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  :

Beauty shot_Ai Lin

The arrival of devotees making their way to the ceremonial site for the set up (photo Chua Ai Lin)

beauty shot_Teremce Heng

Chao-du (photo Terence Heng)

Burining offerings _Zhi Hao

Paper offerings (photo Zhi Hao)

candle lit_Claire Leow

Path of candle lights to show the spirits the way (photo Claire Leow)

Candle_Zhi Hao

(photo Zhi Hao)

Tablets _ Chua Ai Lin

Side View : Off site 3 tablets,  set up by  Xuan Jiang Dian at Bukit Merah Blk 123 for the wandering spirits of Kopi Sua aka Bukit Brown. [right] for animals killed during agricultural activity (prior to it becoming a cemetery)[centre] for wandering souls[left] for animals killed during construction works (photo and caption by Chua Ai Lin)

Paying my respects to my late father and also the uncared, wandering and uncrossed over souls of Kopi Sua during the seven month pudu festival of Xuan Jian Dian

Front View : Off site 3 tablets,  set up by  Xuan Jiang Dian  at Bukit Merah Blk 123 for the wandering spirits of Kopi Sua aka Bukit Brown. [right] for animals killed during agricultural activity (prior to it becoming a cemetery)[centre] for wandering souls [left] for animals killed during construction works (photo Raymond Goh)

Report in the Straits Times on last night's ritual by Heng Kang Tian at Bt Brown_Victor Yue

Report on the Straits Times 27 July,’14 on the ceremony

ZB report_YH

Report on Lianhe Zaobao, 27th July’14

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:

文物局到武吉布朗坟场 记录“招魂”仪式











公众可通过在国家图书馆大厦9楼展出的“武吉布朗:记录新知识 开拓新视野”中英文展览,了解武吉布朗坟场上世纪的演变、坟墓设计和民间风俗等。图书馆大厦展览在10月10日结束后,将陆续在宏茂桥、裕廊、蔡厝港和大巴窑图书馆展出至明年1月底。


“Moving House”

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)

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Funeral of Wee Geok Eng Neo, nee Mrs Tan Tiam Tee. Upper Thompson Rd, 1926. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Funeral of Tan Tiam Tee, 1930. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)


Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Descendants at the tomb of Tan Tiam Tee, holding his portrait during Cheng Beng -tomb sweeping festival, 2012 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Descendants at the tomb of Tan Yong Chuan, Cheng Beng-tombsweeping festival , 2012 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Pictures from the exhumation of Wee Geok Eng Neo, May 2014 (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.

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Original photo of newly-wedded Tan Yong Chuan and his wife. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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.

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Painted portrait of Maria Anna Seet Chow Neo by Artist (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Painted Portrait of Tan Yong Chuan by Artist (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Reunited Mr. & Mrs Tan Yong Huan (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)


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”.

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“Work in progress” by artist Alvin Ong (image courtesy of the artist)

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Final work, “Moving House”, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 61cm (courtesy of Alvin Ong

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.

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The grave of the artist’s maternal great grandfather, Peck Mah Hoe(photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)

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Stele in Peck clan temple with the name “Peck Mah Hoe” at the top, although the character for “Hoe” differs from the one on the tomb. Photo courtesy of Yik Han.


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

The inscription at the tomb of Khoo Seok Wan (Photo: Claire Leow)

The inscription at the tomb of Khoo Seok Wan (Photo: Claire Leow)

KSW's Tomb (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

Khoo Seok Wan’s Tomb (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

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.

Figure 1. A Brownie in (passive) action

Figure 1. A Brownie in (passive) action

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.

Figure 2. Tembusians treading on dead leaves...and around dead bodies

Figure 2. Tembusians treading on dead leaves…and around dead bodies



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







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.

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Exhumation at grave of aunt (photo Aylwin Tan)

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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.

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(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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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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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.

Shan Cai Tong Zi giving sermons to the gathered souls ( photo Victor Yue)

Shan Cai Tong Zi giving sermons to the gathered souls ( photo Victor Yue)

Shan Cai Tong Zi giving sermons to the gathered souls ( photo Theresa Teng)

Shan Cai Tong Zi giving sermons to the gathered souls ( photo Theresa Teng)

Offerings which ranged from  various kinds of kueh kueh, joss sticks, coins to  rice were made.

Food offerings (photo Victor Yue)

Food offerings (photo Victor Yue)

Before the start of this event, respects were also accorded to the guardians of the hills.

Altar of the Deities responsible for the after-life (Victor Yue)

Altar of the Deities responsible for the after-life (Victor Yue)

The warm clothings and money offering (photo Victor Yue)

The warm clothings and money offerings (photo Victor Yue)

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”)。

Huat Kueh for all - Huat Ah! Huat Ah! (photo Victor Yue)

Huat Kueh for all – Huat Ah! Huat Ah! (photo Victor Yue)

Remaining part of the Huat Kueh to be brought back to the temple (photo Victor Yue)

Remaining part of the Huat Kueh to be brought back to the temple (photo Victor Yue)

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.

Han Candles by the barricades (photo Andrew Lim)

Lighting the way by the barricades erected in preparation of the start of exhumation (photo Andrew Lim)

Han Lotus (photo Theresa Teng)

Lotus Lights (photo Theresa Teng)

Han Lotus 1 (photo Theresa Teng)

Devotees of  Xuan Jiang Dian (photo Theresa Teng)

Han photo Theresa Teng

(photo Theresa Teng)

The burning of offerings ( Victor Yue)

The burning of offerings ( Victor Yue)





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.

Dawn at the Lim Chu Kang Hindu Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)

Dawn at the Lim Chu Kang Hindu Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)


A view of the Hindu tomb stones against the morning sky (photo Sugen Ramiah)


A Shrine dedicated to the Guardian of the Cemetery – Goddess Kali (photo Sugen Ramiah)


A Shrine dedicated to the Guardian of the Cemetery – Muneeswarar (photo Sugen Ramiah)


A pathway leading to the graves (photo Sugen Ramiah)


Grandfather’s tombstone at the Hindu Cemetery, simple offerings of fruits, sweetmeats and roti prata were offered on top of a banana leaf (photo Sugen Ramiah)


Grandmother’s tombstone at the Hindu Cemetery (photo Sugen Ramiah)


The uniform design of Hindu tombstones (photo Sugen Ramiah)


The uniform design of Hindu tombstones (photo Sugen Ramiah)

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



An Unusual Tableau


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.

The Tableaux of Virtues  (photo Ang Yik Han)

The Tableau of Virtues (photo Ang Yik Han)

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.

Your can read more about other tomb carvings by Yik Han on The Wayang in the Tombs , Romance of the Three Kingdoms,  

The Four Professions, 

The Four Loves, 

The Four Appointments, 





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.

Chen Yen Soon 为善百事兴 Ee Hoon.jpg 1

積德千年好 A good thousand years for those who accumulate good deeds.

Chen Yen Soon 积德万年好 Ee Hoon

積德千年好 A good thousand years for those who accumulate good deeds. (photo Khoo Ee Hoon)

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。


Temple in Silat Rd with inscriptions_Fabian Tee

Temple in Silat Rd with similar inscriptions (photo Fabian Tee)


More examples of couplets here


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