by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh
My wife and I went on a lovely tour of Bukit Brown, conducted by Fabian, lawyer-cum-history buff and very proud “Brownie”, on the morning of Saturday, January 25th 2014.
Before then, the last time I had visited Bukit Brown was in Junior College, when classmates and I would go there for a spooky tipple, more focused on whisky than history.
Only now do I realise how much I have missed. On that Saturday, I learned so much about Singapore’s past. Love the crazy characters: polygamists, guerillas, tycoons, benefactors, sometimes one and the same.
Although I have read much about the Bukit Brown controversy over the years, it is only after visiting that I have a deep appreciation for what we—as a country, society and culture—are about to lose.
Many of us decry Singapore’s rush to development, and GDP-maximising policies. When we speak about, say, high population growth or unnecessary destruction and rebuilding, it can sometimes get a bit abstract, the story lost in numbers and details. A visit to Bukit Brown illustrated the problem to me in a very visceral sense, in a way a thousand articles can never do.
It seems almost perverse that Singaporeans, myself included, will travel abroad and marvel at historical ruins and temples in places such as China and India, yet can stand by and allow a place of such historical import to be ripped from our soul. Our collective Singaporean identity is suffering, slowly, with each grave exhumed. I feel ashamed.
As a writer, I also drew a lot of inspiration from my visit. First, in terms of history, I learned a lot about Singapore’s connections to China and India. I am currently working on a book about the two countries, and Bukit Brown threw up some fresh ideas for stories. For instance, I started to think more about the role of Singapore-based revolutionaries, aside from Sun Yat-Sen, who is oft spoken about, in China’s 1911 revolution.
Meanwhile, it also occurred to me that there are many more interesting intersections of Chinese and Indian culture in Singapore, for instance the Sikh guards who protect the Chinese tycoon’s grave (see picture).
Second, in a broader sense, I was also inspired by the greenery, architectural beauty, and solitude that Bukit Brown offers. Artists in Singapore often bemoan the city’s dry, insipid environment. A walk through Bukit Brown left me rejuvenated, in a way that the artificial icons like Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay will never do.
Exhumations are slated to be completed by the end of this year. For those of you who have yet to visit, please do. Especially those with children. Do take them—who knows what will be left of Singapore when they’re older?
(For more on my book about China and India, tentatively titled From Kerala to Shaolin, please see here.)
About Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh:
After seven years at The Economist Group, in early 2013 Sudhir left the professional world to write full-time. His literary interests concern the way grand socio-political systems influence ordinary people’s lives, their worldviews and their interactions with each other. He hopes to follow his first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, with narratives on Asia’s other great societies—he is currently working on a book about China and India. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Economist, The Straits Times and Yahoo! News.
Sudhir blogs at sudhirtv.com
By Serene Tan
Not long after my dad passed away in 2011, the government announced plans for an 8 lane highway that would cut through Bukit Brown, and graves in the way would have to be exhumed.
The news of the highway triggered a memory. The last time I visited my grandpa’s tomb was more than 40 years ago when I was a young girl. I could vividly recall my grandpa’s tomb at Bukit Brown. Concerned it might be affected, I realised it was time to visit him.
I arranged with my cousin to visit the grave for the ’Qing Ming’ festival the next year, 2012. It was a relief to learn that his grave was not staked for exhumation. But to my dismay, the tomb was in a dilapidated condition. The tomb had been neglected for more than 15 years after my dad suffered a massive stroke which left him paralyzed and wheel chair bound.
It dawned on me then, that I now had the responsibility to carry on my father’s duty to ‘sweep’ grandpa’s tomb during the ‘Qing Ming’ festival. His tombstone spoke to my roots.
Inscribed on the tombstone was my ancestral hometown , Kimen, my grandfather’s death date, 1937, and the names of his children. My father was the only son. For the first time I came to know my father’s birth name 陈天吉, Tan Tien Kiat, inscribed on the tomb. My grandpa passed away when my dad was only five and dad changed to a simpler name, 陈 亞 旺, Tan Ah Ong
I arranged with a contractor to renovate my grandpa’s tomb, and before work started, I decided it was also time to visit my ancestral home in Kinmen, Taiwan . Unconsciously, I think I was seeking the blessings of my father and grandfather.
My grandpa Tan Teow Meng （陈 朝 明 ）left his home in Kinmen, more than 100 years ago. In Singapore, I was told he worked as a lorry driver and died because of a bout of high fever.
My father had attempted to visit his ancestral home, thrice in the 80s. Kinmen is a small archipelago of islands and at that time was under a military administration because of fighting with China. The only means of transport then was by military helicopter. Visitors to the island were restricted but because Dad could claim to be descended from his ancestors in Kinmen, getting permission was not the problem. Each time, it was bad weather which prevented my father’s flight on the helicopter from taking off from mainland Taiwan.
He was so close and yet so far. I felt deeply the pain of his disappointment. Dad subsequently passed away, without fulfilling his dream.
It was in my ancestral village of Houshan (后山), now known as Bishan, that I learned my father had contributed funds to two temples. His name was inscribed on the list of donors for both temples. This one is from the smaller village temple 陈氏宗祠
My heart swelled with pride. There is an old Chinese saying “Drink Water, But Remember the Source”- “饮水思源” . My father, although he was not able to visit his ancestral home, never forgot his roots.
The family home and land in Kinmen, remains abandoned. But at home in Singapore, my grandpa’s tomb has been rebuilt with granite stone and fresh inscriptions in gold dust. My grandpa had a humble life his son – my father – worked hard and became a successful business man and never forgot his father. I have always admired my father for his work ethic and persistence.
So as I marked Qing Ming at my grandpa’s new “home” after my visit to Kinmen, I felt happy and blessed to have been able to accomplish my father’s dream of visiting our ancestral home.
My journey to my ancestral home in Kinmen in a photo essay.
The village temple 陈氏宗祠
The temple serves residents nearby to offer prayers anytime as and when they deem necessary. (陈氏宗祠）
My father also donated to the larger Tan clan ancestral temple, 陈氏 家廟. Unlike the village temple, it’s opened only for certain festival celebrations and entry restricted to only male descendants. I was privileged to be granted permission to enter, as an exception.
My father’s name 亜 旺 on the donors list.
Meeting my relatives for the first time, I learned my great grandfather’s name is 陈 正. So he is the earliest of my ancestors I have come to know.
I will be marking my father’s third death anniversary at the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, 17-19 Kim Yam Road on 23 Feb 2014 at 10 am. Friends and relatives are welcome to join us in prayers.
A personal account by Aylwin Tan who witnessed the exhumation of his grandfather and aunt at Bukit Brown on the morning of Wednesday, 8th January,2014.
I received a phone call from the exhumation office about 1.5 hours after I had registered. Picked my Dad up and went directly to the gravesite.
The green tentage is that of my aunt Tan Siok Hwa (aged 10) and the grey is my grandpa, Tan Cheng Moh. Both were killed during a Japanese raid; a bomber scored a direct hit on the bomb shelter where my grandpa had put his entire family, including his close relatives. Apparently, grandpa’s thinking was that they should all stick together and if they all died, so be it.
Their funerals were carried out in haste. A number of traditions were abandoned for fear of being caught out in the open by the Japanese bombers e.g. mourners alighting to perform rites at every bridge along the way to the burial ground.
Mr Lee (the gentleman in yellow boots seen in the first photo) told me that the coffins and remains had disintegrated and had merged with the soil. Not surprising, given that they had passed about 70 years ago. The gravediggers gathered some earth and put it in plastic bags for the purposes of cremation.
I was curious to know how the gravediggers knew that they had dug deep enough to reach the remains. Mr Lee explained that the gravediggers would know once they reached a flat surface as this was the bottom of the coffin.
The gravediggers were also able to tell that my aunt died when she was a child. If you look at my aunt’s grave, you can see a ‘step’ indicating that the coffin was shorter than an adult’s.
I was worried that Dad would not be able to negotiate the uneven terrain to the grave sites but the path worn out by the gravediggers proved manageable. Mr Lee told me that these gravediggers are the last of their kind in Singapore.
Dad spent some time telling his story to the gravediggers while I sorted out with Mr Lee the items found in the graves. Dad’s chair was provided by Swee Hong, the company that won the exhumation tender, a testimony to their planning and attention to detail. Also, you can see how they used the umbrellas to shield the boxes from the sun.
The gravediggers recovered a chain and part of a bowl from my aunt’s grave. The bowl was probably used in the funeral rites. Mr Lee asked if I would donate them for research. I shall have to ask my elders’ permission first.
My grandpa’s grave yielded a bullet and a piece of metal which looked like a cone with the top portion cut off. I had to surrender the bullet as it was not a spent round. The gravediggers surmised that the metal piece came from the bomb but I wonder where the bullet came from. Dad said that the metal piece was not the cause of grandpa’s death; a beam had fallen on grandpa’s head and cracked it open. Death was instantaneous. The sight must have been extremely traumatic for the family. Dad was only 11 or 12 then.
One unexpected development came about when Dad suddenly said that my great grandfather was also buried somewhere in Bukit Brown. Dad did not know his name or the location of the grave site. Apparently, only one of grandpa’s brothers had this information and he had since passed. According to Mr Lee, great grandpa’s remains will be exhumed and disposed of if unclaimed after a period. Mr Lee also said that there was still hope if someone in my family could remember great grandpa’s name as the tombstone would surely state grandpa’s name. I’ll try my best to ask my relatives but am not very hopeful.
I will miss the 2 “Yodas” guarding grandpa’s grave. The other 2 guards look kind of effeminate.
The left panel of the tombstone lists grandpa’s sons and daughters. Dad is ‘Geok San‘, which means ‘jade mountain’ in Chinese. In accordance with Chinese tradition, the sons and male cousins in the same generation have the same identifying name. In my Dad’s generation, the name is ‘Geok‘. In mine, it is ‘Wee’, which means ‘great‘ in Chinese. I understand that these names are predetermined by the Chinese Almanac.
The exhumation ended on a quiet note. After I had given written confirmation of the items from the graves that I had retained, I was given printed photographs of the two grave sites and that was it.
I was very impressed with the professionalism of the Swee Hong staff. They were attentive to my requests and sensitive to religious aspects of the exhumation. They worked fast but were in no hurry, allowing claimants all the time they needed to carry out their religious observances. Thanks to them, the exhumation process went smoothly.
- Aylwin Tan-
Additional Information : Both grandfather and aunt died on 18 Jan 1942.
Grave of Tan Cheng Moh 陳青茂 #769 (photo credit The Bukit Brown Cemetery Documentation Project )
Grave of Tan Siok Hwa 陳淑華 #763 (photo credit The Bukit Brown Cemetery Documentation Project)
Editor’s note: We would like to thank Aylwin Tan for giving us permission to reproduce his personal account on the blog. If you are a descendant who has ancestors staked for exhumation, please share your story with us.
Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharing our feedback on Bukit Brown in the Draft Masterplan. We are grateful to all who wrote and shared your feedback with us. Without your support, awareness of Bukit Brown would not be where it is now – not just a talking point but- a rallying point to enrich our identity, a respect for our heritage and a Singapore we can all call home. We are humbled.
“We met as volunteers and in response to a groundswell of feedback after the announcement of the plan for Bukit Brown, formed All Things Bukit Brown as a loose group of volunteers to support amateur historian Raymond Goh, people who might want to contribute time, research, translation skills, etc to raise awareness of the value of Bukit Brown. We subsequently created the blog, All Things Bukit Brown, (http://bukitbrown.com) and started organising social events onsite in December 2011 to gauge interest in Bukit Brown as a destination. We were happily surprised by the enthusiastic turn-out for 3-4 events and started guiding tours onsite with whatever knowledge we received from February 2012.
Since then, we have cobbled together a dozen committed volunteers who research and/or guide. We are pleased to report that in that time, we have guided 10,000 people to Bukit Brown, including secondary schools and tertiary institutions, overseas academics, and participants from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Civil Service College. Former Foreign Minister George Yeo was an early visitor guided. We have also guided grassroots communities led by their MPs, including DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Sylvia Lim. This weekend, Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee will bring his grassroots community there too. Groups which have come include the elderly Chinese, the hearing impaired and the docents from the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall , National and Peranakan Museums.
Bukit Brown has already inspired the students of Pioneer Junior College to co- write the book “1911 Revolution: Singapore Pioneers in Bukit Brown” which was launched last Friday at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. On our part we have applied for a grant from the National Heritage Board to put together useful information we have gathered over the past two years as a guide book to Bukit Brown.
Imagine this, a grassroots effort to bring 10,000 people to a site without any amenities – no toilets, drinks stalls, resting stations, shelter from the rain, marked trails or trash bins. How much more can we do together when we put our resources together? Give us a chance.
As Singaporeans, we are very proud to share what knowledge we have and encourage interest in Bukit Brown. We have met many engaged Singaporeans, academics, students, tourists, photographers, artists, etc – a diversity of participants who have reinforced the notion that Bukit Brown is more than a cemetery but a public space that draws different communities there for different reasons. We are witness to the grassroots movement which has built up a valuable community with a strong outreach component. We hope that you see this element of a place in fostering communal ties and meaning. These are valuable to building a strong and cohesive society, people rooted to their identities and bringing Singaporeans and residents together in a meaningful way. It is not something that can be easily replicated without the actual space that first drew us together in the first place.
It is this community-building effort that also drew the attention of the World Monuments Fund in awarding Bukit Brown World Monuments Watch status. We are proud of this international recognition and hope that one day, we can twin Bukit Brown with the Botanic Gardens for a unique world heritage site unmatched anywhere else in the world. That it is set in such lush and spectacular settings makes Bukit Brown all the more special.
State recognition of Bukit Brown’s intrinsic value will lift tourist awareness of Singapore in a different way, opening up ideas (and revenue streams) for education tourism, battle site tourism, cultural tourism etc in the same way medical tourism has brought international attention (and revenue) to the world-class medical services available in Singapore. Already, heritage associations in the region, specifically Penang and Malacca, have displayed keen interest in Bukit Brown and we hope there would be attendant tourism effects for the better good of Singapore and her neighbours. Not only would Singapore benefit from state recognition of the heritage value of Bukit Brown, we can work together with tourism agencies around the region and reap the benefits of good neighbourliness and joint tourism campaigns. Indeed, we are not short on ideas. We ask for the state to demonstrate leadership in this.
We hope you will protect Bukit Brown and Singapore’s historical, cultural, wartime and natural heritage for future generations, and will have an open discussion on how best to protect Bukit Brown and other heritage and nature sites affected by the proposals in the URA Draft Master Plan 2013. National development includes supporting our Nation’s sense of identity and belonging across generations in addition to infrastructure.”
Claire Leow & Catherine Lim
A call was made to the community to provide feedback to the Ministry of National Development (MND), to preserve Bukit Brown as a heritage site for future generations in the draft Master plan 2013. The closing date for feedback is 19th December 2013. For those who don’t know how to begin, there is a template available to guide you here. We encourage you to copy the email to your MP.
To those who have written, We Thank You. Some of you have shared your letters with us. We gratefully reproduce extracts with your kind permission, with the hope it will inspire others to write in and give their feedback.
If you wish to share your feedback with the community, please bcc your letter to MND to email@example.com
“We are custodians of our country’s heritage not just for ourselves but for our future generations. It is important that they continue to see for themselves how respect is being shown to our forebears and learn the very real lesson of conserving our roots even, or especially in the face of rapid urban development. Precious “history lesson materials” like Bukit Brown, once lost, may never be recovered. Let no regret come about.”
“The biggest threat to Singapore is apathy, and when Singaporeans do not feel a sense of belonging and are not bothered with what goes on here, then Singapore is in trouble. For Singapore to survive and prosper in the long term, it is necessary to have more opportunities in preserving our shared memories and creating our shared vision. And preserving Bukit Brown is an excellent opportunity that enables Singaporeans to feel that they belong here by remembering our past and creating our future.
Bukit Brown tells the stories of our forefathers who built Singapore, and creates opportunities for history education and discovery. The cemetery connects Singapore’s past and present, and allows us to understand that Singapore’s success is built up by our forefathers’ sweat and tears, and should not be taken for granted. We should preserve Bukit Brown because it helps us remember our past and keeps us rooted to Singapore.
Bukit Brown presents the opportunity for transforming the cemetery into a world-class living outdoor museum or heritage park. If this transformation adopts a bottom-up approach and with stakeholder engagement, it would allow us to come together, plan and work towards a future Singapore where heritage, nature and our economic needs can co-exist. We should preserve Bukit Brown because it enables us to work together and build bonds and resilience, and to create a space where our children and their children can enjoy and be proud of.
Singapore is a young nation and needs more common spaces like Bukit Brown to remind us how we got here and why this is home, and to create opportunities for building our future social resilience.”
“I am a fourth generation Singaporean. My great-grandfather, Chew Boon Lay, was one of Singapore’s very important pioneers.
In April 2012, my parents and I, along with my husband who is English, and our 2 children, discovered where my great-grandfather was buried in Bukit Brown. Thanks to a Straits Times journalist who did a photo-editorial on several important pioneers’ descendants, a photo shoot was conducted at the site of Chew Boon Lay’s tomb.
My parents who had not been to his tomb in more than 20 years came along as well, as did many of my extended family of cousins, uncles, and other relatives. Despite my parents both being aged and not able to walk or see well, they both made the uphill trek to Chew Boon Lay’s tomb in the dark as a huge storm was looming. That was such an important day for them and my family. I was re-acquainted with many relatives and met some whom I had never even met before. We have had several family gatherings since and as such, our April 2012 ‘reunion’ at Chew Boon Lay’s tomb in Bukit Brown served as a very important point of re-connecting with long lost relatives.
My father who is 83 was so elated to have been able to visit his grandfather’s tomb and pay respects to him again after such a long period of time. He was even happier to meet his many nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews, many of whom he had never met before. My siblings live abroad and when they returned to Singapore, I brought them to my great-grandfather’s tomb. All of them were so amazed at how peaceful and beautiful Bukit Brown is, but more importantly they were so happy to be able to visit our great-grandfather’s tomb for the first time.
Having reconnected with my Singapore roots via my great-grandfather’s tomb, I feel so proud to be a 4th generation Singaporean of an important Singapore pioneer who had such humble beginnings and contributed much to Singapore’s growth and prosperity. My children are both Singaporean and English and I want them to grow up feeling connected to Singapore and to be able to trace their roots in Singapore back to my great-grandfather. It was important for me that they visit his tomb and pay respects to their great-great-grandfather and to feel proud to be his descendants. I want them to be able to do this when they are older and when I am no longer around….such a connection in our young country that is forever trying to modernize and improve itself is, for me, one of the most important things if we want our children to have roots in, and feel connected to, Singapore.”
Other than the Bukit Timah Nature Reserves, Bukit Brown is a another place where I can bring my families out to Experience nature in a SAFE environment. National Parks are wonderful but they do not give the sense of one totally immersing in Nature.
“We are in a jungle.” my 6 year old boy Isaac said that with excitement when I brought him to the Bukit Brown. We have built too many shopping malls and what values are we cultivating when weekend we see Singaporeans crowding the malls and yet complaining that we are bored to death? Our souls are not fed with Nature but shopping malls and how would that make us as a Nation? We fly out of the country during school holidays to visit other country’s nature while we are destroying one in our own backyard? An article written by a 12 year old lavanyaprakash on Bukit Brown reminded me how important it is to preserve such AUTHENTIC nature and to educate Singaporeans on Nature Outings. I want my children’s generations to be able to experience this Nature and not just Bukit Timah Reserves or other man made National Parks. Thus, not only it is a National Heritage to be preserved, it is a World Heritage to be preserved!”
Other than the Bukit Timah Nature Reserves, Bukit Brown is a another place where I can bring my families out to Experience nature in a SAFE environment. National Parks are wonderful but they do not give the sense of one totally immersing in Nature. “We are in a jungle.” my 6 year old boy Isaac said that with excitement when I brought him to the Bukit Brown. We have built too many shopping malls and what values are we cultivating when weekend we see Singaporeans crowding the malls and yet complaining that we are bored to death? Our souls are not fed with Nature but shopping malls and how would that make us as a Nation? We fly out of the country during school holidays to visit other country’s nature while we are destroying one in our own backyard? An article written by a 12 year old lavanyaprakash on Bukit Brown reminded me how important it is to preserve such AUTHENTIC nature and to educate Singaporeans on Nature Outings. I want my children’s generations to be able to experience this Nature and not just Bukit Timah Reserves or other man made National Parks. Thus, not only it is a National Heritage to be preserved, it is a World Heritage to be preserved!”
Ang Hock Chuan
“As recently as September 2011, Bukit Brown was just another cemetery to me. I only remember it as the place I learnt to drive and as the place my grandfather was buried.
My father visited his father’s tomb every Ching Ming till an illness made it difficult for him to walk in that terrain. He had prepared for the eventuality of exhumation and already bought a niche for my grandfather. Unfortunately, I stopped following my father to visit years ago and forgotten where my grandfather was buried.
When my father passed away a few years ago, I became interested to look for my grandfather’s tomb. It would be the last thing I could do for my father to ensure his father’s remains are properly taken care of.
When I heard the news about the proposed highway, there was an urgency to locate my grandfather. I started to search for people who can help me locate him and stumbled on a group of volunteers sharing about Bukit Brown.
My initial interest was to look for my grandfather’s tomb and determine if it would be affected so I can make the necessary arrangements to relocate him.
I joined their guided tours in October 2011. That opened up my eyes to the rich heritage and history contained in Bukit Brown.
Over many visits I was also introduced to the rich bio-diversity and wildlife thriving in this habitat. Whilst I enjoyed listening to the birds in the woods, I was never an avid bird-watcher. But now, I keep a look out for the birds when I am there. I have seen uncommon and endangered species like the Changeable Hawk Eagle, the Red Jungle Fowl, the Greater Coucal and still learning each day about the special flora and fauna of Singapore there.
Bukit Brown turned into a living museum and classroom for me. History came alive. Our cultural heritage is enshrined here. A rich bio-diversity thrives here. It has an aesthetic beauty not found in our man-made parks. I count it my good fortune to have learnt about and visited this wonderful piece of our heritage before any wanton destruction takes place.
For these reasons and more, I hope to see Bukit Brown preserved, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake. Once lost, lost forever.”
“We need not look any further than to Bukit Brown when we try to form our Singapore Identity because it is there for all to see. It is a living museum of our rich history that reminds us that our forefathers were migrants from various lands who decided to root themselves here in the Straits Settlement of Singapore, and we are their proud offspring. The fact that Singapore started as a migrant nation also helps us understand and welcome those who come here today, like our forefathers, to seek their fortune and make Singapore their home.”
Arielle Ng Rae
As a local student and youth, I finally took the time out today to join one of the tour groups organised by SOS Bukit Brown today, which I have been wanting to do ever since my ‘A’-levels finished. I was pleasantly surprised with the beauty and heritage of the site, but I was also incredibly saddened. The tour guides were very passionate and knowledgeable about local heritage, and the knowledge I gained today about Singapore and its roots, about how the locals worked together with a myriad of other races to form modern Singapore, about the roots of our unique culture that we often take for granted, made me the proudest of Singapore that I have ever been.
Through the tour, I finally appreciated exactly what it meant to be a melting pot of diverse cultures– how our customs came to be and as a result, how unique we are, and, ironically, the beauty of globalization in contributing to our shared heritage.
I plead with the most earnest and sincere heart, that you will protect Bukit Brown, for the sake of Singaporeans, who are fast becoming disillusioned with this city-state. This tour has done nothing but cement my love for Singapore and my pride for it, and I want many of my peers to feel the same. It is perhaps the natural state of the cemetery, and the untouched beauty of the landscape that lent this genuine connection and pride, but whatever it is, Bukit Brown cemetery has proven to be a beautiful reminder of what it once meant to be Singaporean, and what it could mean for future generations to come.
“Bukit Brown has helped me achieve a better understanding of a history of a part of Singapore’s local history, and has helped me gain a stronger sense of where our nation has come from as a community. It is a reminder of where our society came from and the sacrifices earlier generations made. I hope my children will be able to experience the sheer physicality of our roots, as well as Singapore’s natural heritage. The flooding in Singapore over the past few years, including the Bukit Timah and Thomson areas that are downhill from Bukit Brown, reminds me of the importance of having natural green spaces near already built-up areas.
Moreover, during the periods of heavy haze earlier in 2013, green areas like Bukit Brown were least affected. Singapore needs natural green lungs like Bukit Brown.”
“It is OUR oldest part of history. My grandfather’s grave at Bidadari was long gone more than 10 years ago to clear his “resting place” for more housing developments. Passing by that stretch of road gives us no connection anymore. Even though we have never met our grandfather before, we used to pop by his grave as a kid just to say “hello”, or just to remember how he looked like before by the photo on his grave. We felt the root of our roots. We felt proud of ourselves in some way too because of where we came from. Now I understand why history is such an important part of life.
So, please do not do to the oldest cemetery in Singapore, the Bukit Brown Cemetery what the government had already done at Bidadari. How much more land or our past that you want to “sacrifice” for economic development? Bukit Brown CAN BE an economic source if it can be converted to a tourist area, natural reserve etc. We do not want more roads, please.”
“I am a British citizen who has settled in Singapore with my family and now call it home – and I am proud to do so. My daughter was born here and we are happy here. However, my husband and I are trying to teach our children about the importance of preserving our environment and our natural heritage. We often tell them “once it’s gone, you can’t get it back” and we quote the Native American Cree prophecy “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money”. It is heartbreaking to think that in a few years’ time, such a place as Bukit Brown – with its natural, historical and cultural significance – might be concreted over. Please, please consider saving it for our future generations.”
While I have only set foot on Bukit Brown once, I am fascinated by the deep treasure trove of history it is. It is an unbias holding place of history as alot of our ancestor laid to rest. I remembered when I was young, I have to walk through Choa Chu Kang and there was this cemetery that fascinated me as it has very interesting tombs. I never get around to know it as it made way to development since. It would be a pity if we keep making concession on preservation in the name of progress as that would be a very up-rooting experience. No pictures or archive can replace the actual tombstone and the serenity is irreplaceable.
“I am the third generation of Kinmenese immigrants. My great grandparents were once buried in Bukit Brown cemetery. My father, Mr Tan Kok Meng 陈国民, had served as board member, treasurer and subsequently as vice chairman of Kim Mui Hoey Kuan 金门会馆 from late 60s to 80s. During that time, he organized many cultural activities and exchanges, including hosting the Asian literary festival. He had also proposed to setup a center to store valuable historical material of Kinmen and their diaspora. The subsequent setting up of the Cultural and Historical Resource Center 新加坡金门会馆文史资料中心 in 2003 and the publication of “I came from Kim Mui” 《我从金门来》in 2006 (which my father was one of the interviewees) were some of the visible fruits.
Now that my father has passed away for four years, I have kept this book close to my heart. My daughter recently used it to write a social science essay about her root. My father, after escaping the turmoil of war had decided to make Singapore his permanent home. Along with many others who came to Singapore between 18th – 20th century, they have contributed to who we are today. Even though we are still a young country, we do have our own history. And the major part of it, is inscribed on the tomb stones in Bukit Brown Cemetery. ”
“My daughter and I visited Bukit Brown and were deeply moved by the heritage and biodiversity of Bukit Brown. Lavanya,who’s my 13 year old daughter wrote about Bukit Brown in her blog here http://mynatureexperiences.
Singapore is not only about concrete buildings and integrated resorts: it has in Bukit Brown a huge repository of stories which when told, make people aware of Singapore as a hub of trade commerce and culture in Asia all this long time ago. It is so much easier to show a human Singapore when you bring back to mind the human stories told every week by the Brownies on their tours – these are stories that make this place, home.
Conservation does not mean no development
One point I wish to stress is that conservation does not mean no development: just as we can develop around an existing building and incorporate its uniqueness into our plans, it should be possible to conserve Bukit Brown without halting development. What is needed is more diverse, out-of-the-box thinking. For instance we will still need parks in Singapore – well, we have one already. While the older generations have reservations about going to a cemetery for a walk, the younger set do not, and Bukit Brown is already being used as one. Why not develop it’s potential? Here is a place where amidst the stones stories of old Singapore lie. The Brownies have bring the stories to life during their tours, which as noted above, have been receiving a lot of tourist publicity through word of mouth and social media. If self-funded volunteers can do so much, how much more can they achieve if they had help?”
“Each time I pay a visit there, it stirs up emotions from a sort of deep-seated ‘spiritual’ wellspring which I did not know I have. A spiritual awakening of sorts. Ironic isn’t it from a burial ground?
Maybe, it’s the tranquil surroundings, the wonderful tales of an almost forgotten past kept alive by the elan of the volunteer guides, or could it be just the spirits of the ancestors channelling….. I would often end up going away asking myself: How is it that we have neglected our past? Why? Who are we as Singaporeans? What keeps us going? What inspires us? Do we have a national soul? Did we start any fire or if there are any embers left? And so on. So here are some of those rambling thoughts…….after my latest ramble over the hills of Bukit Brown.”
18th November, 2013
From Raymond Goh:
Today, the tomb keepers helped to clear the thick vegetation around a cluster of old graves in Hill/Blk 2, believed to be relocated from Tiong Bahru in the late 1920s due to development, thereby revealing more tombs previously hidden among thick vegetation. Some of these old graves are affected, while some are not due to the angle of the road project which slices this cluster into half. One pioneering immigrant, that of the mother of Chee Yam Chuan has been found in this cluster. We believe other pioneers could be uncovered soon.
Read about how Raymond identified Madam Chee Kim Guan here
Seeing the cleared tombs for the first time inspired Claire Leow to pen these lines for these pioneers, who arrived about the time of Sir Stamford Raffles, making them the earliest immigrants of recent history.
The Sentinels of Bukit Brown
Sentinels of Bukit Brown
Watched this land we called Sin-chew (星 洲) from afar
Put down roots, rebuilt our lives,
Cajoled our families to join us.
We, the sinkehs, arrived.
Farewells aplenty in our lifetimes
To family, to China.
Here in our new home, to our former burial grounds which looked after us,
As we made way for our descendants, and for more sinkehs.
Goodbye Tiong Bahru, hello Bukit Brown.
Years have passed. Like a gentle breath. Like the wind.
Bombs came, new inventions we did not yet know.
Shouts of languages we did not fully understand.
In death, others whispered to us that which we did not witness
The Japanese came with shouts of Banzai! The British scrambling in the undergrowth to hide amongst us.
Then peace and quiet again.
Roots grew around us, sheltered us.
And we hosted the birds and monkeys and spied an occasional dog. Hid a few snakes in our time.
We enjoyed the distant voices of children at play.
We, the sentinels of Bukit Brown.
Time for more farewells.
Our friends and neighbours in death,
Long have we stood together.
Decades have come and gone and among many farewells, we never expected the dead would be parted.
Not like this.
Ong, I see you over there. Chew, you look bright and clean with the grass trimmed. Lim, I never knew you had that many children!
So many years, and now, not enough time!
We don’t have time left to get to know each other better.
We thought we had eternity…
We thought we were the sentinels of Bukit Brown.
All we had was time.
Come, let us not tarry.
Lets get to know each other better.
Before our final farewell.
We who know how to depart and how to find new homes, come.
“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)
A Brief History: Walk of Fame, Darkly
The Case for a Bukit Brown (National) Heritage Park
by Chew Kheng Chuan
7 November, 2013.
Sometime ago when I was looking at Google Earth to check out Bukit Brown, I was struck by what a huge green lung it was that was contiguous to the main Water Catchment Area of MacRitchie and Pierce Reservoirs. In that sense the greenery was part of a single “critical mass,” whose significance – ecological and environmental – depended critically on its mass to create the climatic and rainfall needs of Singapore. I felt that taking away this greenery would be a major detraction and subtraction that cannot be replaced by the addition of many other smaller parcels that may add up to the same area if aggregated.
Otherwise I am very sympathetic to the pressures of the planners needing to look to the provision of housing and road requirements of a developing city and nation.
However I feel it is highly regrettable that Bukit Brown Cemetery has to be sacrificed on the altar of development. It will be an irretrievable loss. This is a resting place of the pioneers of our nation and is a cultural and historical heritage that is the physical expression of our sense of origins and identity.
Are there alternatives? This is a serious question that must be considered further and deeper. When Bukit Brown is developed into a future residential estate, the beneficiaries are limited to the fortunate people who will live there, next to the greenery of MacRitchie Reservoir. However it will be lost to the larger public.
Yet if Bukit Brown were to be gazetted as a National Heritage Cemetery Park, and developed as such, keeping all the graves which represent the earliest of burials in Singapore, and are an authentic expression of the anthropological rituals, ceremonies and culture of a people (still alive and active annually every Cheng Beng period), it can benefit all residents of Singapore, and into the future. Let me explain why.
Indeed the National Parks Board can look to developing this into a National Heritage Cemetery Park (or should that be the Bukit Brown Heritage Cemetery National Park?), develop the landscape and plantings, preserving the old trees, and grow new flora. Then it becomes a NEW environmental, recreational, cultural, historical, educational, natural, and yes, economical-tourism resource for all residents in Singapore – citizens, PRs, migrant workers, visitors, tourists, students, nature lovers, birdwatchers, filial descendents who observe the rites and rituals of Cheng Beng
It then becomes a public space rather than a private, historical, forgotten, “under-utilised” cemetery. Perhaps a stronger case can be made that this serves more powerfully the larger public good than the limited number of the lucky few future residents of the new residential estate of Bukit Brown?
An MRT has been planned and will be built for Bukit Brown – indeed, that will not detract from nor be wasted by the new identity and purpose of this National Heritage Park, for all of Singapore will need good transportation access to it to enjoy its benefits. The Bukit Brown MRT in a new status of Bukit Brown will in the longer run better justify its location and existence, bringing a far greater number of commuters to it than that planned for just residents of the area were it to be an exclusive residential district.
I would argue for considering such an alternative future for Bukit Brown to preserve its past of pioneer burials, and enhance its future, even if my ancestors were not buried there. Indeed, as a child I used to accompany my father and relatives every Cheng Beng, but with their passing I have discontinued this ritual for many decades, which explains why my children have never visited the grave of their great-great-grandfather Chew Boon Lay until recently
I asked my children what thoughts they might wish to share. They said:
“Our father told us we are 5th generation Singaporeans, which we think is cool. We wonder how many of our friends have been in Singapore for 5 generations? Our great great grandfather Chew Boon Lay and great grandfather Chew Hock Seng, are both buried at Bukit Brown. We’re kinda sad that when the cemetery is gone they will be just a memory and lost in our future.”
Chew Kheng Chuan is the great grandson of Chew Boon Lay.
Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice® 2013 Winner “Ranked #16 of 665 attractions in Singapore. “
6 November, 2013.
“Get there before its too late…This is a very special place – peaceful, beautiful, historic, and a natural wildlife haven”
Visit Bukit Brown cemetery while you still can – before the bulldozers move in to create yet another expressway. This is a very special place – peaceful, beautiful, historic, and a natural wildlife haven. Intricately carved statues guard many of the old gravestones, which are often adorned with gorgeous antique tiles painted with flowers and peacocks. There are several pathways to explore and so the cemetery also makes a lovely place just to visit for a ‘country’ walk. Kingfishers, monitor lizards, monkeys and nightjars are common sights, and some of the huge banyan trees are staggering. In recent months the ‘Friends of Bukit Brown’ have painstakingly signed and cleared pathways to the gravestones of many notable names from Singapore’s history, making this an even more interesting place to visit.
Visited October 2013
Singapore is a concrete jungle and if there is a garden, it is man-made, like Gardens by the Bay…..(except for) a historical site called Bukit Brown.
Today, I had the privilege of touring a historical site called Bukit Brown. Bukit Brown is a cemetery, where many of Singapore’s pioneer are buried and may soon be “awakened” from their peaceful slumber to make way for 8 lanes highway.
I toured with volunteers of Bukit Brown, and learn about the tombs of Tan Kheam Hock and his family. History is being collected as I write this review. The tour is made even more interesting with the descendants of Tan Kheam Hock in our midst. A definitely worthy visit for any tourist to Singapore, to see a side of Singapore which money cannot buy.
As Bukit Brown tour is manned by volunteers with a passion to preserve the heritage and culture of this little city state, one will need to visit Bukit Brown FB page to make enquiries of any tours.
Visited October 2013
It was like stepping back into another place and time. You can see rays of sunshine illuminating the misty verdant hills, rich smell of the forest and hear sounds of delightful birds. It was somewhat surreal in heavily urbanised city but the oasis of tranquility calms the soul and the mind is clarified. What a wonderful place to go for a walk!
I joined a friend to witness the Cheng Beng festivity and was overwhelmed by the throngs of people with their prayer paraphernalia and the heavy traffic winds patiently through the hills. It was BUSY!
Then some 3 months later, I took a trip with the Brownies who gave free guided walks through Bukit Brown practically every weekends! It was like stepping back into another place and time. You can see rays of sunshine illuminating the misty verdant hills, rich smell of the forest and hear sounds of delightful birds. It was somewhat surreal in heavily urbanised city but the oasis of tranquility calms the soul and the mind is clarified. What a wonderful place to go for a walk!
Yes, we have the crowded Botanic Gardens, the monotonous MacRitchie & Pierce reservoirs, the hot Sungei Buloh Reserve and Chek Jawa Park is a little too far to reach but Bt Brown is way too cool! If you dare venture off the main track, you will encounter unusual structure, designs, engravings, statutes, reflecting the various cultures, beliefs & eras. You might encounter a monitor lizard, horse riders and almost always expats walking their dogs. Join the Sats & Suns groups of 10-20 people on the guided walks like the one I’ve taken, listening to the passionate guides who are bursting to share with you the stories of the hills.
Visited September 2013
“The most beautiful place on earth”
Jo Prudence, descendant of George Henry Brown, after whom the cemetery is named.
A spectacular time-lapse aerial video of Bukit Brown
More beauty shots of Bukit Brown here
Han Yi Jie 寒衣节
By Victor Yue
4 November, 2013
Han Yi Jie, which means “warm clothing event”, is a Chinese tradition when the start of winter reminds the people that their ancestors and departed loved ones would also be experiencing the cold. And so, they make offerings of food and warm clothing for them.
In Singapore, where it is always warm (hot in fact), such a tradition hardly exists. But, Xuan Jiang Dian 玄江殿, a Chinese temple dedicated to Xuan Tian Shang Di (玄天上帝), known as God of the North, continues with this tradition. For a a long time now, every year without fail, on the first day of the tenth lunar month (moon), this temple, with its devotees would visit Bukit Brown Cemetery to make offerings to the wandering souls. To the Chinese, the first day of the 10th moon marks the beginning of Winter. (Wandering souls are souls of the departed who do not have anyone (descendants) making offerings to them)
This year the first day of the 10 lunar month, fell on 3 November. As has been their tradition, members of Xuan Jiang Dian 玄江殿 went to Bukit Brown Cemetery to make offerings to the wandering residents of the cemetery. This year saw a bigger offering. Could there have been an increase in the number of wandering souls? Devotees of the temple contributed warm clothings, money (in the form of joss papers) and food. Some Brownies also contributed towards the offering of the warm clothings (in the form of paper robes).
This year, Shan Cai Tong Zi 善才童子, through a spirit medium, came along to offer sermon (dharma) to the invited souls at the gathering by the Ole Rain Tree. Shan Cai Tong Zi is a deity who is one of the 500 assistants to Guan Yin.. In S.E,Asia, he is a popular deity who is trance by spirit mediums. He is only 3 years old and the older folks, especially old aunties, like him, because they can be less formal, unlike the warrior deities.
Shan Cai Tong Zi, through his ancient Hokkien and mudras offered blessings to the gathered souls. Offerings which ranged from various kinds of kueh kueh, joss sticks, coins to rice were made.
Offerings which ranged from various kinds of kueh kueh, joss sticks, coins to rice were made.
Before the start of this event, respects were also accorded to the guardians of the hills.
After the blessings and offerings to the wandering souls, it was time to bless the living souls who gathered to contribute towards this event. Good health and good luck were amongst them being blessed onto the members gathered. Members were offered the five different beans (known as Gor Tao 五豆 in Hokkien) to bring back home. A big “Huat Kueh” (a traditional Hokkien cake made with yeast and flour through steaming) that was made in the temple by members for this event was offered to all present to take bit to eat, for good luck and “jia peng an” (吃平安) meaning eating to get the peace”)。
With the impending construction of the 8 lane highway through Bukit Brown, this is likely the last time that Han Yi Jie will be conducted at the ‘ole rain tree. But we still hope it will not be the last at Bukit Brown.
Globalising the Local
( a forum organised by the Singapore Heritage Society)
4 November 2013
In December 2012 the historic Singapore Botanic Gardens became a nominee for UNESCO World Heritage site status. In October 2013 Bukit Brown was selected by the World Monuments Fund to be included in the 2014 World Monuments Watch list. Two equally deserving heritage sites on different pathways towards international recognition. What does it mean to be recognised as a World Heritage site or to be on the World Monuments Watch list? Are these new ways of thinking about the significance of heritage in Singapore? Can heritage give us insights into what being global means for Singapore and Singaporeans?
Join us at the Forum where we will hear expert speakers explain the meaning and significance of these developments.
Please register early as seats are limited:
10 November 2013, 2-4pm
Ngee Ann Auditorium, Asian Civilisations Museum
Dr Chua Ai Lin – President of the Singapore Heritage Society
Dr Kevin YL Tan – President, ICOMOS Singapore
Dr Ian Chong – Political Scientist
Ms Faizah Jamal – Nominated Member of Parliament
Dr Lai Chee Kien – Architect