Singapore is 49 and Bukit Brown is 92! The invitation went  out weeks before on the blog, on Facebook, the event of the year at Bukit Brown, celebrating the nation’s birthday. Thank you to all who  came,  regulars, first timers, old and young, singers and well wishers.  The official NDP’14 theme was a good fit :

NDP ’14 (Nations Deceased Pioneers) @ Bukit Brown this year honours the “can do” and caring spirit of our pioneers who helped to forge bonds which built the foundations for SG 50. It is the story of how “Our People” in Bukit Brown made Singapore, “Our Home”.

We promised 3 guided walks, goody bags, eats and music. But the highlight as always is the singing of the National Anthem – this year led by Brownie Mil Phuah, the reciting of the Pledge – this being Raymond Goh’s first ever NDP@Bukit Brown (previous years he was away on business trips)  it fell on his shoulders, followed by a minutes silence to remember especially the 4,153 pioneers who have had to make way for the highway. Our resident videographer James Tann captured  an NDP  on the celebratory Hill 1 festooned by flags large and small, and the pride of over 50 voices.

It has been a momentous past year for Bukit Brown  from being on the World Monuments Fund watchlist to be being voted by Singaporeans as their top 3 sacred sites . The good news continued as Claire Leow, co founder of All Things Bukit Brown, shared some more developments .

“We are humbled and honoured to announce that thanks to the nomination by the Singapore Heritage Society, all things Bukit Brown has been shortlisted for the inaugural Singapore Advocacy Awards 2014, under the category of Civil Society Advocate Organisation of the Year.

The winner will be announced Aug 30, but let us say now for the record, just being nominated has been a real honour as a recognition of all that this community has achieved since early 2012.

To date, the Brownies have guided more than 12,000 people, staged two exhibitions, and tried to connect descendents, academics, students and teachers, docents, heritage bodies and communities. We don’t always succeed but we surely give everything a passionate shot! Your unstinting support as a community has sustained us. We have guided rain or shine or exhumations. Behind the scenes, many work hard to raise awareness of the intrinsic value of this historic site, and a few have worked patiently with the authorities for a better outcome.

We thank all of you for your support in our endeavour. It is an understatement to say it has not been an easy mission. But driven by conviction, we have carried the heart of this community. We have become good friends, and made good friends. Inspired by the early groundwork laid by Raymond Goh and Charles Goh, the Brownies have built on a solid foundation to spread the word: this is our heritage, habitat and history – and we appeal to you to join us, and honour our pioneers and save this sacred site.

On this, the 49th birthday of Singapore, we say, Majullah!” Claire Leow, Co Founder, All Things Bukit Brown.

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Bukit Brown was also highlighted in the national daily Today   August 9th Special issue  Preserving Memories of a Changing Nation

“In 2012, the two women created a blog, all things Bukit Brown, to provide a platform for people to share memories of the area as well as to raise awareness of the walks they were planning there. Since then, the blog has garnered more than 550,000 views and more than 4,000 members on its Facebook page.

With the help of 40 volunteers called Brownies, the two women have also guided more than 11,000 (now 12,oo0)people on their Bukit Brown heritage trails.

“This shows we made the right move and have won the hearts and minds of the public,” said Ms Lim, now a freelancer in broadcast media. She attributed the positive response to the blog and heritage trails to more than just nostalgia. “It’s a much deeper meaning — a yearning, post- sickness, when old places have to move for new ones.”

Since 2012, all things Bukit Brown has also added a unique twist to the National Day celebrations: While others get ready for the National Day Parade, its members have their own National Deceased Parade. This year, they plan to go on a heritage trail in Bukit Brown to commemorate Singapore’s pioneers for their resilience, contributions to and sacrifices for the country.”

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Here are highlights from  the different heritage trails, behind the scenes set up and the camaraderie and conviviality that took the celebrations from dusk to moonlit night. Thank you to all who  came,  regulars, first timers, old and young, singers, photographers  and well wishers.  the Brownies are grateful for your support.  Here are your memories:

Such a beautiful day for a celebration Lawrence Chong

Such a beautiful day for a celebration! (photo !Lawrence Chong)

The Guided Walks by Claire, Bianca, Fabian, Simone and Walter

Start of tours Garden Hill

Claire giving a general briefing before the they split into 3 heritage routes (photo Garden Hill)

Fabian _ Garden Hill

Fabian Tee, Brownie guide for NDP’14 (photo Garden Hill)

Double Dutch Angeline Lee

Bianca doing double dutch in the poetry trail she co-led with Claire (photo Angeline Lee)

Guess whose grandmother lies over yonder Garden Hill

“Guess whose grandmother lies over yonder” (photo Garden Hill)

Hush little baby don't you cry

Hush little baby don’t you cry (photo Garden Hill)

It's a girl Garden Hill

It’s a girl! (photo Garden Hill )

James Tann by Garden Hill

James Tann our videographer captured by Garden Hill

Lets talk about the coolies of Christmas Island _Garden Hill

Lets talk about the coolies of Christmas Island (photo Garden Hill)

Oh yes its true, it took 3 years to build this grave _Garden Hill

Oh yes its true, it took 3 years to build this grave (photo Garden Hill)

one gets away _ Garden Hill

One attempts a getaway (photo Garden Hill)

Philip Holden

埋骨何須 故里 盖棺 便是吾盧 Why is it necessary to bury my bones in my ancestral land? The place where my coffin is sealed is my home Tan Ean Kiam, on his tomb at Bukit Brown(photo Philip Holden)

Simone Lee @Chew Boon Lay Garden Hill

Simone Lee @Chew Boon Lay (photo Garden Hill)

the Chinese tour Victor Yue

The Chinese Tour led by Walter Lim, had some Hongkong visitors, so Cantonese was also the lingua franca of the day (photo Victor Yue)

The God is in the Details Garden Hill

The God is in the Details (photo Garden Hill)

The next generation garden hill

The next generation of Brownies? (photo Garden Hill)

When I grow up.....Garden Hill

When I grow up….. (photo Garden Hill)

Young cub in the Lion CIty Garden Hill

Cub in the Lion City (photo Garden Hill)

 Behind the Scenes, A Team of Brownies Setting the Stage for Celebration

A Brownie moment 1 Garden Hill

In he lull while waiting, a Brownie moment for Mil Phuah ( photo Garden Hill)

A Brownie Moment 2 Garden Hill

A brownie moment for Victor Lim (photo Garden Hill)

Lets flag everything ! Khoo Ee Hoon

Lets “flag” everything ! ( photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

lighting up with a smile ee hoon

Peter “strung up” with a smile (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

My country oh my country Garden Hill

My country oh my country (photo Garden Hill)

Planting the Flag Garden Hill

Steven Planting the Flag (photo Garden Hill)

Preps 1 Lawrence Chong

Patriotic Jade Girl (photo Lawrence Chong)

Preps 21 Lawrence Chong

Like we said “flag” everything! (photo Lawrence Chong)

Preps Lawrence Chong

Festooned with flags (photo Lawrence Chong)

Hey bro lets tie the knot Ee Hoon

Hey bro lets tie the knot (Khoo Ee Hoon)

Hi@ Happy Birthday Singapore!

Hi Happy Birthday Singapore! (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

stringing it up in a row Khoo Ee Hoon

Stringing it up in a row (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

We are ready! Garden Hill

We are ready! (photo Garden Hill)

Celebrations!

Jubilation Garden Hill

Jubilation (photo Garden Hill)

National Anthem as recorded by  Albert Ong

Raymond Goh (photo James Tann)

The photo speaks for itself. Raymond Goh leading the Pledge (photo James Tann)

National Anthem 2 _ Lawrence Chong

( photo Lawrence Chong)

National Anthem Huat Ah _ Lawrence Chong

Huat Ah ! (Lawrence Chong)

Food glorious food _Peter Pak

Makan! (photo Peter Pak)

Making Music Garden Hill

Music ! (Garden Hill )

Happy Birthday Singapore Cake Ee Hoon

Birthday Cake! (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

Not Just Singapore’s  birthday but 3 Brownie Birthdays in August!

Blow! Ee Hoon

Left to right “Uncle Foo aka Garden Hill” 9 August, Simone Lee 10 August and Keng Kiat 11 August- HUAT AH! (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

Now serve...ee hoon

And the youngest gets the honour of serving (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

Hands up for BB photo Kerk

Hands up for Bukit Brown ( photo Kerk Eng Huat)

Good night, see you next year at NDP'15 Peter Pak

Goodnight, Peace be with You and See you at NDP’15 (photo Peter Pak)

” Deeply reflective and moving National Day observance at Bukit Brown today, with graves already exhumed and half the site sectioned off for the road. There are some things that money can’t buy. A big thank you to Catherine Lim, Claire Leow and others!”  Philip  Holden.

A big shout out to those behind the scenes and catering:Brownies Victor Lim, Sugen, Mil Jonathan, Raymond, Ee Hoon, Peter, Steven, Mitch, Andrew and tombkeeper Lim Ah Chye. To Lee Kok of Asia Pac Publishers for contributing goodies to goody bags, National Heritage Board for the bags and National Library Board for commemorative books on Khoo Seok Wan.

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More photos from the album of Garden Hill here

From the album of Lawrence Chong here

 

 

 

Preamble : Hungry Ghost Festival

Saturday, 26th July was the eve of what is popularly known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, and less well known by its traditional name of  Zhongyuan Jie, which in essence is also about honouring ancestors.    It takes place at the start of  the Chinese 7th lunar month, and it is when the gates of hell  open and the spirits of dead are free to wander among the living  for a month. To appease them, offerings and entertainment is laid out  by  descendants at their homes, but  also by temples,  business and clan  associations. This year, the prediction was that  hell’s gates will open at 11pm on the eve of the festival.

The Salvation Rituals

At Bukit Brown,  devotees from the Taoist temple  Xuan Jiang Dian (Heng Kang Tian ) conducted a “chao du” or “salvation rituals”  -  considered an act of compassion – specifically for the forgotten and lost spirits there.

This is the 3rd year in a row, Xuan Jiang Dian  have done this,  ever since in fact news of the building of the highway across Bukit Brown in 2011 was announced. Exhumations of the some 4.153 graves which are in the way of the highway are drawing to  a close.  So there was added interest in this year’s ritual which was covered  by our national newspapers. The National Heritage Board (NHB) shared that a specially commissioned video on rites and rituals at Bukit Brown will be uploaded soon to you tube.

A First Hand Account of “chao du”

The ” chao du”  ceremony which was witnessed also by Brownies and other well wishers, started at around 8.3opm . It consisted of the setting up of  an altar table with offerings at the major  junction of  the 4 roads in  Bukit Brown which leads to Blocks 1, 5, 4 and 3.

The Taoist priests from China, resplendent in their robes, chanted and walked several ceremonial  rounds  in the area calling upon lost spirits. There was something soothing in their chanting and the air was redolent with the scent of what must have been a hundred lighted joss sticks. Each participant carried  3 sticks each throughout  the 40 minute long chanting.

There was a stillness in the air and the smoke and swish of the robes  carried the movement of the night.  It ended with the burning of paper offerings and just as quickly as it was set up, the devotees packed up and left, with the  the candles planted still burning  and the last vestiges of the paper offerings smouldering down to embers.  

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Photo Gallery  :

Beauty shot_Ai Lin

The arrival of devotees making their way to the ceremonial site for the set up (photo Chua Ai Lin)

beauty shot_Teremce Heng

Chao-du (photo Terence Heng)

Burining offerings _Zhi Hao

Paper offerings (photo Zhi Hao)

candle lit_Claire Leow

Path of candle lights to show the spirits the way (photo Claire Leow)

Candle_Zhi Hao

(photo Zhi Hao)

Tablets _ Chua Ai Lin

Side View : Off site 3 tablets,  set up by  Xuan Jiang Dian at Bukit Merah Blk 123 for the wandering spirits of Kopi Sua aka Bukit Brown. [right] for animals killed during agricultural activity (prior to it becoming a cemetery)[centre] for wandering souls[left] for animals killed during construction works (photo and caption by Chua Ai Lin)

Paying my respects to my late father and also the uncared, wandering and uncrossed over souls of Kopi Sua during the seven month pudu festival of Xuan Jian Dian

Front View : Off site 3 tablets,  set up by  Xuan Jiang Dian  at Bukit Merah Blk 123 for the wandering spirits of Kopi Sua aka Bukit Brown. [right] for animals killed during agricultural activity (prior to it becoming a cemetery)[centre] for wandering souls [left] for animals killed during construction works (photo Raymond Goh)

Report in the Straits Times on last night's ritual by Heng Kang Tian at Bt Brown_Victor Yue

Report on the Straits Times 27 July,’14 on the ceremony

ZB report_YH

Report on Lianhe Zaobao, 27th July’14

Report on  Lianhe Zaobao on a ritual conducted last night at Bt. Brown which marked the opening of the 7th month:  A group from Heng Kang Tian including 8 Taoist priests conducted the ritual to invite spirits to a salvation ceremony conducted today in front of Bukit Merah View Block 123. The group has been going to Bt. Brown for the past two years to invite spirits from tombs which are not tended to by descendants. The event was attended by Brownies and participants of tours at the cemetery. It was also recorded by the Bt Brown Documentation Team. NHB is currently preparing a 10-15 min documentary on the rituals carried out at Bt Brown cemetery. This will be uploaded to the NHB channel on youtube, “yesterdaysg”, around end next month. (summary by  Ang Yik Han) Full report in Chinese:

文物局到武吉布朗坟场 记录“招魂”仪式

王舒杨
联合早报2014年07月27日

今天是农历七月初一,华人传统节日“鬼节”今起开始。昨晚,武吉布朗坟场文史记录小组和国家文物局人员特地到武吉布朗坟场,记录一场由道教团体进行的祭祀仪式。

昨晚约9时,应道教宗教团体玄江殿邀请的八名道长和一名唢呐乐师在武吉布朗坟场进行“招魂”仪式。在道路两侧点亮“引魂”的香火后,他们在锣鼓声中唱诵经文。今明两天他们将在红山景第123座前的道场举行大型超度法会。

数十名积极参与保护武吉布朗文化遗产的公民团体成员也到场目睹仪式。除了这些“武吉布朗人”,不少报名参加坟场导览活动的外国人和游客也纷纷拿起相机拍下这个独具特色的活动。

玄江殿自1996年起多次在武吉布朗坟场举行农历十月初一的“寒衣节”祭祀活动,并从两年前开始在武吉布朗坟场举行七月鬼节的法事,目的是在坟场进行招魂,为他们超度。

根据武吉布朗坟场文史记录小组整理的资料,武吉布朗坟场里的中元节如同一项社区活动,是一种灵界上的慈善事业。信徒所祭祀的亡魂通常与他们没有任何亲属关系,尤其是孤魂。

玄江殿主持陈荣兴(45岁)说,武吉布朗一些坟墓主人没有子孙祭拜,所以希望能为这些孤魂超度。

此外,道家也相信所有生灵皆可超度,而坟墓挖掘过程中伤到蚂蚁等生灵,超度法事也怀有对它们的尊重。

国家文物局目前正在筹备一个10至15分钟长的纪录片,介绍华人社群在武吉布朗坟场的仪式,包括七月鬼节、清明节以及较少人知道的寒衣节。短片料下月底上载到文物局的YouTube频道“yesterdaysg”。

文物局总司长(政策)陈子宇说:“武吉布朗坟场不仅仅是一个埋葬地点,也是华人社群进行祭祖等仪式的地方。我们会记录这些仪式,以继续丰富我们有关新加坡非物质文化遗产的数据库。”

公众可通过在国家图书馆大厦9楼展出的“武吉布朗:记录新知识 开拓新视野”中英文展览,了解武吉布朗坟场上世纪的演变、坟墓设计和民间风俗等。图书馆大厦展览在10月10日结束后,将陆续在宏茂桥、裕廊、蔡厝港和大巴窑图书馆展出至明年1月底。

 Romancing Taiping (Part 1)

A photo essay by Simone Lee

 “I was a little apprehensive at the beginning. Even as a Malaysian, I’ve never heard of anyone raving about a visit to Taiping. But while we were there, I fell in love…………” Simone Lee (Brownie*)

Taiping History (in brief)

Plagued by fierce feuds ( The Larut Wars)  between 2  prominent Chinese secret societies(Ghee Hin and Hai San,   this  once flourishing town in Perak, which prospered from tin mining was said to have been named Taiping – 太 (tai – ‘great’) and 平 (ping – ‘peace’) – after a truce was brokered in the Pangkor Treaty. The treaty was the result of a politically motivated call for British intervention  aided by a friend from Singapore, Tan Kim Ching (son of Tan Tock Seng).

Day 1: Taiping Town and Kuala Sepetang

At the sleepy town, we met our guide, Ah Kew (Lee Eng Kew),  a freelance writer and field historian.  Our first stop: The Old House Museum. One of the earliest 3-storey shophouses built in Taiping, the museum/antique shop retains much of its original architecture.

(please click on images for full size photos and captions)

T1 I_Ah Kew

Our very knowledgeable and generous guide Ah Kew (pictured on the right) , who was to share with us personal insights into Taiping’s history and cultural links (photo Simone Lee)

Taiping 1 1 The Old House Museum

The Old House Museum (photo Simone Lee)

T1 Pic 2

Clockwise from left): – 1) Much of the shophouse, including the wooden spiral stairs are retained  2) A room filled with miniature cars and dolls – 3) Posters of artists and celebrities from the 60’s and 70’s line the corridor (photos Simone Lee)

Charcoal Factory

The next stop surprised everyone. As we drove into the compound of a charcoal factory, the scene took our breath away. The smoke from the kilns filters the sun rays, reminding me of movies with scenes of a dreamy, foggy mornings by the lake, embraced by mountains.

T1 Pix 3 Charcoal Factory

The Chuan Seng Charcoal Factory, Kuala Sepetang (photo Simone Lee)

Here, Ah Kew explained the charcoal making process which typically takes several weeks before it is ready to be marketed. In the process, a by-product  “‘charcoal water” is distilled from the baking wood. It is bottled and sold as a beauty product – slightly acidic but gentle enough to be used on the skin. I tried some on my face and arms, and instantly my skin felt supple, toned and smooth! Feeling vain, I wanted to order a bottle, which was selling at just RM5, the retail outlet was closed.

T1 Pix 4

(clockwise from top-left): – 1) Ah Kew explains how logs from the mangrove trees are brought to the factories by boat via the stream.2)  Steam from the kiln gushes out as the wood is baked  so moisture, evaporates.  3) The igloo-shaped kilns in one of the factories (photos Simone Lee)

T1 Pix 5.png

Kuala Sepetang’s Matang Mangrove Forest is the largest mangrove forest reserve in Malaysia and was gazetted as a Permanent Forest Reserve in 1906.  (photo Simone Lee)

At the mangrove forest,  Ah Kew regaled us with stories of 2 notorious pirates with  fearsome reputations in the post war era.

Tan Lian Lay once hid bags of rice in a mangrove forest but they were destroyed when the tide rose. After his death, he was immortalised as a deity because his spirit was giving out winning numbers in repentance for his sins. It has been said Tan Lian Lay was also a trouble maker in Singapore. When he was killed in Bagan Api in Riau, Sumatra, a well- wisher from Singapore sent gifts as a reward for slaying Tan Lian Lay’s reign of terror.

T1 Pix 6.png

The fishermen’s village (photo Simone Lee)

Tan Hua Siea  aka Raja Laut (King of the Sea) monopolized the shellfish farms and was on Perak’s most wanted criminal list. Despite that, he eluded capture, sheltered by the locals. Even though he was always dangerously armed, he never terrorised the villagers and was revered  as the Robin Hood of the coast. What happened to him remains a mystery to this day.

T1 Pix 7.png.jpg

The idyllic village belies its checkered sometimes violent past as hideouts for pirates. (photos Simone Lee)

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Look out for Romancing Taiping Part II next week

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*The Brownies’ yearning to connect to history and thirst for adventure, brings them to various locations within and beyond Singapore. The objectives of these retreats are, to study the historical and cultural links to Singapore, and to strengthen kinship amongst the brownies.

(Brownies are the volunteers who conduct regular weekend guided walks and independent research on heritage, habitat and history of Bukit Brown Cemetery.)

 

 

Bukit Brown : Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge

Location: NLB 9th floor from now until 10 October’14 and thereafter it will travel to other regional libraries.

The exhibition was officially opened on Saturday 19 July,2014 by MOS (Ministry of National Development) Desmond Lee.

It represents almost one and half years of research and working the ground documenting some 4,153 tombstones which are affected by the building of a new highway across Bukit Brown, by a team under the leadership of Dr. Hui Yew-Foong, an anthropologist with ISEAS.

We have observed the team hard at work over these years, joined some of them during Qing Ming and exhumations as observers and friends of the family of descendants,  and the exhibition is a comprehensive and compact  expression of what they have uncovered, shared with the public with insight and interesting artefacts , enhanced by new technology.  We recommend it as a “must see” and “ground breaking”  for insights shared of customary practices and traditions of burial customs and respect for ancestors.

An extract from the media release:

Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge” assembles a diverse range of documents,maps, photographs and objects to demonstrate how a cemetery can open a window to Singapore’s historical past and cultural present. Through a multi-disciplinary approach employing cutting-edge methods, techniques and technology, the exhibition will bring to the fore new horizons of knowledge unveiled through the documentation of Bukit Brown.

The exhibition  opens with the origins of the cemetery, as a project of the Municipal Commissioners in early 20th in 1973, will be illustrated through maps and aerial photographs. Next, through explication of  tomb inscriptions, tomb typology and the material culture of the cemetery, the exhibition will demonstrate Singapore’s connectivity to the region, China and the world.

While the cemetery is a burial space for the dead, it is also a space for the living at different points of Singapore’s history and ritual calendar. This will be illustrated through the life of kampongs that used to be situated in the vicinity of the cemetery and the life of the cemetery during Qing Ming and the Seventh Month Hungry Ghost Festival.

As data for the graves was collected and organised within a Geographic Information System (GIS) framework, the exhibition will present a Centrepiece where visitors will be able to access data related to specific graves through a map-based database on a touch screen monitor.

Finally, visitors will get a glimpse behind the scenes of documentation work, to get a sense of the different methods, techniques and technologies that were employed in the course of documentation. These range from balloon photography to 3D scanning, from interviewing to filming, and from the work of architects to the work of archaeologists.

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Highlights of the Exhibition Opening

Show and Tell photo Ang Hock Chuan

Dr Hui Yew-Foong, explaining material culture to MOS Desmond Lee during the curator’s walk through (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

Show and Tell 1 (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

Dr. Natalie Pang (NTU) who worked on the IT applications for the centerpiece map demonstrating how it works to MOS Desmond Lee (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

Show and Tell 3  (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

The urn which used to house re-interred remains from other cemeteries to Bukit Brown (photo Raymond Goh)

This urn was used to re-inter bones exhumed from an older cemetery. It was from the grave of Madam Khoo Siok Hui, who died in 1836. Her grave was the oldest among those documented at Bukit Brown. Madam Khoo and her son Chee Yam Chuan were among the early settlers of Singapore. Mr Chee later returned to Malacca and made his fortune in tin mining in Selangor. Today, the Chee Yam Chuan Temple Trust continues to flourish in Malacca and Madam Khoo’s ancestral tablet can be found in the temple. The story behind this family shows the close links between Malacca and Singapore in the early years. It was Raymond Goh who first deciphered the inscription and unraveled  the connection.

Show and Tell 2  (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

Treasure trove of jade bracelets worn by the women and traditionally buried with their wearers. (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

Show and Tell 4  (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

Descendant Serene Tan of pioneer Tan Quee Lan, gets one for the album when MOS Desmond Lee sportingly agrees to walk with her to visit her “great great grandfather’s road” ( photo Ang Hock Chuan)

Show and Tell 5  (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

They were accompanied by a entourage of brownies who have been sharing Serene’s journey of reconnecting with her ancestors since Raymond Goh found the Tan Quee Lan cluster re-interred from another cemetery at Bukit Brown (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

A video at the exhibition features Serene Tan and her family observing the first Qing Ming at Bukit Brown in 2012 after Raymond Goh discovered the cluster of  Tan Quee Lan tombs, and shows how the cluster underwent a renovation makeover by Serene and her cousin LT Tan who met at Bukit Brown itself.  Serene’s story can be read here

The cluster is not affected by highway.

Show and Tell 6  (photo Ang Hock Chuan)

Brownies, academics, descendants, members of the documentation team at the exhibition (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

“….to everyone who came and supported the launch, and most importantly, supported us and helped us generously with our research over the last 33 months. One of the purposes of the exhibition is to acknowledge all your contributions and I hope it accomplished that.” Dr Hui Yew- Foong, Curator of Exhibition on a FB posting.

Look out for 2 specially curated walks by the Brownies in conjunction with the exhibition in August (English) and September (Mandarin).

Photos taken of the exhibition courtesy of  Brownie Ang Hock Chuan on Facebook  here

Read more about the exhibition by the Rojak Librarian here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Norman Cho

Norman Cho_2

The grave of great grand father Cho Boon Poo (photo Norman Cho)

In 2011, I discovered the grave of my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong at Bukit Brown Cemetery. Since then, I have been trying to locate the tomb of his father, Cho Boon Poo (Cho Poo), who was laid to rest in Malacca. I had absolutely no clue as to which cemetery he was buried. Bukit Cina and Jelutong cemeteries came to mind but these are huge cemeteries with more than a hundred thousand graves each. They are maintained by the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple but pre-war records are unavailable. It seemed that I had hit a dead-end!

However, miracles do happen. To me, these are little blessings from above. Perhaps, the old man had wanted his descendants to visit him and had influenced how things turned out. It must have been decades since the last time any descendants paid their respects at his tomb. He must have known my sincerity and had helped me along without my knowledge. The breakthrough came in April 2014. A relative whom I had never known, contacted me via Facebook to introduce himself as the maternal great-grandson of Cho Poo, after he had discovered that we have matching ancestors from an online Family Tree software on the internet. 70 year old Vincent Lee was descended from Cho Poo’s eldest son, Cho Kim Choon, while my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong, was the third son. He resides in Australia and was planning a trip down to Singapore in April 2014. He requested my assistance to put him in touch with the relatives in Singapore.

It turned out to be a blessing for me! I talked to my eldest aunt, Rose Cho (88 years old), to ask for the contacts of other relatives from the Cho clan. That was how I found aunt Elizabeth Cho (62 years old), who was the only child from the fifth son, Cho Kim Hock, a famed state badminton player for Malacca in the 1930s. We organised a dinner for our overseas relative and his wife. During dinner, I had a nice chat with Elizabeth – whom the family affectionately calls Bert – about Cho Poo. She told me that her only visit to his grave was when she was a child of 9 years old. That was more than 50 years ago! Her father who was the only surviving son at that time dreamt of his father asking him why he had not visited him in such a long time. Heeding the call, he brought his wife and daughter to pay their respects to his father. Since then, he had visited the grave alone every year till several years before his death in 1990.

Aunt Elizabeth, had the memory of an elephant! She vividly recalled that the cemetery was about a 40-minutes-drive from the Malacca Town, but had no inkling about the name of the cemetery. She further described that the cemetery was sliced into two by the main road, there was a cemetery on the left and another on the right, and Cho Poo’s was on the right. The tomb was relatively large and on a gentle-sloping plain. It faced a vast and beautiful paddy field. She added that the cemetery was on the land which once belonged to Cho Poo and was probably the private burial ground of the Cho family. Later, when the family was not doing well financially, it was sold to the Malacca’s Eng Choon Hway Kwan and it became a cemetery for the Eng Choon community. She thinks that the tomb should still be there, given the leisurely pace of development in Malaysia. She asked if I would be able to find the tomb. I told her that I could try. All her clues were useful, except for the paddy field. I told her that I doubt the paddy field in her memory still exists. Nevertheless, I took whatever clues that I could use and converted them into intelligent information.

Firstly, I eliminated Bukit Cina as it was near Malacca Town and therefore could not be a 40-minutes-drive. Next, I looked at the map of Jelutong cemetery but it was not sliced into two by any road. I asked a few Malaccan friends of other lesser-known cemeteries and searched the Google Map for them. Finally, I found a relatively small cemetery, probably no larger than 20 acres, which was dissected by a main road. It was away from the Malacca Town and would probably take about 30 minutes to get there by car. This was the Krubong Cemetery. To be certain that I had located the correct cemetery, I contacted a Malaccan friend who verified that this cemetery is indeed managed and owned by the Eng Choon Hway Kwan. He helped me to obtain the mobile contact of the tomb-keeper to locate the grave. With modern technology, I communicated with the tomb-keeper via Whatsapp to economize on the phone bill. Amazingly, he found the tomb the very next day. The search was completed successfully in less than a week since I started piecing the information together!

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Locating Krubong Cemetery in Malaya on Google Map ( photo Norman Cho)

I informed aunt Elizabeth who was extremely excited and delighted with the news. We decided to go on a trip to Malacca to pay our respects to our common ancestor, Cho Boon Poo. He was the first ancestor who came to this part of the world to carve a better life for himself and his family. By braving the elements to come to the land across the Southern Seas, he had changed his destiny and that of all his descendants. It was through sheer grit and hard work that he built a successful business and owned vast plantations in Malacca and Seremban dealing in palm leaves, gambier, tapioca and rubber. We all had to be grateful to him for being able to lead good lives in Malaya and Singapore for six generations and counting. He married nyonya wives and that was how my Peranakan roots came about. Being a strict father, all his children were well-brought up and a few of his descendants took on key positions in the civil service.

I was told how strict he was about punctuality. The family would have dinner at 7pm sharp and everyone was expected at the table. Nobody could join in once dinner was served. If you missed dinner, it meant that there would be no dinner for you. During one occasion, his fourth son, Kim Tian came home late but the kind servant saved some food for him. When found out, the servant was sacked. He had a strong character and was on the board of the executive committee of the Eng Choon Hway Kwan.

We arrived at his grave on the morning of 23 June 2014 and I noticed that his tomb was the largest amongst the 50-odd tombs in the vicinity.

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Among the largest grave in the area (photo Norman Cho)

What captivated me were the Peranakan tiles (Majolica tiles) which adorned his tomb. No other tombs in the surrounding area had this feature. I was told that having Peranakan tiles on the tombs was not widely popular with the Malaccans. Unlike in Singapore, figurines of the Golden Boy and Jade Maiden were conspicuously absent in Malaccan tombs of even the very wealthy. The tomb used to face water-filled paddy fields which are supposed to be auspicious – water and rice. Unfortunately the paddy fields had since given way to modern development. Cho Poo’s tomb seems to be steep in Fengshui elements : the front courtyard of the tomb forms part of a hexagon instead of the normal rectangle or semi-circle. Along the perimeter of the front courtyard lies a water catchment channel which would collect water when it rains. This had since been covered with soil. The tomb shoulders are angular but eventually taper to form convoluting arms that seem to embrace the courtyard. Likely, it symbolizes a firm hold on wealth.Through the tomb inscriptions, I found the names of one of his wives (Lee Hong Neo) and that of the male descendants – sons, grandsons and even great-grandsons! He died at the age of sixty-nine in 1930. My aunt offered joss-sticks and joss-paper as a form of respect to our ancestor.

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(photo Norman Cho)

This trip has been very fruitful not only about finding out more about Cho Poo and paying our respects to him, but it has built a closer bond between aunt Elizabeth, her husband and I, even though we had known each other only recently.

More on Norman Cho’s journey of discovery, here

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Family photo taken with the tomb-keeper. (L-R): Norman Cho, Elizabeth Cho-Tan, Peter Tan, Tomb-keeper Liow. (photo Norman Cho)

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The shrine of the Earth Deity for the tomb (Norman Cho)

 

 

 

In a report, published on Sunday, 22 June, 2014,  Bukit Brown  emerged as among the top 3 sacred sites in Singapore,  voted by readers in a Straits Times poll.

On learning of the news, Claire Leow, co founder of All Things Bukit Brown reflects:

To see the Singapore Heritage Society recognised is most apt, for they sparked the civil society response back in November 2011.

To see the Brownies identified as a group is itself moving, as this disparate group of volunteers, heritage enthusiasts and selfless sharers of knowledge and skills has been utterly inspiring. You don’t get more organic than this community, active on site, offsite, beyond keyboards and in cyberspace. Hats off to sifu Raymond Goh and Charles Goh  for their inspiration.

And to see others rally behind the Brownies, to cheer us on, to lift us up when we are down, to join us when we utter the rallying cry to stand up and be counted, to share sunny weekends and stormy ones at Bukit Brown, and just patiently adding to the knowledge we are just uncovering day by day, gently correcting our mistakes, boldly stepping in with expertise, shaping the very history of this campaign. Amazing. Very moved……”

Bukit Brown – one of the three sites Singaporeans voted as a sacred place.

******

The Straits Times
Dateline: 22 July, 2014

The overgrown graves stretching for 200ha bang amid the city bustle make for a restful, peaceful spot rare in urban Singapore.

But when Bukit Brown Cemetery was slated for redevelopment for roads and residential buildings, it was more than its lush beauty that resulted in that rarity in Singapore – vocal protests to preserve it.

The site tugged at Singaporeans’ heartstrings, being the resting place of many forefathers of the country, a living repository of the Chinese diaspora’s tomb culture and design, and where descendants today visit for traditional rituals such as tomb sweeping.

Two civil societies – the Singapore Heritage Society and heritage enthusiasts who dub themselves “the Brownies” – organised petitions and embarked on efforts to document tombs.

No substantial concessions were made by the Government, however, to save the site from an eight-lane road running across it. It is also slated for residential development beginning with its southern portion.

Yet, it’s among the top three sites that Singaporeans deemed as “sacred” places in a recent Straits Times poll.

The poll itself followed a call by academic Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, for a list of sacred spaces and places to foster a love for Singapore, to help it fully become a true city.

Singapore already has essential aspects such as “busyness” and being “safe”, he said in a commentary in The Straits Times, citing American urban geographer Joel Kotkin. However, it lacks the sacred, he said, which Kotkin defines as any unique institution or spot “that (makes) one feel an irrational commitment to a place”.

Certainly, pockets of the population saw the Bukit Brown protests as verging on irrational, given the need for more roads in congested Singapore.

Still, Professor Kishore’s commentary comes amid increasing efforts to make more of Singapore’s heritage, such as the conservation bid by Pearl Bank Apartments’ owners in April.

And it puts the spotlight on the approach to heritage preservation. Insight looks at the challenges and what more might need to be done.

Blunders of the past

In 2004, Singapore’s red-brick National Library building was unceremoniously razed to the ground to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel.

Built in 1959, it was considered by some as architecturally undignified compared with its grander neighbour, the National Museum of Singapore.

Despite extensive efforts by the community to save the space – with a normally passive public penning angry forum letters in the media, and architects such as Mr Tay Kheng Soon proposing alternatives, including re-routing the tunnel – the dissent was swept under the carpet.

Experts say this marked a turning point as it sparked a rise in civic activism and was when Singapore’s conservation movement took root.

It crystallised the idea that heritage conservation and preservation goes beyond protecting splendid colonial buildings to encompass our social and cultural soul.

Retired shipping manager Yeo Hock Yew, 65, says the library had been part of his life since he was a schoolboy studying at nearby St Joseph’s Institution.

“In my university years, I headed there to do research and, as a father, I brought my children there every Saturday morning.

“It was part of the whole landscape of bookshops from the Bras Basah row and the MPH building in Stamford Road. If you couldn’t afford buying from these places, you headed to the library.”

During Singapore’s early years as a new nation in the 1960s and 1970s, swathes of the country fell victim to the wrecking ball. The Government’s main priority, understandably, was to improve living conditions and build up the economy.

Still, awareness of the need to save heritage sites began to emerge. In 1971, the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), which last year became the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), was set up to provide legal protection for national monuments. The division now falls under the wing of the National Heritage Board (NHB) and its role includes offering monument owners guidance and regulatory support.

The board itself is the big daddy of Singapore’s heritage custodianship, promoting heritage appreciation through managing its national museums, documentation and outreach efforts.

Then there is the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), established in 1974 and charged with studying old buildings for possible conservation as part of land use planning.

On the private scene,the Singapore Heritage Society, a non-governmental organisation, was established in 1987.

Academics note that people are talking more avidly about heritage than they did 10 to 15 years ago. “People have grown more expressive about protecting their heritage. It has become part of public discourse,” says Professor Johannes Widodo.

This has also given rise to the recognition that there are new categories of heritage which deserve protection……Read on here

Dawn - the best time to bird watch (photo: Goh Si Gium)

A Sacred Place (photo: Goh Si Gium)

 

Photo Catherine Lim

(Photo Catherine Lim)

 

“Moving House”

The Story behind the Painting

 by Alvin Ong

The story of 3 affected graves at Bukit Brown not too long ago inspired a revival of family interest; Tan Yong Chuan (Blk 4, Div C), Tan Tiam Tee (Blk 3, Div B), Wee Geok Eng Neo (Blk 4, Div 6) were exhumed in May 2014. Old photos were unearthed from family albums, and heirloom objects from another era suddenly came to light. For the first time in decades, stories and narratives unlocked themselves from these objects and brought new layers of meaning to the notions of home and identity.

Tan Tiam Tee was the son of the magnate Tan Hoon Chiang (buried in Bukit China, Malacca), one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Co. His wife, Wee Geok Eng Neo, and his son, Tan Yong Chuan were all affected by the proposed highway.

(click on images for a bigger view)

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Funeral of Wee Geok Eng Neo, nee Mrs Tan Tiam Tee. Upper Thompson Rd, 1926. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Funeral of Tan Tiam Tee, 1930. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

 

Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Descendants at the tomb of Tan Tiam Tee, holding his portrait during Cheng Beng -tomb sweeping festival, 2012 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Descendants at the tomb of Tan Yong Chuan, Cheng Beng-tombsweeping festival , 2012 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

Miniature cooking pots were interred in Mrs Tan Tiam Tee’s tomb, presumably for her to cook in the afterlife, along with a pearl sanggul, and bracelets. According to my relatives, a set of gold teeth with an engraved heart shape was also found in Tan Yong Chuan’s tomb.

****

Tan Yong Chuan (son of Mr and Mrs Tan Tian Tee) was finally reunited with his wife for the first time in Holy Family Columbarium after 77 years. The columbarium has an unusual regulation that all photos of the deceased must be in color.

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Original photo of newly-wedded Tan Yong Chuan and his wife. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

No color photographs of the deceased had existed at that time, so with the help of numerous correspondences, scans were digitally emailed, and the photos doctored and hand-painted.

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Painted portrait of Maria Anna Seet Chow Neo by Artist (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Painted Portrait of Tan Yong Chuan by Artist (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Reunited Mr. & Mrs Tan Yong Huan (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

 

Studying overseas has allowed the artist the space, physically and emotionally, to explore ideas of home and identity. These graves were only re-discovered shortly after the redevelopment plans were announced. The sight of the many abandoned tombs on the artist’s first visit to Bukit Brown had sparked questions about what happened to the descendants of the people who were interred there, which in turn, prompted the artist to explore if there were indeed any family connections to the cemetery at all. Beyond the historical and material significance of the place, it also felt like a site where mystery, the past, and present all came together. Reuniting with the tombs for the first time in many years became an emotional moment for some, and it also made us feel as though we have touched history, an experience that is becoming exceptionally rare in Singapore.

These were ideas that all came together in the painting, which were almost auto-biographical in that they featured vignettes of the artist’s experience with the discovery of the pioneers of Singapore and his roots. One random memory was a trek with Raymond Goh to Seah Eu Chin’s grave; One of the Teochew stone lions guarding the perimeter of the tomb eventually found its way into the picture. Raymond was featured in the early stages of the work, but in the end, this idea of displacement, loss and discovery surfaced in the final version titled, “Moving House”.

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“Work in progress” by artist Alvin Ong (image courtesy of the artist)

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Final work, “Moving House”, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 61cm (courtesy of Alvin Ong

This is not the end of the road. There is yet another tomb whose story remains waiting to be told, my maternal great grandfather, Peck Mah Hoe, pictured here. The artist will be heading to the Peck clan temple in attempt to uncover more. And hopefully, there will be more paintings to come.

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The grave of the artist’s maternal great grandfather, Peck Mah Hoe(photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Stele in Peck clan temple with the name “Peck Mah Hoe” at the top, although the character for “Hoe” differs from the one on the tomb. Photo courtesy of Yik Han.

******

About  the writer who is an  artist :

Alvin Ong is reading fine art in Oxford, and did architecture at the National University of Singapore. In 2004, he was the youngest winner of the UOB painting of the year award at the age of 16. He had his first solo exhibition at 17, in the presence of His Excellency President S R Nathan.

 

 

 

 

The Brownies will be conducting 2 special walks as part of the urban community movement called Jane’s walk. There are other walks at various parts of the city as well and you will need to sign up at the website for the Jane’s walk of your interest.

Here is the link to all the Jane’s walks that will be conducted in the weekend of Fri 2 May’14 till Sun 4 May’14.

To sign up follow the link on the Jane’s walk page or go there directly here.
An Evening Stroll into the Past (Sat 3rd May’14 @7.00pm)

Lorong Halwa gates (photo: Theresa Teng)

Lorong Halwa gates (photo: Theresa Teng)

Andrew & Beng will throw a light on the lives and times of the Pioneers at the turn of 20th century Singapore in this special dusk to dark stroll from Bukit Brown Cemetery to McRitchie carpark. Listen to stories of the pioneers that helped build Singapore, while looking out for night birds such as night jars and owls during a leisurely stroll through the cemetery. Please note, to bring your own torch lights for this guided walk.
We will end the walk at the McRitchie carpark.
…. read more

Heritage Walk Botanic Gardens to Bukit Brown (Sun 4th May’14 @8.00am)

Bukit Brown (photo: Bianca Polak)

Bukit Brown (photo: Bianca Polak)

Join Claire and Bianca on a tour starting at the Botanic Gardens MRT from where we’ll walk to Jacob Ballas garden carpark (for those who drive they can join us there). We’ll pass by the old Command House along Kheam Hock Road, and into the trail at Bukit Brown, exploring the remnants of a kampung after which we’ll cross over into the cemetery. Along the way we’ll share stories of the WWII war heroes and stories, tales of the kampung, and some of Singapore’s prominent pioneers and an introduction into Chinese tomb designs. We encourage participants to share their personal stories along the way as well.

 

Useful info here: Getting There/游览信息

 

 

By Sugen Ramiah

The Qing Ming festival, or  tomb sweeping day, is  observed by the Chinese worldwide. It is a day for them  to pay homage to their ancestors, either by visiting graveyards, columbariams  or ancestral tablets in ancestral halls.

The actual day falls either on the 4th ot 5th  of April, but families have a window of  ten days before or after the actual day to conduct Qing Ming.  This year, I was fortunate to have been able to observe Qing Ming in Bukit Brown and other  locations.

Qing Ming, has many stories to its origin, but is mainly observed as an act of being filial and for geomancy (feng-shui) reasons. The Chinese believe that the bones of their ancestors and the lives of the descendents are inextricably  connected. For abundance in wealth and happiness, firstly, one has to be filial. Secondly, there has to be a good flow of Chi (positive energy) on the forecourts of their ancestors. During the dry season, the  foliage clogs the drainage causing an obstruction to the flow of water.  During  Qing Ming, the drainage is cleared, to allow the flow of water (Chi) onto the forecourt of the tomb.  Qing Ming is also a perfect opportunity for extended family members to get together amidst busy work/family commitments.

Descendents set off as early as first light, to wash, sweep, and weed the tombstones. Inscriptions on the headstones are then re-inked using red or gold paint. A stack of coloured paper or a stone is placed on the headstone to signify that the dead is not forgotten. The paper is also  scattered on the mound of the grave. This recalls how an emperor from the Han Dynasty in China could not find his parents’ tomb  after he returned from war. He was then told to throw five coloured paper into the air and where they lodged, that was the location of his parents’ tomb.

Two sets of offerings are prepared by the families. First set is for the earth deity by the side – a pair of candles are  lit,  food   and incense  offered to the Tu Di Gong who is the guardian of the tombstone. Paper money is also burnt as a form of offering.

Second set is for the deceased – a pair of candles are lit, offerings of tea, fruits, favourite food, and longevity cakes are placed on the tombstone altars.  Incense sticks are firstly offered to  long departed ancestors and subsequently to the deceased.  Incense sticks are placed in an urn and sometimes  around the mound, and then descendents wait for the deceased to ‘finish’ their meal  Sometimes during  the wait, incense sticks are offered to neighbouring tombs – recalling the days of the  kampong spirit.

Once approval has been given through the moon blocks or coins,  offerings of hell notes and silver paper, clothes, shoes and even latest technological gadgets such as the ipads are  burnt for the deceased. Sometimes the required items are packed in a paper treasure box, sealed with the  name of the ancestor and burnt for them exclusively. To conclude, tea or any form of liquid is poured around the offering to “secure”  the area of the burnt offerings, so as to avoid invasion by other wandering spirits.

 

Coloured Paper  placed on the headstone (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Coloured Paper placed on the headstone (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Coloured paper  scattered on the mound of the grave (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Coloured paper scattered on the mound of the grave (photo Sugen Ramiah)

How  water accumulates  on the forecourts of a tomb (photo Sugen Ramiah)

How water accumulates on the forecourts of a tomb (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Offerings to the earth deity (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Offerings to the earth deity (photo Sugen Ramiah)

E - QM

Simple offerings of tea and candy by a woman who comes here yearly to pray for her infant aunt who died during the war. The infant’s burial was not registered so the exact location of plot is unknown.(photo Sugen Ramiah)

F - QM

The Ng Family has to charter a bus  to transport  the entire family for  Qing Ming (photo Sugen Ramiah)

G - QM

The Ng Family has to charter a bus to transport the entire family for  Qing Ming (photo Sugen Ramiah)

H - QM

A young boy from the Pek Family, who looks forward to Qingming annually, as he gets to visit the tomb of his Lau Yeh (Great grandfather) and meet his cousins. Photo taken at the tomb of his Great Grand Father at Hill 3 (photo Sugen Ramiah)

I - QM

The Pek Family at the tomb of their ancestor (photo Sugen Ramiah)

J - QM

The older generation still make their way to visit their ancestor’s grave (photo Sugen Ramiah)

K - QM

The older generation still make their way to visit their ancestor’s grave (photo Sugen Ramiah)

L - QM

Descendents observing Qing Ming in a less taxing environment at the Cantonese Ancestral Hall of the Singapore Hok San Clan Association (photo Sugen Ramiah)

M - QM

Offerings placed at a niche at Mandai columbarium (photo Sugen Ramiah)

N - QM

Offerings of silver for the deceased and gold for deities (photo Sugen Ramiah)

It has been a rewarding experience, to learn from family members on how they up hold traditions that has been handed down to them.  All they hope is that these traditions will be carried on by the generations to come and that their ancestors will not be forgotten. I will close with a quote that is close to my heart.

“To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps to God; or to Gods. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before. ” – Alice Walker

***

Sugen Ramiah is a teacher by training and his interest includes   observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples.

Read his blog posts on Salvation for Lost Souls here and  here

Read about the tombkeepers’ Qing Ming here

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

Naked angel on the right, a scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the middle. And on the left, guarding this Chinese tycoon's grave, is an Indian Sikh. #onlyinMalaya]

“Naked Angel” on the right, a scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the middle. And on the left, guarding this tycoon’s grave is an Indian Sikh (photo Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh)

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?

“Not just about the graves; the trees are beautiful.”

Not just about the graves; the trees are beautiful (photo Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh)

“Some graves are still being unearthed by descendants!”

Some graves are still being unearthed by descendants (photo Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh)

Many beautiful sculptures, worthy of preservation

Many beautiful sculptures, worthy of preservation (photo Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh)

(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

 

 

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