Liberation 70 by All Things Bukit Brown

Publishers: Singapore Heritage Society and Ethos Books

Date Of Publication: 5 December, 2015

The Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and All Things Bukit Brown (atBB)  are pleased to announce their plans to publish a collection of essays and poems, mined mainly from oral history and family archives, which looks at the Second World War (1942-1945) and the impact in Singapore from the perspective of those interred at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

The book commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Singapore under Japanese Occupation (Sept 1945) by offering new material and insights into the human tragedy of war, which adds another layer to the already vast literature on WWII in Singapore.

“The stories have taken us to the Endau Settlement in Johor, to Taiping (Malaysia) and to the beaches of Normandy in ways so unexpected they took our breath away,” said Claire Leow and Catherine Lim, co-founders of All Things Bukit Brown, a group of volunteers who work to raise awareness of the municipal cemetery. “It is a slow and at times painful unravelling of family history, lost in memory but for the persistence of descendants. It has taken seven decades for some of these fragments to be pulled together, and we see this not as a one-off book but a first step in the difficult journey of re-discovery and re-membering. The narratives also re-affirm to us Singapore’s place in regional and global historical narratives.”

It is a known fact that many who lived through the horrors of war and Occupation barely spoke about those days. The 70th anniversary of the Liberation, coinciding with an outpouring of emotion as Singapore celebrated the Jubilee of independence (SG50), unlocked the memory vaults of strangers who entrusted the editorial team with intimate familial stories and memorabilia. The compilation will span across the immediate pre- war, occupation and post-war years for the people of Singapore. It will also feature a poem of lamentation for soldiers lost in the battle at Bukit Brown, juxtaposed against recently unearthed official archival material on the battle that was fought at Cemetery Hill aka Bukit Brown Cemetery, with anecdotes from the diaries of soldiers, the pastor who bore witness to the aftermath, as well as memories of surviving prisoners of war who lived in the nearby Sime Road POW Camp. Most of this will be new, unpublished material.

SHS is pleased to support this ground-up project, as an extension of the advocacy the society encourages and the Bukit Brown cause that SHS has backed since 2011, when the cemetery came under threat of development first through a highway and later, housing.

“Bukit Brown has unexpectedly turned out to be a touchstone about the loss of heritage – tangible and intangible – in a Singapore eager to modernise and develop,” Chua Ai Lin, President of SHS. “The book is an important evolution of the civil society movement to uphold Bukit Brown as a site of national significance, and illuminate one of its more fragile narrative threads. It brings together at once the strategic and personal importance of the site, and SHS is pleased to once again support All Things Bukit Brown, which has evolved from a volunteer base guiding weekly public tours and regular customised tours, to hosting exhibitions and participating in arts programmes to reach as broad a support base as possible to save what is left of the site.”

The book, which now has the working title “Liberation70”, is ultimately a tribute to those among us,  civilians and soldiers who laid down their lives. In the Ode of Remembrance read at most war commemoration ceremonies worldwide, the public repeats the key line, “We will remember them.” This is our collective act of remembrance.

The book will be co-published by the Singapore Heritage Society and Ethos with a partial grant from the National Heritage Board, under its Heritage Participation Grant. All proceeds from the book will be channelled into future Bukit Brown projects.


Singapore Heritage Society was founded in 1987 and is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation and registered charity with Institution of Public Character (IPC) status. It is Singapore’s leading organization dedicated to research, education and advocacy on Singapore’s history, heritage and identity. SHS is behind many significant publications on Singapore history including Syonan: Singapore under the Japanese, 1942-1945 (1992); Memories and the National Library: Between Forgetting and Remembering (2000); Spaces for the Dead: A Case from the Living (2011).

All Things Bukit Brown (atBB) is the banner for a community of volunteers who conduct independent research and guided walks on Bukit Brown Cemetery. Since they came together as a community in 2012, they have collectively organised public talks with partners such as the NUS Museum and Chui Huay Lim Club, two exhibitions and successfully nominated Bukit Brown Cemetery as the first site in Singapore to be placed on the World Monuments Fund Watch list 2014-2016. Claire Leow and Catherine Lim, co-founders of the blog, are the editors for the book, backed by a volunteer editorial team from within the community.

Drama Box_

(Photo credit Han Xuemei, Dramabox)

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 11.57.13 pm


It all began when a descendant asked for help in the FB group Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown in locating the grave of his maternal grandmother Yang Shu Hua 楊淑華, whom he just discovered was buried in Bukit Brown.
Madam Yang it transpired is the first wife of  Prof Lim Hui Siang (pinyin Lin Huixiang, 林惠祥) who was a co founder together with Tan Yeok Seong of the Amoy Anthropological Museum in 1935. The museum still exists today.
Lim Hui Siang with Tan Yeok Seong  ([hoto Alex Tan Tiong Hee

Prof Lim Hui Siang with Tan Yeok Seong (photo Alex Tan Tiong Hee)

Tan’s son Alex  then contributed a photo of both, followed by a calligraphy by Prof Lim dedicated to his father. 
Lim Hui Siang Calligraphy _Alex Tan

Lim Hui Siang ‘ calligraphy dedicated to his colleague Tan Yeok Seong  (photo Alex Tan Tiong Hee)

Jason Kuo a member of the group,  impressed by the calligraphy started to unravel its meaning. Together with inputs from Khoo Ee Hoon, this is  the translation arrived at with disclaimers.
 By Jason Kuo:
As far as we can decipher, these are the character in the piece (all transcriptions in traditional characters):

When the country is broken and families are upturned, fame and fortune mean nothing.

Although I am forced to wander, I am not yet lamenting that our cause is hopeless.

My eyes may be luckier than that of Lu You, for I may (live to) see the day when the righteous army sweeps north and pacifies the central plains

[i.e., when we have driven out the Japanese].

A line by line breakdown:
國破 guo2 po4, the broken country
家傾 jia1 qing1, the family fallen (families upturned)
名利 ming2 li4, fame and fortune
空 kong1, emptiness, nothingness (also with Buddhist connotations)
Probable translation:
When the country is broken, and families upturned, fame and fortune become meaningless
飄零 piao1 ling2, wandering (often used as in “forced to flee”)
尚未 shang4 wei4, yet, not yet
嘆 tan4, lament, sigh, cry
途窮 tu2 qiong2, no more paths, dead end, no way to go.
Probable translation:
(Although) wandering (as a refugee), (I am) not yet lamenting that (we have; China has) reached a dead end (i.e., that our cause is hopeless)
王師 wang2 shi1, literally, the king’s army, imperial army, also implies righteous army, since 王道 is the righteous (Kingly/ Princely) Way. Here a reference to the Chinese army.
北定 bei3 ding4, literally, “north pacify”. Pacifying the north (much of which was then occupied by Japan).
中原 zhong1 yuan2, the Central Plains, the heartland of traditional China and the cradle of Chinese civilization.
日 ri4, day
Probable translation:
The day when the righteous army sweeps north and pacifies the Central Plains.
*(Note that this is a verbatim copy of a line from the famous Southern Song Dynasty patriot, Lu You 陸游, whose style name is Fang Weng 放翁 (man who has discarded everything?),
眼福 yan3 fu2, gift for the eyes, i.e., lucky enough to get to see ….
猶能 you2 neng2, can even
勝 sheng4, victorious, be better than
放翁 Fang4 Weng1, the patriot Lu You, or Lu Fangweng
Probable translation:
My eyes may be lucky enough than those of Lu Fangweng (to see the day when the Chinese army triumphs).
The poem was written in 1938, one of the darkest periods in modern Chinese history. However, though defeated in many battles, and with its capital Nanjing routed, the Chinese army continued to defy the Japanese, and achieved a few brilliant victories such as Taierzhuang. Lim’s poem alluded to two Southern Song patriots. The first one, Lu You, was born in the Northern Song era but died during the Southern Song, and saw northern China being conquered by the Jurchen (女真) Jin 金 dynasty. Throughout his life Lu advocated the re-conquest of the north, but the Southern Song court, having fled the north (and with two of its emperors held hostage under the Jurchens), was in no mood for such an undertaking. (Some also speculate that the Southern Song emperor may not have wanted his captured father and brother to return to the throne.) Compare one of Lu’s most famous poems against our 1938 poem:
Rough translation: Although I know that when I die, all will be empty (notice use of word 空, as in 1938 poem), but I am saddened that I cannot see the reunification of China. When the righteous army sweeps north and pacifies the Central Plains (note direct copy by 1938 poem), do not forget to tell this old man (of the good news) during your ancestral rites.
The second patriot is the famous Wen Tianxiang 文天祥. He lived much later than Lu and saw the conquest of the Southern Song by the Mongol Yuan dynasty. He died while in prison in the Yuan capital, modern Beijing. (In fact, it was the Mongols who made Beijing the capital for the first time of all of China. Before then Beijing had often been a capital for divided regimes.) Wen’s most famous work is the Song of Righteousness 正氣歌. In any case, (thanks to research by Khoo Ee Hoon,) he also wrote these words in his poem, En Route to Yangzhouli 至揚州里: 飄零無緒嘆途窮, roughly, Endlessly wandering, I lament that our cause is lost. Compare this against the 1938 poem, where the author is much more optimistic about China’s prospects (but using the exact same words except replacing “endlessly” with “not yet”).
It is somewhat interesting that Mr Lim chose two tragic figures as his role models. One saw the destruction of northern China, while the other saw the conquest of the remaining part of China still under Han rule.
Bonus points: Mongol rule in China has been deeply influential. It was the first time that the historically Han areas of China and the Tibetan areas came under one ruler. Since the modern Chinese states (both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China) both view the Mongol Yuan dynasty as a continuous Chinese (though not Han) dynasty, Chinese sovereignty over Tibet is traced to the Mongol period. Some Tibetans have a different view: they argue that China was conquered by the Mongols, and that the Mongols ruled both China (i.e., what Chinese nationalists would call the Han areas of China) and Tibet as parts of their empire. Under this view, after the Mongol defeat, China (under the Ming) and Tibet became separate countries again. This argument is compounded when the Manchu dynasty (a successor to the Jurchen Jin dynasty, ironically) conquered Ming China, the Mongols, and Tibet. When the Republic of China defeated the Qing in 1912, the new state’s view was that it had succeeded to all of Qing territory, which it viewed as indelibly “Chinese”. Many Tibetans, however, believed that the Qing were also an alien empire, and that its defeat meant that “China”, Tibet and Mongolia would go their separate ways. In modern times, this view has become academic as the People’s Republic has firmly secured its hold on Tibet (while northern Mongolia, under Soviet support, has long been independent. It’s ironic that most ethnic Mongolians still live within China’s borders, in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region). It is still an emotional issue, though. The Dalai Lama now accepts Tibet as part of the People’s Republic, and only argues about the degree of autonomy Tibet ought to have. However, he is very reluctant to state that Tibet has been part of China “since ancient times”. Yet this statement has been insisted upon by the PRC government.
Further comment: Because the Republic of China, in the form of the Kuomintang regime, was later defeated in the Chinese civil war, the contributions of China during World War II has been muffled for much of the last 70 years. But with greater openness in mainland China and more Western scholarship of that era (see Rana Mitter’s excellent work), the Chinese war effort under Chiang Kai-shek’s government has generated renewed interest, and usually a more favorable assessment. Throughout Chinese history, it has been extremely rare for southern regimes to reconquer the north. If anything, the thrust of history has been for the north (often non-Han regimes) to conquer the south (almost always a Han regime), and with reunification leading to hanification of the non-Han, and ironically expanding China’s territory (so one could say China expands its territory through defeats). The ROC was the only Chinese regime in centuries to accomplish total victory over an alien aggressor. On top of that, it had regained control of both Manchuria and Taiwan, which were thought to be long lost to the Japanese.
So what became of the search for Madam Yang’s grave at Bukit Brown? It was found to be one of the tombs affected and already exhumed for the highway. Her grandson is arranging to claim her remains to be interred by family.
All remains not claimed are kept for a duration of 3 years for any claimants before it is cast to sea
Keng Lecks Maternal grandmother Yang Shu Hua 楊淑華

Yang Shu Hua 楊淑華  #1146 (photo Bukit Brown Documentation)


By Zhang Jiayi

In the early afternoon last Sunday (2 August, 2015) I dreaded my decision to go for a guided walk  around Bukit Brown cemetery. However, I have promised my friends that I will turn up, so grudgingly, I made my way to the meeting point for the walking tour. Three hours and a lot of mosquito bites later, it is a decision that I did not regret.

Tombstones don’t lie. All aspects of the tombs – from the layout, the materials used, the carvings and statues around the tomb – give us snippets of information about the individuals and the Chinese immigrant community in early Singapore. The tour shed light on the stories of the individuals; after the tour, the occupants of Bukit Brown turned from random people to dignified individuals who made a difference to the social reality we experience today. Our history and social studies curriculum doesn’t do justice to the various individuals who made a difference to Singapore. While we know a significant bit about Tan Tock Seng, we overlooked the contributions of his eldest son, Tan Kim Ching, who is also buried in Bukit Brown. Tan Kim Ching not only participated actively in philanthropy, just like how Tan Tock Seng did, he also had a close relationship with the royal family of Siam (known as Thailand now), and played an important role in diplomatic relations between the Straits Settlements and Siam. It is also to my surprise that the 72nd generation of Confucius also set foot in Singapore, and is also buried in Bukit Brown cemetery *.

The diversity of the ‘residents’ of Bukit Brown was jaw dropping. Tombs of Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, men, women, the rich and the poor can be found in Bukit Brown cemetery. A range of calendars was used in the inscriptions of headstones in documenting the time of birth and death of individuals. Some Chinese pledged allegiance to the Ming dynasty of China and at their time of death dreaded the fact that they would be buried in a foreign land, while others were content to call Singapore home and to be buried here.  I saw for myself the intricate Peranakan tiles laying some of the tombs of wealthy Peranakan Chinese, who chose to be buried in Bukit Brown as they did not identify with their Chinese dialect clans. It was also fascinating to gain an insight on how the early Chinese viewed death – many of them viewed their tombs as their homes in afterlife, and the layout of the tombs resembled the layout of homes. Much thought was put into the building of tombs; some tombs had carvings transmitting values like filial piety, some had intricate statues symbolizing prosperity, fertility and abundance, while other had inscriptions revealing how they felt when they were buried in Singapore. The trip was especially meaningful for me, as a female.

I learned more about the contributions of early Chinese women to the cause of gender equality we have today. Ms Lee Choo Neo, the founder of a Chinese Ladies Association, lobbied for the right of females to live a more enriching life. The Association taught domestic skills, supported education for females, and sponsored a rescue home for women. She was in her teens when she started these big projects. She can be rightfully known as, according to my understanding, the grandmother of the civil society in Singapore. The experience exposed how much I didn’t know about the history of Singapore, beyond what was taught in our social studies and history textbooks. I was deeply humbled by the number of times I widened my eyes in surprise as the volunteer guides (Brownies) dropped nuggets of trivia about prominent early Chinese immigrants. There is just so much the cemetery revealed about who we are as Singaporeans before Singapore’s independence, and the place unjustified the sweeping claims about how Singapore is ‘cultureless’.

As we celebrate 50 years of Singapore’s independence, let us remember, as the guides rightly pointed out, that it is also our 70th year of liberation from the Japanese Occupation, and almost a century from the time we were first part of the Straits Settlements. It is my hope that the stories told during the tour are documented and made available to a wider audience, lest our social history be like those resting in Bukit Brown cemetery – buried six feet underground, never to be seen or heard by the future generations of Singaporeans.

*Editors Clarification:  The 72nd direct descendant of Confucius had prepared his grave with the intention of being buried beside this wife who passed away before him, but he was buried at Bidadari instead.  We thank Jiayi for taking time to pen her thoughts on her first visit to Bukit Brown and invite anyone who would like to contribute a blog post to write to For information on guided walks please visit for weekly updates.

About Jiayi: Jiayi is a young Singaporean still in search of what makes her Singaporean. She is interested in issues relating to the Singaporean society as a whole, including social stratification, education and national identity.


Preps 21 Lawrence ChongNational Anthem 2 _ Lawrence Chong

Join Keng Kiat for a walk around the North-Western wedge of Bukit Brown, soon to be seperated from the main part of the cemetery due to the building of the highway … and hear him share stories of pioneers who are buried there, such as Tay Koh Yat, Cheong Koon Seng (of Koon Seng Road) and the Neo Tiew Family.

This guided walk starts at 4.30pm and ends at 7.00pm

Meeting Point: Bukit Brown entrance gates at Lorong Halwa. In the event that the old main Gate has been closed, kindly wait / meet at the new connecting road which is before the old road.

Difficulty: Average, some trekking required
Please bring umbrella or poncho / sun block / mosquito repellent.
Please wear covered footwear.

Please note: 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 register at Peatix.


The Last Stand – relive the final hours before the fall of Singapore. Andrew will bring you to the site of the battle of Bukit Brown whereby the Japanese routed the British. You will walk the same paths where the combants have fought.
This guided walk starts at 7.00pm and ends at 9.00pm

Meeting Point: Bukit Brown entrance gates at Lorong Halwa. In the event that the old main Gate has been closed, kindly wait / meet at the new connecting road which is before the old road.

Difficulty: Average, some trekking required
Please bring umbrella or poncho / sun block / mosquito repellent.
Please wear covered footwear.

Please note: 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 register at Peatix.

Andrew guiding a tour

Andrew guiding a tour [photo: Bianca Polak]

Update: For the latest on which library the exhibition has moved to please click on this FB page link

Becoming Bishan: A Heritage Exhibition

What is Bishan? A concrete jungle of million-dollar HDB flats? The futuristic, award-winning architecture of SkyHabitat and Bishan Library? Or even the bustling activity of Junction 8? These are the conventional perceptions of the young, vibrant town of Bishan – an ex-cemetery transformed into a heartland showpiece.

Our team, however, felt that there just had to be more to this rising area. Whether we were lifelong residents of the district or saw it as a mere part of our daily commute to school, we became increasingly curious about how this place came to be. Why was there even a cemetery in Bishan in the first place? Did people live in Bishan before the HDB flats were built? What was Bishan’s place in the Singapore Story?

Driven by overwhelming curiosity, we, in conjunction with the Raffles Archives and Museum, embarked upon the Becoming Bishan Project, hoping that the outcomes of our research would be able to provide a poignant contribution to our country’s jubilee celebrations.

Our first step was to analyse the development of Bishan through maps. One of our members, Yilun, is an avid map enthusiast with an especial interest in urban redevelopment. With gusto, he surfaced many old maps of the area, the oldest dating back to 1924.  Through painstaking effort, he managed to highlight the stark changes in the landscape of the area, as well as match old landmarks of the area to more familiar present-day ones. The topographical studies revealed many details about the geography of the Bishan area. Today, the land that makes up Bishan is rather flat. However, the contours of old maps suggest that pre-redevelopment,

Bishan was covered by rolling hills. Many photographs also show the grave-covered hills with the HDB flats of  Toa Payoh in the background. This explains the how the name “Bishan” (“Jade Hills” in Mandarin) came about. One of our interviewees even compared the view from a Toa Payoh flat to a green dragon, because of the undulating hills and the scale-like tombs on them.

Students setting up the maps of Bishan through the years _Photo RI Student Team

The highlight is a series of maps of Bishan tracing the landscape of changes from 1924 to the present (Photo RI Student Project Team)

There were several kampongs within the cemetery, the most notable one being Kampong San Teng, whose kampong association members still meet regularly today. Interviews with the old residents revealed a rather self-sufficient community, with a school, farms, a teahouse and a market. There was also a cinema, Nam Kok cinema, in the Bishan area that screened Chinese and Western films. A worker in the KPT coffee shop in Bishan North told us of how he used to work there, proudly showing us his old posters of Elvis Presley and actors from Hong Kong. But when we asked about people’s impressions of Bishan before redevelopment, the greatest fears were not ghosts and spirits, but secret society activity.

We also made several exciting discoveries along our research journey. One was that Bishan was once a World War II battlesite! Jon Cooper, who also runs the Bukit Brown battlefield tours, managed to surface the battalion diaries and hand-drawn maps of the Second Cambridgeshire Regiment. These documented the action at Braddell Road in the dying days of the Battle for Singapore (1942).  Further research revealed that the battle positions occupied by the British troops are the present-day locations of Junction 8 shopping mall,  Bishan Library and Raffles Institution. This story was corroborated by many residents, who recalled the sounds of gunfire through the rolling hills of Bishan. Another revelation we made was that the philanthropist Wong Ah Fook was once buried in the Peck San Theng cemetery and his ashes now lie in the columbarium, something that even those running the columbarium had been unaware of.

Student explaining the WW 2 history of Bishan_Photo RI Team

A RI volunteer explaining the WW2 history of Bishan. (photo RI Project Team)

Along the way, our team has also met and befriended many diverse characters, who each have their own personal stake in Bishan. From the intriguing Mr. Molay, a Cantonese-speaking Indian man whose father once owned a hundred cows in Bishan, to the unabashed Mr. Loh, who once ate human flesh to survive the deprivation of the Japanese Occupation, it is the stories of these people who make the Bishan Story come alive. We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to talk to these individuals and learn more about the almost-foreign land that is the past. Later, we also spoke to current residents who told us about their thoughts and memories about this place. Though it is hard to say that the HDB dwellers of today have the same community spirit as kampong residents did, it was interesting to note how people develop, or fail to develop, attachments to Bishan.

Oral interviews from residents before developments_Photo Ri Team

Visitors to the exhibition have a chance to listen in on their memories of Bishan as a cemetery and its social community life then (photo RI Project Team)n

We feel immensely privileged to have had the experience of exploring Bishan’s story and curating this exhibition, and hope that you might find meaning of your own in our fruits of labour and love.

Becoming Bishan Exhibition at the Bishan Library _Photo RI Team

Becoming Bishan Exhbition now at Bishan Library (photo RI Project team)

The Becoming Bishan exhibition will be officially launched on 11 July (Saturday), from 9 am – 12 noon, at the Bishan Community Library. This event will be graced by Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo. The exhibition will run at the Bishan Community Library from 1 July to 23 August, Ang Mo Kio Public Library from 24 August to 30 September and Toa Payoh Public Library from 1 to 31 October.

This is a student project from Raffles Institution, as part of the South cluster schools’ contribution to the SG50 celebration efforts.

This blog post is a team contribution from the  students of Raffles Institution involved in Becoming Bishan.

atBB reviews:

atBB visited the exhibition and we are struck by the sheer breath of the history and heritage  the students have been able to uncover of Bishan and how it has evolved into what it is today. From the old to the modern, the curated posters capture more than a snap shot, but with carefully chosen quotes, it has emotional resonance such that, one can be transported to a different time and space in Singapore.

Becoming Bishan (photo Catherine Lim)

Becoming Bishan (photo Catherine Lim)

Of particular interest was the coverage on how the community coped with WW 2 and provided refuge for other residents in other areas in war torn Singapore. 

Becoming Bishan 2 (photo Catherine Lim)

Becoming Bishan (photo Catherine Lim)

The exhibits on  WW II was an eye opener with artefacts from both Japanese and British sides.

War Rations (photo Catherine Lim)

War Memorabilia  (photo Catherine Lim)

Augmented with video recordings of residents interviewed makes this exhibition a exemplar template for exhibitions on other neighbourhoods to emulate.   Accompanying the exhibition is a pictorial booklet which value adds the exhibition and makes for a treasured   keep sake for those interested in history and heritage and the transition to the modern. 

Video Interviews (photo Catherine Lim)

Video Interviews (photo Catherine Lim)

Becoming Bishan Booklets (photo Catherine Lim)

Becoming Bishan Booklets (photo Catherine Lim)

atBB has been following the development of this project  since the students first approached us for help in understanding cemetery culture and symbolism. We are proud to have made a small contribution to this project and have to say that full credit go to the students for taking it so far from when they first began. Congratulations and well done!


He was an old  trustee of the Soon Thian Keing (Temple)  who together with his wife is buried at Bukit Brown. Through his personal memories, Ho Siew Tien (1864-1960) helped shed light on the temple’s history.

This story by Ang Yik Han begins with the origins of one of the oldest temples in Singapore.


In the 1980s, a debate took place in the local newspapers over the age of an old Chinese temple dedicated to the earth deity Tua Pek Kong in Malabar Street. Historians argued over an ambiguous phrase in one of the temple’s old stelae, which stated that the temple, the Soon Thian Keing (順天宮), was established during the years of the reigns of Jiaqing and Daoguang (“嘉道之際”). As the Jiaqing Emperor ruled from 1796 to 1820 and Daoguang from 1821 to 1850, proponents of an earlier dating for the temple argued that its establishment may have predated the founding of Singapore in 1819. However, there was no direct evidence to support this claim. No artefacts survived from the temple’s earliest days and the stele in question was erected only in 1902 when the temple was reconstructed.

Soon Thian Keing Temple stelae (photo Yik Han)

Part of the 1902 stele still preserved in the Soon Thian Keing today. It shows the main temple sponsors and major contributors to the temple’s building fund (photo Yik Han)

One the earliest known accounts of the Soon Thian Keing before its reconstruction was an interview given by one of its trustees, Ho Siew Tian (何秀填), in 1949. He recalled that when he first arrived in Singapore in 1882 at the age of 18, the temple was only a small shrine located next to a tree which housed the Tua Pek Kong statue. The shrine was refurbished by two merchants in 1888. It was only in 1902 (28th year of Guangxu’s reign) that some merchants based in the Sio Po area (the colloquial Chinese term for the part of town north of the Singapore River) came together to construct a proper building for the temple.

Ho Siew Tin_Yik Han

A photo of Ho Siew Tien taken in 1950

Other than getting a new building, the turn of the 20th century was significant for the temple for another reason. Some Hokkien merchants started a school in 1903 and then turned to the temple committee for funding to sustain the school. Thus began the decades long association between the temple and the Chung Cheng School (崇正学校) [not to be confused with Chung Cheng High (中正學校) which was managed by the Hokkien Association].

Every year, the temple provided for the school’s upkeep from the money paid by the resident monk who was contracted to run the temple. In 1916, a school for girls, the Chong Pun Girls School (崇本女校) was started and likewise funded by the temple. Committee members of the Soon Thian Keing sat on the boards of both schools. Prominent alumni members of the Chung Cheng School over the years included Lee Kong Chian and President Ong Teng Cheong.

As the number of students increased, the need for new premises for both schools was keenly felt. In 1938, the construction of a new school building at Aliwal Street was completed. This housed both the Chung Cheng School as well as the Chong Pun Girls School under one roof. It was recorded that Ho Siew Tian was a prime driver in the construction of the new school building along with the then temple chairman. A trustee of the Soon Thian Keing since 1933, he was concurrently the treasurer of the temple and the two schools, a position he held till after the war.

Hailed as one of the most modern Chinese school buildings of its day, the building has been preserved and is today the Aliwal Arts Centre.

Chung Cheng School now Aliwa Centre (Photo Yik Han)

The Chung Cheng wing now Aliwal Arts  Centre (Photo Yik Han)

Chong Pun Girls School Hall at Aliwal Arts Center (photo Yik Han)

Chong Pun Girls School Hall at Aliwal Arts Center (photo Yik Han)

As Aw Boon Haw donated substantial funds towards the building’s construction, the school hall was named after his company, Haw Par.

Old photos dating from 1950 which showed girls of Chong Pun exercising in the school field, today a carpark. Sultan Mosque can be seen in the background.

Girls excising in Chong Pun School, Sultan Mosque in the background chongpun_exercises_Source

Girls excising in Chong Pun school field, with  Sultan Mosque in the background.

Ho Siew Tian ran a thriving hardware and building materials business under the chop Ho Hock Ann (何福安) at Beach Road. He also owned a number of twakows for transporting goods. As his wealth grew, he made substantial investments in properties. In 1948, he incorporated his firm as a limited company and handed over its running to his sons, who subsequently expanded the business to firearms.

 Advertisement for Ho Hock Ann Company Ltd in 1950

Advertisement for Ho Hock Ann Company Ltd in 1950

It was urban redevelopment which spelled the end for the temple and the schools. In 1980s, the temple was acquired by the government for building the MRT. It moved successively to various temporary sites before its present building at Lorong 29 Geylang was completed. With the resettlement of the urban residents in the area, dwindling student enrolment led to the closure of Chung Cheng School in the 1980s as well. Its name was transferred to a primary school in Tampines.

Soon Thian Keing today in Lor 29 Geylang (photo Yik Han)

Soon Thian Keing today in Lor 29 Geylang (photo Yik Han)

Ho Siew Tian is buried at Hill 4 together with his wife who died 12 years before him. According to obituaries in the Straits Times and the Singapore Free Press, he was one of the oldest men in Singapore at the point of his death at the age of 96. He was survived by 5 sons (2 other sons died before him), 3 daughters, 2 sons-in-law, 7 daughters-in-law, 81 grandchildren, 8 grand sons-in-law, 4 granddaughters-in-law and 37 great grandchildren.

 Tomb of Mr and Mrs Ho Siew Tian at Bukit Brown Cemetery Hill 4

Tomb of Mr and Mrs Ho Siew Tian at Bukit Brown Cemetery Hill 4 (photo Yik Han)

Ceramic portraits of Mr and Mrs Ho Siew Tian on their tombstone (photo Yik Han)

Ceramic portraits of Mr and Mrs Ho Siew Tian on their tombstone (photo Yik Han)


Darren Koh 2_ Mr. Foo

Darren Koh at the tomb of Chew Geok Leong (photo Mr. Foo)

It has been a long time coming, 3 years in gestation but Darren Koh – a pioneer member and solid contributor of the FB group community Singapore Heritage Bukit Brown Cemetery – has finally joined the ranks of Brownies who conduct guided walks. All Things Bukit Brown (atBB) caught up with Darren – whose day job is lecturing  on taxation in a tertiary institution – and asks why now and what took him so long?

atBB : You have been following and contributing to the community online for a number of years, why have you now decided to join the ranks of brownies who conduct guided walks?

Darren I blame Chew Keng Kiat!  Some time ago, we were chatting and I asked him if he recalled when the “brownies” came into being.  He dated the Brownies back to one evening in Sago Lane – in fact the funeral of Raymond Goh’s father.   Keng Kiat mentioned there was this group of people at a table at the end of the tentage. I reminded him I was there too – I was sitting with Mil, Su-Min and Vicky at one end. Keng Kiat mentioned that everyone at the table agreed that the Goh brothers could not possibly hunt down tombs and spread the knowledge of Bukit Brown all on their own.  Plans for the 8 lane highway  had just been announced and time was short.  That was about when everyone at the table agreed to take on the guiding so that Raymond and Charles could focus on the tomb hunting.  “Teach us.  Let us do this for you.”   And so – to the memory of Keng Kiat at least, the Brownies were born.  Unfortunately for me, my asking when the Brownies was born also pencilled in his memory that I had not guided any walks.  Since my conversation with him about that evening, he has often taken the opportunity to ask when I would actually guide.  Even as recently as this year’s Chinese New Year dinner, Keng Kiat nudged me again and said “Look around you – everyone at that table so many years ago has gone on to guide. You are the only one who hasn’t. When are you going to do so?”

Truth of the matter was that it was always going to be a matter of time. I was in the midst of getting a new programme running at the university, and that was just soaking up my time.  I did not have many people helping me teach then, and I was teaching many of the courses myself.  And the courses took place at the weekends.  So I really could not go out to the hills as often as everyone did. As you point out, I have been keeping in touch with the Brownies and following the discoveries, the developments, the joys and the lows.  But always once removed.  I must say, the Brownies were kind enough to include me in many of the offsite events (read – dinner!, etc) and it was at one event when one of our guests asked if I was a Brownie that I sort of blurted out “Not really – I have helped out in some walks but have not guided one myself.  I do not think I can wear the title until I have done that.” And that I think was when Catherine jumped in an said, “He’s an Associate Brownie!” So yay!  I had a place!

Now that the programme at the university is more settled, I can breathe again, and I was looking to get out of the air-conditioned world, and maybe get more exercise, and do something I like…. I realised why not just guide walks.  It ticks all the right boxes – it’s in the midst of  nature, it’s out of the artificial world of the office, I will walk a lot, and I will get to do what I like – tell stories.  A perfect fit. And so, after a couple of weekends of doing my homework (i.e. walking the hills, trying to find the tombs, getting lost amongst the stones), I started guiding.

atBB  Share what has been your experience like so far after 3 guided walks.

Darren  It’s been great! Each one has been different: the routing, the tombs we visited and therefore the story that was told was different. And in the last walk, I even had to abort a visit to two tombs and think of rapid replacements as the tombs I had wanted to visit were inaccessible.

It is usually good to have people ask questions – although sometimes that is scary as you never know which angle they will come from.  But the good thing about being a volunteer guide is that I can say “I don’t know – will have to get back to you on that.” A bit more difficult to say that in my normal classes!

The one thing I am reminded of, is a piece of advice shared with me by a good friend Tony Oldham, whom I got know well while we were travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  He was an archaeologist and anthropologist, and was also a tour guide in Europe. He said, “Never let a few facts stand in the way of a good story.”  Something which I have since learnt is very true:  the people who come for the walks are not here for a history lesson, or a degree in decorative arts.  The finer details therefore do not exactly matter.  What matters however, is the story of the person we are calling upon:  we bring that person to life when we relate their life and times.  Even more so if we can weave a line from the person we are calling upon, to the visitors today.  You can see for instance, the change in people when I reveal that we know so much about how Soh Koon Eng died because the daughter of the boy Koon Eng shielded with her body told us the story.  Or when they realise the man in the small grave I am talking about was none other than Lee Kuan Yew’s grandfather … All links from the past to the present that they know.

The one regret to date?  I wish I had more time to share more with the visitors, but we have 3 hours before we tire.  There is only so much we can share in each session.  The only problem is when there are certain expectations – just as Frances Yip will never be allowed to have a concert where she does not sing the theme song from the Bund/Shanghai Beach, there are certain tombs that visitors ask for.  Then you are stuck in who else to call upon with the time you have left in the walk after up have visited those “top tombs to visit”.  I think I will have to be a bit more creative in routing my walks, or just learn to say “Not this time.”

atBB What would you say is your main interest in Bukit Brown?

Darren It’s  the transmission of culture and the understanding of history!  There is much to be told from the stones: they tell of the person.  From the research we get the story to enable us to link the person from the past to what it means today.  That is the job of the storyteller – that’s why I love it when people get the stories!  Personally – I’m not the greatest fan of bush bashing – the effort undertaken to find the tombs of people.  I think my mechanical-pencil hands were not meant for hacking through forests with machettes.  But give me the facts, and let me tell the story – that is my forte.  Right now, we need to tell as many as possible the wealth of history and culture that lies in Bukit Brown.

atBB notes: bush bashing does not involve machettes as such, more walking sticks and some Brownies carry a small cutter to help them clear vines.

atBB Tell us a little something about yourself.

I have been telling stories since I was young – I even won a school prize and represented the school in a story telling competition when I was in primary school!   I think the best way to tell an idea is to put it in a story that the listener gets.  The question is how the listener gets it:  and I have to tailor the story to the listener.

Darren In many ways, all my past I have been a story-teller: as a lawyer and a chartered accountant who specialises in taxation, I have learnt to use the skill to help in negotiations, in drafting documents, in preparing defence files and in tax audits.  Since I switched to academia – it is all about telling stories again, although this time I tell them to students, in the hope they will learn to tell their own stories themselves.

Having dissected a snake in school, I am not that worried about them.  But I do fear cockroaches – don’t ask me why – so thank goodness they are not one of the worries i have out in Bukit Brown.

I used to be able to say that I have worked in all the northern continents except where the polar bears roam – but the bears are now roaming further down south into North America so I will probably have to revise that statement now.

atbb observes : As you can tell from his interview, Darren is quite a wit and most diligent, the bonus is  he  comes with a wealth of knowledge about Chinese culture and temples and is also one of the pioneer membersof the yahoo heritage news group. His next guiding session is at the first regular first weekend guided walks, atBB is launching,  starting in June on the morning of Saturday 6 June, 2015, so please register here if you want to “experience” him in person.

Darren Koh 1_ Raymond Goh

Darren Koh at the tomb of Chew Geok Leong (photo Raymond Goh)

For more photos of Darren, the brownie in action please click here and note that you need to have a facebook account to view these photos.


We are participating in Jane’s walk again this year – with 2 walks featuring Bukit Brown, both on Sat 2 May’15.
Heritage Walk from Botanic Gardens to Bukit Brown – guides: Claire & Bianca (08.00 – 11.30am)

An Evening Stroll into the Past – guides: Andrew & Beng (6.30 – 8.30pm)

More info on Jane’s Walk: and here




Every city has its underbelly. Bright lights have dark corners. Join Fabian as he shines a light into the dark side of SG’s past.

Meeting Point: Bukit Brown entrance gates at Lorong Halwa

Tour starts at 9am and ends at 12pm.

facebook event: click here

fabian tour
Difficulty: Average, some trekking required
Please bring umbrella or poncho.
Please wear covered footwear.
Bukit Brown is on the World Monuments Watch list 2014 . Find out what makes this a heritage site worthy of preserving.

“We guide rain, shine or exhumations”

Bukit Brown. More than a cemetery. More than a Chinese cemetery. Come discover our habitat, heritage, history. Exhumations have started. Many areas have been cordoned off.

How to get there and handy tips here:

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)

Registration: Our weekend public tours are FREE …
Optimally the group size is 30 participants (15 individuals/guide).

Please click ‘Join’ on the FB event page to let us know you are coming, how many pax are turning up. Or just meet us at the starting point at 9am.

Brownie Code: We guide rain or shine.

Please take note:
1. We will be walking through the undergrowth so dress appropriately, especially your footwear.
2. Wear light breathable clothing. Long pants and long sleeves if you are prone to insect bites or sunburn. Bring sunblock and natural insect repellent.
3. Wear comfortable non-slip shoes as safety is important. Walking sticks are recommended.
4. Do read up on Bukit Brown before going so you have a better understanding of the place (e.g.
5. Do bring water, light snacks, poncho/umbrella, sunhat and waterproof your electronics.
6. Please go to the toilet before coming. There are NO facilities anywhere there or nearby.

How to get there by MRT / Bus:

Bus services available: 52, 74, 93, 157, 165, 852, 855.

From North: Go to Marymount MRT and walk to bus-stop #53019 along Upper Thomson Road. Take Buses 52, 74, 165, 852, 855
Alight 6 stops later at bus-stop, #41149, opposite Singapore Island Country Club (SICC), Adam Road. Walk towards Sime Road in the direction of Kheam Hock Road until you see Lorong Halwa.

From South: Go to Farrer Road MRT and walk to bus-stop #11111 at Farrer Road, in front of Blocks 2 & 3. Take Buses 93, 165, 852, 855. Alight 5 stops later at bus-stop, #41141, just before Singapore Island Country Club (SICC), Adam Road. Cross the bridge, walk towards Sime Road, follow the road until you see Lorong Halwa.

By car:
Turn in from Lornie Road, to Sime Road. Then, turn left into Lorong Halwa, where parking is limited. Try to use public transport to get there.


November 2015
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