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
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:
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
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:
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
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 :
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
by Ang 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 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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.