As part of Bukit Brown : Our Roots, Our Future, a series of talks were programmed to enrich the exhibition which was held at the Chui Huay Lim Club, the  co-organiser of the exhibition.

Speaker  Dr Imran bin Tajudeen  gave insights into  Singapura’s Historic  Cemetery at Jalan Kubor which has royal roots.  Several old settlements existed in Singapore besides the Temenggong’s estuarine settlement at Singapore River before Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Among these, Kampung Gelam and the Rochor and Kallang River banks were also sites of historic graveyards related to old settlements of Singapura both before and during colonial rule. The Jalan Kubor cemetery is the only sizable cemetery grounds still largely undisturbed. It belongs with Kampung Gelam history but has been excluded from the “Kampong Glam Conservation District” boundary, and is important for several reasons. It forms part of the old royal port town that was developed when Tengku Long of Riau was installed as Sultan Hussein in Singapore, and is aligned along the royal axis of the town. It is also the final resting place of several traders of diverse ethnicity from the old port towns of our region – neighbouring Riau, Palembang, and Pontianak, as well as Banjarmasin and the Javanese and Bugis ports further afield. Some of these individuals are buried in family enclosures, mausolea, or clusters. Conversely, there are also hundreds of graves of unnamed individuals from Kampung Gelam and surrounding areas. The tombstone forms and epigraphy reflect this immense socio-cultural diversity, and were carved in Kampung Gelam by Javanese and Chinese stone carvers, except for a number of special cases. Several large trees of great age are also found in this lush ‘pocket park’. The talk  discusses the histories that can be retrieved from this important site and the dire need to protect it.

Speaker’s Bio
Dr Imran bin Tajudeen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture, NUS. His research interests centre around vernacular urbanism, house and mosque architecture in Southeast Asia, and critical perspectives in urban heritage studies. Of relevance to this talk is his article, ‘Reading the Traditional City in Maritime Southeast Asia: Reconstructing the 19th century Port Town at Gelam-Rochor-Kallang, Singapore,’ published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Architecture in 2005. His research papers have won prizes at major international conferences, including the ICAS Book Prize 2011 for the best PhD paper in the field of Social Sciences.

Dr Imran bin Tajudeen( photo Bianca Polak)


Part 1 and Part 2 of theEnglish  talks from other speakers are also available.


The iBBC App Guide is a FREE App to accompany you when you visit Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery.  It has been developed by the The Bukit Brown Cemetery Documentation  Project  led  Dr  Hui Yew Foong. Brownie  Khoo Ee Hoon designed  the  artwork of the map. There will be physical markers on site to guide the way.

Download your App from the Google Android store now, here

Check out a video demo on how it works here

And once you have downloaded you can test the application here before heading to Bukit Brown!



Note: This is a sample of a few tombs. The the App itself has  data of over 20 tombs introducing you to the pioneers buried there.

Those  with accompanying numbers e.g. Tok Cheng Tuan 1948 are staked and and will be exhumed. to make way for the eight lane highway. You only have a few months left before you can catch this tomb in all its magnificent glory.

Tok Cheng Tuan & Oon Tuan Cheng (photo: Claire Leow)

The Wayang in  the Tombs

by Ang Yik Han

(Popular tales performed  in Chinese Wayang carved in iconic scenes on tomb panels.)

In  the ” Romance of the Three Kingdoms” General Guan Yu   is immortalised  as  the  epitome of loyalty and righteousness. He played a significant role in the establishment of the state of Shu Han during the period of the Three Kingdoms.

Guan Yu took a poisoned arrow in his right arm when he was besieging the city of Fanzheng. Determined not to retreat, he called upon the services of the famed physician Hua Tuo to treat him on the battlefield. Hua Tuo saw that the poison had spread to Guan Yu’s bones and he had to operate on his arm and cleanse the poison by scrapping his bones. Undeterred, Guan Yu subjected himself to the ordeal, all the while sipping his wine and playing a game of chess. ( photo by Yik Han)

Legend? Embroidered truth? It does not matter, over the ages from at least the Ming Dynasty, the image of Guan Yu smiling and sipping his wine while Hua Tuo scrapped his arm bone has been a source of wonder and encouragement for many.

This tomb is located in Hill 2 and belongs to the Teo Family.

More tombs featuring Guan Yu, here

From Madam White Snake :

A panel possibly of the White Snake parting with her husband after he was taken in by the words of the monk Fa Hai. (photo Yik Han)

The White Snake and her companion the Green Snake (the two ladies in the boat) leading the creatures of the sea in an attempt to flood Jinshan Temple and rescue her husband Xu Xian (许宣) from the clutches of the monk Fa Hai (法海). (photo by Yik Han)

From Nezha conquers the Dragon King :

Nezha storming the palace of the Dragon King with his signature Qiankun ring in one hand, his spear in the other and riding on his “fire wind wheels”. The Dragon King flanked by his courtiers are seated on his throne on the right, a bumbling turtle is trying to resist Nezha, and on the left is a shellfish nymph. (photo Yik Han)

Nezha storming the Dragon King’s domain as the Dragon King riding on a magnificent dragon beats a hasty retreat covered by his underlings. The armed figure on the right may be Nezha’s father Li Jing (李靖), furious with the havoc created by his son (Photo Yik Han)

The panels can be seen at  the   tombs of Poh Cheng Tee and his wife, and mother, in Hill 1, stake numbers 1017 – 1019. Exhumation of staked tombs in the way of the 8 lane highway is expected to begin  after April 15th


Student guide Zaiton speaks to participants at the tomb of Lee Kim Soo (Photo: Peter Pak)


An independent website, SchoolAsia.Org ( ), has featured three case studies on Bukit Brown.

The lessons are now here - Conservation Vs DevelopmentShifting the Paradigm, and a lesson plan on intercultural dialogue, based on the Bukit Brown case study.

The editor, Lisa Li, tells us some schools have taken up these lesson plans for use in class.

“We hope the new site is easier to navigate, with additional features such as a Calendar of Events (educational), Google Translate, more country tags and more regular content (contributed by editors, individuals, NGOs and other organizations),” she writes.

She asks for contributions to this site by:

1) Sharing your educational materials (lesson plans, opinion pieces) for publishing on SchoolAsia.Org.

2) Keeping us updated with any Asia-based educational events you know of, so that we can feature it on our Calendar (we’ve included 3 events by Peranakan Museum as an example). We’ll try to keep track of what’s going on on our own, but it is best to email

Please note there are some basic Terms of Use for contributors & users to protect copyright etc.


The website: is a free-access, crowd-sourced, carefully-curated storehouse of lesson plans, stories, discussions & ideas focused on improving education in Singapore. Lesson plan topics revolve around current affairs, humanities and the arts.

The unique feature of this website is that it crowd-sources good quality lesson plans with a local context that teachers can use straightaway in their classes. With this website, we hope to tap on the energy and resources of passionate individuals and organisations to support teachers.

Our aim is also to make it easier for academics, NGOs & other organisations to connect directly to the classroom through lesson plans for teachers. We believe such specialised knowledge would definitely enrich lessons in schools.

This is in line with a key objective of all things Bukit Brown, which was conceived as an educational tool for students and teachers to self-guide. Our blog was born out of the twin desire to record history and, in a nod to our pioneers, contribute to education by sharing what we learn and find. We urge teachers and students to look into these case studies provided by

Lai Chee Kien teaches student guides about tomb architecture (Photo: Chew Keng Kiat)

Learning while enjoying nature at Bukit Brown



Father’s Day Tribute

By Norman Cho

My Grandfather – Cho Kim Leong


Cho Kim Leong (Photo: Norman Cho’s collection)


Someone once told me that no one is truly dead until the last person who remembers him is gone. This statement is one I totally agree with! I may not have known my grandfather directly, but he still lives in the memories of those who knew him and in the stories of him that I learned from them. Far from be any luminary in the social history of Malaya, he was just an ordinary man-in-the-street with his own personal story…

Family Background

Cho Kim Leong was born in Malacca in 1902, into an upper-middle class Peranakan family who lived in Heeren Street, a popular residential district amongst well-to-do families. The two known addresses that the family occupied were 84 Heeren Street and 151 Heeren Street. It was not known which of these two townhouses he was born in, but documental references in his adult years suggested unit 151. He was the son of Malaya’s pioneer plantation-owner (for gambier, tapioca and rubber), Cho Poo, and his third wife Kong Moey Yean. He later became the manager of his father’s rubber estates in Johore. Little else was known about his early years.

Starting His Family

He was married in Malacca around 1924 and had one son and two daughters. This was his first marriage. He became a young widower in 1933 when his wife fell ill and died. Soon, he looked for a second marriage in hope for a wife who could care for his young children. In 1934, he was introduced to my grandmother – a Singapore nyonya, Yeo Koon Neo (1913 – 1995), whom he married after several months of courtship. A typical date could consist of sightseeing via a trishaw ride, a leisurely stroll along the Esplanade, a movie at the Capitol Theatre or a casual chat over a meal. Their marriage took place in Singapore but he whisked her off to his hometown in Malacca to settle down. They had their first child, Charlie Cho, in 1935, the man who would become my father. During the same year, his mother passed away and left him the rubber estates in Johore. My cosmopolitan grandmother was feeling bored in the sleepy town of Malacca and longed for her Singapore family. She managed to successfully persuade grandfather to resettle in Singapore.


Cho Kim Leong and His Bashful Bride


Life in Singapore

Grandfather relocated his family to Singapore in 1936 and settled down at modest bungalow in 421, Joo Chiat Road (Katong). Grandmother was very pleased as she had many relatives living in Joo Chiat-Katong, an enclave of the Peranakans. My maternal great-grandmother came over and lived with them. I suppose she wanted to be close to my father, her toddler grandson. This was the year that great-grandmother turned 60 years of age, a very important age for the Chinese. It is known as the Tua Seh-Jit (Grand Birthday). Grandfather, being a filial son-in-law, threw a big birthday party for her and invited chong poh (Hainanese chef) to cook for friends and relatives who had come in attendance. Trays of kueh koo were served to symbolically mark the occasion. These red-coloured pastries in the shape of the tortoise symbolize longevity. Earlier in the morning, grandfather had personally prepared the longevity noodle and served it to his mother-in-law for breakfast. This noodle (mee suah) was prepared with an egg and served with the sugar syrup that had been boiled with the Pandan leaves.


The Marital Home of Mr & Mrs Cho Kim Leng. (Source: family album)


The following year, another son was born. They named him George. Life was looking rosy for grandfather and his family. Grandfather would indulge in simple hobbies like solving crossword puzzles, reading, collecting coins, listening to music and indulging in his regular dose of Guinness Stout. I recently learned that he was quite good at solving crossword puzzles as he had won the first prize for a submission in 1927. (


I eventually inherited grandfather’s cache of coin-collecting which included coins that dated back to the reign of Queen Victoria. I also inherited grandfather’s Guinness bottle-cap opener in the shape of a nude female. It was a gift from Guinness Stout for drinking a specific number of bottles. For some strange petty reason, grandmother confiscated it from him. She did not like the idea of him being tantalized by nude female, even if it was in the form of a bottle-cap opener! Another prized possession that I had inherited from grandfather is the commemorative plate of the coronation of King Edward VIII in 1936. Grandfather was a loving father who had my dad weaned on Quaker Oats until he was almost one year old! The plate was given after six cans of Quaker Oats had been purchased. Not only was he a loving father, he was an affectionate husband as well.


Angel from grandparents wedding cake, nude female bottlecap-opener, photo of grandpa and grandma with their sons (taken at 421 Jo Chiat Road), some old colonial coins left behind by grandfather (Photo: Norman Cho)


Grandmother was the Elizabeth Taylor of the family… While grandfather was busy earning money, Grandmother would be busy collecting jewellery. He simply could not understand why she needed so many pieces. He had already given her a fair collection of jewellery. Whenever grandmother was not given money for her jewellery spree, she would give him the cold shoulders. The soft-hearted man would eventually give in to his wife’s indulgence.


The War Years


Japanese troops in Fullerton Square on 16 Feb, 1942, the first full day of occupation. (National Archives)


In the late 1930s, grandmother’s fifth sister and her brood of seven children had come to live with our family. Her husband’s business was not doing well and he had to travel to Malaya to solicit for business. Grandfather was a man with a golden heart. He took in his sister-in-law and her children, and looked after them. With war imminent in 1942, two more of grandmother’s sisters and two of her brothers took refuge in their matrimonial home.

Grandfather became the sole provider for his family and his in-laws. With commodities at black-market prices, his money was fast running out by 1944. He asked if grandmother would be willing to part with some of her jewellery but she strongly protested. She gave an excuse that they would not be worth very much anyway. Reluctantly, he sold his rubber estates in May 1945, not knowing that the war was going to end in a mere three months.

The war ended in August 1945 and grandfather had lost his inheritance and was left with bundles of worthless Japanese Banana banknotes. The depressed and frail man who had not been in good health during the war years finally died on 16 December 1945, exactly four months after the war. His penniless widow with two sons (aged 10 & 8) in tow, hurriedly buried him and left him in an unmarked grave for the next 66 years…


Cho Kim Leong’s unmarked Grave as found in 2011 (photo: Norman Cho)


(Norman had earlier written about finding this grave.)


His Children Remember

There are not many living relatives who remember Cho Kim Leong personally. However, I managed to find out a little more of the man from his children – my father and my aunt. They remembered him as a stern father and a traditionalist who staunchly upheld his principles. They also thought that he was a loving and caring family man who was filial to his elders. He was generous to everyone who needed help. This Father’s Day, the descendants salute Cho Kim Leong for being an exemplary human being and an outstanding father!


Cho Kim Leong’s tomb (photo: Norman Cho)


Norman wrote earlier about building a tomb for his grandfather.


Editor’s note: Norman has documented how he searched for his grandfather’s final resting place, researching his life, and shared how you can trace your own ancestry. His journey continues as he builds on his knowledge of his roots. Do you have a similar story to share? Whatever the stage of your quest, we support your quest and will blog your journey. We have introduced long-lost cousins to cousins, paired different branches of families. We honour your stories, and will help you share them here as you seek more answers. Write to us at

A Grandson Remembers



Parallel Lives

Remember the Source of the Water "Carps in Pond" - painting by Elizabeth Ong

饮水思源  Remember The Source of the Water

Elizabeth Ong and Emma Lim

By Catherine Lim

In 2002 in London and Scotland, two Singapore couples stationed in the United Kingdom, welcomed new arrivals, both girls. Born four months apart, the Ongs in London named their daughter Elizabeth and she was their second child. The Lims in Scotland named their daughter, Emma and she was their first born

In 2006, after 13 years abroad, the Ongs returned home to Singapore because they felt it was time for their young family to root themselves to their country and they returned to the family home which with their children now houses 4 generations.  Their children, elder brother Alexander to Elizabeth were enrolled in Nanyang Primary School and because they were still very young adapted well.

In 2010, the Lims after 12 years abroad returned home for very much the same reasons, to be with family and reconnect to their homeland. By then Emma had a brother and a sister. Their grandparents had visited them frequently when they were in Scotland and the grandchildren settled down comfortably in Singapore, all under one roof. Emma was able to enroll in Nanyang Primary School.

In 2011 Elizabeth and Emma met for the first time.  They barely spoke in the first term of school but by term two their friendship just took off. Both are in the choir; Emma sings  alto, and Elizabeth second soprano. Their passions are artistic.   Dance lessons for Emma every weekend, and Elizabeth has been talking art lessons since 2007. Their mothers met and play dates were arranged whenever the girls had free moments in their busy schedules of school and extra curricula activities. But mostly the girls just text each other when apart.

As their friendship grew so did their mothers’. It was not long before they realised they had similar experiences of living abroad and coming home. When their husbands came into the picture,  the Ong and Lim families found a deeper connection which reached back into Singapore’s past and found another friendship which their daughters’ echoed.

Elizabeth, is the great great granddaughter of Singapore pioneer and scholar Khoo Seok Wan and Emma is the great great great granddaughter of another luminous pioneer, Lim Boon Keng.

Lim Boon Keng and Khoo Seok Wan

By Ang Yik Han

Source : Archive

One was the dapper son of a rich rice merchant from China, a poet and scholar who sat for the Imperial exams. The other was a local born Western trained doctor, recognised by government and society as one of the leading voices of the Straits Chinese community. Khoo Seok Wan and Lim Boon Keng made an unlikely pair of friends. But the historical and political milieu of their times gave birth to unlikely pairings.
Both men were supporters of the reformist movement in China which sought to re-vitalise the Qing Dynasty. Khoo founded the Thien Nan Shin Bao, a local Chinese newspaper sympathetic to the reformist cause; Lim Boon Keng was its English editor. Subsequently, Lim and his father-in-law took over another Chinese newspaper which also adopted the reformist line.

When Kang Youwei, the leader of the reformists, fled China after the Reform’s failure, Khoo offered him shelter in Singapore and sucour for the cause. With the threat of assassins dispatched by the Qing government hanging over Kang, Lim worked with Khoo and the Straits Settlements authorities to protect him. Kang moved three times during his short stay of five months in Singapore. The first two places were properties belonging to Khoo Seok Wan and the third hideout was none other than Lim Boon Keng’s house.

The two also combined their efforts in education and social reform. They established the Singapore Chinese Girls School with other progressive members of the Chinese community at a time when the proper place of women was at home and female education was look upon with disdain. Half of the funds for the school ($3000) were contributed by Khoo Seok Wan and both men served on the inaugural Board of the school.

Khoo’s role in society was greatly diminished in the years following his bankruptcy. He became destitute and had to scrap a living with his pen. Even then, the friendship continued.

The Ong family has in their  possession a book of calligraphy and original paintings which belonged to Khoo Seok Wan.

The page where Lim Boon Keng's signature is penned (photo Yik Han)

Lim Boon Keng's signature in Khoo Seok Wan's "guestbook" 1927 ( photo Yik Han)

This book bears the signatures of various guests who had the honour of leafing through it, including Lim Boon Keng who visited in February 1927. By then, his full time job was the Chancellor of the Amoy University. Lim’s occasional trips back to Singapore were primarily for the never ending task of raising funds for the University, yet somehow he found time to visit his old friend. This signature is testimony to their enduring friendship.

Post script on Emma and Elizabeth

Emma on her friend, Elizabeth:

Elizabeth is pretty and cute.

Elizabeth is smart, funny and my BFF.

Elizabeth has a kind heart and always helps me when I am in need.

Elizabeth on her friend, Emma:

Emma is my BFF and she is fun and exciting to be with.

She always sticks by me through thick and thin.

Emma is pretty and she is a true friend to me.

Blossoming Friendship "The Rose" - Painting by Elizabeth Ong


History You Can Touch

By Lyra Tan Ai-Ling

Today, my mind flits back to Bukit Brown and the stroll I took yesterday (April 21, 2012).


Yes, the cemetery. Sure it’s not exactly rolling hills. But the well-trodden paths among the lush rambling greenery and the bits of bush you have to push past, slapping twigs and leaves leaving streaks of rainwater and mud all over your clothes has a strange charm that appeals to the inner adventurer. Nevermind the fact that I had to pull myself out of bed at 6.30am in the morning to get there by 9am- this was something worth getting out of bed for.


And it was on that note that I found it ironic that our little group, despite the National Environment Agency (NEA) issued flood warning and the pouring rain, continued happily traipsing through the mud and grass, umbrellas of all colours unfurling around us. What is this deterrence you speak of? In fact, after a 3 hour walk, we took a quick pit stop at the toilets and abandoned the wet umbrellas in the cars- diving right back into the thick of things with another 2 hour trek in the glorious after-rain coolness.



Rainy Bukit Brown day (photo: Peter Pak)


Look, I don’t pretend to be any kind of history buff. In fact, I didn’t even take history as an elective in secondary school. The textbook bored me. How could something on a page, about days gone far, far by be something that I needed to know or remember? I loathed memorization. I didn’t take history as a subject.


But living history is a whole other story. History you can see, history you can hear. Even better, history that you can touch.


Crowds on a rainy day at Tan Kim Cheng and Cheang Hong Lim's tombs (photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)


So it is really something when you get to run your fingers across the engraved characters of a headstone, in gold, red or green. When you mentally whisper an apology when you have to borrow a tomb wall for a foothold as you scramble up the slippery hill to the next new find. Standing in a silent circle in the pounding rain, listening to Dr. Lim Su Min sing a love song to an ancestor. History and heritage is in the experiences. Don’t stop at the classrooms and libraries. In the field is where it really blooms.


Su Min sings for his ancestor (photo: Claire Leow)


Now I know what it means to want to keep this beautiful piece of Singapore. I have to admit that I was bothered by the fact that it was going to go to make way for a new highway, but I never really gave it that much thought- another process in our ever-speedy development that I’d just have to get used to. But after yesterday’s walk, that changed.


There’s a heightened sense of connectedness you get from visiting this place somehow- in the words of Hoo Kuan Cien as we commenced the second half of our tour- “I feel so Singaporean right now”. This is intangible- it is something you cannot teach people from a textbook. It’s a feeling, a belonging, an ownership. It is something brought out of you- something that you ARE, something that comes to you as a realization. When you get rid of the old and keep rolling in the new, you create a people with short term memory. What do you expect Singaporeans to feel connected to if you keep getting rid of things that they have to remember our history and heritage by?


Engrossed child listening to Su Min (photo: Victor Yue)


Isabella guides Lim Su-Min (photo: Claire Leow)


Su Min's hand-drawn invitation and a poem for his great great grandfather (photo: Victor Yue)


So seriously, if you haven’t taken a trip to Bukit Brown, I urge you to give it a go, before it’s gone to our ever-constant obsession with the want of a faster journey from A to B. Better still, save Bukit Brown, so that generations to come can go there to make their own discoveries.


Flooding at Hill 4: faith is walking on water! (photo: Claire Leow)

This post was first published by the author on her own Facebook page, and can be found here.

Lyra Tan Ai Ling


Lyra Tan, a 17 year old Arts Business Management student and theatre enthusiast from Ngee Ann Polytechnic shares her thoughts and reflections on Bukit Brown after her first tour there on a rainy Saturday, 21 April.


Vista at Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)

by Andrew Tan

In Bukit Brown Cemetery, an avenue, like prime real estate, connects Singapore’s prominent families—all inter-related, as these powerful cliques were linked by arranged marriages to perpetuate their wealth and influence through six generations, during 150 years of British rule (1819 to 1959).


1819-1867        Beginnings

The earliest Asian elites in Singapore were comprador-kapitans from Malacca, who brokered with European (mainly British) companies, exclusive credit and arms deals.  To procure native products for Europeans, compradors resourced from powerful clan headmen who controlled the supply of coolie labour, ships, and native products—crucial to entrepot success.  Business partnerships were tied by arranged marriages between all families.

Family examples: Tan Tock Seng and his family network supplied and distributed manufactures for the British “country traders”; they also married influential relatives of the compradors and Kapitan Cina.  Together, this was the first powerful clique in Singapore, which broadened (after Singapore’s cessation as entrepot of the opium-arms trade following British victory over Qing China) to include revenue farmers and labour contractors as their enterprises penetrated Southeast Asia.

1867-1900        Rise

From 1867, with Singapore a crown colony, the long established families recruited scholars and professionals as sons-in-law, to perpetuate their vested interests (e.g. tax-free “free trade” policies, opium farms, colonial intervention in tin-rich Malaya) through positions in the advisory board and councils at the municipal, rural and legislative level; appointments rotated among relatives (who advised the Governor on nominations) to ensure advantageous policy continuity.

The immediate decades after Suez Canal opened in 1869 diverted oceanic traffic through Singapore.  To compete internationally, merchant families pooled their resources into joint-venture consortiums (in steamships); their offspring intermarried too.  Ties between in-laws counted more than paper contracts.

Family examples: Notable Queen scholars (Lim Boon Keng, Song Ong Siang etc) and other top professionals were sons-in-law of well established merchant-shipping families like the Wee-Ho Hong-Lee group, as well as others who partnered in Straits Steamship.

1900-1941        Peak

Insatiable demand for World War One commodities (tin, rubber) produced the first multi-millionaires in Singapore: these nouveaux-riches—their heirs and heiresses were courted and charmed by Old Money.  Merging New Money with Old gave birth to multifamily-owned conglomerates (e.g. OCBC, UOB, Straits Steamship) tying together banks, ships, plantations, factories and newspapers.

Large fortunes would aggrandize social ambition: Plutocrats usurped collective and consular institutions (e.g. Ngee Ann Kongsi, Chinese Chambers of Commerce), to connect with powerful Chinese warlords of lucrative market potential, offering to regimes funds for schools and humanitarian relief, using family-controlled newspaper editorials to galvanize mass involvement.

Ability to lead the Chinese masses into action was recognized by the British military; however, these plutocrats on war councils were relocated with their families to India just weeks before the Japanese Occupation.

Family examples: Families from shipping, commodities, revenue farming, and remittances, co-founded the conglomerates of OCBC and UOB, with ties to the burgeoning sectors like film and publishing, and family connections in politics.

1945-1959        Turning Point

In postwar Singapore, enriched by military contracts in the Cold War, scions used their wealth to contest for elected self-government, but the expanded, impoverished electorate rejected these “rich men’s parties” (Progressive Party and Democratic Party, whose members were related, merged into the Liberal Socialist Party), in favour of a new regime, the People’s Action Party (PAP).

Family examples: Contracts were monopolized by consortiums who subcontracted to each other.  Chain of suppliers for the British military coalesced and expanded to retail giants.

1959 onwards          Decline

Following Singapore’s independence under the PAP, the old elites diminished in economic influence: their once-predominant, century-old monopoly of colonial contracts was overshadowed by the growth of public state-sector industries in partnership with foreign multinationals.  Attrition too, their vast landholdings compulsorily acquired by the state for redevelopment.

Their hereditary clan-leadership in communities has been subsumed by government departments that fund and run all neighbourhood activities and amenities.  More than cultural and community centres, clans were once the centre of powerful labour unions.  They once ran schools; but today, the Education Ministry syllabus and compulsory mandarin has created a generation disconnected with their dialect heritage, previously stressed in clan schools.

Arranged marriages and pedigrees became obsolete as post-war mass education broadened careers and widened choices in life partners. Also, professionalization broke down class barriers.  The Women’s Charter in 1961 ended the quasi-feudal family structure.

As Singapore developed to become a middle class society, a new breed of technocrats allied with the PAP replaced the Old Establishment.

A multifamily tree, with 1000 people from 100 families, 6 generations interlinked in strategic alliances from the late 1700s to now, will be published  in 2012.  I shed light on the influential cliques (made up of powerful families) who dominated Singapore’s society and economy past two hundred years. Andrew Tan


Theatre and Film Community guided by Raymond Goh (photo: Jasmine Ng)

Theatre practitioner, Alvin Tan visits Bukit Brown for the first time and shares his impressions and reflections on where he sees its place in the Singapore story – past, present and future

It began with a text message:

Jasmine alerts me to a Bukit Brown walk (Saturday 14 April 2012) on SMS:

Hi all,

Any one up for a stroll through Bukit Brown this Saturday morning 14th APRIL from 9am to 11-ish? The good volunteer peeps of the Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown facebook group have agreed to take us on a walking tour led by the  tomb whisperer himself – the brilliant Raymond Goh. Pls sms me if you’re inTERESTED. Pls ask along friends family other filmmakers. Children and infants in baby carriers are always welcome! <<jasmine

I responded that I was interested but unable to confirm because it was a very busy week and I might be too exhausted.  I’m not much of a morning person.  I stalled.  Jasmine persisted.   And on Saturday morning, I was on the MRT meeting Jasmine at Tiong Bahru Station, jumping into a cab and we were on our way to Bukit Brown.

I was relieved that I reached Bukit Brown with such ease. Getting off the cab, friends from the theatre and film communities were already there. And soon we were to be inducted into the Bukit Brown community as we waited for for Raymond to arrive.

The tranquil environment was soothing; ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.  Why is the dead impacting on us so much with this Bukit Brown saga?  Why is heritage beginning to matter to us?  Have we been losing too much of that in recent years and more Singaporeans are feeling the loss?

(photo Alvin Tan)

It’s happening at a point in Singapore’s history, after GE 2011, after the KTM/Green Corridor episode.  It’s been bringing Singaporeans from all walks of life together – advocates, interest groups, NGOs and the public.  I’ve never witness a cause being mainstreamed so fast here in Singapore that it is beginning to take on a momentum of a small movement.

Petitions have been started, position papers on both the heritage and habitat of Bukit Brown have been  written, outreach activities to create awareness and appreciation of Bukit Brown to draw the Singaporeans and visitors from all walks of life, took flight. Whether it shows a sign of maturity, that Singaporeans are beginning to be stakeholders as citizens of this country is not as important to me as the fact that it’s the only kind of Awakening Singaporeans can afford. There is not just a small group of people, a core of activists who can be easily contained, labelled, character assassinated and dismissed.

The realisation that organic change is the best revolution for me accompanied me throughout the morning at Bukit Brown as I took in the stories shared so generously by the tomb whisperer, Raymond Goh.  Just looking at all of us being attentive and learning about our history, cultural heritage made me appreciate the moment we were all in as we moved from one tombstone to the next.

(photo Alvin Tan)

Then the Peranakan tombs came into focus.  It was not just the Chinese that were buried at Bukit Brown.  There were so many Peranakans buried here as well.  The tiles that lined some of the tombs made me wonder again how the Peranakans were determined to distinguish themselves from the other Chinese (sinkehs) who came later.  The fact that the Peranakans integrated and assimilated successfully in Nanyang again arose in my mind, juxtaposed to our contemporary reality of new migrants arriving at our shores today.  What would that outcome be like compared to the Peranakan story of our past?  How rich these lessons are or can be and how did this visit to Bukit Brown inspire such multi-layered discourse in my mind?  What can happen if history teachers, dramatists and other artists have site-specific happenings, engaging the public.  Surely this would be something concrete that the Community Engagement Programme would gladly commission to build social cohesion meaningfully amongst Singaporeans.

Then of course a friend’s question bothered me: ” Why only now?  Before the whole ruckus, who bothered about Bukit Brown?  So why bother about it now?  It can go, it wouldn’t bother me.  It didn’t bother me before, and so, it shouldn’t bother me now.  It’s a loss I can afford. “

Or can we? As we walked the trail, with nature all around us, I easily fell into deep reflection, sometimes conscious of the people around me and sometimes just amazed at how beautiful Singapore can be.  Why do we make invisible what is astoundingly beautiful to replace it with something that comes from economic pragmatism?   I can’t find it in myself to grief.  Maybe because I am 49 and  have been toughened over the years.  There is never much use fighting for causes, fighting for what we believe in because we will come face  to face with disappointment and disillusionment especially when it is already a done deal.  Why should this time be any different?

(Photo Alvin Tan)


But the above picture shows a group of people strolling downhill towards our next destination and those who were ahead loved the image so much that we all whipped out our cameras, almost simultaneously to capture the image.

Therein lies the hope:  this small group of believers were walking down because they had walked up the tiny hill before this.  This group of travelers believed enough to submit to the necessary demands of this route.  There will always be people who will continue to persevere for what they believe in, shaping expectations along the way, building capacity, developing and strengthening community bonds.   This is the birth and nurturing of stakeholders.  No cynicism should discourage that impulse.  It is not a group of people egging the public on.  It is the public coming from all walks of life meeting at the cross road called Bukit Brown.

By the end of the walk, Bukit Brown had become a metaphor in my mind.  But it will not become just a cerebral relic.  Something in my heart was beating and burning.  Something I have missed for some time – the quiet rhythm of a community forming, unbeknown to most of us.  Something young and raw but definitely alive amongst the thousands of tombs all around us.

Editors note:

We have included additional photos from the tour including this “hat trick” of  great spontaneity and generosity, instigated by Tan Pin Pin. $200 was collected to pay a tomb keeper to clear a couple of graves of undergrowth

Tan Pin Pin (photo Anthony Chen

Group photo film and theatre communities at Ong Sam Leong

About Alvin Tan and

The Necessary Stage 
Founded in 1987 by our Artistic Director Alvin Tan, The Necessary Stage is a non-profit theatre company with charity status, with a mission to create challenging indigenous and innovative theatre that touches the heart and mind. The Necessary Stage is also the organiser and curator of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
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The Serenity of A Graveyard

From Catherine: I wrote this almost 5 years ago for The Straits Times. It seems to stand the test of time

Preservation and the soul of a nation

Catherine Lim Suat Hong, For The Straits Times, 17 July 2007

(c) 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

MY FAMILY home, the National Stadium and an 80-year-old tree that was just felled over the weekend – in my mind they are all connected, and at three levels of engagement, from the personal, to the national and the global.

My family home at Serangoon Gardens was sold early this year.

In my memory it stood as a place of good times and bad. We moved in during the early sixties, and extensions were built, somewhat willy nilly to the original structure. We had one toilet and one bathroom shared among a family of six, a live-in maid and at various times even a tenant.

In the early nineties, my brother and his wife bought the house and rebuilt it. The new home had three bathrooms for a family of five.


I moved out with my parents to Bishan just before the turn of the millennium. I’m making new memories here and have no regrets for the family home no longer in our hands.

Not so simple though for the National Stadium. Watching the fire in the cauldron of the grand dame snuffed out for the last time on television recently, I was taken back by the groundswell of emotional response, including mine.

As a fledgling journalist I had covered National Day stories on the ground. In later years, it marked a high point in my career, when I helmed the live television commentary in the commentators’ booth, above the VIP seating area with an unparallel view of the parade.

I felt the earth move with the 21-gun salute; a hair’s breadth away from the men and their magnificent flying machines as they seemed to swoop towards me in the fly past; and as night fell the sky lit up in a kaleidoscope of colours that blew my mind away.

My personal memory counts for little. But viewed from the macro lens of a young nation, it is part of the collective memory of Singapore’s sporting history, of romances which blossomed on the stands and on track, and the passing of the baton from father to child.

Still, I was paradoxically ambivalent about this collective loss. After all, sporting history will continue to be made, love will still blossom and National Day Parades will continue to evoke patriotism in the continuum of time and space. Then I read Mr Ho Weng Hin’s compelling piece – Losing a slice of history – in these pages on Friday. He asked: ‘As another nation-building icon bites the dust… was it all really inevitable?’

He brought to the fore of the debate about conservation an international perspective in favour of rejuvenation through technology, even as our technocrats invoke the tide of progress as the cornerstone of their arguments for demolition.

Time and tide waits for no man. But time can be suspended, to allow generations to be bridged in a past that lives on into the present and beyond.

Much has already been lost. How much is subjective, not objective, and history will be the judge. But when the physical proof of such memories is demolished, all we have left will be words and pictures in libraries and museums, the purview of scholars many years down the road.

And it is to Braddell Road I now turn – to the 80-year-old angsana tree right smack in the middle which is now no more; the cut was swift just days after it was announced that it had to go because it posed a danger to motorists.

The decision came, ironically, hot on the heels of the Live Earth concerts to galvanise awareness of a planet in crisis. It prompted letters to the newspapers and on the Internet. Tree lover Sim Hong Gee wrote: ‘What is more appalling is the rationale for removing the tree – because motorists were not observing the speed limit of 40 kmh posted on that stretch of road. With all the well-posted road signs, it is clear to users… that one has to slow down significantly, given the extent of the road curvature even without the tree being in the middle of the road.’

The other letter that was published came from a neighbourhood committee member who wrote: ‘I have never been able to understand the unyielding stance taken against the cutting down of trees (by the two authorities Land Transport Authority and National Parks Board) even when there is a danger of them causing injury and death.’

He added: ‘I have always thought it ridiculous to spend $200,000 to have a major road split up just to avoid cutting down a tree.’

Judging by the netizen response to these two opposing letters, the latter were drowned out by supporters of the tree. But to no avail.

Human life is primary and rotting trees which pose a danger to innocent pedestrians and drivers should be felled. But not this tree. It was healthy, just inconvenient to speedsters. As one netizen pointed out, you don’t obliterate drink driving by eradicating alcohol; you educate.

The nexus of conflict, between saving the environment – both natural and man-built – and material progress, will continue to dog us.

We can establish a principle: that when we have toted up the pros and cons of demolition as compared to that of preservation – and by preservation I mean a living and breathing preservation – we subject the balance to the scrutiny of the collective consciousness. And return to the drawing board to relook, rethink and resketch new possibilities.

Our government has pledged that it is here for the long haul. As it contemplates how to root Singaporeans to the country, economic success alone is not enough; equal weightage has to be given to the soul of a nation.

There is still time. We are a city of possibilities.


March 2015
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