Bukit Brown : Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge
Location: NLB 9th flood from now until 10 October’14 and thereafter it will travel to other regional libraries.
The exhibition was officially opened on Saturday 19 July,2014 by MOS (Ministry of National Development) Desmond Lee.
It represents almost one and half years of research and working the ground documenting some 4,153 tombstones which are affected by the building of a new highway across Bukit Brown, by a team under the leadership of Dr. Hui Yew-Foong, an anthropologist with ISEAS.
We have observed the team hard at work over these years, joined some of them during Qing Ming and exhumations as observers and friends of the family of descendants, and the exhibition is a comprehensive and compact expression of what they have uncovered, shared with the public with insight and interesting artefacts , enhanced by new technology. We recommend it as a “must see” and “ground breaking” for insights shared of customary practices and traditions of burial customs and respect for ancestors.
An extract from the media release:
Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge” assembles a diverse range of documents,maps, photographs and objects to demonstrate how a cemetery can open a window to Singapore’s historical past and cultural present. Through a multi-disciplinary approach employing cutting-edge methods, techniques and technology, the exhibition will bring to the fore new horizons of knowledge unveiled through the documentation of Bukit Brown.
The exhibition opens with the origins of the cemetery, as a project of the Municipal Commissioners in early 20th in 1973, will be illustrated through maps and aerial photographs. Next, through explication of tomb inscriptions, tomb typology and the material culture of the cemetery, the exhibition will demonstrate Singapore’s connectivity to the region, China and the world.
While the cemetery is a burial space for the dead, it is also a space for the living at different points of Singapore’s history and ritual calendar. This will be illustrated through the life of kampongs that used to be situated in the vicinity of the cemetery and the life of the cemetery during Qing Ming and the Seventh Month Hungry Ghost Festival.
As data for the graves was collected and organised within a Geographic Information System (GIS) framework, the exhibition will present a Centrepiece where visitors will be able to access data related to specific graves through a map-based database on a touch screen monitor.
Finally, visitors will get a glimpse behind the scenes of documentation work, to get a sense of the different methods, techniques and technologies that were employed in the course of documentation. These range from balloon photography to 3D scanning, from interviewing to filming, and from the work of architects to the work of archaeologists.
Highlights of the Exhibition Opening
This urn was used to re-inter bones exhumed from an older cemetery. It was from the grave of Madam Khoo Siok Hui, who died in 1836. Her grave was the oldest among those documented at Bukit Brown. Madam Khoo and her son Chee Yam Chuan were among the early settlers of Singapore. Mr Chee later returned to Malacca and made his fortune in tin mining in Selangor. Today, the Chee Yam Chuan Temple Trust continues to flourish in Malacca and Madam Khoo’s ancestral tablet can be found in the temple. The story behind this family shows the close links between Malacca and Singapore in the early years. It was Raymond Goh who first deciphered the inscription and unraveled the connection.
A video at the exhibition features Serene Tan and her family observing the first Qing Ming at Bukit Brown in 2012 after Raymond Goh discovered the cluster of Tan Quee Lan tombs, and shows how the cluster underwent a renovation makeover by Serene and her cousin LT Tan who met at Bukit Brown itself. Serene’s story can be read here
The cluster is not affected by highway.
“….to everyone who came and supported the launch, and most importantly, supported us and helped us generously with our research over the last 33 months. One of the purposes of the exhibition is to acknowledge all your contributions and I hope it accomplished that.” Dr Hui Yew- Foong, Curator of Exhibition on a FB posting.
Look out for 2 specially curated walks by the Brownies in conjunction with the exhibition in August (English) and September (Mandarin).
Photos taken of the exhibition courtesy of Brownie Ang Hock Chuan on Facebook here
Read more about the exhibition by the Rojak Librarian here
Register for our annual NDP Celebrations for 2014
Date 9 August, Time: 4pm – 7pm
Meeting place : Gates of Lorong Halwa, where we will begin by taking a group photo.
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”.
There will be multiple guided walks, quizzes with prizes with a Peranakan theme, goody bags and a picnic of heritage snacks. More details to be announced soon, so watch this space but the location for observing the National Anthem and The Pledge will only be revealed on the day itself. Please help us prevent wastage in preparing for food and ensure we have goody bags for everyone by registering here early so we can capture numbers early. Register by 6 August by clicking “join” . You may also register friends or family who are not on FB by leaving a comment on how many will be coming in this blog post.
FB registration here
If you are not on FB, you can register here by leaving a comment with your name if you would like to attend with your name and number of people who are coming with you.
Bring a torch light, as light will fade to night over the course of the celebrations. Please remember bring umbrella or poncho protect yourself against the sun with sunscreen and avoid donating blood to the mozzie brigade with.mosquito repellent.
We will celebrate regardless of rain, sun or exhumations
Disclaimer: By agreeing to take walking tours of Bukit Brown Cemetery, I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so.To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward) Please read if you are attending our guided walks for the first time, useful info on safety : Getting There/游览信息 If you have a facebook account please register on the FB links provided unless otherwise stated
Previous NDP reports :
Disclaimer: By agreeing to take walking tours of Bukit Brown Cemetery, I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so.To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward) Please read if you are attending our guided walks for the first time, useful info on safety : Getting There/游览信息 If you have a facebook account please register on the FB links provided unless otherwise stated. There is also a walk by post museum in the after, please see details below for registration.
For all walks:
Please bring umbrella or poncho and sun protection.
Please wear covered footwear.
Please bring mosquito repellent.
Please bring sufficient drinking water.
Meeting place for all Walks : At the Lor Halwa Main gates at Bukit Brown
Sat 26 July’14 : 6.30pm – 8.30pm : A Journey into the Past with Andrew Lim
Follow Andrew for an evening stroll through Bukit Brown cemetery where he will share stories of the Past. We will go to a “mystery” location if time permits.
PLEASE BRING TORCH LIGHTS FOR THIS WALK
FB registration here
Mon 27 July’14: 9am – 11.30 am: Peranakan Tile Appreciation with Victor Lim
Join Victor Lim on his tour through the cemetery where he will focus on the various tiles used in the tomb designs.
Learn more about “Peranakan” or majolica tiles from our tiles expert!
FB registration here
Read more about the tiles here
by Joshua Ng
Instead of enjoying a quiet and uneventful Saturday, I chose to spend it at a live tomb measurement exercise. Armed with a trusty can of mosquito repellent, jeans and covered shoes, I arrived at the Bukit Brown Main Gate at 3.30pm. It was 35 degrees Celsius and I started to doubt my decision.
After a round of introductions, I was assigned to a team with Wei Ming (the drawing maestro), Andrew and Simone who are Brownies (volunteer guides). We had met briefly during the previous week’s theory and briefing workshop at NLB.
Our assigned tomb was Tan Ean Kiam’s wife, Ye Yan Niang (葉焉娘). Our task was to measure and draw the front view, section view and the plan view of the tomb.
Initially I was wondering why we needed four people to measure a tomb. It only made sense when we began our work. The curves, elevation and non-rectilinear structure makes it really hard to get an accurate reading. We had to use strings, bamboo sticks, IKEA flexible paper rulers, a metal tape measure as well as insect repellent to get it done.
The little insects that make their homes around the tomb were not amused — I even got a few ant bites on my hands. Some even crawled up my covered shoes and jeans and bit my calves.
Thankfully, after three hours of hard work, we finally finished our sketch. Our drawings were not the best. We committed at least one mistake, which was to assume that the sides are mirror images of each other. Chee Kien told us that we should not assume but measure and draw the tombs just as they are found. He pointed out that sometimes in a “couple” tomb, part of the tombs may be intentionally elevated so that the “water” will flow towards the descendants of one side.
This is not the first insight I gained from these two weeks of tomb measuring. I also learned that the different dialect groups have very different tomb designs. The one we measured clearly had a Hokkien design. Besides that, only the tombs in Bukit Brown have special bricks backing behind the head stone. It would have been very expensive to import bricks from China, so brick making was one of the earliest industries in Singapore.
As our assigned tomb was Tan Ean Kiam‘s wife, I figured he must have been some important person. I looked him up and found out that he was one of the founding members of OCBC Singapore. And he was also one of the founding members of the Tong Meng Hui (同盟会), which supported Sun Yet Sen’s revolutionary effort.
Another unique feature of this tomb is that the history of Mrs Tan was written by Tan Ean Kiam himself. According to the Brownies, Tan Ean Kiam’s own handwriting was inscribed on the body of the pedestal altar. Other than the fact that Tan Ean Kiam was alive when his wife passed away, we also know that he must have loved his wife a lot to do something so unusual as to personally inscribe her life story.
What amazed me the most is the fact that such a simple exercise like tomb measuring could connect the dots in my understanding of those who went before me. It makes me wonder what interesting facts I can discover from my grandparents’ tomb. Qing Ming (清明) would have been more fun if we were told about all these unique cultural factoids.
Mrs Tan’s tomb is just one tomb. There are about 4,000 tombs that are going to be destroyed without proper measurement and documentation because of the building of a highway that will cut Bukit Brown into half. Who knows what other important life insights we might have missed by not preserving and treasuring the stories of those who went before us.
There are 100,000 graves at Bukit Brown. Imagine how much time and effort will be needed to document them all. And as a digital heritage enthusiast, I can’t help but wonder if there could be better and faster ways to do this. Looks like my journey have just begun.
Documenting and taking precise measurements provide valuable data to analyze the proportions and variations through IT applications and ultimately relate it to Feng Shui. Tombstones are not just built, they are “feng shui’ed” Citizenry participation in a project like this is crucial because of the sheer size of Bukit Brown and because it signals a deeper engagement of ordinary people in wanting to understand all aspects of Bukit Brown. So kudos to Lai Chee Kien for this initiative and the first batch of participants for signing up. Hopefully there will be more.
What the tomb measurement workshop covered here.
The walks are free but registration is needed via the Festival website only here
Registration opens 1 July, 2014. Spaces are limited so register early to avoid disappointment!
Bukit Brown in the City
Saturday July 19 & July 26, 4pm – 6.30pm
A number of pioneering settlers of 18th and 19th century colonial Singapore who were buried in the Chinese cemeteries of the Greater Bukit Brown Complex (including the first Chinese Municipal Cemetery) are today still remembered by streets and buildings bearing their name.
The activities and efforts of these movers and shakers – many of whom were members of leading Chinese families in other contemporary European colonies - contributed significantly to colonial Singapore’s transformation, from a regional entrepot port to a modern and globally significant trade and finance hub, the enterprise envisaged at its founding in 1819
“Bukit Brown in the City” , takes you on a guided walk that covers Raffles Place; Boat Quay; Chulia Street (formerly Kling Road); Phillip Street; Telok Ayer Street; Club Street and eventually ending at Bukit Pasoh Road. Experience what life was like and what has changed over the years in old downtown Singapore.
The City in Bukit Brown
Sunday July 20th & 27th, 9am – 11.30am
Between 1922 and the period of the Second World War, a majority of the Chinese residents of Singapore were buried in Bukit Brown cemetery. Some of those buried here, were well-known and distinguished pioneers like Tan Ean Kiam; Gan Eng Seng; Tan Chor Nam; Lim Chong Pang; Tan Kheam Hock; Ong Sam Leong; Tan Boo Liat; See Tiong Wah – and they were leading contributors to the economic, social as well as cultural life of Singapore.
With “City in Bukit Brown”, we invite you to join the “Brownies” who will introduce you to the tombs of these prominent pioneers who landmarked street names and places all over Singapore. Listen to accounts of their lives, their fascinating backgrounds and the endearing legacies they handed down to our generation today.”
About the Guides:
Alex Tan Tiong Hee, “Curator” and lead guide of “Bukit Brown in the City”
Alex, who studied law in England, was brought up on the lap of history. He was very close to his father, the late Tan Yeok Seong, who was a historian and scholar, as well as a publisher of educational textbooks for schools in Singapore. From his father was nurtured, an acute appreciation for the colonial history of Singapore vis-a-vis developments in China at that time Alex, lends to this heritage walk, his personal experience of historical places and the pioneers who are buried in Bukit Brown. Alex is an Executive Committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society.
The Brownies: The Brownies are the volunteers who have been spending their weekends conducting heritage walks at Bukit Brown since 2012. To date, over 11.000 people have visited Bukit Brown in organized walks. Inspired by positive responses from the public, the Brownies would like to spread and share the collective stories of the pioneers in Bukit Brown to the rest of the island. Chew Keng Kiat who is curating “The City in Bukit Brown” has conducted 120 guided walks at Bukit Brown.
More on the walks:
The Bukit Brown in the City and the City in Bukit Brown walks were specially curated for the Singapore Heritage Festival so as to storyboard a direct connection between two places – the City and the Cemetery. The former which stretches from the present Raffles Place to Club Street landmarks the commerce and business networks of our colonial past; the latter, the contributions of pioneers buried in Bukit Brown and our migrant history.
Many of the places within the city which served as offices for banks, shipping and trading houses no longer exist in their original physical form, but they are nonetheless still landmarked by the names of the pioneers who breathed life to them. The handful that still exist physically have been re-purposed to keep up with the times.
Consider “The Arcade” in Raffles Place and the connection with number 26 Boat Quay. The Arcade of yesterday was the offices of Guthrie; 26 Boat Quay – today “Penny Black” – was the business premises of Tan Kim Ching, eldest son of Tan Tock Seng. Both Guthrie and Tan Kim Ching were the builders of the Tanjong Pagar Dockyards – the precursor of what became the Port Authority of Singapore.
Some 10 doors away, 17 Boat Quay (present day OUB concourse) does not exist today, but back in the day it harbored a political fugitive from China. Kang You Wei was the architect of the failed movement to reform and stem the decline of the Imperial Qing from corruption and systemic abuse. The man who provided him refuge, Khoo Seok Wan, was an intellect and poet who inherited his father’s vast fortunes founded on rice trading of which number 17 was the office.
The City was more than just a place of commerce, it was a gathering of prevailing social, economic and political thought congregated at the Goh Loo Club, a gentlemen’s club, the last stop of the walk.
As such the walks are bespoke in nature, drawing on the personal as well as the broad strokes of the historical context of the life and times of the pioneers buried in Bukit Brown, and their web of connections as the elite of the day. But though elitist in make-up, it was their collective actions that had reflected their concerns for the larger populace and how to uplift their lot in life.
In contrast, with the City, the Cemetery has better withstood the test of time until plans were announced for an 8 lane highway which will slice it into half. As a burial ground for the Chinese from as far as back as the late 1800s, the Cemetery with 100,000 graves has been fertile ground for a group of volunteers called “Brownies”, who have been sharing what they have learned about the life stories of the pioneers in the City in their guided walks. The tomb of Tan Kim Ching is inscribed with Qing imperial titles as well as titles from Siam, Japan and Russia.
As a complementary to the City In Bukit Brown, the walk in the Cemetery is a gateway into another dimension of their life stories, the compelling inscriptions and the architecture of the graves.
by Norman Cho
In 2011, I discovered the grave of my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong at Bukit Brown Cemetery. Since then, I have been trying to locate the tomb of his father, Cho Boon Poo (Cho Poo), who was laid to rest in Malacca. I had absolutely no clue as to which cemetery he was buried. Bukit Cina and Jelutong cemeteries came to mind but these are huge cemeteries with more than a hundred thousand graves each. They are maintained by the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple but pre-war records are unavailable. It seemed that I had hit a dead-end!
However, miracles do happen. To me, these are little blessings from above. Perhaps, the old man had wanted his descendants to visit him and had influenced how things turned out. It must have been decades since the last time any descendants paid their respects at his tomb. He must have known my sincerity and had helped me along without my knowledge. The breakthrough came in April 2014. A relative whom I had never known, contacted me via Facebook to introduce himself as the maternal great-grandson of Cho Poo, after he had discovered that we have matching ancestors from an online Family Tree software on the internet. 70 year old Vincent Lee was descended from Cho Poo’s eldest son, Cho Kim Choon, while my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong, was the third son. He resides in Australia and was planning a trip down to Singapore in April 2014. He requested my assistance to put him in touch with the relatives in Singapore.
It turned out to be a blessing for me! I talked to my eldest aunt, Rose Cho (88 years old), to ask for the contacts of other relatives from the Cho clan. That was how I found aunt Elizabeth Cho (62 years old), who was the only child from the fifth son, Cho Kim Hock, a famed state badminton player for Malacca in the 1930s. We organised a dinner for our overseas relative and his wife. During dinner, I had a nice chat with Elizabeth – whom the family affectionately calls Bert – about Cho Poo. She told me that her only visit to his grave was when she was a child of 9 years old. That was more than 50 years ago! Her father who was the only surviving son at that time dreamt of his father asking him why he had not visited him in such a long time. Heeding the call, he brought his wife and daughter to pay their respects to his father. Since then, he had visited the grave alone every year till several years before his death in 1990.
Aunt Elizabeth, had the memory of an elephant! She vividly recalled that the cemetery was about a 40-minutes-drive from the Malacca Town, but had no inkling about the name of the cemetery. She further described that the cemetery was sliced into two by the main road, there was a cemetery on the left and another on the right, and Cho Poo’s was on the right. The tomb was relatively large and on a gentle-sloping plain. It faced a vast and beautiful paddy field. She added that the cemetery was on the land which once belonged to Cho Poo and was probably the private burial ground of the Cho family. Later, when the family was not doing well financially, it was sold to the Malacca’s Eng Choon Hway Kwan and it became a cemetery for the Eng Choon community. She thinks that the tomb should still be there, given the leisurely pace of development in Malaysia. She asked if I would be able to find the tomb. I told her that I could try. All her clues were useful, except for the paddy field. I told her that I doubt the paddy field in her memory still exists. Nevertheless, I took whatever clues that I could use and converted them into intelligent information.
Firstly, I eliminated Bukit Cina as it was near Malacca Town and therefore could not be a 40-minutes-drive. Next, I looked at the map of Jelutong cemetery but it was not sliced into two by any road. I asked a few Malaccan friends of other lesser-known cemeteries and searched the Google Map for them. Finally, I found a relatively small cemetery, probably no larger than 20 acres, which was dissected by a main road. It was away from the Malacca Town and would probably take about 30 minutes to get there by car. This was the Krubong Cemetery. To be certain that I had located the correct cemetery, I contacted a Malaccan friend who verified that this cemetery is indeed managed and owned by the Eng Choon Hway Kwan. He helped me to obtain the mobile contact of the tomb-keeper to locate the grave. With modern technology, I communicated with the tomb-keeper via Whatsapp to economize on the phone bill. Amazingly, he found the tomb the very next day. The search was completed successfully in less than a week since I started piecing the information together!
I informed aunt Elizabeth who was extremely excited and delighted with the news. We decided to go on a trip to Malacca to pay our respects to our common ancestor, Cho Boon Poo. He was the first ancestor who came to this part of the world to carve a better life for himself and his family. By braving the elements to come to the land across the Southern Seas, he had changed his destiny and that of all his descendants. It was through sheer grit and hard work that he built a successful business and owned vast plantations in Malacca and Seremban dealing in palm leaves, gambier, tapioca and rubber. We all had to be grateful to him for being able to lead good lives in Malaya and Singapore for six generations and counting. He married nyonya wives and that was how my Peranakan roots came about. Being a strict father, all his children were well-brought up and a few of his descendants took on key positions in the civil service.
I was told how strict he was about punctuality. The family would have dinner at 7pm sharp and everyone was expected at the table. Nobody could join in once dinner was served. If you missed dinner, it meant that there would be no dinner for you. During one occasion, his fourth son, Kim Tian came home late but the kind servant saved some food for him. When found out, the servant was sacked. He had a strong character and was on the board of the executive committee of the Eng Choon Hway Kwan.
We arrived at his grave on the morning of 23 June 2014 and I noticed that his tomb was the largest amongst the 50-odd tombs in the vicinity.
What captivated me were the Peranakan tiles (Majolica tiles) which adorned his tomb. No other tombs in the surrounding area had this feature. I was told that having Peranakan tiles on the tombs was not widely popular with the Malaccans. Unlike in Singapore, figurines of the Golden Boy and Jade Maiden were conspicuously absent in Malaccan tombs of even the very wealthy. The tomb used to face water-filled paddy fields which are supposed to be auspicious – water and rice. Unfortunately the paddy fields had since given way to modern development. Cho Poo’s tomb seems to be steep in Fengshui elements : the front courtyard of the tomb forms part of a hexagon instead of the normal rectangle or semi-circle. Along the perimeter of the front courtyard lies a water catchment channel which would collect water when it rains. This had since been covered with soil. The tomb shoulders are angular but eventually taper to form convoluting arms that seem to embrace the courtyard. Likely, it symbolizes a firm hold on wealth.Through the tomb inscriptions, I found the names of one of his wives (Lee Hong Neo) and that of the male descendants – sons, grandsons and even great-grandsons! He died at the age of sixty-nine in 1930. My aunt offered joss-sticks and joss-paper as a form of respect to our ancestor.
This trip has been very fruitful not only about finding out more about Cho Poo and paying our respects to him, but it has built a closer bond between aunt Elizabeth, her husband and I, even though we had known each other only recently.
More on Norman Cho’s journey of discovery, here
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 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
The Story behind the Painting
by Alvin Ong
The story of 3 affected graves at Bukit Brown not too long ago inspired a revival of family interest; Tan Yong Chuan (Blk 4, Div C), Tan Tiam Tee (Blk 3, Div B), Wee Geok Eng Neo (Blk 4, Div 6) were exhumed in May 2014. Old photos were unearthed from family albums, and heirloom objects from another era suddenly came to light. For the first time in decades, stories and narratives unlocked themselves from these objects and brought new layers of meaning to the notions of home and identity.
Tan Tiam Tee was the son of the magnate Tan Hoon Chiang (buried in Bukit China, Malacca), one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Co. His wife, Wee Geok Eng Neo, and his son, Tan Yong Chuan were all affected by the proposed highway.
(click on images for a bigger view)
Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)
Miniature cooking pots were interred in Mrs Tan Tiam Tee’s tomb, presumably for her to cook in the afterlife, along with a pearl sanggul, and bracelets. According to my relatives, a set of gold teeth with an engraved heart shape was also found in Tan Yong Chuan’s tomb.
Tan Yong Chuan (son of Mr and Mrs Tan Tian Tee) was finally reunited with his wife for the first time in Holy Family Columbarium after 77 years. The columbarium has an unusual regulation that all photos of the deceased must be in color.
No color photographs of the deceased had existed at that time, so with the help of numerous correspondences, scans were digitally emailed, and the photos doctored and hand-painted.
Studying overseas has allowed the artist the space, physically and emotionally, to explore ideas of home and identity. These graves were only re-discovered shortly after the redevelopment plans were announced. The sight of the many abandoned tombs on the artist’s first visit to Bukit Brown had sparked questions about what happened to the descendants of the people who were interred there, which in turn, prompted the artist to explore if there were indeed any family connections to the cemetery at all. Beyond the historical and material significance of the place, it also felt like a site where mystery, the past, and present all came together. Reuniting with the tombs for the first time in many years became an emotional moment for some, and it also made us feel as though we have touched history, an experience that is becoming exceptionally rare in Singapore.
These were ideas that all came together in the painting, which were almost auto-biographical in that they featured vignettes of the artist’s experience with the discovery of the pioneers of Singapore and his roots. One random memory was a trek with Raymond Goh to Seah Eu Chin’s grave; One of the Teochew stone lions guarding the perimeter of the tomb eventually found its way into the picture. Raymond was featured in the early stages of the work, but in the end, this idea of displacement, loss and discovery surfaced in the final version titled, “Moving House”.
This is not the end of the road. There is yet another tomb whose story remains waiting to be told, my maternal great grandfather, Peck Mah Hoe, pictured here. The artist will be heading to the Peck clan temple in attempt to uncover more. And hopefully, there will be more paintings to come.
About the writer who is an artist :
Alvin Ong is reading fine art in Oxford, and did architecture at the National University of Singapore. In 2004, he was the youngest winner of the UOB painting of the year award at the age of 16. He had his first solo exhibition at 17, in the presence of His Excellency President S R Nathan.
by Raymond Ang
We visited Bukit Brown on a warm Saturday morning on June 7th , to find that the usual scene to the cemetery gates changed. There are now fences leading all the way to the gates. Clearly the construction for the highway has started.
I had brought my students from the Jakarta Nanyang School here to Bukit Brown to learn more about the links between Indonesia and Singapore. The students sweltered in the humidity. I had two groups and one group had lost their way. They had set off from Nanyang Girls’ High School and one of them took a wrong bus.
Beng from the heritage group for Bukit Brown arrived on his bicycle dressed in green cargo pants and wellies. He wore “the” plastic Casio digital watch – the one I wore growing up in Secondary school. He had jerry rigged a plastic bottle to act as a mud guard for the rear wheel of his bicycle. I knew I was going to like him already.
Just as Claire arrived in a taxi, the group that was lost called me on the phone. They were still trying to figure out where they are. Their teacher was from Jakarta too and didn’t know her way around. We decided to start the walk with the one group of students first.
Claire led the way and started to draw connections between the pioneers’ lives, history and culture in Singapore and Indonesia for the students. The tombstones started to mean more than just a random collection of stone, concrete and tiles. The Japanese attack and occupation of Singapore was a large theme – Mr Tay Koh Yat had fled to Batavia on the second last day of the fall of Singapore.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew had family ties in Indonesia. Though bothered by mosquitoes and the heat, the students trudged on. Beng brought out his insect repellant and sprayed the students down. I had told the students to bring some repellent yesterday, but I guess no one did.
We found out that the other group were on the other side of the hill – Mount Pleasant. Beng offered to go get them and dashed off on his bicycle. Claire drew the connections between saga seed and karats for diamonds; between colourful European tiles, Japanese innovation and adaptation and the Ming Chinese influence on Dutch kitchen tiles.
We visited Ong Sam Leong’s tomb and learned about fengshui and distinctive role of Sikhs in Singapore’s colonial history. This is the Nanyang style. One of my students asked me what would happen when the highway gets built. I replied that all this would disappear eventually – she didn’t seem to quite understand. “But it is interesting”, she said. “Yes I agree. I don’t think there is anything else quite like it in the world.” She frowns. “So it would all be gone?”. I nodded. It was sweltering hot. Some of the students were running low on water. Beng pulls out his canteen and starts topping up bottles. I feel very grateful and touched, but wasn’t sure how to express that. So I just smiled and made a mental note.
We ended the tour with a visit to Mr Tan Chor Nam’s tomb. It is simple and distinctively modern. A rectangular plot with a black rectangular headstone. No angels nor lions here. Herein lies one of the founders of Nanyang Girls’ High School. I asked the students to observe the differences between this tomb and the others we have visited in the morning – they could clearly see the difference. The principle of Nanyang Girls High (Singapore), Mdm Heng had told me once that Mr Tan Chor Nam had died a simple man – apparently he had dedicated a large part of his fortune in setting up the school. I tried to draw the connections between Nanyang Girls’ High School and the sister school in Jakarta, and asked the students to maybe think about how they would like to be remembered in the future.
For me Bukit Brown is a reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before us, and shaped the environment in which we have grown and “become”. “What would your legacy be?” I asked? The students looked back at me without speaking. It was a serious question. Maybe too serious. I smiled and said, “alright, you don’t have to tell me. Just think about it.” I hope they do.
Raymond Ang, a Singaporean, is the Head of Experiential Education Centre at the JNY, the Jakarta Nanyang School. He requested a visit to Bukit Brown when his students were on a week long learning journey to Singapore. Brownies Claire Leow and Beng Tang, who stepped up to the plate, despite the late notice, were very impressed with how engaged the students were and their independence as they had to find their own way to Bukit Brown.
by Ang Yik Han
Born in Kulangsu Island off Amoy, Chua Chwee Oh came to Singapore at the age of 14. He studied till 17 or 18, after which he went into business. Beginning with trading between Singapore and Medan, he founded the firm Hock Heng in 1920 which had branches in Rangoon, Annam and other cities. It dealt mainly in local produce like dried fish and provisions. The biggest segment of his business was in French-controlled Annam, followed by British Malaya and the Dutch Indies. He was the second chairman of the Amoy Association (1940-1941) after its founding, and also a chairman of the Goh Loo Club.
Active in the China Relief Fund’s efforts in raising funds to support the Chinese forces against the Japanese, he was known for donating $100,000 single-handedly under his firm’s name. He also encouraged others to contribute by setting an example when the need arose. It must have been a bitter blow for him during the Japanese Occupation when he was forced to join the Hokkien section of the Overseas Chinese Association (OCA), the umbrella body set up by the Japanese to force the Chinese community to pay war reparations.
Chua Chwee Oh died in 1960 at the age of 64. His first wife Mdm Tan passed away at the young age of 32 and is buried together with him. His second wife was Mdm Ng. The place of origin inscribed on his tombstone is “Si Ming” (思明), another name for Amoy coined by Koxinga when the island was his base of operations against the encroaching Qing forces. This name evokes Koxinga’s longing for the glory days of the Han Chinese Emperors in the Ming Dynasty. Barred from use after the Qing Dynasty consolidated its control over all of China, this place name was revived after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown.
The tomb is at Hill 3, about 10m behind and to the left (facing uphill) of Tan Boo Liat’s tomb.