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.
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.
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 about the tombkeepers’ Qing Ming here
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 )
Grave of Tan Siok Hwa 陳淑華 #763 (photo credit The Bukit Brown Cemetery Documentation Project)
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.
Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Han Yi Jie 寒衣节
By Victor Yue
4 November, 2013
Han Yi Jie, which means “warm clothing event”, is a Chinese tradition when the start of winter reminds the people that their ancestors and departed loved ones would also be experiencing the cold. And so, they make offerings of food and warm clothing for them.
In Singapore, where it is always warm (hot in fact), such a tradition hardly exists. But, Xuan Jiang Dian 玄江殿, a Chinese temple dedicated to Xuan Tian Shang Di (玄天上帝), known as God of the North, continues with this tradition. For a a long time now, every year without fail, on the first day of the tenth lunar month (moon), this temple, with its devotees would visit Bukit Brown Cemetery to make offerings to the wandering souls. To the Chinese, the first day of the 10th moon marks the beginning of Winter. (Wandering souls are souls of the departed who do not have anyone (descendants) making offerings to them)
This year the first day of the 10 lunar month, fell on 3 November. As has been their tradition, members of Xuan Jiang Dian 玄江殿 went to Bukit Brown Cemetery to make offerings to the wandering residents of the cemetery. This year saw a bigger offering. Could there have been an increase in the number of wandering souls? Devotees of the temple contributed warm clothings, money (in the form of joss papers) and food. Some Brownies also contributed towards the offering of the warm clothings (in the form of paper robes).
This year, Shan Cai Tong Zi 善才童子, through a spirit medium, came along to offer sermon (dharma) to the invited souls at the gathering by the Ole Rain Tree. Shan Cai Tong Zi is a deity who is one of the 500 assistants to Guan Yin.. In S.E,Asia, he is a popular deity who is trance by spirit mediums. He is only 3 years old and the older folks, especially old aunties, like him, because they can be less formal, unlike the warrior deities.
Shan Cai Tong Zi, through his ancient Hokkien and mudras offered blessings to the gathered souls. Offerings which ranged from various kinds of kueh kueh, joss sticks, coins to rice were made.
Offerings which ranged from various kinds of kueh kueh, joss sticks, coins to rice were made.
Before the start of this event, respects were also accorded to the guardians of the hills.
After the blessings and offerings to the wandering souls, it was time to bless the living souls who gathered to contribute towards this event. Good health and good luck were amongst them being blessed onto the members gathered. Members were offered the five different beans (known as Gor Tao 五豆 in Hokkien) to bring back home. A big “Huat Kueh” (a traditional Hokkien cake made with yeast and flour through steaming) that was made in the temple by members for this event was offered to all present to take bit to eat, for good luck and “jia peng an” (吃平安) meaning eating to get the peace”)。
With the impending construction of the 8 lane highway through Bukit Brown, this is likely the last time that Han Yi Jie will be conducted at the ‘ole rain tree. But we still hope it will not be the last at Bukit Brown.
The Hindu Day of Remembrance
by Sugen Ramiah
1 November 2013
Like the Chinese who observe the annual “qing ming” or tomb sweeping festival in April, the Indians also honour their ancestors with a visit to their ancestors tombs on the Hindu day of remembrance. It takes place the Sunday before Deepavali, the festival of lights which falls on 2nd of November, Saturday.
On Sunday 27th November, I visited the Hindu cemetery located in Lim Chu Kang to pay respects and place offerings on my ancestors’ tombs.
My grandparents to date have a total of 125 descendants but sadly only 4 turned up, two cousins, my brother and myself.
The trip usually lasts for about two hours, as we’ll clean up five tombs, four in the Hindu Cluster and one in the Catholic cluster. Simple offerings including fruits and sweetmeats were placed on a banana leaf. With the lighting of an oil lamp and incense, the Indians remember their dearly departed.
In the evening at home, the entire family would gather. A feast that consists of eight dishes – chicken, mutton, eggs, fish, prawns, squid, crabs and vegetable, together with fruits, sweetmeats and Indian Peranakan delicacies such as the “kueh wajek”, will be laid before portraits of the ancestors. New cloths would be placed beneath the portrait, incense lit and finally the family members would eat the food that were offered.
Traditionally our forefathers from India were cremated , so there was never a need for tomb stones like the Chinese, Muslims and the Christians. The deceased were usually cremated within the day of death. But if they were wealthy, they would be given a burial. In the Hindu custom, the dead is also remembered on their death anniversary, known as a “theethi’”where a “mocham” lamp (light of liberation) is lit as a sign of remembrance.
Hindus have more than one festival to remember and honour their ancestors. On the full moon of the sixth lunar month of ‘Puratasi’ which falls in September/October, there is the ‘Mahalaya Amavasay’ also known as the fortnight of the ancestors. Hindus pay homage to their ancestors and offer prayers for the repose of their dearly departed at temples.
Some Hindus commemorate the dead during the Matu Pongal, on the second day of the “Pongol” Harvest Festival. The Indian Peranakans, known as the Chitty, celebrate the eve of Pongal with Bhogi Parachu – the ancestral worship festival. Since there were a few festivals to remember the dead, the local community here and in Malaysia decided that the Sunday before Deepavali will be the day of remembrance.
My grandfather, a wealthy merchant born in 1884, came to Singapore and contributed greatly to the Indian community of Singapore in the 1900s. He started the first dairy business here and contributed to the Sri Mariaman Temple in South Bridge Road He married my grandmother who was a Chitty- Indian Peranakan – from Melaka(Malacca) and she was the matriarch of the family. The honorary title is currently held by my aunt who is 85 this year.
As a Brownie, I have been moved by the descendants who return every year to Bukit Brown during “qing ming” to clean the tombs and pay their respects. I am also sadden by the tombs that lay neglected, which have been forgotten, and I hope more descendants will come forward and reconnect with their ancestors.
I am blessed and grateful to the friends/volunteers of Bukit Brown, who have kindly showed me how to appreciate and understand my own heritage and to be proud of who I am. This was the first time, my brother marked the remembrance day for our grandparents and it was for him an eye opening and moving experience.
Sugen Ramiah is a teacher by training and his interest includes observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples.
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.
At Bukit Brown, one often finds couplets on the “pillars” of the tombs. They embed auspicious meanings and also tributes to the departed.
The tomb of Chen Yen Soon has a pair which speaks of the rewards which await those who live a good life.
为善百世興 Hundred years of prosperity for kind acts.
積德千年好 A good thousand years for those who accumulate good deeds.
An inscription found in a temple in Silat Road on a photo of the Earth Deity or Tua Pek Kong, evokes the same sentiments.. Brownie Fabian Tee summarises:
The couplet reads fortune with virtue inspires respect from a thousand families (from many) the uprightious shall inherit the earth as deities for innumerable (ten thousand) generations. When read together, it’s an allegory to 福德正神。
More examples of couplets here
Mid-Autumn Festival Night Walk Report
To celebrate the mid-Autumn full moon we had lanterns, mooncakes, sparkles and a bunch of great people who joined us up to Ong Sam Leong’s grave at Hill 3. We went in 2 groups – group 1 with the early birds who had their lanterns ready to go just after 7pm, the rest of us in group 2 left the gathering point at the good ol’ raintree around 7.30pm. On the way just before reaching the caretaker’s hut, we saw a Brown Hawk Owl flying past and landing on one of the graves. We had a good look at the owl and then moved up the hill to Ong Sam Leong.
After that it was back to the entrance and everyone went their ways.
A few pictures below of this year’s event:
Khoo Ee Hoon made a short video clip of the fun we had at Ong Sam Leong’s grave: click here.
For more photos of this year’s event see: Bianca’s album
And see here Lawrence Chong’s album (on facebook).
============================== the original event notification below =========================
Friday 20 Sept - 7.00pm – 9.30pm
Meeting Point: Bukit Brown Under the Rain tree at the roundabout
The evening of 19/9 marks the fifteenth day of the eighth month on the Chinese calendar, which we will celebrate on 20/9. The traditional Singaporean way of celebration would be to carry lanterns and enjoy a session of drinking tea, and eating mooncakes, pomelos, etc.
Participants are strongly encouraged to bring their own lanterns, as well as contribute mooncakes and other food, for a family day session at BB.
We would be walking along Bukit Brown in the evening with our lanterns, and share with you stories that can be found on some of the pioneers’ tomb panels along the way.
We will start to gather from 7.00pm onwards, and begin the tour once it gets dark.
Bukit Brown. More than a cemetery. More than a Chinese cemetery.
Come discover our heritage, history and habitat.
LTA has released news on exhumation and tender for road building. Take this opportunity to experience Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery as it is now.
How to get there and handy tips here: http://bukitbrown.com/
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)
Registration: Our weekend public tours are FREE …
Optimally the group size is 30 participants (15 individuals/guide).
Please click ‘Join’ on the FB event page to let us know you are coming, how many pax are turning up. Or just meet us at the starting point at 7pm.
Brownie Code: We guide rain or shine.
Bukit Brown Heritage Park is about 173 acres in extent, bordered by Lornie Road, Thomson Road and the Pan-Island Expressway. It lies just to the south of the Central Catchment Forest, being separated from it by Lornie Road and includes Singapore’s only Chinese Municipal Cemetery. With more than 100,000 graves, Bukit Brown is also one of the largest Chinese cemeteries outside of China.
Here is a map of the grounds:
The Dancing Lanterns by the Youths of Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong
Apart from satisfying the hunger of the wandering spirits and entertaining them with boisterous live stage performances of the Getai, the seventh lunar month is also meant for the living. Business owners, wet market and hawker center associates, during this period to pray for peace, smooth sailing and thriving ventures. The members of the Tanglin Halt Wet Market invited the Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong to conduct their annual seventh month rituals, which was held on the twenty ninth day of the seven lunar month (3rd of September 2013).
Akin to the Teochew rituals at Chui Huay Lim Club, an entire day was spent to fulfill the needs of the wandering spirits. As dusk drew near, the focus was diverted to the living; as they recited the guan yin sutras, asking for bountiful blessings upon the supplicants. One of the highlights of the evening was the “dance of the auspicious lanterns” or also known as ’kee hock pau teng‘ in Teochew
These are the common red lanterns found suspended at entrance of the house, oval in shape and adorned with golden tassels. In reality, there is no underlying dogma to this presentation; however this is done to extend their (the temple) appreciation to the organizers who engaged them and to amuse them with a little folklore.
The performance began with the dimming of the interior lights of the temporary altar, to create the perfect ambiance. The youths of the temple, draped in white robes with green sashes across their waist, then marched in with the new lanterns.
It was accompanied by a beautiful Teochew repertoire of strings and percussion. As the tempo gradually increased, the youths sprang into acrobatic actions with their lanterns creating rhythmical movements. Every single movement found expression in their faces. The radiating positive energies exuded by these young men were bound with the lanterns, thus transforming them into auspicious items.
Flags of various colours were also carried in this ritualistic dance. These twelve pairs of auspicious lanterns and flags were then placed for bidding during the auction dinner the following day.
The ceremonial dance concluded with a roaring ‘huat ah’ by the youths as the organizers received and hung the lanterns on the bamboo poles. These lanterns purchased during the auction will be taken home and will be returned the following year.
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.
Chui Huay Lim Club (where the Bukit Brown exhibition was held recently) had its own rituals for the 7th month during the Hungry Ghost festival. The rituals were conducted on Saturday 1st Sep’13 with prayers starting from 8.00am in the morning and concluded at the end of the day with a burning of the Da Shi Ye at night.
Some of the Brownies went over to have a look of the setting up of the altar and the preparations of the offerings and side panels on the evening before it all started on 30th Aug’13. See here some of the photos of the intricate embroideries of the main altar.
For the full album – see this link.