by Sally T.

One recent Saturday, some friends and I had the pleasure of being guided around Bukit Brown Cemetery on a special tour led by three descendants of notable people buried there. The Descendants Tour was presented in partnership with the National Library of Singapore – a great community initiative on the part of the library. A few seasoned guides helped lead the group, which really helped to add insight and context along the way.

Claire, a Bukit Brown volunteer guide gave a brief introduction on the history of Bukit Brown Cemetery and Singapore's pioneers (photo by Simone)

Claire, a Bukit Brown volunteer guide gave a brief introduction on the history of Bukit Brown Cemetery and Singapore’s pioneers (photo by Simone)

Each of the three descendants had fascinating stories to share and we were treated to what I would describe as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hearing them so passionately and proudly tell familial histories and sing songs in honour of their ancestors, many of whom were pioneers of early modern Singapore, will be something I look back on as a highlight of my time living here. We visited the resting places of enterprising business people, diplomats and philanthropists – the type who have streets named in their honour.

In recent years I had heard a lot about Bukit Brown, a national treasure that had been rediscovered by a caring community and was being hard fought for. Despite my curiosity I’d never visited, perhaps not wanting to feel inappropriate or as an invasive foreigner, but a conversation with a friend who is a passionate historian prompted me to look up the next tour available. The fact that three descendants were taking the tour alongside a few experienced Brownies seemed like a unique opportunity and one not to be missed. I was right.

A door deity guards a tomb (Sally T)

A door deity guards a tomb (Sally T)

Our meeting point was just near the LTA temporary set-up, which we figured was the site headquarters for the current exhumation works taking place in certain sections of Bukit Brown. There’s no denying that it’s a confronting reality. While I’ve known for a while that exhumation is fairly common here, I learned that it has a relatively long history in Singapore and happened under British rule too, as one of the graves we visited had actually been moved there from somewhere else in the 1930s or 40s. The current works were well underway when we visited, with high fences erected throughout. From the main road, you would easily have mistaken it for any construction site.

Once the large group of about 30 was assembled, we walked a short distance to the tomb of Chia Hood Theam, who was a respected businessman with a lovely black and white home called Rosedale at the corner of Devonshire and Killiney Roads. Chia’s maternal great-great granddaughter Noreen Chan, along with some other family members present, shared a series of beautifully preserved photographs and stories that had been passed down through the generations. Noreen described how as well as being a ‘comprador’ – the business relationship managers of the old banking regime – her Peranakan grandfather was an early champion of women’s education in Singapore. The tomb was well preserved and had beautiful tiling work.

Noreen, a descendant of Chia Hood Theam, showing pictures of her family (photo by Sally T)

Noreen, a descendant of Chia Hood Theam, showing pictures of her family (photo by Sally T)

 

Some of the beautiful tiles on a tomb (photo by Sally T)

Some of the beautiful tiles on a tomb (photo by Sally T)

Next stop was the tomb of one of Dr Lim Su Min’s several ancestors buried at Bukit Brown. On this mother’s side, Dr Lim’s lineage can be traced back to Tan Tock Seng, a prominent merchant and philanthropist who of course the hospital is named after. We visited the tomb of a relation of Tan Tock Seng. An impressive tomb turned a rusty orange from the lichen, the resting place was a little way up a small hill. After sharing his fascinating family history, Dr Lim treated us to an intimate and special moment as he sang a song he had written in his ancestors’ honour. Standing there with only jungle noises to compete with the ukulele, we knew we were witnessing something heartfelt.

Lim Su Min shows his family tree at Seow Poh Leng's mother's tomb (photo by Simone)

Lim Su Min shows his family tree at Seow Poh Leng’s mother’s tomb (photo by Simone)

 

The third tomb we visited was tucked much further into the jungle, and on the way we passed some extraordinary tombs, all with different style and character. Clearly, grieving family members had gone to a great deal of trouble to put their loved ones to rest in a place of beauty. The third descendant to share with the group, Serene Tan, went on a mission to find her family’s cluster of tombs after being visited by a man in Mandarin robes in her dreams who encouraged her to visit. After a long search and some coincidences that could only have been fate, one of the Brownies came across the tomb of Serene Tan’s ancestors, including Tan Quee Lan, which were in somewhat of a rundown state. Together with family members, the Tans have done an magnificent job of restoring the tombs with an impressive marble structure.

Descendant, Serene at Tan Quee Lan's family cluster (photo by Simone)

Descendant, Serene at Tan Quee Lan’s family cluster (photo by Simone)

Dr Lim Su Min once again led us to the last tomb of the tour, which belongs to the eldest son of Tan Tock Seng called Tan Kim Ching, who was successful in further expanding the family’s business empire with rice mills and tin-mining in Siam. The size and stature of the tomb was very impressive and Tan Kim Ching was clearly an important man. After gaining the trust and respect of the King of Siam, Tan Kim Ching was appointed a Singapore-based diplomatic representative of the court of Siam. We learned that he also represented Japan and Russia in diplomatic relations in Singapore. One of the most intriguing things I learned was that Tan Kim Ching was responsible for the posting of British governess Ann Leonowens to Siam to famously teach the children of the King.

 

A group photo at Tan Kim Ching's tomb

A group photo at Tan Kim Ching’s tomb

I found Bukit Brown majestic in both the grandeur of the tombs and the beauty of nature which has enclosed or almost seemingly protected the site in its forgotten years. When one of my friends who came along mentioned that he was visiting Bukit Brown to some Singaporean business associates, he was met with wide eyes and trepidation! While I wouldn’t want to go there at night, it wasn’t as eerie as I suspected so I would strongly encourage those with an interest in Singapore’s history and culture, and strong sense of family values, to visit this special place. My friends and I will pass the word on about the tour to our friends – foreigners and locals alike – in the hope that more people will come and experience Bukit Brown. Who knows whether they will find an ancestor of their own.

A stream in Bukit Brown (photo by Sally T)

A stream in Bukit Brown (photo by Sally T)

 

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The Descendants’ Stories – A Guided Walk at Bukit Brown (English)

Saturday, 8 November 2014, 4 pm – 6.30pm.

All Things Bukit Brown* is pleased to curate a guided walk in conjunction with the roving exhibition “Bukit Brown: Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge”

Registration is required and all queries is through the NLB website here , spaces are limited to 28.

About the Walk:

News that a highway was to be built across Bukit Brown in 2011 led some descendants who had lost touch with their ancestral tombs to embark on a quest to find them. Some of those who were successful shared their stories of reconnecting with their ancestors and family oral history with the volunteers on the ground, called Brownies.

For this special walk, 3 descendants of prominent figures in business, philanthropy and diplomacy in the 19th and 20th centuries will be sharing their stories first-hand at the tombs of their ancestors.

  • Dr. Lim Su Min’s maternal lineage can be traced back to Tan Tock Seng, whose eldest son Tan Kim Ching grew the family’s fortunes, expanding into Siam with rice mills and tin-mining. He became a confidante of the King of Siam, and was appointed a diplomatic representative of the court of Siam. (He held similar positions representing Japan and Russia.) Among the stories Dr. Lim will share at Tan Kim Ching’s tomb is his introduction of a young English widow, Anna Leonowens to the Siamese King, a story which became immortalized in an Oscar winning musical.
  • For Serene Tan, the journey of discovering her family’s cluster of tombs at Bukit Brown started the night a man in traditional Mandarin robes came into her dream and passed her a note that simply said “Why no one visit?”. Serene will share how she was finally able to find the tombs of Tan Quee Lan of whom she is a direct descendant on her paternal side after a few years and in the process connected with a long lost cousin. Both then went on to restore and refurbish the family cluster of tombs at Bukit Brown, which had for so long been forgotten.
  • Noreen Chan comes from a long line of influential and wealthy “compradors” – the business relationship managers of the old banking regime. At the tomb of Chia Hood Theam, Noreen will recount stories of her maternal great-great grandfather’s frugality and contributions to women’s education from family oral traditions and historical records

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Please read if you are attending our guided walks for the first time, useful info on safety : Getting There/游览信息

*All Things Bukit Brown is the banner for a community of volunteers called “Brownies” who conduct regular weekend guided walks and do independent research on the heritage, habitat and history of Bukit Brown. They have guided over 13,000 people since they started their guided walks at the beginning of 2012.

 

 

In Bukit Brown, one can find various forms of art, structure and inscriptions, auspiciously incorporated within individual tombs to enhance the happiness and prosperity of the deceased’s family.

Tomb whisperer, Raymond Goh translates a poem found on the couplets from a tomb in Bukit Brown:

金羊恆率舞
土牛畫來潮
坤輿呈秀氣
艮岫献英靈

The Golden Sheep leads the eternal dance 
The Earthen Ox draws the rising tide 
The earth presents the elegant vigor
The hill offers the heroic spirit

IMG_1437

Poem 1: Photos and translation by Raymond Goh

On a different tomb, Raymond translates the poem engraved on its couplets, with the help of Alex Loh and Tan Kim Hong, members of the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook group:

青龍(去來)寶案
白虎會佳城
靈山鍾地脉
秀水啟人文

The green dragon forms the mountain in front of the tomb
The white tiger meets with a good water formation

The spiritual mountain concentrate the earth veins
The elegant water produces academic descendants

 

Photo by Raymond Goh

Poem 2: Photos by Raymond Goh

 

Do join the discussions in the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook group page, a platform for all members to learn, as well as contribute and share their knowledge in all things related to heritage, habitat and history.

 

 

Disclaimer: By agreeing to take walking tours  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) Please read if you are attending our guided walks for the first time, useful info on safety : Getting There/游览信息 If you have a facebook account please register on the FB links provided  unless otherwise stated. There is also a walk by post museum in the after, please see details below for registration.

***Haze: We will cancel  tours should AQI/PM2.5 reach 100. Please check this post 7.30am for any changes on the days of the tour.

For all walks:

Please bring umbrella or poncho and sun protection.
Please wear covered footwear.
Please bring mosquito repellent.
Please bring sufficient drinking water.

Meeting place for all Walks : At the Lor Halwa Main gates at Bukit Brown

Sat 4 Oct’14 :  8.30am – 12 pm :

从洋务运动开始,中国陆续兴建新式学堂,1898年,张之洞写了一篇《劝学篇》之后,全国的热烈讨论,连光绪皇帝也爱不释手,张之洞 “中体西用”的主张得到广泛认同。为了顺利推行新式教育,1905年,政府废除了实行千多年的科举制度。

这项教育改革计潮也吹向南洋,1905年,广东总督岑春煊先后派遣商务大臣张弼士、视学刘士骥南来劝办商会及学校,促成新加坡华人学堂纷纷建立。先后有养正学堂 (后改名为崇正学校)成立、广肇学堂(后来改称养正、启发学堂、应新学堂、端蒙学堂和育英学堂。

教育改革的推广,和维新革命先驱有紧密的关联,在十月革命纪念日来临之际,让我们一起在武吉布朗听听他们的革命事迹,说说他们对教育事业的贡献。

集合地点:

坟场正门(即Lorong Halwa入口处)。

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报名:

我们在周末为公众提供免费的导览服务
理想人数为一团三十人(平均一名导览员十五人)

请在我们的Facebook活动页面按‘参加’/‘加入’,然后告诉我们共有多少人与你一同参加活动,或直接在活动当天上午9时在集合地点与我们会合。风雨无阻,不见不散。

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Sun 5 Oct’14 :  5pm – 7pm : A Walk into Twilight with Beng Tang

Follow Beng Teng for an evening stroll through Bukit Brown cemetery where he will share stories of the Past. 

PLEASE BRING TORCH LIGHTS FOR THIS WALK

FB registration here

Mon 6 Oct’14: 9am – 11.30 am: Hill 5 and 2 Tour

This Hari Raya Haji public holiday, join Keng Kiat for a walk around Hill Five and Two and uncover stories that are sometimes less heard of from the regular tours. 
We will not be visiting the biggest tomb in Bukit Brown, that of Mr Ong Sam Leong’s.

FB registration here

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 by Ang Yik Han

Chua Chwee Oh (蔡水湖) photo Yik Han

Chua Chwee Oh (蔡水湖) (photo Yik Han)

Born in Kulangsu Island off Amoy, Chua Chwee Oh came to Singapore at the age of 14. He studied till 17 or 18, after which he went into business. Beginning with trading between Singapore and Medan, he founded the firm Hock Heng in 1920 which had branches in Rangoon, Annam and other cities. It dealt mainly in local produce like dried fish and provisions. The biggest segment of his business was in French-controlled Annam, followed by British Malaya and the Dutch Indies. He was the second chairman of the Amoy Association (1940-1941) after its founding, and also a chairman of the Goh Loo Club.

Active in the China Relief Fund’s efforts in raising funds to support the Chinese forces against the Japanese, he was known for donating $100,000 single-handedly under his firm’s name. He also encouraged others to contribute by setting an example when the need arose. It must have been a bitter blow for him during the Japanese Occupation when he was forced to join the Hokkien section of the Overseas Chinese Association (OCA), the umbrella body set up by the Japanese to force the Chinese community to pay war reparations.

Chua Chwee Oh (蔡水湖) 1 photo Yik Han

Chua Chwee Oh (蔡水湖) (photo Yik Han)

Chua Chwee Oh died in 1960 at the age of 64. His first wife Mdm Tan passed away at the young age of 32 and is buried together with him. His second wife was Mdm Ng. The place of origin inscribed on his tombstone is “Si Ming” (思明), another name for Amoy coined by Koxinga when the island was his base of operations against the encroaching Qing forces. This name evokes Koxinga’s longing for the glory days of the Han Chinese Emperors in the  Ming Dynasty. Barred from use after the Qing Dynasty consolidated its control over all of China, this place name was revived after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown.

The tomb is at Hill 3, about 10m behind and to the left (facing uphill) of Tan Boo Liat’s tomb.

 

 

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.

Ong Kim Soon 1  (photo June Tan)

The exhumation of Ong Kim Soon begins, after the family conducted their  pre- exhumation rituals (photo June Tan)

***

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 2 (photo June Tan)

Setting up the canopy, getting ready to remove the remains from the coffin (photo June Tan)

Ong Kim Soon 6   (photo June Tan)

The remains after the coffin (which was fully intact) was opened with an electric saw (photo June Tan)

Ong Kim Soon 5   (photo June Tan)

The bones are washed with white wine as required by traditional exhumation practices. (photo June Tan)

***

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: a.t.bukitbrown@gmail.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.

Latest Reviews

“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
HilarySingapore

Beauty shots 2 (photo public domain)

Bukit Brown(photo public domain)

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
IreneLim63

Beauty shots (photo public domain)

Bukit Brown, Tombs (photo public domain)

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
Ally A

Beauty shots trees  3  (photo public domain)

Bukit Brown the birds nest ferns on the raintrees (photo public domain)

“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:

正视新加坡人的“野趣”
观点碰撞
吴俊刚先生在10月23日“侧观新加坡人的野趣”中说:“为什么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。
李总理在文化遗产节时说:“文化遗产并不专属政府,更不能由政府来定义,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。
吴先生曾在“协商的基础和限度”这篇文章就这么说:“也许我缺乏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。
武吉布朗就是在这种凄风苦雨的情况下,提出申请世界历史遗址,别说磋商,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。
政府有为数百万公民解决衣食住行的重任,吴先生更说:“你可以设法解决交通问题,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。
反观罗尼路是未曾深思熟虑的工程,2009年扩建后通车三年,就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?
去年估计5000坟墓受影响,陆管局强调因修改道路设计而减少到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?
姑且不论武吉布朗学会为何成为吴先生笔下的“野趣”组织,倒是日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。
为政不思追慎远,一堆黄土惹人嫌,是政府的政策妨碍华社追慎远,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?

林志强
作者是文史工作者和武吉布朗华语导游

Cluster of Qing Tombs circa 1830s resited twice before Bukit Brown - now staked for exhumation to make way for 8 lane highway (photo Catherine Lim)

Cluster of Qing Tombs circa 1830s resited twice before Bukit Brown – now staked for exhumation to make way for 8 lane highway (photo Catherine Lim)

Claire story telling_A.J. Leow

Story telling for children (photo A.J. Leow)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Chen Yen Soon 为善百事兴 Ee Hoon.jpg 1

積德千年好 A good thousand years for those who accumulate good deeds.

Chen Yen Soon 积德万年好 Ee Hoon

積德千年好 A good thousand years for those who accumulate good deeds. (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

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。

 

Temple in Silat Rd with inscriptions_Fabian Tee

Temple in Silat Rd with similar inscriptions (photo Fabian Tee)

 

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:

the moon rising (photo: Bianca Polak)

the moon rising (photo: Bianca Polak)

group photo of group 2 at Ong Sam Leong's tomb (photo: Bianca Polak)

group photo of group 2 at Ong Sam Leong’s tomb (photo: Bianca Polak)

candle lit Jade Girl (Photo: Bianca Polak)

candle lit Jade Girl (Photo: Bianca Polak)

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.

Mid-Autumn Lanterns (photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Mid-Autumn Lanterns (photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

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/main/?p=1347

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.
=======================================
The tour:
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:
http://bukitbrown.com/main/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/API.BBC_.Map_.ver3_4.jpg

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.

 

Threatened Landscapes - Chua Ai Lin

Threatened Landscapes – Bukit Brown (photo Chua Ai Lin)

 

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. 

 

Uphill is a breeze with Peter Pak (photo Catherine Lim)

Uphill is a breeze with Brownie Peter Pak  telling stories of our forgotten pioneers (photo Catherine Lim)

 

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!

 

The regular Brownie lunch enjoyed with participants of the guided walks (photo Peter Pak)

The regular Brownie lunch enjoyed with participants of the guided walks (photo Peter Pak)

 

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. 

 

NDP_Bianca Polak

NDP 2013@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.

 

NDP 2013_New Paper

New Paper coverage

 

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!

 

Tiles in the rain (Photo: Daniel Tan)

Tiles in the rain (Photo: Daniel Tan)

 

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.   

 

Tan Kim Cheng (photo: Claire Leow)

Tan Kim Cheng (photo: Claire Leow)

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!

 

The Chinese characters of Island of Stars (A.J. Leow)

Brownie Claire at Fang Shan’s tomb, with the Chinese characters of Isle of Stars (A.J. Leow)

 

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.

 

Related:

History of the Dead, Heritage of the Living

 

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