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:

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

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

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:



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:

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:

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.



History of the Dead, Heritage of the Living



Kusu Island Kramat

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


Kusu Island Kramat (Photo: Raymond Goh)

Kusu Island Kramat (Photo: Raymond Goh)


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:




A Poem of Lamentation

Bukit Brown landscapes V (Photo: Ang Hock Chuan)

Bukit Brown landscapes V (Photo: Ang Hock Chuan)

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 scorn the beds
Of pioneers-
adventurers, entrepreneurs, coolies-
They wrest the homes whom others before
Had entrusted in sacred trust
To generations unborn.

The wealthy buy my labour
To savage the nests
Of birds because these pay no rent,
To fell the trees
Silent witnesses of past butchery
Of man killing man.
To end dream time
Of the dead and the living.

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.


Related Reading:

What You Didn’t Know About Bukit Brown

A Voice for the Unclaimed


A Voice for the Unclaimed

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.

Some tombs are marked (staked) for exhumation (Photo: Claire Leow)

Some tombs are marked (staked) for exhumation (Photo: Claire Leow)

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.

Memory (Photo: Peter Pak)

Memory (Photo: Peter Pak)

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?

Tok Cheng Tuan & Oon Tuan Cheng   (photo: Claire Leow)

Tok Cheng Tuan & Oon Tuan Cheng (photo: Claire Leow)

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.

Khoo Phee Soon's neighbours in death (photo: Alex Lim)

Khoo Phee Soon’s neighbours in death (photo: Alex Lim)

Khoo Phee Soon (photo: Alex Lim)

Khoo Phee Soon (photo: Alex Lim)

paying respects to Khoo Phee Soon (photo: Alex Lim)

paying respects to Khoo Phee Soon (photo: Alex Lim)


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.

Fang Shan at Qing Ming (photo: Claire Leow)

Fang Shan at Qing Ming (photo: Claire Leow)

星 洲

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.

Born in China (Photo- Khoo Ee Hoon)

Born in China (Photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Buried in a foreign land (Photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Buried in a foreign land (Photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)


















(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.

Vista at Hill 2   (photo: Claire Leow)

Vista at Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)

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.

Earth Deity (Photo: Oh Chew Hiang)

Earth Protector (Photo: Oh Chew Hiang)



Elegy for an Urban Graveyard by the Economist

The “Brownie” Researchers of Bukit Brown:

Peter Pak

Walter Lim

Raymond Goh

All Things Bukit Brown

Burial Register


bush bashing and bog-wading: Raymond, Claire and Su-min finding war graves (photo: Claire Leow)

Bio: Claire is the co-founder of All Things Bukit Brown, a loose group of volunteers who help Raymond Goh in exploring our history through Bukit Brown’s resources.


September 2014
« Aug