps I lacked culture or cultural depth, but I feel that most Singaporeans are unlikely to bring their old or young to a desolate place in the middle of nowhere during their free time”.
(I agree) Most people are of this (Goh’s ) same mindset – civilians and officials alike, think that way. It was under such dire circumstances that the application to World Monuments Fund was made. Can anyone imagine holding a dialogue under such circumstances? It would have been laughable. Fortunately the unrelenting efforts (of many) have paid off and many parents do bring their children and elderly parents to Bukit Brown. For his sake and society at large, I sincerely hope that Goh will deepen his cultural depth so that more young and old will come to Bukit Brown for leisurely walks.
On the government’s heavy burden of providing for the basic necessities for millions, Goh said that the volunteers are of the opinion that “you (government) can resolve to solve the existing traffic problems, just leave our Bukit Brown alone. For the record, many alternative plans/suggestions were submitted to the government once the road announcements were made. Subsequently there were suggestions to leave the tombstones by the roadside, blending the past with the modern. Recently, we also took part in the exercise to incorporate Biddari’s history into the planning of the new town. These efforts collectively demonstrate that the volunteers are trying to strike a balance between preserving the past and developing the future. Unfortunately, none of our suggestions/feedback for Bukit Brown found fertile ground and they have since fallen by the wayside.
On the other hand, the plan for Lornie Road reflects a lack of foresight and planning. Three years after expanding the number of lanes on Lornie/Adam Roads in 2009, the government now anticipates a reduction in the (Lornie) lanes after the Bukit Brown highway is built. Instead of expending money on the expansion and subsequent shrinking of Lornie Road, why not just build the Bukit Brown highway in the first place? The excitement that followed the government’s undertaking to quicken the pace of housing and transport infrastructural development after the last General Election quickly morphed into a hidden worry. Plans for building Bukit Brown highway were carried out without the benefit of any impact assessment particularly that of a heritage impact assessment in face of a large scale destruction of historic artifacts. In the final analysis, is the Bukit Brown highway really meant for development or is it an unmitigated disaster?
When the plans were announced last year, an estimated 5000 gravestones were to be affected and LTA then reduced that to 3746 due to a change in road plans. Now the official number has been re-estimated at 4153. What is really going on here? Even more worrisome for us is the sense of how heritage preservation is considered in this country. Minister Tan Chuan Jin said in parliament that (the preservation of) material culture including gravestone, carvings and tiles etc are very important. Yet after discussions at the higher level, there has been no concrete plans for a proposed memorial garden for the preservation of gravestones of important personalities. The imminent threat of destruction to thousands of graves has not provoke the local museums or Chinese clan associations to show any interest in preservation whatsoever. Dare I ask , is any government body or department truly satisfied with this (state of affairs) or process?
Leaving aside Goh’s portrayal of the Bukit Brown volunteers as a bunch of “wild enthusiasts”, this unlikely group of individuals who busy themselves over all things related to Bukit Brown, stands in stark contrast with the total lack of interest displayed by the leaders of the Chinese Clan Associations. This lackadaisical attitude even extends to the discovery of the tombstones of founding fathers of their clans.
At a time when the Gan Eng Seng alumni paid their respects to his grave during Qing Ming, the Chinese High and Nanyang Girls High and Industry Commerce Schools etc have instead chosen to forget their history.
When a country’s polity has no regard for our collective history and the hallowed grounds of our Chinese pioneers and civilisation, evoke nothing but disdain, are policies to blame and have the people all forgotten (the past)?
As Bukit Brown is doomed to its fate, a group of volunteers -whose ranks comprises Indian, Dutch and Japanese and others who know not a single Chinese character – are picking up the Chinese language to decipher tomb inscriptions, studying the various pioneers’ connections with old temples, clan associations, schools and some even extending their research into local history and the Chinese civilization. This abiding interest of the so called “wild enthusiast” calls for a deeper sense of reflection. Surely, this phenomenon is hardly one that can be understood by anyone looking from the sidelines.
More on the road expansion at Lornie Road here.
The full report in Chinese:
官民就不能先磋商好才行动，而必须等到单边行动过后，才希望展开 更多的对话呢？试想，如果你是官方负责文化遗产事宜的单位，你会 有什么感受？”这番话已经造成公众的错误解读。
来定义，人们都可做出贡献和协助保留。”因此对民间自发性的协助 新加坡保留文化遗产，官方理应欣慰，而文物局陈子宇先生是位胸襟 阔达的开明主管，并非吴先生所形容的小家子气。
应有的文化与人文素养，但总觉得，一般国人不太可能在闲暇时间， 扶老携幼到这么一个四野荒冢的地方逛。”这是当时一般人的观感， 民间如此，官方亦然。
说磋商，恐怕告诉别人也会让人笑掉大牙。所幸在不间歇的努力下， 今天可以看到父母带着小孩或是长者到武吉布朗，祈望吴先生为自己 、为社会增添多一份文化与人文素养，一家大小也来武吉布朗逛逛。
法解决交通问题，只要别动到坟山分毫。”这已将志愿者描绘成一味 坚持保留而罔顾发展所需。事实上，政府宣布征用坟场之后就提出代 替方案，过后又建议保留墓碑在路旁，将过去融入未来，也讨论名人 墓园之建议；近期更参与将历史遗迹融入比达达里新镇，这一切都有 目共睹，说明志愿者是在旧事物和新发展之间谋求平衡，但各项建议 都进不了当局的视野之内，结果不了了之。
得开辟新道路缓和交通；而今开辟武吉布朗新道路完成后，又要减少 罗尼路的车道，请问当年为何不直接开辟武吉布朗新道路，却大费周 章的扩建又再收缩罗尼路呢？上届大选之后，政府在房屋与交通方面 加快建设脚本，这喜讯反而成为隐忧，道路未全面评估就匆匆建造， 尤其不曾评估对文化遗迹所带来的破坏。开辟武吉布朗新道路，究竟 是发展所需或许是无妄之灾？
3746座；今年8月却飙升到4153座，请问发生了什么事？令 人担忧的是文物保留意识，陈川仁代部长在国会上说，实质文物，包 括墓碑、雕塑、瓷砖等也很重要，过后召开名人墓园事项的会议，现 已沦为一记空炮；而本地展览馆华社并不热衷保留先贤墓碑，公路工 程即将展开，大批墓碑已陷绝境；敢问政府各部门主管诸位部长，对 整个流程是否满意？
夜为武吉布朗奔波的是一介平民，华社领袖对华人坟场，甚至创办人 或先贤的坟墓却无动于衷；在颜永成学校清明节到武吉布朗献花之际 ，华侨中学、南洋女中和工商等学校却选择遗忘过去。
或是人民已经遗忘？武吉布朗遭人遗弃之际，却有印籍、日籍、荷籍 与认识汉字不多的志愿者，为了理解碑铭而学起中文，更进一步探讨 古迹庙宇、社团、学校，甚至钻研本地历史与中华文化，新加坡人的 “野趣”，有太多值得令人深思之处，岂是斜眼侧观之士所能理会？
At Bukit Brown, one often finds couplets on the “pillars” of the tombs. They embed auspicious meanings and also tributes to the departed.
The tomb of Chen Yen Soon has a pair which speaks of the rewards which await those who live a good life.
为善百世興 Hundred years of prosperity for kind acts.
積德千年好 A good thousand years for those who accumulate good deeds.
An inscription found in a temple in Silat Road on a photo of the Earth Deity or Tua Pek Kong, evokes the same sentiments.. Brownie Fabian Tee summarises:
The couplet reads fortune with virtue inspires respect from a thousand families (from many) the uprightious shall inherit the earth as deities for innumerable (ten thousand) generations. When read together, it’s an allegory to 福德正神。
More examples of couplets here
Mid-Autumn Festival Night Walk Report
To celebrate the mid-Autumn full moon we had lanterns, mooncakes, sparkles and a bunch of great people who joined us up to Ong Sam Leong’s grave at Hill 3. We went in 2 groups – group 1 with the early birds who had their lanterns ready to go just after 7pm, the rest of us in group 2 left the gathering point at the good ol’ raintree around 7.30pm. On the way just before reaching the caretaker’s hut, we saw a Brown Hawk Owl flying past and landing on one of the graves. We had a good look at the owl and then moved up the hill to Ong Sam Leong.
After that it was back to the entrance and everyone went their ways.
A few pictures below of this year’s event:
Khoo Ee Hoon made a short video clip of the fun we had at Ong Sam Leong’s grave: click here.
For more photos of this year’s event see: Bianca’s album
And see here Lawrence Chong’s album (on facebook).
============================== the original event notification below =========================
Friday 20 Sept - 7.00pm – 9.30pm
Meeting Point: Bukit Brown Under the Rain tree at the roundabout
The evening of 19/9 marks the fifteenth day of the eighth month on the Chinese calendar, which we will celebrate on 20/9. The traditional Singaporean way of celebration would be to carry lanterns and enjoy a session of drinking tea, and eating mooncakes, pomelos, etc.
Participants are strongly encouraged to bring their own lanterns, as well as contribute mooncakes and other food, for a family day session at BB.
We would be walking along Bukit Brown in the evening with our lanterns, and share with you stories that can be found on some of the pioneers’ tomb panels along the way.
We will start to gather from 7.00pm onwards, and begin the tour once it gets dark.
Bukit Brown. More than a cemetery. More than a Chinese cemetery.
Come discover our heritage, history and habitat.
LTA has released news on exhumation and tender for road building. Take this opportunity to experience Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery as it is now.
How to get there and handy tips here: http://bukitbrown.com/
By agreeing to take this walking tour of Bukit brown cemetery I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so. To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward)
Registration: Our weekend public tours are FREE …
Optimally the group size is 30 participants (15 individuals/guide).
Please click ‘Join’ on the FB event page to let us know you are coming, how many pax are turning up. Or just meet us at the starting point at 7pm.
Brownie Code: We guide rain or shine.
Bukit Brown Heritage Park is about 173 acres in extent, bordered by Lornie Road, Thomson Road and the Pan-Island Expressway. It lies just to the south of the Central Catchment Forest, being separated from it by Lornie Road and includes Singapore’s only Chinese Municipal Cemetery. With more than 100,000 graves, Bukit Brown is also one of the largest Chinese cemeteries outside of China.
Here is a map of the grounds:
by A.J Leow
My trips to Bukit Brown Cemetry tend to stir up some deep-seated emotions within me. My first, which followed a trip to Gardens by the Bay, had evoked images of contrast. On one hand, there is this rich but neglected repository of our cultural and natural heritage amid the lush, unkempt undergrowth and the other, an artificial construct or what I would often refer to as a huge manicured bonsai.
At the Gardens, you put on a headset; pressed some buttons to listen to a disembodied voice on a guided tour. It’s like calling your bank to cancel the annual credit card charge. Quite impersonal. At Bukit Brown, there are no ticket queues, entry fees or closing hours. You get to pepper some guy – in a sweat-soaked T-shirt with a towel around the neck – with questions about our forgotten past.
The bonus is that you may be invited to join the Brownies at a zhi char place after the tour for a get-together makan. How much more Singaporean can you get!
My latest trip came about on National Day 2013 which was followed by a family viewing of the annual parade and the fly-past. While the vignettes of our forefathers by the guides at Bukit Brown – especially that of how they arrived by sea and spied the shimmering lights of the harbour of 星汌 (Isle of Stars) which must have lifted their hopes of a better tomorrow – touched many a chord; the vain exhortations by the emcees at the waterfront parade to portray the Merlion as a national symbol fell really flat, especially when the mythical creature wasn’t sure if it was a lion or a transgendered mermaid. To me, it was an apt metaphor of our confused national identity.
Not so the narrative of Bukit Brown.
At the official parade, there was an actress masquerading as a samsui woman. As a young boy heading off to school, I have seen scores of these weathered-beaten, hardy red-hat women from southern China squatting and lining the roadside, some of them holding rolled-up cigarettes with their calloused hands in the early hours of dawn at Redhill Road. I can assure you, none of them look like the ruddy faced actress on the national stage!
The contrast could not be more stark. Listening to the story-tellers at Bukit Brown to me would be akin to reading a rich body of literary work by local author Catherine Lim, or the playwright Kuo Pao Kun. Bukit Brown is our history; while some of the NDP performances came across like a fleeting piece of newspaper ad or TV commercial. Not quite authentic.
The next day, I picked up a copy of The New Paper to read its coverage of the Brownies’ tribute to our country’s early pioneers. On the following page was a piece on the make-up of the hardcore Singaporean. There were the usual comments about the use of Singlish, the tendency to gripe; pressing lift buttons repeatedly and oh dear, even ‘common resentment towards foreigners.’ The MP for Marine Parade GRC, Tin Pei Ling, mentioned the love for chicken rice, our hardworking nature and the willingness to stay and defend the country during a crisis. Except for the first item, I wouldn’t call that a uniquely Singapore trait.
There was little mention about our heritage and our forefathers who helped build the place we now call home. On an existentialist level, they seem to be no longer part of the wellspring of our national consciousness – the collective National Soul. Are we in danger of becoming the equivalent in Plato’s Cave, bereft of our true identity, which seems to have been reduced to the image of a buffet of laksa, char kuay teow and other hawker’s fare, and a limited lexicon of words such as ‘kiasu’, ‘chope’ and ‘shiok’? Surely, being Singaporean is more that that!
It’s unfortunate that for most of us (that includes me); the history of Singapore has been largely bracketed by or reduced to the two Rs – Raffles and the founding of our Republic. The first is a man in white; or rather a statue in marble white next to the Singapore River, whom most of us don’t really know much about except that his name has been hijacked for a hotel, school, business hub, shopping mall among others, including Singapore Airline’s business class. The second R would be the story of the Men in White, which I bet many of the younger generation would be clueless of who they are or were, with perhaps the exception of our elderly statesman, Lee Kuan Yew.
There’s a yawning chasm in between the two Rs. We need to fill them with what would be the equivalents of our own versions of Benjamin Franklin, Rockeller, Carnegie, and Edison in the largely blank pages of our own history. Names like Tan Ean Kiam (banker and philanthropist), Lim Kim Seng (Justice of the Peace and Teochew leader) and Tan Kim Ching (Kapitan Cina and diplomatic consul to Siam, China and Russia) and bring them back into our national consciousness and collective memory. Make it kind of a Lazarus Project with a uniquely Singapore theme.
That’s why I feel strongly that Bukit Brown Cemetery is a heritage landmark worth saving for the sake of all Singaporeans – now and the future. It’s where the national soul resides. It’s a living museum with names that most Singaporeans can readily identify with, such as the bus routes we take to work (Jalan Boon Lay); MRT stations (Boon Keng); schools we go to (Gan Eng Seng) and makan places (Joo Chiat Place), to name just but a few. There are more than 40 names of streets and places which can be traced back to Bukit Brown.
What’s more, I can imagine their descendants mingling among us – cheek-to-jowl in the MRT and buses; in the queues at NTUC supermarkets; for Toto and 4-D tickets and the char kuay teow stall at Hong Lim complex.
Our forefathers came from afar across the seas – many as coolies including my own grandfather – and caught a glimpse of 星汌 and like the biblical story of Abraham, their descendants have multiplied like the ‘stars’ they imagine to be the bright lights of the future. They chose to come, live, die and be buried here. We owe our presence to them. We need to remember and honour them. The story of Singapore is built on the backs of immigrants, and we should keep on telling their stories unceasingly. More will come because of they have built, what we will build on the foundations they laid. Those newcomers too will catch a glimpse of the shimmering lights of 星汌 (Isle of Stars) when their planes fly over Changi International Airport. Majullah Singapore!
Bio: A.J. Leow is the grandson of a coolie who has brought his children to Bukit Brown several times to understand their roots. His family celebrated National Day at Bukit Brown this year.
This is about Kusu Island Keramat (Shrine). Two Chinese men who contributed are buried in the Greater Bukit Brown complex.
Buried in Bukit Brown Cemetery: Kum Peng Huat. Buried in Seh Ong Cemetery: Ong Chwee Tow
The inscription in Malay reads, Deity grandma of Kusu is residing at the home of baba Hoe Beng Whatt no.140 Rangoon Rd since 1917.
“Judging from inscriptions found at the temple and shrines, Straits Chinese devotees seemed to be the main or more active group in sustaining the pilgrimage in its earlier years. At the Chinese temple, Straits Chinese tycoon Ong Sam Leong figures prominently among the top donors for contributing 100 Straits dollars to renovation works in 1909, while inscriptions at the malay shrines reveal that Nenek Ghalib’s shrine was constructed with donations from Baba
(a term of address for Straits Chinese men) Hoe Beng Whatt and others, after she “arrived at the house of” Hoe in 1917. This was taken to mean that she had appeared in Hoe’s dreams and asked for the shrine to be built in exchange for granting the donors success in business. This tale reflects the situation in which keramat worship came to depend almost exclusively on local Chinese patronage, despite being Malay in origin, as many Malay-Muslims renounced such practices as they became more orthodox in their faith.” (The Kusu Pilgrimage: an enduring myth by Lu Caixia) … read more here
Other sources: http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_233_2005-01-20.html
By Angeline Lee
The Grim Reaper in heavy metal
The wealthy buy my labour
To tear limb from limb
Of old trees,
To grind dust into dust
Of old bones,
To rip out the lungs
Of generations unborn.
The wealthy jealously guard their rights
To dispossess the dead and the living,
To build a highway for cars the poor don’t own,
To build shoeboxes for people from other lands,
To erase heritage, history and habitat.
Angeline is an English teacher, poet and book collector. Favourite quote on education: “The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life.” -Plato
She penned this lamentation after news that the tender for the road to cut through Bukit Brown was announced on August 7, 2013, destroying 4,153 tombs.
Protecting the Memory of Our Pioneers; Laying Claim to Unclaimed Tombs
They came by sea and dreaded being lost at sea before arriving in safe harbour, relieved at the sight of the glittering lights bobbing on the ships anchored at the mouth of the Singapore River, giving the island the moniker, the Isle of Stars. We cannot now leave those unclaimed to that cruel fate they avoided.
By Claire Leow
(August 9, 2013)
News this week that the contract for the new road has been awarded was like a punch in the gut, as much as it had been expected to happen. With the announcement, tombs affected would be exhumed by the fourth quarter.
But as the news filtered into my consciousness, one fact hit me harder than any other. It was not about transport policies, the population forecast or the contradiction about land use around the central catchment area. It lay in the numbers: 4,153 and 1,263.
“Since details of the affected graves were published in March 2012, the Land Transport Authority has received a total of 1,263 claims for affected graves,” read the announcement.
It stopped me in my tracks. First, the number of graves to be affected has risen to 4,153 graves and second, of these only 1,263 have been claimed.
There are those who say 4,153 out of 100,000 tombs is but a small percentage but we who are trying to raise awareness of the value of Bukit Brown are not in the game of mathematical democracy. We have a holistic perspective. These are the lives of pioneers we are talking about, not a question of minority and majority. To potentially lose trace of the history of that many is painful. Over the last 20 months where volunteers stepped forward to help amateur historian Raymond Goh in his valiant attempt to explore our forgotten history, we have but scratched the surface with our amateur sleuthing and but explored a mere hundred or more. To think we have not yet unraveled the stories of another 4,000 is rather deflating. Time is not on our side. We are a society in a hurry to move forward.
Then there is the question of the unclaimed – 4,153 minus 1,263 or 2,890.
I know for a fact from our volunteer work on the ground that this doesn’t reflect badly on families who have not claimed their forebears – we know for a fact that many, for various reasons, have not been able to trace all their ancestors. Others are still searching. (Tips on tracing ancestors here. Burial register here.)
There are a variety of reasons and this list is not exhaustive: false leads, such as confusing spellings of Romanised Chinese names, spelling them in Mandarin or dialect pronunciation, or confusing dates (does 7-5-23 scribbled in mom’s notes refer to May 7, 1923 or the fifth day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar? Does it refer to 1923 on the Roman calendar or the 23rd year of the Republic, namely 1934?). They have the work cut out for them.
There’s also the older practice among the Chinese to have several names, at birth, puberty and in adulthood. For the luminous, there were also titles bought or bestowed. Further, it was considered rude to refer to elders by name. As time passed, it would be hard to remember or record all these monikers. The wonderful find of Seah Eu Chin’s tomb after 100 years illustrated this point – for he was identified by his generational name, a cultural practise in decline. The Seah clan, which used to have large reunions until the war disrupted the practice, came together at the grave site last year and most recently at the exhibition, Bukit Brown: Our Roots, Our Future, as researcher Walter Lim explained the cultural background key to understanding the familial history.
Many others, raised on the Speak Mandarin policy, have also lost traces of their regional languages such as Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka, and are unable to recall the oral history left by their parents/grandparents and pronounce their ancestors’ names correctly and trace the transliterated names in Romanised pronunciation. There are many such obstacles in ancestor tracing.
Then there is the fact that Bukit Brown, unlike clan cemeteries of its time, was a municipal cemetery created with the foresight of the likes of Municipal Commissioners Tan Kheam Hock and See Tiong Wah who saw the coalsecing of society and created a communal resting space for members of a society that may not have been identifying with clans. Therefore the Straits Chinese or Peranakans were burying their loved ones at Bukit Brown, giving it the moniker, the Peranakan Cemetery. Indeed many Peranakan luminaries are buried there, such as Tan Kheam Hock himself, Chia Hood Theam and Tan Keong Saik. It is a well-known fact that Peranakans speak dialects or Malay and English rather than Mandarin, which has made it hard for many descendants to find the tombs when they cannot read the grave inscriptions. Hence many Peranakans have difficulty finding their forebears unless there are English epitaphs to help.
Raymond Goh and I personally witnessed the effect of this language deficiency in the case of Tok Cheng Tuan and his widow, Oon Tuan Cheng, buried in Hill 2. When the descendants approached us, we were intrigued and began to join the dots and to find out more from them and for them. And there, on the grounds of Bukit Brown, Raymond found the tombs of Tok’s mothers and Oon’s parents. A family that had only just confirmed they had to exhume two ancestors now realised six were at stake. How many more were like them, unaware of other relatives affected by the highway?
In the case of Oon’s parents, it was also serendipitous that Raymond posted an old newspaper notice about Oon Chong Lock’s granddaughter’s wedding, which featured the name of the grandfather of a Singaporean lady. “That’s how we managed to connect the dots!” she said. And that was also how a second family came into the picture, from another branch of the family. With that find, all six tombs – and not just two – have been claimed. ”It’s very moving to see the names of my father, aunts, uncles on the tomb,” the descendant said. Thanks to these inscriptions, another researcher has since found her grandfather’s tomb, also at Bukit Brown.
It is not difficult to imagine this scenario being repeated many times over but others not having the chance to unravel these threads given the timeframe for the road construction. It is only recently that many archived documents and articles have been digitised to make ancestor tracing a tad easier.
There are yet others who are part of the Singapore diaspora trying to find their roots but are hampered by distance and time, aided by volunteers and social media to share information and leads. In fact, one of the most touching moments in this enterprise to raise awareness of the heritage and history of Bukit Brown and assist the community came early, when Alex Lim, who lives in Shanghai, helped to perform tomb-sweeping rites last year for a man, Khoo Phee Soon, buried near his grandfather on behalf of Khoo’s descendant, Anna De Lataulade of Toronto, Canada. The tombs are on Hill 4.
As he helped Anna on this errand, posting photos for her benefit, Alex mused online, “Time flies… 73 years since he left this world…”
Anna, thousands of miles away, replied on the Facebook page, “He was loved and is not forgotten.”
Alex and Anna have never met. This moving vignette is evidence that Bukit Brown is as much for the living as for the dead.
Likewise, 180 years after he passed on, Fang Shan, a coolie, is still remembered – not by family, but by clansmen. It remains one of the most poignant experiences to stand at his humble grave and realise the value of memory and the need to honour the humble beginnings of our country. To boot, his gravestone bears the early name of Singapore, 星 洲 (Sin Zhou), Isle of Stars. I spoke about this in this TEDx talk.
“Sin Chew” is a sobriquet for “Singapore” popularized by Nanyang literatus Khoo Seok Wan (also buried at Bukit Brown and to be exhumed for the highway). Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea, and with vessels and boats large and small anchored around it; the glitter of artificial lights at night are like a crown of illuminated stars (“星”) when viewed from afar. “洲” (zhou, island) and “舟” (zhou, boat) are homonyms: while the boat lights are like stars, those on the island are like the Big Dipper to accentuate the constellation. This is why the term “Sin Chew” is widely known by folks here and afar.
(Liang Shao Wen, “Nanyang Travels”, p. 62, circa 1920s, translated by Lai Chee Kien)
It’s worth re-telling that tidbit on this, our 48th National Day, August 9, 2013. The theme this year is Many Stories, One Singapore. Well, here are the many stories laid in the open museum of Bukit Brown. Many stories, one history. Today, onsite, we celebrate Many Stories, One Singapore @ Bukit Brown.
For in the end, we are one big family. We stand on the shoulders of our pioneers. They came by sea and dreaded being lost at sea before arriving in safe harbour, relieved at the sight of the glittering lights bobbing on the ships anchored at the mouth of the Singapore River, giving the island the moniker, the Isle of Stars.
We cannot now leave those unclaimed to that cruel fate they avoided. They came ashore and many never made the return trip home. Many even feared getting on a boat ever again and face the perils at sea.
For better or for worse, Singapore would be home forever. They are sons and daughters of our soil now.
(Tomb couplets which tell the story arc of a typical immigrant to Singapore: born in China, buried in Singapore.)
Now 2,890 of these pioneers are again adrift in the tides of history. Under current practice, if they are unclaimed after three years, their ashes would be cast at sea in a place off Changi, lost to time and tide forever. This realisation, more than any other detail with the announcement of the road contract, is heart-wrenching.
Therefore I would venture to ask, if they are unclaimed, can we as a nation find it in our hearts to “claim” them as our family, the family of our nation, and allow them a place in the columbarium instead of being cast at sea?
There has been talk of a memorial garden for those to be exhumed for the road. Personally I find this redundant. For Bukit Brown is already a memorial garden. Any alternative pales in comparison. In fact, there is no comparison.
But for those unclaimed, soon to be lost to history, I would like to appeal for a memorial columbarium, that they may remain on Singapore soil, that should descendants realise in time who they are, may find them in the columbarium, and until that time, such a columbarium may be the repository of information for such research. Torn apart from the earth protectors and at the cusp of eviction, it is only right that we protect them and honour their memory with a final resting place on our land.
The task of remembering doesn’t just fall upon descendants. Our pioneers are our nation’s forebears.
Our pioneers are not just numbers on stakes. These are their names.
Elegy for an Urban Graveyard by the Economist
The “Brownie” Researchers of Bukit Brown:
For those tracing ancestors or finding someone at Bukit Brown, the National Archives has this digital resource:
The National Archives of Singapore has the burial registers of Bukit Brown Cemetery dating from April 1922 up till December 1972. To facilitate access, the records have been digitised and can be viewed online (please go to ‘Burial Registers’ below). The records are in English and are in chronological order based on the date of burial. Please note that information in certain columns is not uploaded for privacy reasons.
Following the completion of topography studies and grave identification works, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has finalised the alignment of the new road across part of Bukit Brown Cemetery. The new road will affect 3,746 of the more than 100,000 graves. LTA has published details of the affected graves at http://app.lta.gov.sg/doc/exhu_namelist.pdf and in local newspapers on 20 March 2012.
For more information or enquiries, please go to http://app.lta.gov.sg/exhumation.asp or email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call LTA at its 24-hour Customer Service Line @ 1800-Call LTA (1800-2255 582).
Below are the location maps and the listing of registers and index to the burial records of Bukit Brown Cemetery (digitised pdf). Members of the public who wish to locate the burial records of their ancestors buried at Bukit Brown Cemetery will need to first determine their ancestors’ names and dates of death before searching the uploaded records. More detailed information on microfilms can be viewed by the descendants at the National Archives’ Archives Reading Room, 1 Canning Rise Singapore 179868. The telephone numbers of the Archives Reading Room are : 6332 7909 / 1800-337 4464 (toll-free) or email email@example.com
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This is from their link here.