Bukit Brown : Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge
Location: NLB 9th flood from now until 10 October’14 and thereafter it will travel to other regional libraries.
The exhibition was officially opened on Saturday 19 July,2014 by MOS (Ministry of National Development) Desmond Lee.
It represents almost one and half years of research and working the ground documenting some 4,153 tombstones which are affected by the building of a new highway across Bukit Brown, by a team under the leadership of Dr. Hui Yew-Foong, an anthropologist with ISEAS.
We have observed the team hard at work over these years, joined some of them during Qing Ming and exhumations as observers and friends of the family of descendants, and the exhibition is a comprehensive and compact expression of what they have uncovered, shared with the public with insight and interesting artefacts , enhanced by new technology. We recommend it as a “must see” and “ground breaking” for insights shared of customary practices and traditions of burial customs and respect for ancestors.
An extract from the media release:
Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge” assembles a diverse range of documents,maps, photographs and objects to demonstrate how a cemetery can open a window to Singapore’s historical past and cultural present. Through a multi-disciplinary approach employing cutting-edge methods, techniques and technology, the exhibition will bring to the fore new horizons of knowledge unveiled through the documentation of Bukit Brown.
The exhibition opens with the origins of the cemetery, as a project of the Municipal Commissioners in early 20th in 1973, will be illustrated through maps and aerial photographs. Next, through explication of tomb inscriptions, tomb typology and the material culture of the cemetery, the exhibition will demonstrate Singapore’s connectivity to the region, China and the world.
While the cemetery is a burial space for the dead, it is also a space for the living at different points of Singapore’s history and ritual calendar. This will be illustrated through the life of kampongs that used to be situated in the vicinity of the cemetery and the life of the cemetery during Qing Ming and the Seventh Month Hungry Ghost Festival.
As data for the graves was collected and organised within a Geographic Information System (GIS) framework, the exhibition will present a Centrepiece where visitors will be able to access data related to specific graves through a map-based database on a touch screen monitor.
Finally, visitors will get a glimpse behind the scenes of documentation work, to get a sense of the different methods, techniques and technologies that were employed in the course of documentation. These range from balloon photography to 3D scanning, from interviewing to filming, and from the work of architects to the work of archaeologists.
Highlights of the Exhibition Opening
This urn was used to re-inter bones exhumed from an older cemetery. It was from the grave of Madam Khoo Siok Hui, who died in 1836. Her grave was the oldest among those documented at Bukit Brown. Madam Khoo and her son Chee Yam Chuan were among the early settlers of Singapore. Mr Chee later returned to Malacca and made his fortune in tin mining in Selangor. Today, the Chee Yam Chuan Temple Trust continues to flourish in Malacca and Madam Khoo’s ancestral tablet can be found in the temple. The story behind this family shows the close links between Malacca and Singapore in the early years. It was Raymond Goh who first deciphered the inscription and unraveled the connection.
A video at the exhibition features Serene Tan and her family observing the first Qing Ming at Bukit Brown in 2012 after Raymond Goh discovered the cluster of Tan Quee Lan tombs, and shows how the cluster underwent a renovation makeover by Serene and her cousin LT Tan who met at Bukit Brown itself. Serene’s story can be read here
The cluster is not affected by highway.
“….to everyone who came and supported the launch, and most importantly, supported us and helped us generously with our research over the last 33 months. One of the purposes of the exhibition is to acknowledge all your contributions and I hope it accomplished that.” Dr Hui Yew- Foong, Curator of Exhibition on a FB posting.
Look out for 2 specially curated walks by the Brownies in conjunction with the exhibition in August (English) and September (Mandarin).
Photos taken of the exhibition courtesy of Brownie Ang Hock Chuan on Facebook here
Read more about the exhibition by the Rojak Librarian here
Today marks the 70th anniversary of Lim Bo Seng’s martyrdom (29 Jun 1944)
An excerpt from Singapore war hero Lim Bo Seng’s diary:
“My duty and honour will not permit me to look back. Every day, tens of thousands are dying for their countries. You must not grieve for me. On the other hand, you should take pride in my sacrifice and devote yourself to the upbringing of the children. Tell them what happened to me and direct them along my footsteps.”
Family members attended a remembrance ceremony organised by Changi Museum, at the Kranji War Cemetery this morning.
Read the Today report here
by Norman Cho
In 2011, I discovered the grave of my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong at Bukit Brown Cemetery. Since then, I have been trying to locate the tomb of his father, Cho Boon Poo (Cho Poo), who was laid to rest in Malacca. I had absolutely no clue as to which cemetery he was buried. Bukit Cina and Jelutong cemeteries came to mind but these are huge cemeteries with more than a hundred thousand graves each. They are maintained by the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple but pre-war records are unavailable. It seemed that I had hit a dead-end!
However, miracles do happen. To me, these are little blessings from above. Perhaps, the old man had wanted his descendants to visit him and had influenced how things turned out. It must have been decades since the last time any descendants paid their respects at his tomb. He must have known my sincerity and had helped me along without my knowledge. The breakthrough came in April 2014. A relative whom I had never known, contacted me via Facebook to introduce himself as the maternal great-grandson of Cho Poo, after he had discovered that we have matching ancestors from an online Family Tree software on the internet. 70 year old Vincent Lee was descended from Cho Poo’s eldest son, Cho Kim Choon, while my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong, was the third son. He resides in Australia and was planning a trip down to Singapore in April 2014. He requested my assistance to put him in touch with the relatives in Singapore.
It turned out to be a blessing for me! I talked to my eldest aunt, Rose Cho (88 years old), to ask for the contacts of other relatives from the Cho clan. That was how I found aunt Elizabeth Cho (62 years old), who was the only child from the fifth son, Cho Kim Hock, a famed state badminton player for Malacca in the 1930s. We organised a dinner for our overseas relative and his wife. During dinner, I had a nice chat with Elizabeth – whom the family affectionately calls Bert – about Cho Poo. She told me that her only visit to his grave was when she was a child of 9 years old. That was more than 50 years ago! Her father who was the only surviving son at that time dreamt of his father asking him why he had not visited him in such a long time. Heeding the call, he brought his wife and daughter to pay their respects to his father. Since then, he had visited the grave alone every year till several years before his death in 1990.
Aunt Elizabeth, had the memory of an elephant! She vividly recalled that the cemetery was about a 40-minutes-drive from the Malacca Town, but had no inkling about the name of the cemetery. She further described that the cemetery was sliced into two by the main road, there was a cemetery on the left and another on the right, and Cho Poo’s was on the right. The tomb was relatively large and on a gentle-sloping plain. It faced a vast and beautiful paddy field. She added that the cemetery was on the land which once belonged to Cho Poo and was probably the private burial ground of the Cho family. Later, when the family was not doing well financially, it was sold to the Malacca’s Eng Choon Hway Kwan and it became a cemetery for the Eng Choon community. She thinks that the tomb should still be there, given the leisurely pace of development in Malaysia. She asked if I would be able to find the tomb. I told her that I could try. All her clues were useful, except for the paddy field. I told her that I doubt the paddy field in her memory still exists. Nevertheless, I took whatever clues that I could use and converted them into intelligent information.
Firstly, I eliminated Bukit Cina as it was near Malacca Town and therefore could not be a 40-minutes-drive. Next, I looked at the map of Jelutong cemetery but it was not sliced into two by any road. I asked a few Malaccan friends of other lesser-known cemeteries and searched the Google Map for them. Finally, I found a relatively small cemetery, probably no larger than 20 acres, which was dissected by a main road. It was away from the Malacca Town and would probably take about 30 minutes to get there by car. This was the Krubong Cemetery. To be certain that I had located the correct cemetery, I contacted a Malaccan friend who verified that this cemetery is indeed managed and owned by the Eng Choon Hway Kwan. He helped me to obtain the mobile contact of the tomb-keeper to locate the grave. With modern technology, I communicated with the tomb-keeper via Whatsapp to economize on the phone bill. Amazingly, he found the tomb the very next day. The search was completed successfully in less than a week since I started piecing the information together!
I informed aunt Elizabeth who was extremely excited and delighted with the news. We decided to go on a trip to Malacca to pay our respects to our common ancestor, Cho Boon Poo. He was the first ancestor who came to this part of the world to carve a better life for himself and his family. By braving the elements to come to the land across the Southern Seas, he had changed his destiny and that of all his descendants. It was through sheer grit and hard work that he built a successful business and owned vast plantations in Malacca and Seremban dealing in palm leaves, gambier, tapioca and rubber. We all had to be grateful to him for being able to lead good lives in Malaya and Singapore for six generations and counting. He married nyonya wives and that was how my Peranakan roots came about. Being a strict father, all his children were well-brought up and a few of his descendants took on key positions in the civil service.
I was told how strict he was about punctuality. The family would have dinner at 7pm sharp and everyone was expected at the table. Nobody could join in once dinner was served. If you missed dinner, it meant that there would be no dinner for you. During one occasion, his fourth son, Kim Tian came home late but the kind servant saved some food for him. When found out, the servant was sacked. He had a strong character and was on the board of the executive committee of the Eng Choon Hway Kwan.
We arrived at his grave on the morning of 23 June 2014 and I noticed that his tomb was the largest amongst the 50-odd tombs in the vicinity.
What captivated me were the Peranakan tiles (Majolica tiles) which adorned his tomb. No other tombs in the surrounding area had this feature. I was told that having Peranakan tiles on the tombs was not widely popular with the Malaccans. Unlike in Singapore, figurines of the Golden Boy and Jade Maiden were conspicuously absent in Malaccan tombs of even the very wealthy. The tomb used to face water-filled paddy fields which are supposed to be auspicious – water and rice. Unfortunately the paddy fields had since given way to modern development. Cho Poo’s tomb seems to be steep in Fengshui elements : the front courtyard of the tomb forms part of a hexagon instead of the normal rectangle or semi-circle. Along the perimeter of the front courtyard lies a water catchment channel which would collect water when it rains. This had since been covered with soil. The tomb shoulders are angular but eventually taper to form convoluting arms that seem to embrace the courtyard. Likely, it symbolizes a firm hold on wealth.Through the tomb inscriptions, I found the names of one of his wives (Lee Hong Neo) and that of the male descendants – sons, grandsons and even great-grandsons! He died at the age of sixty-nine in 1930. My aunt offered joss-sticks and joss-paper as a form of respect to our ancestor.
This trip has been very fruitful not only about finding out more about Cho Poo and paying our respects to him, but it has built a closer bond between aunt Elizabeth, her husband and I, even though we had known each other only recently.
More on Norman Cho’s journey of discovery, here
The Story behind the Painting
by Alvin Ong
The story of 3 affected graves at Bukit Brown not too long ago inspired a revival of family interest; Tan Yong Chuan (Blk 4, Div C), Tan Tiam Tee (Blk 3, Div B), Wee Geok Eng Neo (Blk 4, Div 6) were exhumed in May 2014. Old photos were unearthed from family albums, and heirloom objects from another era suddenly came to light. For the first time in decades, stories and narratives unlocked themselves from these objects and brought new layers of meaning to the notions of home and identity.
Tan Tiam Tee was the son of the magnate Tan Hoon Chiang (buried in Bukit China, Malacca), one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Co. His wife, Wee Geok Eng Neo, and his son, Tan Yong Chuan were all affected by the proposed highway.
(click on images for a bigger view)
Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)
Miniature cooking pots were interred in Mrs Tan Tiam Tee’s tomb, presumably for her to cook in the afterlife, along with a pearl sanggul, and bracelets. According to my relatives, a set of gold teeth with an engraved heart shape was also found in Tan Yong Chuan’s tomb.
Tan Yong Chuan (son of Mr and Mrs Tan Tian Tee) was finally reunited with his wife for the first time in Holy Family Columbarium after 77 years. The columbarium has an unusual regulation that all photos of the deceased must be in color.
No color photographs of the deceased had existed at that time, so with the help of numerous correspondences, scans were digitally emailed, and the photos doctored and hand-painted.
Studying overseas has allowed the artist the space, physically and emotionally, to explore ideas of home and identity. These graves were only re-discovered shortly after the redevelopment plans were announced. The sight of the many abandoned tombs on the artist’s first visit to Bukit Brown had sparked questions about what happened to the descendants of the people who were interred there, which in turn, prompted the artist to explore if there were indeed any family connections to the cemetery at all. Beyond the historical and material significance of the place, it also felt like a site where mystery, the past, and present all came together. Reuniting with the tombs for the first time in many years became an emotional moment for some, and it also made us feel as though we have touched history, an experience that is becoming exceptionally rare in Singapore.
These were ideas that all came together in the painting, which were almost auto-biographical in that they featured vignettes of the artist’s experience with the discovery of the pioneers of Singapore and his roots. One random memory was a trek with Raymond Goh to Seah Eu Chin’s grave; One of the Teochew stone lions guarding the perimeter of the tomb eventually found its way into the picture. Raymond was featured in the early stages of the work, but in the end, this idea of displacement, loss and discovery surfaced in the final version titled, “Moving House”.
This is not the end of the road. There is yet another tomb whose story remains waiting to be told, my maternal great grandfather, Peck Mah Hoe, pictured here. The artist will be heading to the Peck clan temple in attempt to uncover more. And hopefully, there will be more paintings to come.
About the writer who is an artist :
Alvin Ong is reading fine art in Oxford, and did architecture at the National University of Singapore. In 2004, he was the youngest winner of the UOB painting of the year award at the age of 16. He had his first solo exhibition at 17, in the presence of His Excellency President S R Nathan.
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.
Tan Ean Teck (1902-1944)
According to “Biographies of Famous Personalities in the Nanyang,” Tan Ean Teck came to Singapore from Tong Ann, China at the age of 16. He worked for about four years in his brother’s (Tan Ean Kiam) company before striking out on his own, setting up his own rubber trading firm.
He was a strong supporter of the anti-Japanese war effort in China, and contributed to charitable causes in both China and other lands. He also contributed to the Hokkien Huay Kuan, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Tong Ann District Guild, as well as many schools and social institutions,
But Tan Ean Teck’s life was tragically gunned down when he became a casualty of WW 2. On 19 April, 1944, the MPAJA (Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army) ambushed officials of the OCA ( Overseas Chinese Association) en route to visit the Chinese settlement of Endau in Johor.
A member of the OCA convoy, captures vividly what happened:
Tan Ean Teck’s body was taken back to Singapore and 4 days later on 23ed April , he was buried in Bukit Brown, close to his brother Tan Ean Kiam. He was 42 years old.
Prologue: Endau and World War II
In August 1943, in order to ease the food shortage problem in Singapore, the Japanese authorities mooted the idea of setting up new settlements outside Singapore and encouraging Singaporeans to relocate to these settlements to cultivate the land there. These settlements were planned to become self-sufficient in food supply. A settlement was created for Chinese settlers at Endau in Johore. (Source: Iinfopedia)
From Alex Tan Tiong Hee
My understanding, based on my late father’s (Tan Yeok Seong) account:
The OCA was not popular with the anti-Japanese elements that went underground to survive. Those living an open unconcealed life in public were natural targets for the Kempeitai who sought revenge against the Chinese, hence the pogrom.
The pacification of Japanese antagonism was the OCA’s raison d’etre and which had to be traded by the raising of $50million from the Chinese community as a gift for the Japanese emperor’s approaching birthday. This being done, the persecution or ‘sook ching’ then ended.
The communist terrorists were enterprising enough to merge with the anti-Japanese underground group to form the MPAJA. They accused the OCA as collaborators and monitored the Endau Project. Their opportunity came when they ambushed and fired at a convoy killing all except Lee Choon Seng who was Vice President of the OCA.
Extract from Collaboration during the Japanese Occupation : Issues and Problems focusing on the Chinese Community by Han Ming Guang (Hons thesis for history):
Even though Endau was administered by the Chinese, the fact that it was sponsored by the Japanese military and established by the O.C.A whom the MPAJA saw as an organisation of collaborators, meant that the Chinese administrators that administered the settlement were now targets for the MPAJA guerrillas. The MPAJA guerrillas ambushed the O.C.A officials that were on their way to visit Endau and in the process wounded Mr Lee Choon Seng, the chairman of the Overseas Banking Corporation. They also managed to kill Mr Wong Tatt Seng, who was in-charge of maintaining peace and order within the settlement, along with other Chinese administrators who were also living in Endau at the time of the attacks.
While it was clear that the MPAJA viewed the members of the O.C.A as well as the Chinese leaders of Endau as collaborators and traitors, in general the people who were living in Endau did not share those views. They understood that the Endau plan was conceived by the O.C.A and Mamoru Shinozaki in order to save Chinese lives from the dreaded Kempeitai , by giving the Chinese community a piece of land in Johore, for them to live separately and free from the Japanese military.
Pat Lin on life in Endau:
According to my parents, Maggie Lim and Lim Hong Bee (H.B. Lim) both of whom were actively involved with the MPAJA in the Endau settlement (Yes, I was there too) there were people in the OCA who were what we may today call double agents. They included some very prominent local people who on the surface professed to be anti-Japanese, but who were informers who were usually rewarded by the Japanese.
As with the French resistance, it was a very difficult time as people all lived under a climate of uncertainty as to who was about to betray them to the Japanese. My mother also had her suspicions as to those who carried out the covert assassination of informers.
She has a vivid story of having to deal with someone who was brought into the Endau clinic (she was the Endau doctor) one evening with a bullet in his head. As a physician she was duty bound to do everything to save him. She was filled with the reluctance to do anything as it was known by the Endau leadership that he fed information to the Japanese that led to people being taken away for execution or disappearing suddenly. Possession of any sort of weapons was punishable by death, but people like my father possessed hand guns that they somehow received from some source and were very carefully hidden.
Endau was located in healthier environs and there were more people who managed to make a go of farming. The staples were kangkong and ubi kayu. My little family brought chickens up from Singapore piled up In chicken coops on top of a lorry. Some of them ran off into the jungle, and others fell prey to wild animals. Wild animals including roaming tigers were a real threat.
The first year in Endau and Bahau were particularly bad before the first harvests. OCA members from Singapore would make periodic visits with whatever they could scrounge up including medicines. Some within the community tried being entrepreneurial by trying to sell black market food stuffs they somehow managed to obtain. Mom recalled being so hungry from having to work and nurse me but my father being ever the man of high ethical standards refused to allow the purchasing of black market goods.
An Epilogue on a Life Miraculously Saved
The metal badge of the OSA worn on the chest, deflected the bullet that could have fatally wounded the Vice President of the OSA, Lee Choon Seng. He believed he was saved for a reason and his life took on a spiritual quest in the aftermath of war. Lee Choon Seng subsequently founded the Poh Ern Shih to dedicate merits to people killed during the occupation. His grandson transfromed the monastery into Singapore’s first green temple.
Editor’s Acknowledgement : This blog post is a compilation of first hand accounts and research from the Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown Facebook Community.
by Ang Yik Han
The tomb of 白心正 (probably Pek Sim Jia in romanised Hokkien) at Hill 3. Hailing from Anxi (安溪 – An-khoe) county of Fujian, he was the proprietor of Pek Sam Choon (白三春) - a tea importer who was one of the founding members of the Singapore Chinese Tea Importers and Exporters’ Association in 1928.
No longer in operation today, the firm was known to still exist in the 1950s when it was run by one of his sons, Thiam Hock, whose name appears on his tombstone. As Anxi county is famed for producing tea especially Ti Kuan Yin (铁观音), a sizable proportion of local Chinese tea merchants hail from that county. Some old firms founded before the war are still around today.
By Claire Leow
This week marks the second anniversary of this blog, started to support a volunteer effort to raise awareness of Bukit Brown’s intrinsic value: its heritage, habitat and history. More importantly, it marks the 72th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore to Japanese occupation during World War II. The two anniversaries dovetailed neatly as All Things Bukit Brown hosted a special tour to mark the Remembrance of the War Dead, tracing the routes of the Japanese advance and the British retreat to defend the city as the battle spilled over from Bukit Timah and Adam Park to Sime Road and into the cemetery grounds, a prelude to dreaded hand-to-hand combat in the thick forest. This is the battle at Bukit Brown in the last hours before the fall of the “Impregnable Fortress” that was Singapore, the jewel of the British empire. James Tann contributed a moving chronology of events.
On Feb 15, 2014, we were able to guide 55 participants in an energising walk to retrace the steps of the soldiers as Bukit Brown is unique as a battle site from WWII that is still largely intact, according to the findings of battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper, who serendipitously landed in Singapore to find himself living at Adam Park, the site of a battle and near to the Sime Road prisoners-of-war (POW) camp during Japanese Occupation (February 1942 to September 1945). This has enabled Jon to advance his research and fieldwork, reinforcing the historic value of the endangered heritage site, as the government has started its project to exhume more than 4,000 graves to make way for an 8-lane highway despite arguments for alternatives.
In January last year, we discovered his research had taken him to Bukit Brown and collaborated with him to start battlefield tours and talks.
Indeed as exhumations started in recent months, Jon accelerated his search for missing soldiers, initially the nine missing Suffolks soldiers. His research recently led him to archival materials from a Reverend Eric Cordingly about a massacre of five Indian soldiers, with burial records that they were laid to rest at a now-defunct village on the outskirts of Bukit Brown. Their last known resting place is unknown.
As Jon writes, “it was noted in the initial report that we only had details for missing Suffolk men and that most likely there are many more of other units who could have gone missing on Bukit Brown. This addendum to the report is a great case in point. Here we have independent reports which tie in nicely with the existing documents and shed light on more missing soldiers. The fact that they were Indian troops reminds us of the global heritage that is encompassed in this battlefield site. Also the suggestion that men were rounded up bound together and then shot is a vivid reminder that the Kheam Hock road was a scene of one of the horrific atrocities that were taking place across the island at the time.”
Tomorrow, February 18, marks the 72th anniversary of the start of the Sook Ching massacre, after the Japanese forces conducted an island-wide scourge to execute able-bodied Chinese men aged 18 to 50, partly in revenge for the overseas Chinese support during the Sino-Japanese war. There are no records of the final numbers killed but the official estimate stands at 50,000 men.
Grace Seah is one of many descendants of the victims of Sook Ching, as she tells here in this blog post, Sook Ching: Our Loss, of how her uncle Tan Kim Cheng failed to heed her father’s plea to flee. Our tours to the ornate tombs of Tok Cheng Tuan and his widow Oon Tuan Cheng always moved participants, in a personal tragedy in reported in “Oon Tuan Cheng: A Life of Loss” as a young widow with six children to raise, only to lose her sons to Sook Ching. A young lady Soh Koon Eng was cut down in her prime in a bomb raid. Her story was brought to light after a niece opened up to the volunteers. These are moving stories of the civilians caught up in the throes of war.
Among the most wanted on the Sook Ching list was Wong Chin Yoke. Wong, a decorated police inspector (he received the Coronation Medal) who had escaped Singapore with 10 men before the fall in 1942, fleeing to Indonesia to start an underground resistance movement. He was betrayed and then caught and eventually killed by Japanese in 1943. His body was whisked away by a friend from the Japanese Military hospital and buried. It was not for another 11 years before this war hero was re-interred in Singapore. Nonetheless, his remains were buried with full police honours in Bukit Brown on 21st September 1954. Suitably, a fearsome pair of Sikh guards stands guard at his tomb. They never fail to wow visitors.
Next on the most wanted list was another war hero, Tay Koh Yat, a community leader. 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 to aid those injured by the Japanese air raids. His rallying cry was “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 fled to Indonesia to escape certain death only on the eve of the fall of Singapore. 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. Tay next went on to form the Singapore Chinese Appeal Committee for the Japanese Massacre victims to seek justice and compensation for the estimated 50,000 people massacred. 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.
Tay was one of only six people to witness their 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.”
His great granddaughter Jaime Ho read of his exploits on this blog and wrote her of her mother’s emotion. It was equally prescient that as we ended our tour at Tay’s tomb, the Civil Defence siren went off at noon, very similar to the air raid sirens that haunted Singapore in 1941 and 1942. We held a minute of silence for Tay.
There were notable volunteers, such as Tan Chow Kim, one of the original members of the Singapore Voluntary Infantry (S.V.I) , a company within the Singapore Volunteer Corps. Another was Tan Huck Wan, a Corporal of the Singapore Voluntary Field Ambulance, Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, who probably died as a prisoner of war on 31st May 1944. That same year, his daughter Ruby Tan died on the 26th Oct 1944. She was only 6 months old. His widow had to raise two sons alone. (Sadly, both father and daughter have been exhumed to make way for the highway.)
The losses were great during the war. Many died in unmarked tombs. Norman Cho found his grandfather’s grave after 66 years, and retells the story of a man of wealth and repute who lost his fortune during the war. Though Cho Kim Leong survived the occupation, he died a broken man mere months after Singapore was liberated. His bereft widow was too impoverished, a single mother with two young sons, and had no money for a tomb. Norman built a tomb for his grandfather only in 2012.
Many others are remembered only as burial entries which record that “SMC” (Singapore Municipal Council) trucks dumped their bodies in trenches at Bukit Brown in March and April. It is not clear how they died. We are still searching for these mass graves.
From the civilian defence force to the police force, community leaders to defenceless civilians, many were felled during the war. Families suffered. Children died premature deaths. Poverty, disease and malnutrition were rife.
Bukit Brown is not just another cemetery. It is the final resting place of pioneers from the 1830s right up to victims of the war in the 1940s. It represents universal heritage and a reminder of our frailty and also a measure of our resilience.
The volunteers have now guided more than 10,000 visitors to Bukit Brown. As much as this is a testimony to the dedication of these amateur historians and researchers, it is a greater testimony to the intrinsic value of Bukit Brown as a repository of historical artifacts and resources as well as heritage values. It would not have been possible to move so many with mere passion. Once there, the participants recognise immediately the natural serenity and lushness of the habitat, bird calls rising from the forests. With the aid of some story-telling, the meanings of the sculptures, inscriptions, motifs and tomb designs become clear.
With research comes deeper knowledge of the lives and times of those interred there, a story arc of Singapore from the early years, through good times and bad. Fortunes were made and lost. Lives ordinary and deeds extraordinary came to pass. It would be a great loss to the nation and to students of history to have Bukit Brown lost to a highway and housing.
This chronology of the Japanese invasion was compiled by James Tann, a heritage blogger, in the lead up to the 72nd anniversary of the fall of Singapore on 15 February, 1942.
Feb 8, 1942.
The Japanese Army invasion of Singapore Island begins with the crossing at Lim Chu Kang.
February 9, 1942.
Having landed the night before along the Lim Chu Kang coast, by the afternoon of 9th Feb, Tengah Airfield was in the hands of the invading Japanese Imperial Army.
Also on 9 Feb, the Japanese Army opened a 2nd battle front by landing the Imperial Guards Division at Kranji and the Causeway. This Division was to move east heading towards the Sembawang & Thomson regions.
The Jurong-Kranji Line – 9th February, 1942.
The Allied forces formed a futile blockade called the ‘Jurong Line’ stretching east of Tengah Airfield, through Bulim to the Jurong River (where Chinese Garden is today) to try and contain the Japanese forces within the western sector of Singapore.
By evening of 9th Feb 1942, the Jurong Line had collapsed completely due to miscommunication. The main Australian 22nd Brigade retreated, resulting in a domino effect leading other units to retreat as well.
Luckily for them, the Japanese forces did not press their advantage as they had to wait for reinforcements and logistic supplies to follow up across the Straits to continue the invasion.
You can also read how a jungle dirt track saved the lives of 400 soldiers by James Tann here
10th Feb 1942.
The capture of Bukit Panjang and the massacre at Bukit Batok.
With the overnight collapse of the ‘Jurong Line’ blockade, the Japanese 5th Division easily manoeuvred down Choa Chu Kang Road and overpowered the defences by the Argylls & Sutherland Highlanders and the Hyderabad Regiment at Keat Hong. Pushing them back all the way to Bukit Panjang Village. It was the first encounter with Japanese tanks in Singapore by the British.
By the early afternoon, Bukit Panjang Village had fallen to the Japanese. Some British units managed to escape through the farmlands of Cheng Hwa and eventually followed the water pipeline down to British lines near the Turf Club region.
Intending to re-establish the ‘Jurong Line’, the British High Command despatched 2 battalions from Ulu Pandan to Bukit Batok (West Bukit Timah).
X Battalion made it way to 9ms Jurong Road (opp today’s Bukit View Sec Sch), while Merret Force lost its way and camped at Hill 85 (Toh Guan Road today).
The Japanese 18th Div coming down Jurong Road encountered both X Battalion and Merret Force during the night. X Bn, caught totally off guard, was annihilated and lost over 280 men, while Merret Force had half its force killed in the ambush.
The Japanese Commander, Gen Yamashita, had ordered both his 5th and 18th Division to take Bukit Timah Village and Bukit Timah Hill by the 11th Feb. Thus, both units were in a frenzied rush to capture the strategic high point.
By midnight of 10th Feb, Bukit Timah Village was ablaze and effectively conquered by the invasion force.
Photo credits: Australian War Memorial
1. Japanese soldiers at Bukit Timah Hill
2. Japanese Type 95 HaGo Light Tanks in Bukit Timah Village
11th February 1942.
The Fall of Bukit Timah Hill and the Tragedy at Sleepy Valley.
By the time Gen.Yamashita’s army crossed into Singapore, he was critically short of supplies, fuel, ammunition and even food for his troops. His strategy was thus to conduct a tropical blitzkrieg – ‘hit them fast hit them hard’ – to capture Bukit Timah. It being the high point for observation also held the British ammunition, food and fuel depots which he coveted.
To raise morale of his troops, he set Feb 11 as the day to capture Bukit Timah Hill. The significance of Feb 11 was that it was the Japanese Kigensetsu, the day they celebrate the ascension of the 1st Emperor and the founding of the Japanese Empire. The task was assigned to competing 5th and 18th Divisions with untold glory going to the unit achieving the objective first.
By midnight of 10th Feb, both units had already reached Bukit Timah Village and the resultant battle against the British defenders set the entire region ablaze. The British retreated and held their line at Reformatory Road (Clementi Road)
By early morning of the 11th, the Japanese had secured Bukit Timah Hill.
Meanwhile back at Bukit Batok…
By the morning of 11 Feb, the senior commander of 15th Brigade, Brigadier Coates, who was to lead the re-taking of the Jurong Line, knew that the Japanese had surrounded his position. He cancelled the order and proceeded to retreat, together with the Special Reserve Battalion, back to allied lines at Ulu Pandan.
Forming 3 columns consisting of 1500 men from the British, Indian and Australian units, they proceeded from Bukit Batok to cross an area called Sleepy Valley.
Unknown to them, the Japanese 18th Division was already waiting to spring their trap on the British soldiers.
What happened next is a seldom mentioned debacle which actually had the highest number of casualties of any skirmish within Singapore during the war. The firefight that took place at Sleepy Valley took the lives of 1100 allied soldiers out of the 1500 who entered that valley of death.
Throughout the day, the British sent in reinforcements to try and re-take Bukit Timah. However, both Tomforce and Massey Force could do little to dislodge the Japanese.
When Bukit Timah Hill fell, Gen Percival moved his HQ from Sime Road to Fort Canning. The fear of the approaching Japanese Army also led them to destroy the infamous 15” Guns at Buona Vista Camp at Ulu Pandan that morning. It was a sign that things had come to bear…
12th Feb 1942.
Tomforce’s attempt to re-take Bukit Timah and Bukti Panjang ended in futility. Unknown to them, they were up against the battle hardened Japanese 56th and 114th Regiments of the 18th IJA Division, Yamashita’s crack troops, who had fought all the way from China.
By the morning of 12th Feb, the British lines were being pushed backed.
Tomforce fell back from Reformatory (Clementi) Road to Racecourse when the Japanese overran the supply depots at Rifle Range. By the end of the day they would retreat all the way back to Adam and Farrer Road.
By then, Gen Percival had redrawn the defence line.
Massey Force would protect the waterworks from Thomson Village to the east of the MacRitchie golf links, where the former HQ at Sime Road was.
Gen Heath’s British units would fall back from Nee Soon, having abandoned the Naval Base, and form the line from Braddell to Kallang.
In the west, the Australians fell back from Reformatory Road to Holland Road (Old Holland Road), while the 44th Indian Brigade formed the line from Ulu Pandan to Pasir Panjang. Sporadic fighting occurred throughout the day along the line.
Elated with the capture of Bukit Timah, Gen.Yamashita was still faced with logistical problems including a critical shortage of ammunition. He knew he wouldn’t be able to last out in a war of attrition and thus resorted to his plan to bluff the British into surrendering, by dropping ultimatum notes into the British lines.
“To the High Command of the British Army, Singapore”
I, the High Command of the Nippon Army have the honour of presenting this note to Your Excellency advising you to surrender the whole force in Malaya.
My sincere respect is due to your army…bravely defending Singapore which now stands isolated and unaided…..futile resistance would only serve to inflict direct harm and injuries to thousands of non-combatants….Give up this meaningless and desperate resistance…If Your Excellency should neglect my advice, I shall be obliged, though reluctantly from humanitarian considerations to order my army to make annihilating attacks..”
(signed) Tomoyuki Yamashita”
Getting no response to his ultimatum message, Yamashita sent his units on probing incursions along the line.
These took place mainly at Sime Road and Pasir Panjang near Normanton.
He had no intention to enter the city as he knew he did not have the resources to fight a street to street battle.
13th Feb 1942.
The noose tightens around Singapore City.
With the core of Singapore Island firmly in the hands of the Japanese Army, Gen.Yamashita moved his HQ from Tengah to the Ford Motors factory at Bukit Timah.
Strangely, the previous day ended somewhat with a lull in the fighting.
This allowed Gen Percival to continue finalising his last line of defence.
From Kallang Airfield to Paya Lebar, Paya Lebar to Braddell, Thomson Village to Adam Park, Adam Road to Farrer Road to Tanglin Halt, from Buona Vista across Pasir Panjang ending at Pasir Panjang Village.
The last unit to pull out , the 53rd Brigade, left Ang Mo Kio area around noon and the traffic along Thomson Road was so choked that Japanese planes had an easy time strafing the columns along the route.
Gen.Yamashita had actually feared that Gen.Percival would dig in and fight to the last.
In order to continue his feint, despite running low on ammunition and men, he launched attacks to give the British the appearance of Japanese strength.
He ordered the crack 18th Division to take Alexandra Barracks and the 5th Div & the Imperial Guards to attack the Waterworks at MacRitchie and the pumping station at Woodleigh.
Alexandra Barracks was the main British Army Ordnance Depot, where most of their equipment, stores and fuel storage, as well as the main Alexandra Military Hospital, were located
The attack on Alexandra Barracks began from Pasir Panjang (Kent Ridge) after 2 hours of heavy shelling at noon.
Waves of Japanese soldiers fought determined defenders from the 1st Malaya Brigade and the 44th Indian Brigade. Fighting was vicious and often hand to hand. The Malay Regiments were slowly overpowered with the Japanese winning height after height. The Gap, Pasir Panjang Hill III, Opium Hill, Buona Vista Hill, would fall one after the other but fighting would continue till the following day.
Over at MacRitchie, the Japanese 5th Division fought the 55th Brigade (1 Cambridgeshire & 4 Suffolk Regiments) to gain control of the reservoir. An all night tough fight including tanks forced the British Regiments all the way back to Mount Pleasant Road across Bukit Brown cemetery. The Suffolks lost over 250 men defending their ground.
The Japanese Army was now within 5 kilometres of the City on 2 fronts.
All this while, civilians casualties were mounting in the collateral damage from the Japanese shelling.
The City now had up to 1 million evacuees, most in dire straits without shelter, food nor water.
An Officer was to record travelling down Orchard Road:
“Buildings on both side went up in smoke…civilians appeared through clouds of debris; some got on the road, others stumbled and dropped in their tracks, others shrieked as they ran for safety. We pulled up near a building which had collapsed, it looked like a slaughter house; blood splashed, chunks of human being littered the place. Everywhere bits of steaming flesh, smouldering rags, clouds of dust and the groans of those who still survived.”
At the Battlebox, the new HQ at Fort Canning, Gen.Percival and his senior commanders were contemplating the latest orders from Gen.Wavell as well as an order from Churchill.
14th Feb 1942.
Prelude to Capitulation
Throughout the night of 13/14th Feb, sporadic skirmishes occurred both at Pasir Panjang and Adam Road.
At daylight 8.30am at Pasir Panjang Ridge , the Japanese charged up for a final assault on Hill 226 and Opium Hill facing heavy resistance from the 1st Malay Regiment. Bitter hand to hand combat lasted till 1.00pm in the afternoon when the Japanese gained control of the hills and in the process annihilating the Malay Regiment.
As the loss of the strategic ridge gave way, the Japanese advanced along Ayer Rajah in pursuit of Indian troops towards the British Military Hospital. It was then that the tragic incident occurred at the BMH with the senseless slaughter of wounded patients and medical staff.
There was also little relief along Adam Road. The Japanese, with Col Shimada’s Tank Regiment, pressured the line with a bulge through Bukit Brown, towards Caldecott Hill and Adam Park. Bitter fighting occurred around Hill 95 and Water Tower Hill (today’s Adam Park/Arcadia).
The Imperial Guards Division harried the eastern battle line at Paya Lebar and were near to capturing the Woodleigh pump station by mid day.
At British HQ in the BattleBox at Fort Canning, Gen.Percival conferred with his field commanders.
Brigadier Simson advised that the water situation was extremely grave with the threat of epidemic.
Gen Heath, commander of British Forces, and Gen Bennett, commander of Australian Forces, urged Gen Percival to surrender. Percival refused to yield, having direct orders from Churchill via Gen.Wavell, the Commander in Chief based at Java, not to surrender and to fight to the last man.
However, Gen.Percival informed Gen.Wavell that the enemy was close to the City and that his troops were no longer in a position to counter attack much longer.
Gen. Wavell sought permission from PM Churchill to allow Gen.Percival to consider the option of surrendering.
Churchill replied to Gen. Wavell:
“You are, of course, sole judge of the moment when no further result can be gained at Singapore., and should instruct Percival accordingly, C.I.G.S. concurs”
With that, the final key was inserted into play for Singapore. (But the permission for Percival to consider surrendering did not go out to Percival until the next morning of the 15th.)
*CIGS = Chief of Imperial General Staff
15th Feb 1942.
Chinese New Year – The Year of the Horse
There was absolutely no joy in celebrating Chinese New Year in 1942. The country was in shambles.
The foreboding fear of the encroaching Japanese military, preceeded by tales and rumours of their atrocities in China all portent the unknown that lay ahead.The British masters and their families had all bugged out. What did this mean for the locals now?
A Japanese flag could he seen flying from the top of the Cathay Building! Was this the end?
For the locals, especially for the Chinese, it was going to be the start of three and a half horrifying years.
Morning of 15th Feb saw the opposing forces holding most of their ground, with infiltration mainly by the Japanese within the eastern sector reaching Kallang Airfield. In the west, Japanese troops reached Mount Faber.
Gen. Percival convened his most senior officers at the Battlebox at 9.30am for the latest status reports.
Brigadier Simson reported that water supply could not be maintained for more than a day due to breakages everywhere which could not be repaired. Water was still flowing despite the pumps and reservoir being in enemy’s hands!
The only fuel left were what remained in each vehicle and at a small pump at the Polo Club.
Reserved military rations could last for only a few more days.
With unanimous concurrence of all present, the decision to cease hostilities and to capitulate was made.
A deputation comprising Brigadier Newbigging, HQ Chief Admin Officer, the Colonial Secretary Mr Fraser and Major CH Wild as interpreter, left Fort Canning for the enemy lines at Bukit Timah Road.
At the junction of Farrer Road, they proceeded on foot with Union Flag and a white flag across the defence line for 600 yards where they were met by the Japanese soldiers. They were later met by Col Sugita who refused their ‘invitation’ to the City for negotiations. Instead, Col Sugita demanded that Gen.Percival was to personally surrender to Gen.Yamashita.
To acknowledge this condition, the British were to fly a Japanese Flag from the top of the Cathay Building.
At 5.15pm, the British surrender party drove up to the Bukit Timah Ford Motors factory.
The delegation was made up of Lt-Gen AE Percival, Brigadier Newbigging, Brigadier Torrance, Gen Staff Officer Malaya Command, and Major Wild, the interpreter from III Corps.
Though Gen.Percival tried to negotiate for some terms for his men, Gen Yamashita thought that he was playing for time and pressed Percival for an unconditional surrender, telling him that a major attack on the City was scheduled for 10.30pm that night and any delay, he might not be able to call off the operation in time.
“The time for the night attack is drawing near! Is the British Army going to surrender or not?”
Banging the table he shouted in English “Answer YES or NO.”
At 6.10 pm. Gen.Percival signed the surrender document, handing Singapore over to the Japanese Empire.
Read about the Battle at Bukit Brown on 14 February, 1942, a day before the surrender to the Japanese, here
And the latest on missing soldiers here
Time 9 am – 12 pm
MEETING POINT: Junction of Lorong Halwa, Kheam Hock Road and Sime Road.
Feb 15, 1942 – Singapore, the “Impregnable Fortress” of the British Empire, falls to the Japanese invading forces.
Visit Bukit Brown Cemetery, site of fierce battles involving British (4th Suffolks) and Indian (Royal Deccan Horses) forces, near a village of Chinese and Malay civilians had lived.
Your guides are Claire and Ish Singh, and Peter Pak. Together they will help piece together an important day in Singapore history at the site, and recount personal stories of those buried there as well as an account of their families got caught up in the war. We welcome anyone with knowledge of the area and the battles fought there to join us and honour the memory of the war dead.
Disclaimer: 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)
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 9am.
“We guide rain or shine or exhumations.” – we urge you to wear sensible shoes, carry a bottle of water, put on insect repellent, and come with an open mind as we explore together. We share and talk as we walk, and learn from each other. Our walking tours are meant to be learning journeys, for both participants and guides. We believe in building communities and growing organically.
** IMPORTANT NOTE: GETTING THERE: http://bukitbrown.com/
This was their last tour report, marking the day bombs first fell on Singapore: http://bukitbrown.com/
To read about the 4th Suffolks battling the Japanese who came across Hellfire Corner on the evening of Feb 14, 1942: http://bukitbrown.com/
To read about the Kheam Hock skirmish and massacre: http://bukitbrown.com/
Bukit Brown is the only Singapore site on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of threatened heritage sites. Read more here: http://bukitbrown.com/
Ish himself found a strong link to his Sikh roots through Bukit Brown: http://bukitbrown.com/
Claire’s TEDx talk touches on the war: http://www.youtube.com/
all things Bukit Brown will mark the weekend with tours and talks on both days. Keep an eye for updates.