by Catherine Lim
Considered the foremost authority on Raffles, the National Library Board has acquired the collection of Dr. John Bastin’s more than 5000 materials. 38 of which have been curated for public viewing on the 13th floor.
The exhibits both showcases and makes accessible NLB’s existing Singapore and South East Asia Collection which “form an important nucleus of works on early Singapore. “ The rare materials collection is conventionally the preserve of academics, perhaps perceived as” high brow” located as such on the 13th floor.
But this collection is curated with ordinary Singaporeans in mind with both the personal – a hand written letter by Raffles to his cousin which more than hints at his displeasure with Farquhar – and the quaint – a book on Malay Poisons and Charm Cures – to the spiritual – an almost complete Malay translation of the the Anglican Common Book of Prayer.
But the highlight must surely be the leaflets which were air dropped in the 50s at the height of the communist insurgency in the jungles of Malaya, in an attempt to “persuade” – both by threats and propaganda – insurgents to surrender peacefully. These leaflets dropped by the thousands and commonplace then, have become rare. I have seen them once in a private collection. The NLB rare gallery showcases three pieces.
Exhibits on Java, Sawarak , Sumatra written by the “colonial masters ” stationed here, a reminder that Singapore was part of the “Straits Settlements”
Expressing Raffles passion for the biodiversity of the region.
And lets not forget, exhibits which clearly reminds us of the collector’s primary interest, Raffles himself.
Of interest for further study an exhibit of : a bill introduced to the British Parliament on 18 June 1824 to ratify the Anglo-Ducth Treaty of 1824 which concluded longstanding territorial and commercial disputes between Britain and Netherlands. A valuable source of information of how the two rival colonial and maritime powers decided on how to carve out their colonies in the region
As a collection, its importance is to give visitors a flavour of our past, providing historical context in print that covers different facets of political, social and community engagement at a personal level.
If there is anything more the NLB can do to get more Singaporeans to “embrace” the rare collections , is perhaps for this collection to serve as an inspiration for other activities which could revolve round art and story imagining of a past which helped defined who we are today.
Guided tours of this collection will be held monthly between July and December. Do check listings here
Catherine Lim is co-editor bukitbrown.com
The tomb of Wee Theam Tew is yet another significant discovery made by tomb whisperer, Raymond Goh in the Greater Bukit Brown. Wee Theam Tew was a lawyer and died at the age of 52 due to his failing health. His tomb has inscriptions in both English and Chinese, and a set of poetic couplets, which is believed to enhance the livelihood of the deceased’s family. This one reads:
This is how one member of the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook community, James Koh translated the couplets to English and added his interpretation of the significance of the words :
The mountain sits with honorable aura
The river flows with abundance
The hills add charm to the landscape
The earth becomes pleasing to the eye with accumulated lustre
He adds that the couplets “represent the things which Mr. Wee wish to bestow on his descendants — reputable status, decent lineage and legacy, strong prospects, and a happy home.
What makes these couplets interesting is, in each sentence, there is supposed to be a stop after the first two words. For e.g., 坐山 ¶ 脈正派. But the second and third words actually form a noun which is related to Mother Nature — 山脈, 水源, 秀山, 華地. This, in turn, displays Mr. Wee’s brilliance in Chinese literature.”
We are assuming these were either written by Wee or chosen by Wee.
Do join the discussions in the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook group page, a platform for all members like James Koh, to learn, as well as contribute and share their knowledge in all things related to heritage, habitat and history.
[Singapore] — Oct 3rd 2015 — An mobile application to discover sites of Sikh Heritage in Singapore is now available for iOS devices. This interactive medium has been created and launched by brownies Ishvinder Singh and Vithya Subramaniam, with funding support from the National Heritage Board’s Participation Grant. This mobile app is for those interested in exploring Singapore’s rich urban history in a new interactive and situated way, where one may revisit sites throughout the island while retracing the movements and lives of Singapore’s Sikh community.
Current trails feature the Sikh Guards of Bukit Brown Cemetery, and the Sepoy Lines of Outram. Whether the user follows these trails by foot or thumb, the app brings to life these sites through accessibly told histories and by situating them within a network of narratives that underscore the connections and nuances between spaces. Users are also encouraged to share their stories and memories of these sites towards building a collective archive of the Sikh community in Singapore (and later, Malaysia). This initial release will include the trails and sites within Singapore, with sites in Malaysia and other avenues for greater community interaction forthcoming. The android version is set to be released in March 2016.
Professor Dan Beachy-Quick said that poems are thresholds. Poems open doors that lead to other doors that lead to new rooms, new perspectives. Poems should always endeavor to exist in that doorway between chaos and calm.
For 93 years, these gates have welcomed the dearly departed and their descendants in their final passage. Come join Claire and Darren as they retell stories of the lives of our pioneers, through prose and poetry, on their passages of life. Familiar words, unfamiliar settings. Feel what our pioneers felt, and what the place holds through poems from poets East and West.
This guided walk starts at 4.00pm and ends at 7.00pm
Meeting Point: Bukit Brown entrance gates at Lorong Halwa.[photo of Bukit Brown gates: Theresa Teng]
This is part of the regular “First weekend” walks that are held by the “Brownies” every first weekend of the month.
Difficulty: Average, some trekking required
Please bring umbrella or poncho / sun block / mosquito repellent.
Please wear covered footwear.
Please note: Disclaimer: By agreeing to take this walking tour of Bukit Brown Cemetery, I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so.To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward)
Please register at Peatix.
Places available are capped at 30 for better engagement.
A photo essay by Simone Lee
“I was a little apprehensive at the beginning. Even as a Malaysian, I’ve never heard of anyone raving about a visit to Taiping. But while we were there, I fell in love…………” Simone Lee
Romancing Taiping 1 continues with part 2 as Simone Lee takes you through to sights and sounds from cemeteries – of course – to temples and museums. Hokkien Cemetery
The most valuable tomb in Taiping belongs to Ng Boo Bee. Penniless when he left China, he became the wealthiest man in Taiping from running tin mines, opium farms and construction. He was the first contractor to the British, building the first railway line in Malaya running from Taiping to Port Weld. He made many contributions to society during his lifetime. He built schools in Perak and China, public fountains, shophouses, donated land to the Hokkien Association and more. In fact, he built half of Taiping and owned many properties and plantations in both Perak and Penang. At death, his wake lasted for about 2 months to allow time for his friends to travel, some from as far as England. The entire town of Taiping shut down to join the procession, which took 4 hours to pass his house. Today, he rests on a 3-level tomb accompanied by guardian generals, lions and other mythical creatures, which showcase his wealth and influence while he was alive.
Kwantung Cemetery Kwangtung Cemetery contains burials mostly of Cantonese and Hakka residence.
Taiping War Cemetery The fallen soldiers who defended Malaya from the invading Japanese forces were interred in this cemetery. There are 3 sections of the cemetery; the Christians (on one side of the road), the Muslims and Indians (on the other side of the road).
Amongst over 850 tombs are tombs of 4 volunteer soldiers. Three of them, Lim Poh Ann, Tang Bee Choon and Ong Kim Sai, were sent to fight in Singapore where they died. After the war, their bodies were returned and given a soldier’s burial.
As more immigrants were brought in to work in the booming new town, many temples were built. A temple which has stood the test of time is the Sam Wong Yah temple. The temple was built by Loke Yew, a millionaire and philanthropist who came to Singapore to seek his fortune. He started work at a provision shop at Market Street until he saved enough to open one of his own. He then travelled to Taiping to explore the tin mining businesses. However, he did not do well and was soon broke. He sought shelter at the hut housing the Sam Wong Yah deities. One night, in a form of a white figure, he dreamt of the deities advising him to go further south to strike it rich. And strike it rich, he did. He returned to Taiping to build the temple around the hut where he had taken shelter.
In Singapore, a road was named after him (Jalan Loke Yew, opposite of the Peranakan Museum at Armenian Street) in honour of his contributions while the Cathay Gallery at The Cathay (founded by Loke Yew) showcases the history of the building and the Loke family.
Matang Museum aka Ngah Ibrahim Mansion Ngah Ibrahim succeeded his father, Long Jaafar as the Malay chieftain of Larut. He fortified his mansion by building thick brick walls around it, resisting the violence between the Ghee Hin and Hai San fights. Part of the wall was damaged by a Japanese war plane which crashed into it. In the mansion are stories and artifacts belonging to Ngah Ibrahim and showcased what the mansion was used as after Ngah Ibrahim was exiled in Seychelles. He was never allowed to return and died in Singapore (1887). In 2006, his remains were exhumed from Masjid Al-junied and reinterred in the compound of his grand old mansion which now is the Matang Museum.
Upon our return in Singapore, a fellow member of the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown group asked, “did you guys do anything else in Taiping but eat?”, questioning the amount of food postings (and food) we had on the our Facebook pages. We certainly did and visited many more places apart from the ones featured in this write-up but there is simply too much to write in just one post. Besides, the best way to learn more about a place is to be there in person. There are many more that we didn’t get to explore. We certainly fell-love with Taiping’s charm and hope to go back in the near future. If you do plan to visit Taiping, do contact Lee Ah Kew through http://ahkew.blogkaki.net Ah Kew is a freelance writer and field historian, whose knowledge and collection of folk stories would enhance your experience at Taiping. Ah Kew’s article on the Brownies
Editor’s note: If you have enjoyed Simone’s blog post and photo essay, do leave a comment and encourage her to do more. She is the “official” brownie travel concierge
“Ullambana” Festival by Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong @ Tangling Halt.
by Sugen Raniah
The Ullambana Festival is observed and celebrated by the Buddhists during the Seventh Lunar Month. The Sanskrit term, ‘Ullambana’, refers to the compassion for all beings suffering in the realms of misery. The observance of this festival is based on a discourse by the Buddha – where Maudgalyayana, a disciple of the Buddha, discovers that his mother, Lady Niladhi, had been reborn into the realms of misery. The troubled Maudgalyayana then seeks the Buddha for help. The Buddha advises him to make offerings to the Sangha, as the merit of doing so would help relieve the suffering of his Mother, and that of other beings in the same state.
Here in Singapore, it is a common sight for Teochew sian t’ngs (temples) to perform these rituals during the seventh lunar month. I observed and documented the Ullamabana Festival at Tanglin Halt Market and Hawker Centre by the members of Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong.
There are three temporary ceremonial altars set up in the tentage – the main altar of the three Buddhas, the altar for the Patron Deity, Du Di Gong and the last for Da Shi Ye (King of Ghosts). Offerings of dried goods and drinks, vegetables, a variety of meat and paper offerings are assembled in the centre of the tentage. Here associate members of the market and members of public are invited to offer joss sticks to the wandering spirits. There are also smaller areas around designated for the spirits for ‘lodging’, ‘washroom’ and ‘leisure’ purposes.
Unlike the elaborate Taoist salvation rituals by Xuan Jian Dian, the Buddhists embrace the recital of Ulka Mukha Sutra. Men, draped in red vestments, are represented as the Sangha (the community of disciples). The Sutra recited is an amalgamation of the mind, body and mouth. Mind in absolute contemplation, with hand gestures of the mystical Mudras and together with the recitation of esoteric words of the Sutras- they invite the wandering spirits to listen to the teachings of Buddha and liberate them from all sufferings. These men sing the Sutra in Teochew and the lyrics are accompanied by beautiful Teochew styled music. It is meant to work like a beautiful charm that draws the spirits to listen and attain liberation.
The day ritual comes to a close with the tossing of longevity buns. The food offerings are then packed and distributed to contributors and friends. Members of the temple take a break before preparing for the dance of the auspicious lanterns later in the evening.
Sugen Ramiah a teacher by training, has been observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples for the past one and half years.
Preamble : Hungry Ghost Festival
Saturday, 26th July was the eve of what is popularly known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, and less well known by its traditional name of Zhongyuan Jie, which in essence is also about honouring ancestors. It takes place at the start of the Chinese 7th lunar month, and it is when the gates of hell open and the spirits of dead are free to wander among the living for a month. To appease them, offerings and entertainment is laid out by descendants at their homes, but also by temples, business and clan associations. This year, the prediction was that hell’s gates will open at 11pm on the eve of the festival.
The Salvation Rituals
At Bukit Brown, devotees from the Taoist temple Xuan Jiang Dian (Heng Kang Tian ) conducted a “chao du” or “salvation rituals” – considered an act of compassion – specifically for the forgotten and lost spirits there.
This is the 3rd year in a row, Xuan Jiang Dian have done this, ever since in fact news of the building of the highway across Bukit Brown in 2011 was announced. Exhumations of the some 4.153 graves which are in the way of the highway are drawing to a close. So there was added interest in this year’s ritual which was covered by our national newspapers. The National Heritage Board (NHB) shared that a specially commissioned video on rites and rituals at Bukit Brown will be uploaded soon to you tube.
A First Hand Account of “chao du”
The ” chao du” ceremony which was witnessed also by Brownies and other well wishers, started at around 8.3opm . It consisted of the setting up of an altar table with offerings at the major junction of the 4 roads in Bukit Brown which leads to Blocks 1, 5, 4 and 3.
The Taoist priests from China, resplendent in their robes, chanted and walked several ceremonial rounds in the area calling upon lost spirits. There was something soothing in their chanting and the air was redolent with the scent of what must have been a hundred lighted joss sticks. Each participant carried 3 sticks each throughout the 40 minute long chanting.
There was a stillness in the air and the smoke and swish of the robes carried the movement of the night. It ended with the burning of paper offerings and just as quickly as it was set up, the devotees packed up and left, with the the candles planted still burning and the last vestiges of the paper offerings smouldering down to embers.
Photo Gallery :
Report on Lianhe Zaobao on a ritual conducted last night at Bt. Brown which marked the opening of the 7th month: A group from Heng Kang Tian including 8 Taoist priests conducted the ritual to invite spirits to a salvation ceremony conducted today in front of Bukit Merah View Block 123. The group has been going to Bt. Brown for the past two years to invite spirits from tombs which are not tended to by descendants. The event was attended by Brownies and participants of tours at the cemetery. It was also recorded by the Bt Brown Documentation Team. NHB is currently preparing a 10-15 min documentary on the rituals carried out at Bt Brown cemetery. This will be uploaded to the NHB channel on youtube, “yesterdaysg”, around end next month. (summary by Ang Yik Han) Full report in Chinese:
The Story behind the Painting
by Alvin Ong
The story of 3 affected graves at Bukit Brown not too long ago inspired a revival of family interest; Tan Yong Chuan (Blk 4, Div C), Tan Tiam Tee (Blk 3, Div B), Wee Geok Eng Neo (Blk 4, Div 6) were exhumed in May 2014. Old photos were unearthed from family albums, and heirloom objects from another era suddenly came to light. For the first time in decades, stories and narratives unlocked themselves from these objects and brought new layers of meaning to the notions of home and identity.
Tan Tiam Tee was the son of the magnate Tan Hoon Chiang (buried in Bukit China, Malacca), one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Co. His wife, Wee Geok Eng Neo, and his son, Tan Yong Chuan were all affected by the proposed highway.
(click on images for a bigger view)
Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)
Miniature cooking pots were interred in Mrs Tan Tiam Tee’s tomb, presumably for her to cook in the afterlife, along with a pearl sanggul, and bracelets. According to my relatives, a set of gold teeth with an engraved heart shape was also found in Tan Yong Chuan’s tomb.
Tan Yong Chuan (son of Mr and Mrs Tan Tian Tee) was finally reunited with his wife for the first time in Holy Family Columbarium after 77 years. The columbarium has an unusual regulation that all photos of the deceased must be in color.
No color photographs of the deceased had existed at that time, so with the help of numerous correspondences, scans were digitally emailed, and the photos doctored and hand-painted.
Studying overseas has allowed the artist the space, physically and emotionally, to explore ideas of home and identity. These graves were only re-discovered shortly after the redevelopment plans were announced. The sight of the many abandoned tombs on the artist’s first visit to Bukit Brown had sparked questions about what happened to the descendants of the people who were interred there, which in turn, prompted the artist to explore if there were indeed any family connections to the cemetery at all. Beyond the historical and material significance of the place, it also felt like a site where mystery, the past, and present all came together. Reuniting with the tombs for the first time in many years became an emotional moment for some, and it also made us feel as though we have touched history, an experience that is becoming exceptionally rare in Singapore.
These were ideas that all came together in the painting, which were almost auto-biographical in that they featured vignettes of the artist’s experience with the discovery of the pioneers of Singapore and his roots. One random memory was a trek with Raymond Goh to Seah Eu Chin’s grave; One of the Teochew stone lions guarding the perimeter of the tomb eventually found its way into the picture. Raymond was featured in the early stages of the work, but in the end, this idea of displacement, loss and discovery surfaced in the final version titled, “Moving House”.
This is not the end of the road. There is yet another tomb whose story remains waiting to be told, my maternal great grandfather, Peck Mah Hoe, pictured here. The artist will be heading to the Peck clan temple in attempt to uncover more. And hopefully, there will be more paintings to come.
About the writer who is an artist :
Alvin Ong is reading fine art in Oxford, and did architecture at the National University of Singapore. In 2004, he was the youngest winner of the UOB painting of the year award at the age of 16. He had his first solo exhibition at 17, in the presence of His Excellency President S R Nathan.
Cherlyn Lee Suet Yean
I am a Junior College student who loves history and writing poetry. To me, history is a grand story with so many interesting details waiting to be discovered. In my free time, I love taking long walks around Singapore, letting my feet absorb the atmosphere of different places. I learn so much about Singapore’s history that way.
Naturally, I am interested in Bukit Brown because it is full of history. In fact, I went there earlier this year. But amidst all the tombstones, there was one that held a special resonance for me—the tombstone of Khoo Seok Wan. He was a poet and a scholar, and his life story is particularly fascinating because it contains all the vicissitudes of life.
I became interested in visiting Khoo’s tombstone after I attended an excellent exhibition on him at the National Library. He was born rich but became poor, and died of leprosy. But what really struck me was the beauty and immediacy of his poems, written in classical Chinese style. He is refreshingly honest about his poverty, and his poems chronicle details of his daily life very poignantly.
I suppose I was also was able to identify because I write poetry. I enjoy writing poetry because I get to express myself, and it is a way to channel my emotions. So I decided to visit Khoo’s grave as a pilgrimage to seek inspiration, and to pay homage to a great poet.
For me, the poem of his that I loved most was “Reflections on Building my Grave”. It is by an immigrant who has reconciled himself to the fact that there is no return to the motherland, and his characteristic honesty (with himself) can be seen. He also reconciles himself to inevitable change, and the line “年年新綠到天南“, as much as it describes how grass will grow yearly around his grave, is a statement that accepts change. This is particularly fitting given the change that is happening now, with a road being constructed through Bukit Brown.
In fact, I recited this poem by his tombstone because it felt right to do so, like completing life’s cycle. In his acceptance of dying in a foreign land that has become home, there is perhaps a larger acceptance of change. Given that the highway will be constructed through his tomb, it is perhaps a way of sending him to his final rest. And this is fitting because of the way he stoically endured through the vicissitudes of life with courage and dignity.
This is my tribute to Khoo Seok Wan:
Visiting Khoo Seok Wan’s Grave
As I enter, a tripod covered with verdigris promises
That if I pause long enough, its invisible
Camera will capture me against a hill of tombs.
This afterimage will bewilder passing cars.
At Khoo’s burial mound I recite
“Reflections on building my grave”.
Translated, its crow-squawked syllables
Hover in the somnolent air. A creased map
Guided me here, amid the river of red
Inscriptions I cannot read.
The highway blueprint that sent in
An army of excavators must have been
A summons from the dead. Otherwise I
Would not have come to you
With a broom and a book of your poems.
“Reflections on Building my Grave” by Khoo Seok Wan
(translated by Shelly Bryant from the NLB exhibition)
in sea and on hills
little space even for my abode
how then may these buried bones
leap over the Sword Pond
even were you to call a third time
I will have no hope of rising
from Singapura’s soil [Xing zhou]
when I fall, at last, into repose
a petal brushes my headstone –
another butterfly repeats life’s circle
yet even in these grave markers
styles alter with time
like grass growing anew
in its season
with each passing year
changes again touch
our southern home
Editor’s note: Khoo Seok Wan was exhumed on 12 March 2014, with his grandson and his great grandsons in attendance.
The following blog entry was written by Denyse Chua Pei Yun, a first year Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences undergraduate at Tembusu College. She and her classmates visited Bukit Brown on 8 March 2014.
Cemeteries to me seem to extol the notion of death and seat its weight in the society of the living. A collectivized piece of land plotted to house the dead community, to which the living visits to give flowers and incense and their respects. These skeletons habiting under our feet are commanding our ways of life without as much of a murmur. Yet even with such daunting and ghoulish imaginations of cemeteries, Bukit Brown posits a sense of familiarity and nostalgia – not the eerie predispositions of the phasma phasmatis, but a reminder of culture and nature tumbled in an isolated park-like setting of greenery and avid runners; a platform that accommodates both the living and the dead at a grassroots level.
Conditioned by the media’s chilling and unnerving perspective of such death collectives, and coming from a community where life and youth is celebrated, the fourteen of us wide-eyed and intrigued undergraduate students didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at the largest gravesite in Singapore. Fortunately, we visited the site in the afternoon when the sun was still up and the possibility of the specters of our dead forefathers being in our presence didn’t spook us too much.
We visited Bukit Brown as part of a research field trip for a module on the topic of death hosted by Tembusu College, a University Town College in the National University of Singapore. Our lecturer Dr Connor Graham, who was also present at the site, teaches this module with an unusual level of enthusiasm for the departed. A bus ride down to Bukit Brown cemetery took us on a trip down Singapore’s memory lane, and much was to be explored around the willowing trees and hastily buried graves.
We found ourselves touring with other cemetery enthusiasts on International Women’s Day. The tour was led by a group of avid volunteers eponymously named Brownies, who help to manage and educate the public on Bukit Brown’s history, strategically centered on the graves of women, their stories, and their legacy.
Altruism was a key theme throughout the tour, as the guides shared stories of women both of status and none, who played significant roles in creating and contributing to today’s Singapore, amongst other quirky figures. One specific story of a 19-year-old lady who encompassed the virtues of bravery and heroism spoke to me. The grave of a 19-year-old maiden and her story was reminiscent of the willingness to sacrifice oneself for others, a virtue and value that can I feel can hardly be seen in today’s youth, and I include myself here. Soh Koon Eng was my age in the 1941 when she was unfortunately killed by an air raid during the Second World War, throwing herself in front of her family to shield them from flying fragments of furniture from the explosion. This selfless act cost her life in the most painful way possible, but saved the lives of her family, who lived on to tell her story.
With so much happening in the living world, it is easy to overlook the abundance in culture Singapore provides, contrary to the belief that this island is all but a concrete jungle with nowhere to get away. In Bukit Brown, an area isolated from the perpetual churning of our roaring lion city, the voices of those forever silenced are deafening. Thankfully, we have the Brownies to be grateful for voicing their rumbles, recanting stories of the dead with a whisper of vivacity while maintaining the gravitas of their life, legacy and contribution to Singapore’s modern success.
Coming from a generation of Singaporeans where cremation is the last step in life (and death), it hadn’t occurred to me that cemeteries in Singapore were such an important part of the landscape and were so entwined in national discourse, not only in her history, but also in our present. The sequestration of a part Bukit Brown would be the final effort of legendary figures untold in history books for Singapore, paving the way for the future, and for the living.