By Alfian Sa’at
“I admit that for a while I resisted visiting Bukit Brown. Yes, it is a heritage site, but for me a cultural heritage identified with a specific community in Singapore. As people rallied for its preservation, I often thought to myself, what about Bidadari, the waqf lands, the Istana Kampong Glam, the Malay Settlement, even the madrasahs whose existence was once imperiled? Is the Bukit Brown cause another instance where immigrant history is valorised over indigenous history? Yesterday I finally visited, and as I walked down the winding paths, I thought…I can’t claim this history as my own, because I don’t identify with the immigrant narrative.
But as my passionate guides (Jennifer and Tien) helped to decipher the layout of the graves and the inscriptions on the headstones (some of which offered moral instructions for future generations), I thought about Singapore history not as a contest between strands of histories.
Instead, in that space of contemplation and translation, I saw it as a dialogue between histories, between the Nanyang and the Nusantara, between the past and the future, the living and the dead. I knew that there were connections to be made, through the soil, the earth deities, the semangat (life-force) in the trees, the mute sentinels of weathered rock. As I ran a finger down the grainy beard of a stone Sikh ‘guardian’, I knew that time ‘saved’ in a cemetery is so much more important than the time saved on an eight-lane highway.
We have so little heritage left in Singapore. I thought, I shouldn’t be waylaid by questions of whether certain types of heritage are considered more important than others, questions of what a ‘common heritage’ really means. These questions can wait, because if Bukit Brown is not saved, then we won’t even get a chance to consider these questions in the future.”
Alfian Sa’at, Resident Playwright, W!LD RICE theatre company
Editor’s Note: Alfian posted this note on his Facebook page. It is reproduced here with his express permission.
March. A hot morning. And a chance to reflect…
The long shadows of our history provide shelter for our identity as a people.
(Claire, a.t.BukitBrown editor)
FINDING THE FALLEN ON WWII BATTLEFIELD: BUKIT BROWN
Jon Cooper reports on a recent extraordinary find – yielding clues on the possible fate of British soldiers who fought in Singapore, with Bukit Brown as the theatre of war.
On the evening of 14th February 1942, the rolling hills of the Bukit Brown Cemetery were suddenly engulfed in a barrage of flame and fire. It appeared like scene from Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Artillery from the Yamashita’s advancing XXV Army opened up their most intensive bombardment of the Singaporean campaign to date plastering the grave covered hills with high explosives rounds that made the earth tremble and sent the headstones spinning through the air. Onlookers recalled being deluged with dust, debris and human remains.
The gunners’ targets were the men of the 4th Suffolks, a fresh-faced territorial battalion of the 18th Division who had only landed in Singapore two weeks earlier. The Suffolks, raised from the country towns and farming communities of East Anglia, had already seen combat up at Bukit Tinggi and had been forced to retreat back towards the Lornie Road by the relentless drive of the IJA’s elite 5th Division. The Suffolk’s hasty withdrawal and the stubborn defence of Adam Park by the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires had allowed the men to establish new positions overlooking the eastern end of the SICC golf course and southern tributaries of the MacRitchie Reservoir. They were all that stood between Yamashita’s army and the all important water pumping stations at Thompson Village and Woodleigh. That evening Yamashita’s exhausted and battle weary troops were to launch one final effort to break through to the east. The leading units of the 11th Regiment of the 5th Division were by now running short of ammunition and artillery shells and the bombardment and attack was to be their final assault. It was to be a ‘make or break’ attack on the hills of Bukit Brown.
At dusk the 3rd Battalion, 11thRegiment led by Colonel Ichikawa surged up the Sime Road and charged across the Lornie Road. Colonel Shimada’s tank company parked up on the fairways of the golf course provided covering fire and his men witnessed the arms and legs of the defending Suffolks fly up into the air with every explosion. He watched as the screaming infantry disappeared into the murk and smoke along the tree line on Hill 130 then to his relief saw the torch lights and flares signal the successful capture of the temple complex. The attack had been a total success; those Suffolks that had not fled or been blown to bits by the barrage had been bayoneted in their trenches. The way was open to Thomson Village; surely Singapore would now surrender.
The following are maps from both sides of the action.
(This annotated Japanese sketch map provided shows the approximate course of the battle described in Shimada’s account. The Colonel’s tank attack up Lornie Road and onto Caldecott is shown by the thick black arrows. The infantry attack led by 3rd Battalion of the 11thRegiment up Sime Road, across to the temple and onto Hill 160 is marked in a dotted arrow. )
Almost 70 years on, a team of researchers in the National Archives in Kew Gardens, London unearthed an incredible find. Deep in the vaults was a consignment of papers that had miraculously survived the war but had then been ‘lost’ in the archival process. These faded parchments were the work of the Bureau of Records and Enquiry (the BRE) set up by Captain David Nelson at Changi prison camp in 1942. Nelson and his colleagues undertook the mammoth task to track and record the movements and fate of the 80,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners that at some time passed through or stayed at the camp.
Amongst the archival material are detailed rolls listing the name, rank and fate of individuals from each regiment serving in Malaya and Singapore. The 4th Suffolks’ list makes interesting reading. Out of the 117 men noted as not being with the unit after the fall of Singapore, 62 men were listed as lost on the 14th or 15th of February during the action around Bukit Brown and Hill 95. However when this list is compared to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Roll of Honour it would appear not all the bodies were recovered to the Kranji Cemetery after the war. Twenty five of the 4th Suffolks who died or went missing during the fighting on these days appear on the Singapore Memorial inferring their bodies have never been properly accounted for.
Remarkably the BRE records have been annotated with handwritten comments added by the bureau staff as their interviews and enquiries went on in 1942. Records for 15 of the 25 ‘missing’ Suffolk men have been annotated with map references identifying their last known location or their burial site. This is not to say however that if one were to plot the coordinates then a body would be unearthed. There are many ways an individual could ‘go missing’. Bodies may be recovered without any form of identification and buried at Kranji under the epitaph ‘Known Unto God’. Wounded soldiers may simply crawl into the forestation and die; their bones being covered in undergrowth or scattered by scavenging animals. Men were also known to basically disintegrate when struck by a high explosive shell leaving nothing for the burial teams to bury. However there may be a possibility that those men are to be found at rest amongst the ancestors of the people they were sent to defend.
The task of finding these graves by archaeological survey alone is monumental; it is like looking for a needle in a pile of needles. The undergrowth and cemetery architecture makes meaningful geophysical survey impossible. Metal detecting may not penetrate the surface deep enough to identify buried bodies. Even fieldwalking looking for unmarked grave cuts is impaired by the thick undergrowth and numerous treefalls, unrecorded civilian graves and undulating terrain. However it is feasible that the remains, should they be unearthed say during construction, can be identified as military as they will be most likely lying amidst a scatter of tell tale buttons, badges and buckles. It is not unknown for leather work and fabric material to survive 70 years under the ground facilitating the identification of a military man through his ID Discs, uniform or personal possessions. There is always a chance that a costly DNA survey would reveal a living link to the identity. If found there is a distinct possibility that the ‘missing’ may not remain known only unto God.
There is of course undoubtedly a less poignant but as important material record of the fighting scattered across the Bukit Brown site still to be found today. Surveys carried along at Adam Park suggest that shrapnel, shell fragments, live and used ordnance, buttons, buckles and bombs will have been left relatively undisturbed amidst the headstones across the site. There are even local stories of wells and water courses being used as handy dumping grounds for broken and lost equipment, not to mention the bodies of the fallen. The recovery of such items in meaningful amounts would be a massive undertaking but it would give us a fascinating insight into the battle that raged that night. There is no better way to inspire our grandchildren into understanding and respecting the incredible adventures of their grandparents than showing them the actual objects that they used. It’s all about touching history and at Bukit Brown, it’s all around you.
Postscript: In a corner of a foreign field Amidst in the undergrowth within the corner of woodland alongside the entrance of the MacRitchie Nature trail and away from the clutter of headstones and grave mounds of the cemetery, are a number of peculiar holes, or ‘features’ as the archaeologists like to call them. These ‘holes’ of varying sizes are set out along the forward slope of the slight rise overlooking the golf course fairway and tactically speaking they provide an excellent field of fire for any men defending the Lornie / Sime Road crossroads. They are potentially the remains of British slit trenches dug by the Cambridgeshire and Suffolk men on 12th and 13th February 1942. What makes the site even more provocative the site is also cited in the BRE records as the resting place of four missing Suffolk lads. It’s time to dig a little deeper into Singapore’s wartime heritage.
Today, at precisely 12 pm, the sirens will sound all over Singapore to mark the darkest period in our nation’s history. 71 years ago on 15th February, the British surrendered to the Japanese after the devastating defeat of Singapore’s last strategic post of Bukit Chandu (Opium Hill.) Read Jerome Lim’s moving tribute to those who died valiantly to protect Singapore in that battle here.
a.t bukitbrown remembers the war by sharing the life and times of Tay Koh Yat, one of the war heroes buried in Bukit Brown.
Tay Koh Yat (1880 – 1957)
He was a pioneer in Singapore’s public transportation, but also a feisty patriot who started and led his own self defence force of 20,000 during the onset of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War 2.
His grave located near the Bukit Brown cemetery gates is a fairly well maintained tomb and comes with benches, as if to offer a chance for people to gather and talk about his legendary deeds. The funeral cortege for Tay was grand with a reported 100 cars in attendance.
Tay was born in 1880 in Kinmen and came to Singapore when he was 16 years old. He started as a general worker in a trading company and was paid $2 a month. $1.50 was sent home to his family. Tay managed to survive on what was left because at that time, the meals, transport, housing was provided by his employer. So 50 cents was a luxury to be spend on aerated water or some porridge at hawker stalls. 2 bowls of porridge would cost only 1 copper coin, and 1 cent was equivalent to 4 copper coins.
After working for more than 10years, Tay saved up enough to start his own small firm, dealing with salted fish. He was just 26 years old. His reputation for being hard working and trustworthy led to the expansion of his business in Indonesia
In 1938, Tay noticed that local transportation was inadequate and started the Tay Koh Yat Bus Company. He built up his fleet to 120 buses and became the largest bus operator among the 10 other bus companies.
But more than buses, Tay was admired for his patriotism and daring do in leading a 20,000 strong self defence force which he formed just before the Japanese invasion. His rallying cry “20,000 people, one heart.” The force helped to maintain order and prevent panic and chaos as people started to flee the country with the invasion of the Japanese forces.
Tay stood his ground until the eleventh hour and escaped to Indonesia to escape certain death only on the eve of the fall of Singapore. He was on the Japanese most wanted list. But before he left he had organised a 2000 strong rescue team, for people who injured by the Japanese air raids.
After the war, Tay returned and immediately started to compile the fatalities from his volunteer force and lobbied the colonial government for the same compensation given to widows and children of servicemen who died during the war. Initially rejected, he appealed and the government finally gave in.
Tay next went on to form the Singapore Chinese Appeal Committee for the Japanese Massacre victims to seek justice and compensation. It was estimated that some 50,000 people had died under Japanese hands.
In March 10, 1947, the War tribunal committee found Lieutenant General Kawamura Saburo, Singapore garrison commander and Lieutenant Colonel Oishi Masayuki Kempeitai commander guilty of war crimes and sentenced them to hang.
They had been in charge of the Sook Qing operation in Singapore which massacred thousands of ethnic Chinese.
Tay was invited to witness the execution of the two war criminals. Tay was one of only six people to witness the execution, such was his standing in the community. And, on seeing the two generals, he burst out in anger and sorrow:
“You have committed big sins and really deserve to die, but even when your soul descends to hell to suffer further punishment, still it is not enough to atone for your sins.”
Tay Koh Yat never lost his fiery nature. During the riots of the early 50s of union unrest and political instability, Tay who was by then also managing a newspaper became an indirect target. One day he received a phone call that 4 young people were burning his buses near Rex Cinema. He got his driver to take him to the scene of the arson. When he saw 2 young men burning his bus, he caught hold of one of them and exclaimed “How dare you, burn my bus!” But at 70 he was no match against a young rioter and barely escaped.
Tay Koh Yat’s tomb is in the line of the proposed new highway that cuts through Bukit Brown and his grave is slated to be exhumed, finally uprooting a pioneer and a hero who had always stood his ground.
His tomb is marked as A1 at Blk 5 division 1
A postscript on Bukit Brown ‘s war years: Many of the those who died during the 3 1/2 years of the Japanese Occupation had to be buried hastily in mass plots without tombs at the Paupers Section. They remain largely unknown.
A Singaporean recalls praying at the site of a similar mass grave where one of his relatives was buried during the war. The circumstances then dictated that bodies were collected and buried in a communal trench. This is in Block 5.
Here’s another blog on another war hero buried at Bukit Brown: Wong Chin Yoke. (credit: the Rojak Librarian)
Here’s a newspaper article on Wong Chin Yoke.
Other family details:
by Grace Seah
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
In memory of my Uncle Tan Kim Cheng
One might wonder what has WWII & Operation Sook Ching has to do with Bukit Brown as a place in our history.
Among the men, women and children buried at Bukit Brown were victims, killed by the Japanese during the war. Many lived through that tumultuous period in Singapore’s history and carried with them the pain and heartache of not knowing where their son or daughter went during the war, never to be seen again.
This is a story of one such family – my family.
In an earlier blogpost about my grandparents, I shared a much loved family photo which included my grandparents, my father and his 2 elder brothers. One of his brothers was taken by the Japanese that one fateful day in Operation Sook Ching and my grandparents never saw their third son ever again.
Just what was Operation Sook Ching ?
According to the heritagetrails.sg website
“A decree was issued on Wednesday 18 February 1942: All Chinese males between the ages of 18 and 50 in Syonan-To (as Singapore was called during the Japanese Occupation) were to report to the various registration centres around the island. The decree embodied Japanese hatred for the Chinese, cultivated through years of Sino-Japanese war since 1937. Also, overseas Chinese had been quickly labelled anti-Japanese due to their contributions to war efforts in China. Thus began the Sook Ching operation, or the elimination of anti-Japanese elements.”
A story that is often told in our family revolved around the time my father, Tan Kim Huat – youngest son of Tan Keng Kiat and Chan Gim Neo, - was rounded up by the Japanese, together with his third brother Tan Kim Cheng. Both were taken to a holding area with many other young Chinese males in the vicinity. They were not told of the reason for their detention, but they were all held like prisoners surrounded by fiercely guarded fences and barriers.
Many like my father experienced the sheer terror of not knowing what to expect from their captors that drove them to despair and desperation. Many never lived to tell their story. My father did.
On the night of their capture, my father had a premonition that all of them were going to be killed the next morning. He heard his inner voice telling him to run for his life and resolved to find a way out no matter what. At 22 years of age, my father possessed the courage and brashness of youth which stood him in good stead in this instance.
He sought out his elder brother and told him of his plan to escape. My uncle being of a different nature just could not find it in him to make that dangerous journey. My dad, not being able to convince his brother to follow suit, then decided to make a run for it in the middle of the night.
Whatever possessed my father to take that perilous journey, to this day, he cannot say. But with his every being pumped up with adrenalin, he did the unthinkable and scaled a secured fence and ran away to freedom, all the time expecting a bullet to his back.
Imagine my grandparents’ elation and at the same time heartache when my dad ran home that day but without his brother. The next morning, my aunts went to the place of detention to look for my uncle but never found him again. He was presumed dead, and I believe, his name is engraved amongst those of the many civilian war victims at the Civilian War Memorial near the Padang.
As for the young women, my mama (grandma) had to urgently find a couple of single men willing to take my unmarried aunties as wives at short notice so as to protect them from the Japanese. My aunts were married off to non Peranakans from humble backgrounds. Both my uncles ended up being good men who looked after my aunts and the children that followed as best as they could.
If my aunts had not been hurriedly married , they would most certainly have been taken by the Japanese to be comfort women. If my father had not been so brave, I would not be here today.
We must therefore never forget the courage and spirit of the people of Singapore during the early years. Their blood flows through us, because of them, we are here.
Do not miss this beautifully shot documentary (click to watch) by Wong Yew Jun Jun that features eloquent interviews, including from a runner who loves running through a theatre of history and cultural artifacts. Done by Ngee Ann Polytechnic team.
Seah Eu Chin (1805-1883)
Singapore’s Pioneer Gambier and Pepper Plantation King
Founder of Ngee Ann Kongsi
It started with a breaking news flash on the Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook page posted by Raymond Goh just after 2 pm on Friday 16 November 2012:
“Breaking news….the Goh Brothers have found the triple tomb of one of foremost Teochew pioneers of Singapore – Seah Eu Chin and his two wives, sisters of Tan Seng Poh. Details to follow…”
This was followed by the first photo of the tomb described as :
“Tomb of Seah Eu Chin, founder of Ngee Ann Kongsi, with his two wives Tan Beng Guat and Tan Beng Choo. Eu Chin passed away in 1883. We will take exact measurements tomorrow, but his tomb is believed to be as big as Ong Sam Leong.
The tomb inscriptions included imperial titles, but Raymond reports, reading the inscriptions is proving a challenge as some of characters are missing. The lettering is done with some kind of metal which has fallen off.
This is Charles’ account of the search for Seah Eu Chin
“Like the previous finds of Ann Siang and the elder Gan, minutes before the find, there will be rain. For Seah, there were additional ‘help’. On the 1st day, a cobra reared its head preventing us from going one way. Another hissed to stop our tracks when we tried another way. And we met a monitor lizard on the start of the 3rd route. Thinking something’s wrong, we stopped our search minutes after we started. (After Eu Chin’s find, we knew we had went the wrong side of the hill then.) The 2nd day we tried a new location. The trek was smooth, and when rain fell, a sense of hope, and there rose a feeling that something was right. We found it in 10 minutes.”
The next morning, the Goh brothers were back at the grave and posted a photo of the grave in full glory:
The brothers have cleared a path towards the grave so his descendants, members of the Teochew Community and Brownies can visit later. The location of the grave is under wraps at the moment until such time as the descendant who made the request for help to find Seah Eu Chin is informed.
An extract on Seah Eu Chin from The Straits Times, 24 Sept 1932, Page 12
Chinese Benefactor of 1845 – Ngee Ann Kongsi:
In or about the year 1845 the late Seah Eu Chin, at that time a prominent Teochew merchant in Singapore and 12 other Teochew merchants then in Singapore, promoted the formation of a fund for the propagation and observance in Singapore of the doctrines, ceremonies, rites and customs of the chinese religions as observed by the Teochew community, a community of Chinese originating from certain districts in the Kwantung Province of China, and for other charitable purposes for the benefit of the members for the time being in Singapore of the Teochew community…
There is a blog post on Seah Eu Chin here.
Ann Ang found this Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Nature News, the publication of the Nature Society of Singapore, which featured Bukit Brown Cemetery:
The community of concerned groups over the future of Bukit Brown is formally calling for a moratorium on all plans for Bukit Brown. This moratorium should be in place until there is clarity over long-term plans for the area and discussions over alternatives have been exhausted. Given on-going national discussions over housing, transportation and immigration, there is room for policy adjustments. Plans to develop housing and transport infrastructure in the greater Bukit Brown area cannot be made when these discussions are underway and before the public has had an opportunity to fully consider the details surrounding such proposals.
In addition, there has not been sufficient time for a public conversation over plans by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Land Transport Authority for Bukit Brown, nor a discussion about the alternatives proposed by the Nature Society’s position paper issued in December. We are asking for more meaningful engagement than what we have experienced so far. Bukit Brown is important enough that all parties should be able to participate in discussions over its future reasonably as interested citizens, whether individually, as informal communities, or organised formally.
By Claire Leow
This morning, we continued the search for the 4 British soldiers fallen in action at Bukit Brown on Feb 14, 1942. A film crew led by Catherine Lim was on hand to document the quest. I had met Jon earlier in the year to explore the war link to Bukit Brown, and have co-guided with him for the Battlefield Tours organised under all things Bukit Brown. A group of Brownies had helped look for war trenches a few months ago. I then introduced him to Raymond to help in the quest. The search continues, folks….
For the full account, click on this album and read the captions.
By Claire Leow
True to the multi-cultural mosaic of Singapore, off a street called Mohamed Sultan Road is a magnificent Chinese temple of Minnan style, Minnan being the southern Chinese who immigrated to Singapore. This is Hong San See (凤山寺) – the temple on Phoenix Hill – which after restoration between 2007 and 2009 won a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010. It topped 33 entries from 14 countries.
all things Bukit Brown organised an off-site tour to the temple to better understand the culture our forefathers practised and passed on to followers today.
We entered the temple through the Dragon Door on the right, stepping over (and not on) the threshold and left through the Tiger Door on the left. The centre entrance is closed as it is reserved for the gods.
The names of those who contributed to the building of the temple can be found inscribed in the elaborately decorated pillars of the temple.
Lim Bo Seng’s father Lim Loh, also known as Lim Hoon Leong’s (Lin Yun Long or 林云龙 – 林雲龍 in traditional Chinese script) name is seen inscribed on one of the pillars, one of many benefactors.
Now, Lim Loh is from Na’an…
Our knowledgeable guide Yik Han led our tour, telling us the history of the temple, its architecture, the early Lam Ann immigrants who brought the temple to Singapore, and the deity Guang Ze Zun Wang.
Lets start at the beginning. Hong San See is a temple at Lam Ann (Nan’an) in China, dedicated to the deity Guang Ze Zun Wang (广泽尊王) who is also referred to by several names including Guo Sheng Wang (郭圣王) and Guo Sheng Gong (郭圣公).
In Singapore, a pioneer from the Lam Ann clan, Neo Lim Kwee, built a temple in Tanjong Pagar, near Wallich Road, as a tribute to that original temple. That was in 1836. However, in 1907, that piece of land was acquired for development, and the temple moved to Mohd Sultan Road, with construction spanning 1908 to 1913, a grand project built at a then-cost of S$56,000. It was conceived in the traditional Min-nan style, aligned in a North-South axis, with courtyards and walled enclosures.
Singapore’s Hong San See still stands today. In greater glory than ever.
In the most recent restoration, master craftsmen from Quanzhou in Fujian Province crafted the exquisite carvings on the front of the temple. The restoration committee, which included a consultant for the Beijing Palace Museum, did extensive historical research to restore it to its former glory. UNESCO cited this rigorous attention to authenticity as a reason for the award.
“The Jury praised the Award of Excellence winner, Hong San See Temple Singapore, for reviving an important icon of Minnan temple architecture of the late Qing dynasty which is a living heritage landmark for the Lam Ann settlers and the Singapore community as a whole. The project’s rigorous conservation methodology has ensured that the authentic structure and fabric of the building are well-preserved. The community-based approach to restoration at Hong San See Temple stands to have a major impact in shifting the paradigm of conservation policy and practice in Singapore and around the region.” (Source)
There are some exquisite dragons….
In fact, there are so many dragons, you would have a field day looking for them. They come gold and gilded, slithering up pillars, hiding under beams, carved onto beams, guarding the joss stick burners, in jian-nian glory on the roof beams (jian-nian = using tiles in a cut-and-paste style of construction.) Knock yourself out.
But there is so much more to admire about the craftsmanship that went into the temple….
There’s honestly so much to see that I cannot post them all. I can only say, go pay a visit and admire this work of art. It will also help you understand the pioneers’ longing for vestiges of home, and building a new life in early Singapore with roots reaching to China for inspiration and comfort.