An update on this post as Jing Xiang has completed his Masters thesis
Abstract : Housed within Bukit Brown Cemetery are the many tombs of pre-independent Singapore pioneers with syncretic elements of a multicultural milieu. It remained a largely forgotten site except to families who visit the burial ground especially during the annual Qing Ming (tomb sweeping) festival.
In 2011, the state announced plans to redevelop Bukit Brown. Civil society groups, who saw the site as one rich in biodiversity and embedding an important historical past, contested the decision. This contestation rehearses a long-standing tension between heritage and progress in Singapore. This dissertation recasts Bukit Brown Cemetery as a highly charged site where notions of identity and belonging are latent.
The dissertation argues for an understanding of this forgotten landscape as integral to the Singaporean psyche of home and nation. Using Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities and Henri Lefebvre’s spatial trilectics as its theoretical
frameworks, this paper outlines the spatial taxonomies present in Bukit Brown, and how identity is produced and anchored in those spaces. The inquiry unfolds on two scales: the first is a micro-territorial scale where the spatial practices of the individual and domestic unit are studied in relation to the tombs and myths found within and around Bukit Brown. The second one looks at Bukit Brown as macro-territory dotted with cultural anchors signifying collective histories.
Taken together, these two scalar frames reveal the complex structures of individual and collective identity, and how such structures are still actively forming/reforming at the Bukit Brown Cemetery.
His thesis can be found here
First Published on the blog on 20 August, 2014
Some elements in the drawing are all too familiar landmarks in the cemetery, while others suggest hidden secrets, or things that,as of the present moment, has disappeared due to the roadworks. The drawing straddles between what is real and what is imagined, what is there and what is not there, or ‘not there’ because we can’t see it (yet) like other intangible (forces or) values of Bukit Brown.
(please click to view and appreciate full image)
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.
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
You can learn more about the tiles this Sunday 12 January at Bukit Brown with Victor Lim. Details here
Kwong Tong Cemetery Kuala Lumpur
by Simone Lee
4 November, 2013
The Kwong Tong Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Kuala Lumpur, covering 343 acres of land. It is the final resting place of many prominent city pioneers including Yap Ah Loy, the founder of Kuala Lumpur. In 2007, the 112-year-old cemetery – a green lung in the city – was named a Heritage Park.
My great grandparents are buried in Kwong Tong Cemetery and in October this year I visited them for the second time in 20 years. I can barely remember my first visit as a child. The visit was a result of a confluence of events, the catalyst : Bukit Brown. I first visited Bukit Brown in July, a week after the death of my father. In the weeks that followed I joined the Brownies regularly on their guided walks. I was moved by the stories they told of the pioneers buried there and their contributions. On October 5th, after I conducted my first guided walk “Stories of Ladies in the Straits Settlements”, I felt I was ready to trace the path of my roots.
Even as I embarked on the journey , I was helped by a fellow Brownie, Jonathan Siew who introduced me to his friend Boon Hin who knew Kwong Tong Cemetery well. He drove my mother and I around the cemetery. Naturally, our first stop was at my great grandparents’ tomb .
My Great grandparents Graves
Just like many other sinkehs (new comers, fresh from the boat from China) at that time, my great grandfather, 利曉春(1888-1962) and his wife arrived from Meixian, Guangdong in the 1930’s. He was a tailor but soon went into tin mining, a thriving commodity in Kuala Lumpur at that time. He was successful and brought my grandfather over to help him in the tin-mining business. The entire family (3 generations; great grandparents, grandparents’ siblings and their children) lived in a large British colonial villa at Bukit Bintang (which was later torn down to build shopping malls).
Mah Kan Poh
My great grandparent’s neighbour is Mah Kan Poh
The epitaph on the late Mah Kan Poh’s tombstone erected by his descendants.
“Born on the 14th day of the 12th Moon of Thung Chee Yam Shutt Year, or the 1st of February 1863; and Died on the 29th of May, 1938, or the 1st of 5th Moon, Mo Yen Year – at the age of 77 years. The late Mr.Mah Kan Poh was a native of Yong Kow village, Soon Tuck District – in the province of Canton. He was very thrifty and hardworking, and took to silk trading as his first walk of life. At the age of 26 years, he came over to Malaya. He was first interested in tin-mining and then – revenue farms. Later on he took to rubber planting and he could walk for miles daily in his estate and mines. One of his favourite hobbies was hunting. On many occasions, we advised him to give this up, but he turned a deaf ear to our counsel. In summing up, we might say that the deceased was a man of great courage and determination, and that we and our descendants should follow his footsteps as best we could.”
The Nanyang Volunteers Memorial erected in 1947
When the Sino Japanese War erupted on 7 July 1937, the Chinese government’s logistic concern was security of supply routes importing war materials into China. This led to the construction of the Burma Road linking Kunming with Yangon port in British Burma. The Chinese government also realized the lack of skilled drivers and mechanics in China. To solve this problem, they turned to China Relief Fund headed by Mr Tan Kah Kee to recruit drivers and mechanics from all over Nanyang, today’s South East Asia. These drivers and mechanics are known as the Nanyang Volunteers, 南侨机工. From February to September 1939, 3200 Nanyang Volunteers left in 15 batches and most eventually served on the Burma Road. Most of the Nanyang Volunteers were Chinese man but there were also some Malay and Indian men and four Chinese women. Source
The Japanese War Memorial
This site marks a 10,000 square feet mass grave of the casualties during the Japanese occupation. Remains of close to a thousand victims were relocated from the original site, “Tomb of War Victims of the Compatriots of the Republic of China” which was in a dilapidated state.
The Butcher’s Guild Graves
Built in 1931, from the back, it’s a walk through concrete grids towards the front yard.
The Lim Lian Geok Memorial
Lim Lian Geok (1901-1985) was former Chairman of The United Chinese School Teachers’ Association Of Malaysia (popularly known as Jiao Zong), was a great educationalist as well as a famous social activist.
People from all over the country, put aside their works and came all the way to pay their last respects to him, including high-ranking leaders of political parties. A fund in memory of him was set up, which was later registered as LLG Cultural Development Centre, a non-profit organization. Source
Chua Cheng Tuan : The Cycle & Carriage Family
The Cycle & Carriage family: All except for the 2 tombs at extreme left and right (forefront) are in the Chua family gated plot. You can even see the fence surrounding the cluster behind the trees on the left of photo. At the centre of the plot is Mr.Chua Cheng Tuan, the founder of Cycle & Carriage. His brother Chua Cheng Hock is buried in Bukit Brown.
A pavilion was built by Chua Cheng Tuan’s family, in front of the family plot, in his memory. Today many other graves surround the pavilion.
Other interesting tombs at Kwong Tong Cemetery
This collective teochew tomb has a large mound and a tortoise supporting the tomb stone. Engravings of the Confucian story; 24 filial exemplars lines the arms of this large tomb.
31 October 2013
At Bukit Brown, it is not uncommon to find ceramic photos of the deceased on their tombstones. They have withstood the test of time and weathered the elements of sun and rain. This one was spotted in pristine condition during the guided walk on tiles and tomb carvings on Sunday 27 October.
Mrs Tay Koh Bok (Madam Wee Geok Kiew )
The technology for ceramic photos date back to 1854, originating from France. How are they made?
“A porcelain (or ceramic) portrait is produced by firing an image onto a porcelain plaque at very high temperatures in a kiln for several hours, creating a permanent bond. The result is a vivid portrait that resists fading and the elements for 100 years or more.” source
“….transferring photo images to ceramic was a multi-step, laborious, time-consuming & potentially hazardous process, involving photographic glass plates & several types of light-sensitive emulsion salts (some of which are highly toxic). The emulsified ceramic piece (ie. now affixed with the photo) was then repeatedly fired at high temperature for many hours to obtain an impervious vitrified surface, which was then coated with a protective sealant.” source
From the mid 1930s onwards, the technology for ceramic photos became available in Singapore Before that, ceramic photos were mostly made in China, Holland, Germany & America. So the photo of Tay (1929) could conceivably have been ordered from China.
Nah Guan Seng of Scientific Photo Studio appeared to be the 1st person to offer photo ceramic services here. His photo studio was located at Bras Brasah Road, while the photo lab was at Paya Lebar.
New Singapore Industry: Ceramic Portraits (ST – 15 Sep 1935):
EXCERPT: “The advantages of ceramic portraiture over ordinary photography are many. It never fades, whether exposed to sun or rain, and for use [on] a grave, it has no rival.Kiangsi porcelain is said to be the best in the world for this purpose and is largely used. The work of burning, the most difficult part of the job, is done at the Studio’s laboratory at Paya Lebar. Expert knowledge of the art and great care are necessary in regulating the heat. ”
More on ceramic photos here
The most spectacular portraits of the deceased are the A4 size photos on the Tok tombs, although it is unclear whether the ceramic photo technology was used. The photo of Onn Cheng Tuan shows her in traditional nonya wear and accompanying jewelry which also speaks to the material culture of those times.
Editors note: Research by Pat Sg of Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown Cemetery
Dateline” 21 October 2013
The carvings on the tombs at Bukit Brown are commonly drawn from the 4 Chinese classics. Brownie Yik Han spotted one particular carving on an altar table which intrigued him.
His observations of the characters depicted in the tableau taken from the Romance of Three Kingdoms and what they represent:
Instead of the usual set of suspects this tableau has a rather unique combination of figures which I have yet to come across in other tombs.
The one in the middle seems to be Zhuge Liang from his garb and feather fan. On the right is almost certainly Shun and the white elephant which helped him till his fields. And I guess the one on the left of Zhuge Liang is Liu Bei as he looks rather regal. Now, each of these characters exemplify a certain virtue: Zhuge Liang – loyalty (忠), Liu Bei – benevolence (仁),Shun – filial piety (孝), so there we have part of the traditional set of virtues 忠孝仁义, the last being righteousness which is as close to the meaning in chinese as we can get in a word.
If the martial figure to the right of Zhuge Liang represents 义, the question is who can this be as it certainly is not Guan Yu, the usual poster boy for that virtue. Of course, this interpretation assumes the two figures at the extreme left are calefaire.
Editors note: If you would like to weigh in on the mysterious characters which have not been clearly identified, please add your comments on this post.
Fu De Zheng Shen protecting the tomb of Yeo Lock Ghee who died in 1925, as found by Raymond Goh:
Notice the tiles, as well as the tiger guardians.
Raymond found these guardians in a recent bush-bashing expedition:
Yes, another pair of elephants found at a tomb near Bukit Brown:
The elephant tomb belongs to a Madam Song Chit Neo (Mrs Chia Leong Chuan). Chia Leong Chuan is the father of Chia Hood Theam. From the Chia family tree, we can confirm Mdm Song is wife no 2. Mdm Song had 1 daughter, Miss Chia Lim Neo who married Mr Ong Teck Lim. (Info from Peter Pak)
According to a descendant, Chia Leong Chuan died in 1889.
This tomb was found in Lau Sua, “Old Hill”, a cemetery abutting Bukit Brown. Lao Sua was named ‘Bukit Brown’ on the map by the Survey Department in the 1890s. Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery ‘borrowed’ the hill’s name when it was established later on, in 1922. (Info from Mok Ly Ying)
There are a few samples of elephant carvings at Bukit Brown, notably on the panels of Ong Sam Leong and Teo Chin Chay.