By Sugen Ramiah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Coloured Paper  placed on the headstone (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Coloured Paper placed on the headstone (photo Sugen Ramiah)

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

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

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

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

Offerings to the earth deity (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Offerings to the earth deity (photo Sugen Ramiah)

E - QM

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

F - QM

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

G - QM

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

H - QM

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

I - QM

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

J - QM

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

K - QM

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

L - QM

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

M - QM

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

N - QM

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

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

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


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

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

Read about the tombkeepers’ Qing Ming here






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By Claire Leow

This week marks the second anniversary of this blog, started to support a volunteer effort to raise awareness of Bukit Brown’s intrinsic value: its heritage, habitat and history. More importantly, it marks the 72th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore to Japanese occupation during World War II. The two anniversaries dovetailed neatly as All Things Bukit Brown hosted a special tour to mark the Remembrance of the War Dead, tracing the routes of the Japanese advance and the British retreat to defend the city as the battle spilled over from Bukit Timah and Adam Park to Sime Road and into the cemetery grounds, a prelude to dreaded hand-to-hand combat in the thick forest. This is the battle at Bukit Brown in the last hours before the fall of the “Impregnable Fortress” that was Singapore, the jewel of the British empire. James Tann contributed a moving chronology of events.


battlefield: where the dead lay (Photo: Claire Leow)

battlefield: where the dead lay (Photo: Claire Leow)


On Feb 15, 2014, we were able to guide 55 participants in an energising walk to retrace the steps of the soldiers as Bukit Brown is unique as a battle site from WWII that is still largely intact, according to the findings of battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper, who serendipitously landed in Singapore to find himself living at Adam Park, the site of a battle and near to the Sime Road prisoners-of-war (POW) camp during Japanese Occupation (February 1942 to September 1945). This has enabled Jon to advance his research and fieldwork, reinforcing the historic value of the endangered heritage site, as the government has started its project to exhume more than 4,000 graves to make way for an 8-lane highway despite arguments for alternatives.

In January last year, we discovered his research had taken him to Bukit Brown and collaborated with him to start battlefield tours and talks.


The building that was the Japanese headquarters still stands today (Photo: Claire Leow)

The building that was the Japanese headquarters still stands today (Photo: Claire Leow)



Indeed as exhumations started in recent months, Jon accelerated his search for missing soldiers, initially the nine missing Suffolks soldiers. His research recently led him to archival materials from a Reverend Eric Cordingly about a massacre of five Indian soldiers, with burial records that they were laid to rest at a now-defunct village on the outskirts of Bukit Brown. Their last known resting place is unknown.

As Jon writes, “it was noted in the initial report that we only had details for missing Suffolk men and that most likely there are many more of other units who could have gone missing on Bukit Brown. This addendum to the report is a great case in point. Here we have independent reports which tie in nicely with the existing documents and shed light on more missing soldiers. The fact that they were Indian troops reminds us of the global heritage that is encompassed in this battlefield site. Also the suggestion that men were rounded up bound together and then shot is a vivid reminder that the Kheam Hock road was a scene of one of the horrific atrocities that were taking place across the island at the time.”


Fig 2 – The six figure grid reference for the burial site of the executed Indians (815143) places the grave at the southern foot of Hill 130 within the village.

Fig 2 – The six figure grid reference for the burial site of the executed Indians (815143) places the grave at the southern foot of Hill 130 within the village.


Tomorrow, February 18, marks the 72th anniversary of the start of the Sook Ching massacre, after the Japanese forces conducted an island-wide scourge to execute able-bodied  Chinese men aged 18 to 50, partly in revenge for the overseas Chinese support during the Sino-Japanese war. There are no records of the final numbers killed but the official estimate stands at 50,000 men.


15 February 1942: The British surrender Singapore to Japan. (Photo: Imperial War Museum, London)

15 February 1942: The British surrender Singapore to Japan. (Photo: Imperial War Museum, London)


Chinese males rounded up an interrogated by Kempeitai (Asia Pacific Journal)


Grace Seah is one of many descendants of the victims of Sook Ching, as she tells here in this blog post, Sook Ching: Our Loss, of how her uncle Tan Kim Cheng failed to heed her father’s plea to flee. Our tours to the ornate tombs of Tok Cheng Tuan and his widow Oon Tuan Cheng always moved participants, in a personal tragedy in reported in “Oon Tuan Cheng: A Life of Loss“ as a young widow with six children to raise, only to lose her sons to Sook Ching. A young lady Soh Koon Eng was cut down in her prime in a bomb raid. Her story was brought to light after a niece opened up to the volunteers. These are moving stories of the civilians caught up in the throes of war.


Tan Kim Cheng - Civilian War Victim

Tan Kim Cheng – Civilian War Victim


Tok Kim Seng (Photo: family archives)

Tok Kim Seng (Photo: family archives)


Tok Kim Choon (Photo: family archives)

Tok Kim Choon (Photo: family archives)


Among the most wanted on the Sook Ching list was Wong Chin Yoke. Wong, a decorated police inspector (he received the Coronation Medal) who had escaped Singapore with 10 men before the fall in 1942, fleeing to Indonesia to start an underground resistance movement. He was betrayed and then caught and eventually killed by Japanese in 1943. His body was whisked away by a friend from the Japanese Military hospital and buried. It was not for another 11 years before this war hero was re-interred in Singapore. Nonetheless, his remains were buried with full police honours in Bukit Brown on 21st September 1954. Suitably, a fearsome pair of Sikh guards stands guard at his tomb. They never fail to wow visitors.


A striking Sikh guard at Wing Chin Yoke's final resting place (Photo: Amardeep Singh)

A striking Sikh guard at Wing Chin Yoke’s final resting place (Photo: Amardeep Singh)


Next on the most wanted list was another war hero, Tay Koh Yat, a community leader. Tay was admired for his patriotism and daring-do in leading a 20,000-strong self-defence force which he formed just before the Japanese invasion to aid those injured by the Japanese air raids. His rallying cry was “20,000 people, one heart.”  The force helped to maintain order and prevent panic and chaos  as people started to flee the country with the invasion of the Japanese forces.

Tay stood his ground until the eleventh hour and fled to Indonesia to escape certain death only on the eve of the fall of Singapore. After the war, Tay returned and immediately started to compile the fatalities from his volunteer force and lobbied the colonial government for the same compensation given to widows and children of servicemen who died during the war. Tay next went on to form the Singapore Chinese Appeal Committee for the Japanese Massacre victims to seek justice and compensation for the estimated 50,000 people massacred. In March 10, 1947, the War tribunal committee found Lieutenant General Kawamura Saburo, Singapore garrison commander and Lieutenant Colonel Oishi Masayuki Kempeitai commander guilty of war crimes and sentenced them to hang.

Tay was one of only six people to witness their execution; such was his standing in the community. And, on seeing the two generals, he burst out in anger and sorrow: You have committed big sins and really deserve to die, but even when your soul descends to hell to suffer further punishment,  still it is not enough to atone for your sins.”

His great granddaughter Jaime Ho read of his exploits on this blog and wrote her of her mother’s emotion. It was equally prescient that as we ended our tour at Tay’s tomb, the Civil Defence siren went off at noon, very similar to the air raid sirens that haunted Singapore in 1941 and 1942. We held a minute of silence for Tay.

There were notable volunteers, such as Tan Chow Kim, one of the original members of the Singapore Voluntary Infantry (S.V.I) , a company within the Singapore Volunteer Corps. Another was  Tan Huck Wan, a Corporal of the Singapore Voluntary Field Ambulance, Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, who probably died as a prisoner of war on 31st May 1944. That same year, his daughter Ruby Tan died on the 26th Oct 1944. She was only 6 months old. His widow had to raise two sons alone. (Sadly, both father and daughter have been exhumed to make way for the highway.)

The losses were great during the war. Many died in unmarked tombs. Norman Cho found his grandfather’s grave after 66 years, and retells the story of a man of wealth and repute who lost his fortune during the war. Though Cho Kim Leong survived the occupation, he died a broken man mere months after Singapore was liberated. His bereft widow was too impoverished, a single mother with two young sons, and had no money for a tomb. Norman built a tomb for his grandfather only in 2012.

Many others are remembered only as burial entries which record that “SMC” (Singapore Municipal Council) trucks dumped their bodies in trenches at Bukit Brown in March and April. It is not clear how they died. We are still searching for these mass graves.


Tombkeeper Chua has spoken of seeing mass graves for the war dead (photo: Claire Leow)

Tombkeeper Chua has spoken of seeing mass graves for the war dead (photo: Claire Leow)



From the civilian defence force to the police force, community leaders to defenceless civilians, many were felled during the war. Families suffered. Children died premature deaths. Poverty, disease and malnutrition were rife.

Bukit Brown is not just another cemetery. It is the final resting place of pioneers from the 1830s right up to victims of the war in the 1940s. It represents universal heritage and a reminder of our frailty and also a measure of our resilience.

The volunteers have now guided more than 10,000 visitors to Bukit Brown. As much as this is a testimony to the dedication of these amateur historians and researchers, it is a greater testimony to the intrinsic value of Bukit Brown as a repository of historical artifacts and resources as well as heritage values. It would not have been possible to move so many with mere passion. Once there, the participants recognise immediately the natural serenity and lushness of the habitat, bird calls rising from the forests. With the aid of some story-telling, the meanings of the sculptures, inscriptions, motifs and tomb designs become clear.

With research comes deeper knowledge of the lives and times of those interred there, a story arc of Singapore from the early years, through good times and bad. Fortunes were made and lost. Lives ordinary and deeds extraordinary came to pass. It would be a great loss to the nation and to students of history to have Bukit Brown lost to a highway and housing.


Bukit Brown landscapes III (Photo: Ang Hock Chuan)



Claire PortraitClaire is a co-founder of All Things Bukit Brown. Her grandfather survived the Sook Ching massacre.


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by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

My wife and I went on a lovely tour of Bukit Brown, conducted by Fabian, lawyer-cum-history buff and very proud “Brownie”, on the morning of Saturday, January 25th 2014.

Before then, the last time I had visited Bukit Brown was in Junior College, when classmates and I would go there for a spooky tipple, more focused on whisky than history.

Only now do I realise how much I have missed. On that Saturday, I learned so much about Singapore’s past. Love the crazy characters: polygamists, guerillas, tycoons, benefactors, sometimes one and the same.

Although I have read much about the Bukit Brown controversy over the years, it is only after visiting that I have a deep appreciation for what we—as a country, society and culture—are about to lose.

Many of us decry Singapore’s rush to development, and GDP-maximising policies. When we speak about, say, high population growth or unnecessary destruction and rebuilding, it can sometimes get a bit abstract, the story lost in numbers and details. A visit to Bukit Brown illustrated the problem to me in a very visceral sense, in a way a thousand articles can never do.

It seems almost perverse that Singaporeans, myself included, will travel abroad and marvel at historical ruins and temples in places such as China and India, yet can stand by and allow a place of such historical import to be ripped from our soul. Our collective Singaporean identity is suffering, slowly, with each grave exhumed. I feel ashamed.

As a writer, I also drew a lot of inspiration from my visit. First, in terms of history, I learned a lot about Singapore’s connections to China and India. I am currently working on a book about the two countries, and Bukit Brown threw up some fresh ideas for stories. For instance, I started to think more about the role of Singapore-based revolutionaries, aside from Sun Yat-Sen, who is oft spoken about, in China’s 1911 revolution.

Meanwhile, it also occurred to me that there are many more interesting intersections of Chinese and Indian culture in Singapore, for instance the Sikh guards who protect the Chinese tycoon’s grave (see picture).

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

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

Second, in a broader sense, I was also inspired by the greenery, architectural beauty, and solitude that Bukit Brown offers. Artists in Singapore often bemoan the city’s dry, insipid environment. A walk through Bukit Brown left me rejuvenated, in a way that the artificial icons like Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay will never do.

Exhumations are slated to be completed by the end of this year. For those of you who have yet to visit, please do. Especially those with children. Do take them—who knows what will be left of Singapore when they’re older?

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

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

“Some graves are still being unearthed by descendants!”

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

Many beautiful sculptures, worthy of preservation

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

(For more on my book about China and India, tentatively titled From Kerala to Shaolin, please see here.)

About Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh:

After seven years at The Economist Group, in early 2013 Sudhir left the professional world to write full-time. His literary interests concern the way grand socio-political systems influence ordinary people’s lives, their worldviews and their interactions with each other. He hopes to follow his first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, with narratives on Asia’s other great societies—he is currently working on a book about China and India. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Economist, The Straits Times and Yahoo! News.

Sudhir blogs at



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Chew Chai Pin

(b. 11 November 1911 – d. 13 June 1941)

Among the 4,000 graves which will have to be exhumed to make way for the highway is that of Chew Chai Pin (# 1253)

Chew grave documentation project

The Grave of Chew Chai Pin  ( photo credit : The Bukit Brown Documentation Project)

Chew Chai Pin was one of three founders  of the Chinese High School in Batu Pahat.  Unlike the other prominent Chinese men who contributed to the school, Chew was not well known then in the community.    He held the concurrent  position of director and teacher of  the Ayer Hitam School. But he was soon to answer a higher calling.

On March 6, 1940,  Chew went to China from Singapore to Yangon and China, to  visit and give moral support to the Nanyang  volunteer mechanics and drivers, as well as civilians and troops.  The Nanyang  Volunteers were  recruited and trained  from  South East Asia,  to transport war and logistic supplies through the notorious China-Burma highway to sustain  China’s war effort against the invading Japanese. Chew represented Batu Pahat as  part of a deputation comprising of representatives from the overseas Chinese communities of South East Asia.
But on March 29 1940, the vehicle he was in overturned and he sustained serious injury to his spinal cord.  He was warded at a hospital at Xiaguan (Yunnan)  while the rest of the deputation proceeded to their destinations.  He was visited by none other than Tan Kah Kee,  who was instrumental in  galvanizing  the support of  the overseas Chinese in Nanyang (South East Asia)  for the second Sino-Japanese War.  Tan made arrangements to have Chew sent to Yangon for treatment as the doctors in Xiaguan were unable to heal him. Chew’s legs were numb and he could not walk for more than a year.  Chew also received a letter of consolation  from the  Commander-in-Chief of the war and leader of the Kuomintang , Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek.

On March  4th of 1941, a year after his accident,  an arrangement was made for him be transported to Singapore for treatment. Just when many thought Chew would recover, he died in Singapore on June 13, 1941  at 0615 hours. It was said that his funeral in Singapore  was attended by more than 400 people. He was hailed in both Singapore and Malaysia as a patriot who sacrificed his life for  China.

citation for Chew

An obituary in the  Nanyang Siang Pau to the memory of Mr Chew Chai Pin proclaims:  “He Died for his Country”

On his deathbed, he urged his compatriots to spare no effort for China’s salvation. He said:

“I am ashamed to have done nothing in service of my country. How can I die without doing anything for the motherland? I must do something for the nation when I come back in another life.” Chew Chai Pin.

Chew  was just 30 years old when he died.

Tan Kah Kee wrote in his memoirs that when the deputation left Singapore by ship on the 6th of March, it was sent off by a crowd in high spirits. Only Chew’s mother and wife were weeping. Somebody observed to Tan,  that the deputation would be away for only 3 months and it was an honour to be a delegate, so even though one could excuse Chew’s mother as she was of an older generation, his wife who was educated and a teacher was showing too much emotion. After seeing Chew in hospital six months after his accident, when he could not be cured by the doctors there, Tan Kah Kee remarked that it seemed the mother and wife had been prescient of what was to come at the point of parting.

Chew  was born on 11/11/11 in the Hokkien Province, Tong An County, Au To village. He married in November 1937,  and was childless at the time of his death.  After he  passed  away,  his parents adopted a son on his behalf.


An article from Sin Chew Jit Poh 19 Dec 2012 on Chew Chai Pin


Chinese High School (photo Raymond Goh)

The Chinese High School in Batu Pahat co founded by Chew Chai Pin (photo Raymond Goh)

postscript : Chew Chai Pin’s grave has been claimed.


Source: From  the blog  of 沈志堅’who is a teacher at Chinese High School in Batu Pahat. (Translated by Fabian Tee)

Additional information from the Memoirs of Tan Kah Kee



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On  2nd  January, 2014, June Tan   witnessed and photo documented the exhumation of her grandfather, Ong Kim Soon. She also shared with us the testimonial of how a promise was fulfilled to carry on the lineage of another family. It speaks to men and women  of honour and ties of kinship which live on till today.

Ong Kim Soon 1  (photo June Tan)

The exhumation of Ong Kim Soon begins, after the family conducted their  pre- exhumation rituals (photo June Tan)


By June Tan

My grandfather was an ordinary man. He worked hard to make ends meet and was an honest man of principles.  When he passed away at the age of 47 , he left behind his wife & 6  children aged between 6-22 years old then.

The story I want to share of my grandfather has to start from my great great grandparents.

My great great grandfather Ng died at a very young age. He was in his 20s then. He left behind his wife but no descendants. The women of that era usually did not remarry if their husband passed on. It was deemed to be their duties to take care of their in- laws .

However, my great great grandmother was a young lady in the prime of her life at that time. Her mother- in- law decided that she should not stay as a widow and allowed her to remarry.   She, however,  set a condition for the man (suramed Ong) who was to marry her- that  the first son born by them had to take  the surname “Ng”  (黄). As a gratitude to the old lady, they readily  agreed.

Soon after, my great grandfather was born and he took  the Ng surname. However, great great grandfather Ong soon fell very ill and with his wife they were unable  to produce a 2nd child.  Their son, my great grandfather had  no option but to reinstate his surname to Ong in order to perpetuate the Ong family line.

The older generation is a generation of principles.  It was resolved that the next male child born in the family will carry the surname of Ng to honour the promise of my great great grandparents.

Years later, my grandfather was born and he adopted the “Ng” (黄) surname. In fact, of the 3 sons born in that generation, my grandfather and his 2nd  brother took on the Ng surname as a gratitude to the Ng family.

At age 47,  my grandfather passed away. All that he left behind was a meagre sum of S$24.  The family was faced with the task of paying for a decent  burial place.

Seh Ong Sua (which adjoins Bukit Brown)  was the only cemetery with free burial grounds available for the Ong descendents . My grandfather’s brothers, my grand uncles,  approached the person in charge of the Ong Clan then. However, only descendants of the Ong clan could be buried there. After hearing the origins of my grandfather’s surname, the Ong clan agreed to accord him a burial ground in Seh Ong  on condition that that he had to use his Ong surname on the headstone of his grave.

Hence,  the surname  on his tomb is Ong (王) whereas his children will continue to take the Ng surname.

For these reasons, my great grandmother had “set” a rule for my mum’s generation that they are allowed to marry Ngs’ but not Ongs’ as that is the origin of their bloodline.


A few photos from June Tan’s album of  her grandfather’s exhumation.  The coffin was fully intact and the set of bones, nearly complete. With her permission, the  complete album which she has captioned as a photo essay,  is available here 

Ong Kim Soon 2 (photo June Tan)

Setting up the canopy, getting ready to remove the remains from the coffin (photo June Tan)

Ong Kim Soon 6   (photo June Tan)

The remains after the coffin (which was fully intact) was opened with an electric saw (photo June Tan)

Ong Kim Soon 5   (photo June Tan)

The bones are washed with white wine as required by traditional exhumation practices. (photo June Tan)


Ong Kim Soon has moved to  Yishun Columbarium. Rest in Peace.

Editor’s note: We would like to thank  June Tan for  sharing her photos of her grandfather’s exhumation and her family story with us. If you are a descendant who has ancestors staked for exhumation,   please share your story with us.

Email us:

You can read about another  first hand account by a grandson, who witnessed his grandfather’s and aunt’s exhumations, here




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A personal account by Aylwin Tan who witnessed the exhumation of his grandfather and aunt at Bukit Brown on the morning of Wednesday, 8th January,2014.


I received a phone call from the exhumation office about 1.5 hours after I had registered. Picked my Dad up and went directly to the gravesite.

The green tentage is that of my aunt Tan Siok Hwa (aged 10) and the grey is my grandpa, Tan Cheng Moh. Both were killed during a Japanese raid; a bomber scored a direct hit on the bomb shelter where my grandpa had put his entire family, including his close relatives. Apparently, grandpa’s thinking was that they should all stick together and if they all died, so be it.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 8

Exhumation at grave of aunt (photo Aylwin Tan)

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 6

Exhumation at grave of grandfather (photo Aylwin Tan)

Their funerals were carried out in haste. A number of traditions were abandoned for fear of being caught out in the open by the Japanese bombers e.g. mourners alighting to perform rites at every bridge along the way to the burial ground.

Mr Lee (the gentleman in yellow boots seen in the first photo) told me that the coffins and remains had disintegrated and had merged with the soil. Not surprising, given that they had passed about 70 years ago. The gravediggers gathered some earth and put it in plastic bags for the purposes of cremation.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 7

(photo Aylwin Tan)

I was curious to know how the gravediggers knew that they had dug deep enough to reach the remains. Mr Lee explained that the gravediggers would know once they reached a flat surface as this was the bottom of the coffin.

The gravediggers were also able to tell that my aunt died when she was a child. If you look at my aunt’s grave, you can see a ‘step’ indicating that the coffin was shorter than an adult’s.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 16

The grave of 10 year old aunt with a “step” ( photo Aylwin Tan)

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 12

Measuring the depth of aunt’s grave   (photo Aylwin Tan)

(photo Aylwin Tan)

The grave of grandfather dug until a flat even  surface was reached, where the coffin had been laid   (photo Aylwin Tan)

I was worried that Dad would not be able to negotiate the uneven terrain to the grave sites but the path worn out by the gravediggers proved manageable. Mr Lee told me that these gravediggers are the last of their kind in Singapore.

Dad spent some time telling his story to the gravediggers while I sorted out with Mr Lee the items found in the graves. Dad’s chair was provided by Swee Hong, the company that won the exhumation tender, a testimony to their planning and attention to detail. Also, you can see how they used the umbrellas to shield the boxes from the sun.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 13

Umbrellas shading the remains from the sun as required by traditional practices. Aylwin’s father (seated) chatting with the grave diggers (photo Aylwin Tan)

The gravediggers recovered a chain and part of a bowl from my aunt’s grave. The bowl was probably used in the funeral rites. Mr Lee asked if I would donate them for research. I shall have to ask my elders’ permission first.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 0

Items recovered from graves (photo Aylwin Tan).

My grandpa’s grave yielded a bullet and a piece of metal which looked like a cone with the top portion cut off. I had to surrender the bullet as it was not a spent round. The gravediggers surmised that the metal piece came from the bomb but I wonder where the bullet came from. Dad said that the metal piece was not the cause of grandpa’s death; a beam had fallen on grandpa’s head and cracked it open. Death was instantaneous. The sight must have been extremely traumatic for the family. Dad was only 11 or 12 then.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 5

A bullet recovered from grandfather’s grave (photo Aylwin Tan)

One unexpected development came about when Dad suddenly said that my great grandfather was also buried somewhere in Bukit Brown. Dad did not know his name or the location of the grave site. Apparently, only one of grandpa’s brothers had this information and he had since passed. According to Mr Lee, great grandpa’s remains will be exhumed and disposed of if unclaimed after a period. Mr Lee also said that there was still hope if someone in my family could remember great grandpa’s name as the tombstone would surely state grandpa’s name. I’ll try my best to ask my relatives but am not very hopeful.

I will miss the 2 “Yodas” guarding grandpa’s grave. The other 2 guards look kind of effeminate.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg 10

(photo Aylwin Tan)

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(photo Aylwin Tan)

The left panel of the tombstone lists grandpa’s sons and daughters. Dad is ‘Geok San‘, which means ‘jade mountain’ in Chinese. In accordance with Chinese tradition, the sons and male cousins in the same generation have the same identifying name. In my Dad’s generation, the name is ‘Geok‘. In mine, it is ‘Wee’, which means ‘great‘ in Chinese. I understand that these names are predetermined by the Chinese Almanac.

(photo Aylwin Tan).jpg inscription

Inscriptions of the names of 3 sons and 3 daughters (photo Aylwin Tan)

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The start of exhumations this morning 8 January 2014 (photo Aylwin Tan)

The exhumation ended on a quiet note. After I had given written confirmation of the items from the graves that I had retained, I was given printed photographs of the two grave sites and that was it.

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The end of exhumation (photo Aylwin Tan)

I was very impressed with the professionalism of the Swee Hong staff. They were attentive to my requests and sensitive to religious aspects of the exhumation. They worked fast but were in no hurry, allowing claimants all the time they needed to carry out their religious observances. Thanks to them, the exhumation process went smoothly.

- Aylwin Tan-

Additional Information : Both grandfather and aunt  died on 18 Jan 1942.

Grave of  Tan Cheng Moh 陳青茂 #769 (photo credit The Bukit Brown Cemetery  Documentation Project )

0769  Tan grandpa Documentation site 0769-2 Tan grandpa documentation site

Grave of Tan Siok Hwa  陳淑華 #763  (photo credit  The Bukit Brown Cemetery  Documentation Project)

0763 Tan aunt documentation site 0763-2 Tan aunt documentation site

Editor’s note: We would like to thank Aylwin Tan for giving us permission to reproduce his personal account on the blog. If you are a descendant who has ancestors staked for exhumation,   please share your story with us.

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The  Art Nouveau (Peranakan) tiles of Bukit Brown have caught the attention of a French academic who helms an international research team. The team  has embarked on a 4 year study of the tiles in Asia, under an MOU with the Unesco University and Heritage Forum.

Professor Chantal Zheng together with her husband, Dr Zheng Shun-De, visited Bukit Brown recently, guided by our tiles expert, Victor Lim.

Victor Lim guiding.a grooup  Chantal Zheng ( ) with her husband

Victor Lim with Chantal and Shun De Zheng, pictured here nearest to Victor.  (photo Claire Leow)

The visit, so impressed them, they wrote to All Things Bukit Brown to tell us more about their project and how they hope, they can include Bukit Brown in their study. Reproduced here with Professor Chantal’s kind permission.

“I am very grateful to your association and to Mr Victor LIM for having introduced me to this fascinating Singapore Cultural Heritage field concerning « Art nouveau tiles ». As a matter of fact, this is particularly interesting for the Tiles research team I am responsable for in the IRASIA (Research Institute for Asian Studies): Aix-Marseille University in the south of France. My Research Institute (IRASIA) is conducting historical, anthropological and sociological researches on many countries in East and South-East Asia such as China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, India, and Taiwan.

Three years ago, we submitted on the behalf of the University a research project on “Art nouveau tiles” in Asia to the Unesco University and Heritage Forum. The project has been accepted and a MOU has been signed by Aix – Marseille Université and The Unesco Forum for 4 years (2012-2016). The first objective being to make a survey of the presence of these specific tiles in East Asia (China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea), South-East Asia (Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia) and even in South Asia with India. The second objective is to select and write a report on some particular and (to use Unesco vocabularly) “exceptional” places where tiles are found in great number.

It appears that these tiles have been diffused by the Chinese Diaspora and the Peranakan culture in Asia. They constitute a cultural asset common to many Asian countries, are the testimony of cultural, artistic and even commercial exchanges between East and West at the beginning of the XXth century and that is why they present a very great interest for the research. In Singapore, I have discovered many districts with very beautiful and unique houses decorated with a profusion of tiles, all in very good state and very well preserved. And I also had the opportunity to make a visit to Bukit Brown Cemetery

I was very surprised to see so many beautiful Peranakan tombs decorated with old tiles. As far as I understand the situation, this cemetery is now on the way to being destroyed for the construction of a road. That is a real pity indeed and I do hope very sincerely the tiles may be preserved, as I doubt there is another place in the world comparable to Bukit Brown. It is our hope that these tiles will be kept in good condition as they must be considered an important element of the Singapore national treasure.

Conscious of the interest that Singapore presents and of the precious contribution of the Peranakan culture to its cultural heritage, my research team on Asian Art nouveau tiles (which includes 7 French researchers and architects, a Japanese Museum director: Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Archaelogy, a Taiwanese Association for Cultural Heritage, a Taiwanese historian and a Taiwanese architect: University of Kaohsiung), is prepared to focus now on the history of the Republic of Singapore to discover the cultural and commercial links with other Asian countries in the diffusion of Art Nouveau tiles (Japanese or European). We are very grateful to your association and to your colleagues for the help in our research during our short stay in Singapore and hope we will continue in the future to cooperate with you and with Singapore architects and historians on the tiles subject.” Chantal ZHENG, Professor, Department of Asiatic Studies, Aix-Marseille Université

Victor together with the Zhengs at his office

The Zhengs at Victor Lim’s office showcasing his collection of tiles

Montage of Tiles (photo composite: Joy Loh)

Montage of Tiles (photo composite: Joy Loh)

book (photo Victor Lim)

A book on art nouveau tiles in French published by the Zhengs (photo Victor Lim)

You can learn more about the tiles this Sunday 12 January at Bukit Brown with Victor Lim. Details here



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A Look Back at 2013

Aerial view of the largest tomb in Bukit Brown (Photo: Franck)

Aerial view of the largest tomb in Bukit Brown (Photo: Franck)


A look back at 2013… 

We lost a dear Brownie, Vicky Tan, but started the Tan Kheam Hock Tour as a tribute to her and her ancestors. Other kin have been clearing the tombs of Kheam Hock’s relatives, and in the process, prettifying entire clusters in Bukit Brown. It has added much needed cheer at a time exhumations have started.

Celebrating Bukit Brown exhibition of posters and tiles (Photo: Gan Su-Lin)

Celebrating Bukit Brown exhibition of posters and tiles (Photo: Gan Su-Lin)


We held 2 exhibitions, “Celebrating Bukit Brown” (above) as a “report” on our efforts to reach students and teachers and their works, and “Bukit Brown: Our Roots, Our Future” (below), an extensive exhibition at Chui Huay Lian Club that featured English and Mandarin speakers and brought attention to the threat to the Muslim graves at Jalan Kubor. Both enabled us to reach out to more communities and decision-makers. The latter also featured a rare reunion of the descendants of Seah Eu Chin. Walter Lim, Yik Han and Charlene Tan deserve special mention, aided by an army of volunteers to put it all together.


Our Roots, Our Future: An Exhibition
More schools signed up for tours, and even resulted in books published. This confirms our belief that Bukit Brown is an educational resource to be treasured, conserved and shared.

Victor Lim has added depth to the tours with his tile expertise. A tile expert team has now taken interest and plans to bring it to the attention of UNESCO.

Expats Bianca Polak and Ritsuko Saito joined the cause, Bianca avidly guiding and photographing, while Ritsuko has given talks in Taiwan and Japan on Bukit Brown. Again and again, Bukit Brown proves to be not just a treasure for Singaporeans. Brownies shared their expertise far and wide, and many a weekend, Yik Han, Mok Ly Ying, Raymond Goh, et al could be found giving talks on knowledge gleaned from Bukit Brown.

Catherine Lim helped put Bukit Brown in the living rooms of Singaporeans with “History from the Hills”, a TV documentary series that moved many and won mention in Parliament.

At least 3 TEDX talks by Claire Leow, Ish Singh and Lavanya Prakash featured Bukit Brown as a focus subject.

Ish Singh with one of Sikh guards [photo: Bianca Polak]

Ish Singh with one of Sikh guards [photo: Bianca Polak]

Ish Singh recently joined the Brownies as a co-guide after penning a reflective piece on how he felt connected to his Sikh history through Bukit Brown and Amardeep Singh has started research there – pointing to the Sikh interest in the history of Bukit Brown.

Sugen Ramiah and Ai Loon stepped outreach for the young, Simone Lee, Zhi Hao and Aaron Chan became our newest guides. More and more are coming out in support because they see the intrinsic value of Bukit Brown. We welcome anyone with the same passion.

Bukit Brown made it to Tripadvisor’s Travellers’ Choice 2013 Winners list.

Battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper continues to uncover more of our past and his Battlefield Tours are always fully subscribed in record time.

An animated Jon Cooper on his popular Battlefield Tour (Photo: Claire Leow)

Jon Cooper on his popular Battlefield Tour (Photo: Claire Leow)

Behind the scenes, many elves abound to do good work. Khoo Ee Hoon mapped out Bukit Brown and helped with the iBBC app. She, Danny Chew and Edmon Neo-Khoo are among those cleaning tombs every weekend. Lim Su-Min would be on call with his saw to clear fallen trees to prevent damage to graves or visitors.

The supporting cast of Brownies (photo Gan Su-Lin)

The supporting cast of Brownies (photo Gan Su-Lin)

Edmon spends weekends "gardening" at Bukit Brown to upkeep tombs. He is a descendant of Tan Kheam Hock. (Photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Edmon spends weekends “gardening” at Bukit Brown to upkeep tombs. He is a descendant of Tan Kheam Hock. (Photo: Khoo Ee Hoon)

Needless to say, stalwarts like Raymond Goh, Peter Pak and Walter Lim blogged avidly and added to our depth of knowledge of what we stand to lose by losing Bukit Brown. Guides Chew Keng Kiat, Fabian Tee, Andrew, Peter Pak, Beng Tang, Yik Han, Bianca, Mil Phuah, Raymond, Catherine and Claire were ably assisted by many in the community who shared their knowledge, time and talents, often as co-guides. We have now guided 10,000 visitors to Bukit Brown as a community.

Jennifer Teo and Tien of SOS Bukit Brown not only guided but gathered 7,000 signatures and delivered them to the government in the petition to save Bukit Brown. Georgina Chin’s book on the birds, including many at Bukit Brown, sold out.

And together, this community has put Bukit Brown on the world map by getting international recognition for its potential as a heritage site with the World Monuments Watch list 2014.  Ian Chong deserves special mention for his help with the application. And you have been pushing the envelope with your letters to the government, giving us much encouragement.

WMW 2014

If we missed out on anyone, think of it as a blessing that there were so many of you giving support that we cannot list everyone, and not that you have been forgotten.

We have come a long way in 2013. With the highway project starting, we need to do more, not less. We have 95,000 more tombs to save.

Rain or shine or exhumations, we carry on with our tours.

Brownies announcing the World Monuments Watch Listing (Photo: Terry Xu)

And we thank you, this wonderful community, for carrying us. We who stand on the shoulders of others see further. May you be blessed in 2014.

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Sharing our feedback on Bukit Brown in the Draft Masterplan. We are grateful to all who wrote and shared your  feedback with us. Without your support, awareness of Bukit Brown would not  be where it is  now – not just a talking point but- a rallying point to enrich our identity, a respect for our heritage and a Singapore we can all call home.  We are humbled.


“We met as volunteers and in response to a groundswell of feedback after the announcement of the plan for Bukit Brown, formed All Things Bukit Brown as a loose group of volunteers to support amateur historian Raymond Goh, people who might want to contribute time, research, translation skills, etc to raise awareness of the value of Bukit Brown. We subsequently created the blog, All Things Bukit Brown, ( and started organising social events onsite in December 2011 to gauge interest in Bukit Brown as a destination. We were happily surprised by the enthusiastic turn-out for 3-4 events and started guiding tours onsite with whatever knowledge we received from February 2012.

Since then, we have cobbled together a dozen committed volunteers who research and/or guide. We are pleased to report that in that time, we have guided 10,000 people to Bukit Brown, including secondary schools and tertiary institutions, overseas academics, and participants from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Civil Service College. Former Foreign Minister George Yeo was an early visitor guided. We have also guided grassroots communities led by their MPs, including DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Sylvia Lim. This weekend, Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee will bring his grassroots community there too. Groups which have come include the elderly Chinese, the hearing impaired and the docents from the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall , National and Peranakan Museums.

Bukit Brown has already inspired the students of  Pioneer Junior College to co- write the book “1911 Revolution: Singapore Pioneers in Bukit Brown” which was  launched  last Friday at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. On our part we have applied for a grant from the National Heritage Board to put together useful information we have gathered over the past two years as a guide book to Bukit Brown.

Imagine this, a grassroots effort to bring 10,000 people to a site without any amenities – no toilets, drinks stalls, resting stations, shelter from the rain, marked trails or trash bins. How much more can we do together when we put our resources together? Give us a chance.

As Singaporeans, we are very proud to share what knowledge we have and encourage interest in Bukit Brown. We have met many engaged Singaporeans,  academics, students, tourists, photographers, artists, etc – a diversity of participants who have reinforced the notion that Bukit Brown is more than a cemetery but a public space that draws different communities there for different reasons. We are witness to the grassroots movement which has built up a valuable community with a strong outreach component. We hope that you see this element of a place in fostering communal ties and meaning. These are valuable to building a strong and cohesive society, people rooted to their identities and bringing Singaporeans and residents together in a meaningful way. It is not something that can be easily replicated without the actual space that first drew us together in the first place.

It is this community-building effort that also drew the attention of the World Monuments Fund in awarding Bukit Brown World Monuments Watch status. We are proud of this international recognition and hope that one day, we can twin Bukit Brown with the Botanic Gardens for a unique world heritage site unmatched anywhere else in the world. That it is set in such lush and spectacular settings makes Bukit Brown all the more special.

State recognition of Bukit Brown’s intrinsic value will lift tourist awareness of Singapore in a different way, opening up ideas (and revenue streams) for education tourism, battle site tourism, cultural tourism etc in the same way medical tourism has brought international attention (and revenue) to the world-class medical services available in Singapore. Already, heritage associations in the region, specifically Penang and Malacca, have displayed keen interest in Bukit Brown and we hope there would be attendant tourism effects for the better good of Singapore and her neighbours. Not only would Singapore benefit from state recognition of the heritage value of Bukit Brown, we can work together with tourism agencies around the region and reap the benefits of good neighbourliness and joint tourism campaigns. Indeed, we are not short on ideas. We ask for the state to demonstrate leadership in this. 

We hope you will protect Bukit Brown and Singapore’s historical, cultural, wartime and natural heritage for future generations, and will have an open discussion on how best to protect Bukit Brown and other heritage and nature sites affected by the proposals in the URA Draft Master Plan 2013. National development includes supporting our Nation’s sense of identity and belonging across generations in addition to infrastructure.”

Claire Leow & Catherine Lim

brownies _ Terry Xu TOC

(photo Terry Xu)


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I’ve been alerted through World Monument Watch in New York about the imminent destruction of Bukit Brown Cemetery, an important heritage site not only for Singapore but with great significance to the history of Penang.

Bukit Brown, named after George Henry Brown whose tomb is now found in the Old Protestant Cemetery of Penang. This cemetery is now a protected Category I Heritage Site within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town.

Under the order the Penang state authorities, archeologists, historians, botanists and conservationists have been looped in to complete a comprehensive heritage management plan to preserve this historic cemetery in entirety. We are also in the process to document the people buried there including the story of George H. Brown.


During a site visit to Bukit Brown Cemetery in September 2013, I’ve discovered tombs which witness the strong family links between Penang and Singapore (e.g. Tan Kheam Hock) and members of Tong Meng Hui who frequented both cities in the early 20th century and these will serve as important clues for the academicians to conduct historical and social researches between Malaya and Singapore in the pre-war years. The obliteration of old tombs and historical sites with a natural setting is a serious mistake in the current age when awareness of heritage preservation is a global trend and every member state in UNESCO including Singapore is vying for World Heritage Listing on one of its sites and trying its best to showcase good examples of conservation efforts.

I’m appealing to the Singapore authorities to be sensitive to the heritage conservation causes, especially to this historic cemetery which is a wealth of knowledge waiting to be tapped by historians from both sides of the Causeway.

Clement Liang

Honorary Scretary

Penang Heritage Trust

26 Lebuh Gereja, 10200 George Town,

Penang, Malaysia


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April 2014
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