by Eugene Ang
Living in Pasir Ris, the prospect of having to wake up early on a Sunday morning for a 9am walking tour—in a cemetery of all places—is definitely unappealing. After all, I am your typical Singaporean millennial, more in tune with the modern than the traditional and more interested in the future than the past.
That said, I was glad that I did eventually pull myself out of bed in the nick of time to join Claire and Bianca for a tour of Bukit Brown’s hills #2 and #5. This was my first visit to Bukit Brown and I certainly learnt a lot about the place from both of them.
In fact, I left the place feeling that Bukit Brown’s heritage is relevant to all of us, including us millennials. In a quintessentially millennial-style listicle then, here are the 3 reasons why I think so:
- Bukit Brown is an organic repository of the myriad stories of individuals, young and old, rich and poor, who make up Singapore’s history.
You might think: how would a bunch of unrelated dead people buried in a cemetery be of any relevance to me? I definitely thought so too, especially since I personally do not know of any relatives buried at Bukit Brown.
Yet, as Claire and Bianca led the group of us around the cemetery grounds, regaling us with the stories of their lives, I thought that these individuals constituted as much a part of Singapore’s history—my history—as the usual pantheon of figures that are found in our history textbook and featured in our museums.
There is good reason why social history, the branch of history that examines the lived experiences of ordinary people in the past, is now a major branch in the academic study of history. If history is to tell a story of our collective past, then it has to accommodate the range of individuals who are representative of our society—the young and old, the rich and poor, etc.
In this respect, Bukit Brown is the perfect place to reflect Singapore’s social history. In just a short morning, Claire and Bianca got us acquainted to the diverse mix of individuals who were buried in Bukit Brown, from paupers and concubines to war heroes and business tycoons. For instance, Lee Kim Soo, who made his fortune selling latex cups and other manufactured goods in the pre-war era in Singapore, is buried at Bukit Brown in an impressive Art Deco-inspired grave.
There were also seemingly ordinary people there who we can easily identify with, such as Soh Koon Eng, a young woman who was presumably engaged. Unfortunately, she passed away at the tender age of 19 in a Japanese air raid in January 1942.
Perhaps, just as they are traditionally believed by the Chinese to serve as portals to the world of the deceased, the graves of Bukit Brown can serve as a portal for all of us to access the myriad stories of the individuals who make up Singapore’s history. As we learn about them then, it should not be surprising that we come away with a fuller and more holistic sense of our past.
- Bukit Brown is emblematic of Singapore’s multicultural and diverse landscape.
Taking a walk around Bukit Brown, Singapore’s multicultural past is evident. For instance, the graves of Teo Chin Chay, a trader in commodities in the pre-war era, and his wife are flanked by two Chinese lions, two Sikh guards and two topless angels, while adorned with many exquisite engravings of Chinese motifs. The décor of this grave certainly shows the mingling of Chinese, Indian and Western cultural influences by the time of the early 20th century.
Another fascinating “multicultural” grave is that of Dolly Tan. Although not much is known of her, her grave has an interesting feature: it has Japanese inscriptions. In fact, as Claire pointed out, there are not only three different languages on her tombstone—Chinese, English, and Japanese—but also three calendar systems on it too: the Chinese mínguó calendar, the Japanese kōki imperial calendar, and the Western Gregorian calendar.
Indeed, the fact that disparate cultural symbols can appear in a single tombstone at Bukit Brown shows clearly that Singapore has always been multicultural and diverse. We are defined by the connections between cultures, rather than their divisions.
Hence, as we head toward an increasingly diverse population in Singapore thanks to globalisation and immigration, it is worthwhile to consider this past. As Bukit Brown shows us, being accepting of different cultures is a part of who we are.
- The plight of Bukit Brown forces us to confront the trade-offs that development brings.
Since the authorities first announced plans to construct a highway across Bukit Brown in 2011, what was originally an obscure and largely-forgotten cemetery became seared into the national consciousness as many Singaporeans from all walks of life banded together to petition the authorities against doing so.
Although the construction of the highway went ahead, the advocacy work of groups like All Things Bukit Brown catalysed much discussion about larger issues revolving around the consequences of our development choices. Bukit Brown, in a sense, has forced us to confront and consider the trade-offs that development brings: heritage and nature on one side, and transportation and housing needs on the other.
There is no easy way to resolve this tension, but it is an uncomfortable one that we Singaporeans have to grapple with. The trappings of the bustling global city that we often take for granted do not come for free. Sometimes, they require us sacrificing something, of which we must ask ourselves: are we willing to give it up?
Eugene Ang is just a regular young adult in Singapore, who is embarking on his working life in a cubicle, like many others in Singapore. Having spent some time overseas in the US and Turkey, he returned home with a renewed curiosity about Singapore’s own unique heritage and past.
#Flashback: 10 October 2012
by Catherine Lim
I was working on a production of History from the Hills – an 8 episode docu series which traces the history of Singapore from the perspective of Chinese pioneers who made significant contributions to society and the region in the late 1800s to the 1900s (post-war) and who are buried in Bukit Brown.
We were to shoot a sequence with Ong Chwee Imm – whose great great grandfather Ong Chong Chew was one of the three Ong “founders” of Seh Ong land – with Raymond Goh. A few weeks before, Chwee Imm had come across a document from among her father’s papers which recorded the graves of Ong Chong Chew together with 2 other family members exhumed from the Telok Blangah family burial ground, had been re-interred to Seh Ong Cemetery.
Seh Ong cemetery also sliced into two parts because of the Lornie Road expressway straddled the expressway; alongside Sime Road adjoining the Bukit Brown Cemetery side and across where the golf course is. There was no indication which side the re-interred exhumed graves may have been relocated. However because extended family including that of Ong Chong Chew’s son Ong Kee Soon’s grave was located on the golf course side, the speculation was that the re-interred remains might be located there. It was a long shot which received an extra boost, when the night before the shoot, Chwee Imm’s brother mentioned that as a child he had accompanied their mother to visit some graves before the expressway was built, and so the mood on the morning of the shoot was palpable and brimming with anticipation.
Chwee Imm had long wanted to find the grave of her illustrious ancestor ever since she had written and published ” The Journey from White Rock” (2006) tracing Ong Chong Chew’s life story and his legacy from his hometown in “White Rock” China to Singapore. It would be the final piece missing from her story.
The search was undertaken around the area where Ong Kee Soon’s grave was located. It was “bush bashing” terrain and after an hour into shoot when Chwee Imm fell into a depression in the ground, it was decided that the search would be abandoned for safety reasons.
Fast forward, Saturday 17 September, 2016. Raymond Goh on his usual solitary weekend explorations and research in the vicinity of what remains of Seh Ong bordering Bukit Brown, suddenly decided to look down and this was what he saw:
Here are some notes from Raymond’s post on the FB Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown :
“Rediscovery of Ong Chong Chew, his eldest son Ong Kim Cheow and Kim Cheow’s wife in Seh Ong cemetery. Chong Chew’s tomb was a remake when he was re-interred from his family burial ground in Telok Blangah to Seh Ong. Date on tomb -1888. All his children inscribed on tomb matched the records. Kim Cheow was a founding member of Straits Chinese Recreation club and died in 1909, hence his tomb still indicated Qing era, his daughter married Tan Hay Leng, son of Tan Kim Ching”
(The original document from Chwee Imm’s papers had indicated 3 family members including Ong Chong Chew)
Ong Chong Chew also contributed to Chong Wen Ge, Heng San Teng and Sian Cho Keong 仙祖宮(Amoy St)
At the time of the rediscovery of Ong Chong Chew’s tomb, Chwee Imm was abroad and relatives on FB helped to contact her to inform her.
We look forward to hearing more from her when she has had a chance to visit. But there is no doubt, that given the dedication which was written to her august ancestor in her book, the finding of the tomb marks another important milestone in her journey to White Rock.
For those who are interested in the first episode of History from the Hills which featured the history of Seh Ong land and the initial search for Ong Chong Chew :
More on the founders of Seh Ong here
By day, she has project managed some of Singapore’s transportation system projects such as the flight information displays in Changi Airport and road tunnel systems for LTA. But come the weekends or public holidays, one of Bianca Polak’s favourite places is Bukit Brown Cemetery, leading the public on guided walks.
She first visited Bukit Brown in early 2012 and came on a few guided walks conducted by the Brownies before naturally falling in step with the volunteers and started conducting guided walks in 2013. She has co curated a few themed walks such as the poetry walk, Botanic Gardens to Bukit Brown for Jane’s Walks, meet-up groups and always is among the first to volunteer when we get private requests including from the Peoples Association and constituency community grassroots groups who are caught by surprise not only that their volunteer is foreign but also speaks Mandarin!
Bianca traveled out of her birthplace Holland to the region when she was in her late twenties and she worked in Malaysia & China for a few years before finally ending up in Singapore where she has lived and worked for 16 years now. She knows more about Singapore’s heritage places and history than the average Singaporean and has embraced our cultural traditions, even demonstrating how to cook nasi ulam at the Baba House Museum.Not surprisingly, the local television channel 8 which broadcasts in Mandarin featured her in their programme recently.
Here is her appearance “live” when she was interviewed in the studio after the crew tagged her on a few visits all over Singapore.
So the next time you come on a guided walk and Bianca is your guide, you can test her Mandarin! She also speaks Dutch (of course), French, German, Swedish, and gets by in understanding Latin languages.
Information on public walks in Bukit Brown can be found by following Bukit Brown Events on Peatix : http://peatix.com/user/617188/
Footnote: Bukit Brown Cemetery is commonly known to the Chinese as Kopi Sua.
In 2009, the Coopers arrived in Singapore from the UK. Jon’s wife had a job posting here and Jon was to be during the duration of her posting, a house husband taking care of their 2 young children and running the household. As luck would have it, on the morning after they moved into their home, Jon on a “reconnaissance” of his new neighbourhood spotted a National Heritage Board marker introducing the WWII history of Adam Park.
From that day onwards, Jon’s life took on a different direction. Trained as a battlefield archeologist, he was to spend the next 9 years, juggling his responsibilities as husband and father with his passion for battlefield history, Singapore after all is rich and fertile ground for the “digging up” of WW II history.
Jon and his family moved back home to Scotland in July this year. In the time Jon was here, his contributions to WW II history included the regular once a month “Battle at Cemetery Hill” guided walks for All Things Bukit Brown which started in June 2012, an exhibition co-curated by Jon under Singapore Heritage Society held at National Library in commemoration of the 70th Anniversary in 2012 of the Fall of Singapore –Four Days in February: Adam Park the Last Battle- over 20 archeological digs as part of The Adam Park Project (TAPP) capping it all by the publication of Tigers in the Park. Published just weeks before he left for home, Simone Lee attended the last of the Tigers in the Park tours held in conjunction with the book’s launch.
Jon Coopers Adam Park Project by Simone Lee
Adam Park is a significant place in Singapore’s history because it was where one of the last and fiercest battles was fought and was subsequently a prisoner of war (POW) work camp.
Located at the crossroads between Bukit Timah and MacRitchie Reservoir, Bukit Timah is the highest point in Singapore and where the British army supplies were kept. The Japanese captured Bukit Timah on 12th February 1942 and set its sights on cutting off the water supply to the city. The British troops guarding the Water Tower along MacRitchie Reservoir were ordered to move the defence line outward towards Bukit Timah, and engaged in battle with the Japanese troops at the halfway point which was Adam Park.
At Adam Park, Jon sets up the battlefield of engagement and from his research which includes oral interviews with war veterans, former residents of Adam Park, descendants and pouring over diaries and other private papers, Jon brings to life compelling stories of the people at Adam Park, igniting an important component of WW II , its social history.
The colonial black-and-white bungalows at Adam Park were built in 1929 for the European community. Generous lawns allowed for tennis courts and putting greens. The driveways had space for cars owned by residents and their guests. It is a beautiful, genteel estate away from the city and conveniently located close to the golf course which now belongs to the Singapore Island Country. Here are some highlights of the various houses with significant stories to tell in the book.
Located on top of the hill, and dubbed ‘Bachelor’s Mess’ during the war, the first family to occupy house was the Dutch Consular General, Mr.Hendrik Fein, his wife and their “celebrity” daughter, Concha. They lived there for a few months in 1938 before moving to Mount Alma. Concha was reputed to be a great beauty, young and vivacious who became popular for helping the Singapore Charity Cabaret and regularly entertained the Allied troops. Unfortunately, Concha and her family were in the plane which went missing on its way to Australia when they were evacuated at the onset of war. Their plane was one of 2 carrying passengers from Java. The other plane landed safely in Melbourne with one of its passengers being Lieutenant General Gordon Bennett, who relinquished his post as the Commander of the Australian Army’s 8th Division in Singapore to escape being captured by the Japanese when it fell.
The Seefelds moved into No.16 after the Feins’. They had escaped Hitler’s persecution of Jews in Germany to England and then joined their sons in Singapore in 1939. Seefeld Snr continued his practice as a dentist here, but when WW II arrived on our shores, his family were rounded up along with other Germans and deported. Leaving in haste, the family left all their belongings, including a complete set of what was considered high-end dental equipment then and, furniture that he had brought with him from Germany. The dental set was later used by the Japanese military during their occupation. To the Seefeld familys’ astonishment, the entire set was then shipped to them in Australia, intact, shortly after the war ended.
While the city was being bombarded with daily air raids which began in December 1941, the Adam Park estate was barely touched by the bombings. No.16 became home to the Morrisons after the Seefelds and a few other families had also taken refuge in the house after homes in the city were destroyed. It was a short lived refuge. On 31st January 1942, the Morrisons left their home to board a ship out of Singapore. Their ship, the Empress of Japan had docked 2 days earlier carrying British soldiers from the 18th Division. The Empress left Singapore with civilians escaping the war, and by the time it arrived at Liverpool, it had a new name, the Empress of Scotland.
As the city was besieged, allied troops retreated to Adam Park. House No.16 saw action in the battle between the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires and the 41st Regiments of the Imperial Japanese Army at Adam Park on 13 February 1942, 2 days before the British was to surrender Singapore.
Despite being one of the last residents to evacuate the estate, Philip Cooper Sands returned to his home at No.12 each day during the battle at Adam Park and gave vivid accounts of the bombardments surrounding the house in his diary, and letters to his wife who had left on the same ship the Morrisons were on.
Read more about their stories in ‘The Residents of Adam Park’ page 33 of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
A few metres down the hill from house No.16, a triple coil Dannert barbed wire fence had been erected in front of house No.20. While about 100 men from the 1st Battalion’s D Company held on at houses No.13 and 14, C Company joined them late in the night on 13th February and set their positions at the remaining houses surrounding the defense line. To their dismay, they woke the next morning to find some 23 Japanese soldiers in house No.20. Apart from being exhausted from combat at MacRitchie the day before, the men at C Company were not aware that D Company had shifted their positions and unknowingly left house No.20 empty. A battle ensued between the new “neighbours”
Read more about the battle at house No.20, and how Corporal Pearson and Lieutenant Clift earned their medals from this battle in ‘Adam Park: HQ, C and D Companies, 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires Regiment’ and ‘The West End of Adam Park Estate: C and D Company, 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires Regiment’ from page 140 of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
House No.17 – Regimental Aid Post (RAP)
Red Cross banners hung from the windows of house No.17 which became the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) for the 1st Battalion. It was the first medic point for injured soldiers before being transferred to a hospital in the city. By 15th February, the RAP was overwhelmed with Cambridgeshire casualties. The medics were working quickly to attend to every injured soldier brought in while some of those wounded but could still walk, helped out. Six medical ambulances had arrived that morning bringing some relief. But before they could be loaded and sent back to hospitals in the city, the vehicles were blown up, and the RAP was ruined. A British soldier had fired at a Japanese tank that was collecting their own wounded and in retaliation, the Japanese shot back. Rounds of bullets from their machine guns and tanks pierced through the walls of the house and the fuel tanks of the ambulances, setting them on fire. Everyone in the house scrambled out to the garden. Unbeknown to both sides, a ceasefire had already been called and received at No.7 to prepare for surrender.
Read Sergeant Len Baynes and Lance Corporal Cosford’s account of the attack on the RAP in ‘The Final Act’, page 191 of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
House No.7 sits at the bottom of the hill on the eastern end of Adam Park along Adam Road. It was thought since it was located on the reverse slope, away from sight of the Japanese troops at Bukit Timah hill, No. 7 was most strategic to house the battalion’s headquarters. The battalion held up at the estate for 3 days of battle. However, by the end of the fighting, the Japanese troops had managed to infiltrate the surrounding areas. The house was then in full view of the enemies and bombarded by Japanese artillery.
On the afternoon of 15th February, Lieutenant Colonel Carpenter who was in charge of the 1st Battalion sent a message to the 54th Infantry Brigade headquarters to explain about their dire situation and asked permission to move the battalion away from Adam Park. Minutes later, the message of the surrender arrived. It took Carpenter a few moments for the message to sink in before sending out the order to cease fire. It took more than an hour for the message to reach the units at the other end of the estate.
While the Cambridgeshires were stricken with the shame of defeat, General Arthur Percival was negotiating the terms of surrender with Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita at the Old Ford Factory.
Read ‘The Final Act’ from page 191 of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
The day after the surrender, the surviving Cambridgeshires were packed onto a tennis court at one of the houses. They dug a single latrine at the corner of the court. The stench from it, drove the Japanese soldiers farther away as days went by and the latrine trench overflowed when it rained. On 19th February, a week after the Cambridgeshires had arrived in Singapore, they marched to Changi Prison to join the rest of the POWs.
A month later, the fittest POWs were moved to Adam Park. It became a working camp for some 2000 Australian and 1000 British POWs from March 1942 to January 1943. They were chosen to help build a Shinto shrine at MacRitchie Reservoir. But the first thing they had to do was to repair the war torn estate and settle in. They organized the estate into barracks and life at the Adam Park camp was comfortable compared to Changi Prison camp. They got the electricity, even air conditioning and water heaters working and enjoyed proper sanitary and ventilation. They picked up some Japanese language from chatting with the guards. Work was not considered too hard and hours were not too long. It was no holiday camp but they were provided with ample rice to cook and bought bread rolls and sweets from the canteen at house No.11 with the little money they were paid from the ‘Shrine Job’. And because the camp was not fenced up, some of the men would sneak out after the lights are out at 10pm to trade in the city for other sources of food.
Read ‘Settling In’, the ‘Shrine Job’ and ‘Trade’ from page 230 onwards of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
House No.11 – The Prison Chapel
One of the major facilities set up by the POWs was the “mess hall” which also housed a chapel. It was the second POW chapel remaining in Singapore, the first being the St Luke’s Chapel in Roberts Barracks which has been reproduced at Changi Museum. Captain Eric Andrews took on the role of a ‘padre’ to the men who sought spiritual guidance.
The house was badly damaged in battle. The chapel was on the second floor of the house, above the canteen. Because of the damage, the only access up the chapel was via the fire escape staircase at the back of house. Captain Andrews and a few volunteers repaired the remaining part of the room for the chapel and worked on designing the altar. It was plain and simple and they scavenged for materials they could find around the area – pieces of glass and transparent paper for the stained glass windows above the altar, yellow clay and Reckitt’s Blue for paintings on the wall.
The altar cross was bought from the Mortuary Chapel at Alexandra Hospital. Mother Mary and a scroll with the Bible verse; “Lift up your heads, O ye Gates and the King of Glory shall Come in” were painted. However, Captain Andrews was not able to draw faces very well hence he cut the face of Dorothy Lamour from a magazine and fitted it over Mother Mary’s. According to an account by Lieutenant Colonel Oakes, “Backlit from the outside the final image looked very impressive”.
Jon’s research into the whereabouts of the chapel murals even when he had evidence of drawings from Mitchell, drew a blank when he interviewed survivors. He finally confirmed the location, when he realised, the men were more familiar with No.11 as the mess hall and canteen rather than the chapel. He was asking the wrong question!
Read more ‘The Prison Chapel’ from page 290 of ‘Tigers in the Park’
All 19 houses at Adam Park which belong to the government are intact after repairs and available for rent. Most of the houses have been fenced and gated for security and privacy. House No.7 previously tenanted by National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) Guild House is at present unoccupied. No.7 and No.11 together with a handful of others are awaiting for new tenants. Without live in tenants, the buildings tend to wear out faster. But it is prime rentals and the market is weak.
Jon Cooper hopes that the estate will be preserved and protected by authorities. He believes that it is a heritage site that still has much to offer in research, and a tangible reminder of the stories that he and his team has uncovered. And because of its historical significance, the site can still be kept as residences by promoting low impact heritage, such as the small groups he has been conducting walks for, which don’t encroach on the privacy of residents and respect boundaries.
Jon Cooper started The Adam Park Project (TAPP), organising residents and recruiting volunteers to do archaeological work at the estate. Over 7 years, more than 1200 World War 2 artefacts have been dug up following 21 metal detector surveys and two excavations. The artefacts are now with the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute and Singapore History Consultants.
The artefacts and the stories behind some of the items, such as artillery shells, military badges, gas masks, and 19th century coins, have also been catalogued in TAPP’s Virtual Museum: http://www.adamparkproject.com/virtual-museum/
Tigers in The Park
Jon’s book is divided into four section, -section 1 covers civilian life in the estate before the war, 2, the battle at Adam Park, 3 POW life, and finally Adam Park, post war – comes with icons and QR codes leading to the Virtual Museum , a website which also allows visitors to comment and interact hence, allowing updates and amendments to the book to be made at real time.
Tigers in the Park can be purchased at larger bookstores and also online:
On 14 August, Samira Hassan joined Brownie Peter Pak for a Ramble thru’ Bukit Brown to Kopi Sua Cemetery .
It was Samira’s first visit and she penned these reflections to share.
“I doubt there are textbooks or academic sources that would be able to do justice to the arcane yet insightful details the places in Bukit Brown had revealed about our past – and these pieces of our tangible history are truly irreplaceable.”
by Samira Hassan
Dateline: Bukit Brown (14th August 2016)
We started the trail off the sidewalk on Lornie Road near a clearing just pass the turn in to Caldecott Hill. It would have been all too easy to miss it whilst walking – overgrown creepers had landscaped the steep steps that led us down the path to the trail. The steps themselves were uneven and rickety, an omnipresent feature in Bukit Brown’s landscape.
The cemetery is sprawled over 5 hills (blocks) as high ground was thought to represent the back of a dragon, an auspicious symbol in Chinese culture.
We first made our way to the tomb of Lim Kee Tong and his wife.
Their tombstone was largely inspired by post-modernist designs of colonial times with Chinese lions. A mound behind the tombstone is where they are buried, enclosed in a horseshoe shape defined by a brick border. Each feature on the tombstone it seems had its own specific meaning; for example, the vines of grapes at the border of the headstones, because of its seeds, signified the wish for many more generations to follow.
The horseshoe shape is also reminiscent of a womb, alluding to the circle of life. The design of the grave incorporates a drainage system which would direct rain water to flow to the bottom, an important component in fengshui. Water is “chi” or energy and also represents wealth. Diverting water away from the mound helps to stay the course of decomposition, although it is inevitable.
Inscriptions on the tombstones included names of the deceased, dates of death and place of origin. It was explained that sometimes posthumous auspicious names were given as mark of respect by the children. Names of children are also included in the inscriptions so it seems like each grave is family monument in itself. Features and inscriptions on each grave can reveal some aspect about the person’s life and hopes for the family.
And in Bukit Brown, every grave has a story to tell – even the grave of paupers. Moving into the pauper area of Bukit Brown, we learned of the rickshaw puller Low Nong Nong who died in clashes with police when rickshaw pullers went on strike and demonstrated against the increment of rickshaw rentals.
The other rickshaw coolies then pooled together enough money to buy Nong Nong a tombstone and a funeral to acknowledge his sacrifice. In the midst of the other *pauper tombstones where there was barely enough money to erect a simple headstone, Nong Nong’s tombstone was comparable in size to the tombs in the paid plots and also because the mound itself had been cemented over, perhaps because his comrades realised that since he died without kith and kin, there would be no one to help maintain his grave should they themselves pass on or manage to make enough money to return home to China
*Under the colonial administration, free plots in Bukit Brown were set aside for those who died destitute
The fact that even paupers like this rickshaw puller had a story, had a voice, was something that I really appreciated in Bukit Brown: there was no particular class, or group of people, that were entitled to the plot of land, that all of these seemingly disparate narratives had managed to tell a bigger story of Singapore’s history. Such heterogeneity transcended into Ong Sam Leong’s tomb as well, the biggest one in Bukit Brown.
The most fascinating thing about his grave were the statues of the Punjabi guards stationed at each side. Around Malaya at that point in time, the British had recruited Punjabi soldiers and policemen from India. Given their positions of authority, they were almost seen as the “guardians of the state” They became also personal body guards of rich towkays such as Ong Sam Leong at a time where lawlessness was more prevalent. For me it demonstrated a deep level of trust between diverse communities and reflected a nascent multicultural society Singapore in the 1900s.
Bukit Brown has grown to be more than a resting place for the deceased – it has become a physical emblem of a society that was present in early 20th-century Singapore. From the most minute details in the tombs to the way the entire cemetery is organized – all of these provide important snippets to what civil society used to be like back then, I think this really goes to show that there is sometimes no alternative for trails and fieldwork such as this one.
I doubt there are textbooks or academic sources that would be able to do justice to the arcane yet insightful details the places in Bukit Brown had revealed about our past – and these pieces of our tangible history are truly irreplaceable.
Samira is a year 5 student with Raffles Institution, who is currently serving an internship with Singapore Heritage Society to better understand the challenges of conservation and heritage development
Information on public guided walks when and where and how to register can be found by following Bukit Brown Events on Peatix
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.”
(T S Eliot, “Little Gidding”)
The gates of Bukit Brown are now “reunited” with the pillars in the new entrance to the cemetery.
Painted black – which was established to be a common outdoor colour for gates in the past – it looks like a very different pair of gates from five years back in 2011, but its form and substance, remains.
It will take some getting use to as we all come to grips with the vast changes to the landscape of memory markers that are now being undertaken. But in time, we hope when the dust has settled, and the mechanical cranes no longer dot the landscape, there is much the community can contribute to in restoring the sense of arrival, that once welcomed us into our past.
Until then here is look at the now and the before in photographs which speak to us poignantly of what was lost. A special thanks to Leong Kwok Peng of Nature Society whose facebook album I had raided for photos of the gates circa 2011/2013.
On 25 July 2016:
A postscript on the installation
The installation began on Monday 25th July and was anticipated to take 5 days but all went well and by Wednesday, it was in place and on Saturday 30 July, 2016, All Things Bukit Brown together with officers from the the National Heritage Board and Ministry of National Development had a viewing with a briefing from Fusionclad Precision which had undertaken restoration works over a more than 6 months.
A report on the restoration process is available here
Blog post compiled by Catherine Lim
by Catherine Lim
Considered the foremost authority on Raffles, the National Library Board has acquired the collection of Dr. John Bastin’s more than 5000 materials. 38 of which have been curated for public viewing on the 13th floor.
The exhibits both showcases and makes accessible NLB’s existing Singapore and South East Asia Collection which “form an important nucleus of works on early Singapore. “ The rare materials collection is conventionally the preserve of academics, perhaps perceived as” high brow” located as such on the 13th floor.
But this collection is curated with ordinary Singaporeans in mind with both the personal – a hand written letter by Raffles to his cousin which more than hints at his displeasure with Farquhar – and the quaint – a book on Malay Poisons and Charm Cures – to the spiritual – an almost complete Malay translation of the the Anglican Common Book of Prayer.
But the highlight must surely be the leaflets which were air dropped in the 50s at the height of the communist insurgency in the jungles of Malaya, in an attempt to “persuade” – both by threats and propaganda – insurgents to surrender peacefully. These leaflets dropped by the thousands and commonplace then, have become rare. I have seen them once in a private collection. The NLB rare gallery showcases three pieces.
Exhibits on Java, Sawarak , Sumatra written by the “colonial masters ” stationed here, a reminder that Singapore was part of the “Straits Settlements”
Expressing Raffles passion for the biodiversity of the region.
And lets not forget, exhibits which clearly reminds us of the collector’s primary interest, Raffles himself.
Of interest for further study an exhibit of : a bill introduced to the British Parliament on 18 June 1824 to ratify the Anglo-Ducth Treaty of 1824 which concluded longstanding territorial and commercial disputes between Britain and Netherlands. A valuable source of information of how the two rival colonial and maritime powers decided on how to carve out their colonies in the region
As a collection, its importance is to give visitors a flavour of our past, providing historical context in print that covers different facets of political, social and community engagement at a personal level.
If there is anything more the NLB can do to get more Singaporeans to “embrace” the rare collections , is perhaps for this collection to serve as an inspiration for other activities which could revolve round art and story imagining of a past which helped defined who we are today.
Guided tours of this collection will be held monthly between July and December. Do check listings here
Catherine Lim is co-editor bukitbrown.com
Moved by “unseen” hands, the deities which used to be located at the former entrance of Bukit Brown Cemetery, were also moved when the pillars of the gates were relocated.
They now have a brand new shelter – we have been informed by a credible source – which was “upgraded” by Fusion Clad Precision (of their own initiative), the company commissioned by the National Heritage Board to restore the gates.
Photos captured by Brownie volunteers help document the “sheltering” of the deities which we believe are the efforts of a community who work behind the scenes.
The “upgrade” by Fusion Clad include the paint job and sensor lights, shelving and a dry place to store joss sticks and with even a lighter in place (although the last may have been placed there by others for convenience). The community who work at Bukit Brown have been observed by Brownies to pay respects before they start each construction work day as a mark of respect and request blessings for a “safe environment”
The news broke this morning and was headlined “The Outlook 15”
We are pleased to share breaking news that Raymond Goh has been shortlisted as the top 15 from among 50 inspiring individuals in their home countries nominated by listeners to “Outlook” – a weekly radio programme on the other BBC – The British Broadcasting Corporation aka The Beeb.
He sits in good company among indefatigable individuals who have survived against the odds and individuals who strive each day in challenging environments to make life a little better; from granting wishes to the terminally ill to being a voice for survivors of unspeakable tragedies; from Sierra Leone to our Singapore, where our nominee gives voice to the dead in order that our past has a future. The full report can be found here
The nomination was submitted at the end of April 2016 by A.J Leow.
In his submission to the BBC nominating Raymond Goh in under 200 words (the limit) he wrote:
The Bukit Brown Cemetery (BBC) was largely a forgotten site in urban Singapore until the government announced plans in 2011 to build an 8-lane highway across it and exhume for a start 4,000 graves. Raymond and his brother Charles then started to explore the site. They organized guided tours and were soon joined by more volunteers known as Brownies.
Raymond has since discovered more hidden tombs and linked many descendants to forgotten ancestors who include the real early pioneers who founded schools, banks, clan associations, public parks and lent their names to some 50 streets in Singapore. Besides his frequent sojourns to BBC in his trademark white towel and T-shirt, Raymond also combs newspaper, clan and other archives.
As a result of his research, the Brownies even got BBC listed on the World Monument list and was recognised as Advocacy Organisation of the Year 2014. Their efforts have inspired new heritage trails, award-nominated plays and new books — all thanks to our very own tomb whisperer (and Indiana Jones) who has inspired a revival of Singapore’s own history.
The news that the submission was accepted came by way of a feature interview on the BBC World Service radio programme, Outlook “They call me Singapore’s Tomb Whisperer” conducted at Bukit Brown with Raymond and his nominator. The recording can be found here
In sharing the news this morning that he had been shortlisted, Raymond posted on his FB page:
“From 50 to 15…..truly humbled and overwhelmed by this shortlist. I have all the Bukit Brown community volunteers and tombkeepers who have accompanied me on my journey for the past 10 years to thank. Without their encouragement, support and assistance, would not have walked so far. And of course my brother Charles, partnering me along the road ….”
For more on the passion and dedication of Raymond and Charles in uncovering our lost heritage, read The Goh Brothers – A Decade of Exploring, a decade of Sharing
Our best wishes and congratulations to Raymond, as someone posted, onward to the final 3.
Change is inevitable; Memories endure; The tangible is the gateway to the intangible.
The iconic gates of Bukit Brown which had stood in the same spot for some 90 years were removed on September 2015, and have been undergoing the delicate process of refurbishment since January 2016. It is expected to be relocated back in June 2016 and enjoined with the pillars which have already been relocated to the new entrance.
Members of All Things Bukit Brown and the Singapore Heritage Society as part of the working committee on Bukit Brown chaired by the Ministry of National Development were invited to a private viewing of the work in progress in March. The refurbishment is being undertaken by Fusion Clad Precision who were hired by the National Heritage Board.
According to a Straits Times report published on May 3, 2016 “Iconic Gates to Greet Visitors to Bukit Brown Cemetery Again” :
“The refurbishment, which started in January, has five core steps. Rust is first removed before coatings are applied to reduce future corrosion.
The gates’ lock and latch components as well as lampholders are then repaired before missing parts are replaced. The last step is to reinforce the gates’ structural integrity.
The team, comprising four master craftsmen and three other members, is at step two of the process.
Its managing director Teo Khiam Gee said the gates need a lot of attention as well as “the human touch”.
“Skilful hands are important as the parts are in varying states of disrepair. Its original state was very fragile. It is like handling a baby,” he said.
The structure is made up of parts, such as a pair of cast-iron gates through which cars used to pass, two side gates for pedestrians, and four free-standing square columns.
It was likely prefabricated in Britain and shipped to Singapore. Its square columns were cast on the spot.”
The report adds:
“NHB’s assistant chief executive of policy and community, Mr Alvin Tan, said retaining and refurbishing the gates are important as they “provide a sense of arrival to the cemetery and preserve a sense of continuity for visitors and interest groups”.
The refurbishment is an initiative of a multi-agency work group chaired by the Ministry of National Development. It includes NHB, the Land Transport Authority (LTA), and civic organisations All Things Bukit Brown and the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS).
The effort is guided by conservation best practices shared by SHS. The heritage board also has its own in-house metals specialist, Mr Ian Tan, manager of the heritage research and assessment division.
When ready, the gates will be painted black – a common colour for outdoor use.”
You can find is a step by step graphic representation provided by ST on the process here
NHB produced a short documentary on the removal of the gates and the relocation of the pillars which supports it:
We honour the memory of the gates in our recently launched book WWII@ Bukit Brown.