by Eugene Ang
Living in Pasir Ris, the prospect of having to wake up early on a Sunday morning for a 9am walking tour—in a cemetery of all places—is definitely unappealing. After all, I am your typical Singaporean millennial, more in tune with the modern than the traditional and more interested in the future than the past.
That said, I was glad that I did eventually pull myself out of bed in the nick of time to join Claire and Bianca for a tour of Bukit Brown’s hills #2 and #5. This was my first visit to Bukit Brown and I certainly learnt a lot about the place from both of them.
In fact, I left the place feeling that Bukit Brown’s heritage is relevant to all of us, including us millennials. In a quintessentially millennial-style listicle then, here are the 3 reasons why I think so:
- Bukit Brown is an organic repository of the myriad stories of individuals, young and old, rich and poor, who make up Singapore’s history.
You might think: how would a bunch of unrelated dead people buried in a cemetery be of any relevance to me? I definitely thought so too, especially since I personally do not know of any relatives buried at Bukit Brown.
Yet, as Claire and Bianca led the group of us around the cemetery grounds, regaling us with the stories of their lives, I thought that these individuals constituted as much a part of Singapore’s history—my history—as the usual pantheon of figures that are found in our history textbook and featured in our museums.
There is good reason why social history, the branch of history that examines the lived experiences of ordinary people in the past, is now a major branch in the academic study of history. If history is to tell a story of our collective past, then it has to accommodate the range of individuals who are representative of our society—the young and old, the rich and poor, etc.
In this respect, Bukit Brown is the perfect place to reflect Singapore’s social history. In just a short morning, Claire and Bianca got us acquainted to the diverse mix of individuals who were buried in Bukit Brown, from paupers and concubines to war heroes and business tycoons. For instance, Lee Kim Soo, who made his fortune selling latex cups and other manufactured goods in the pre-war era in Singapore, is buried at Bukit Brown in an impressive Art Deco-inspired grave.
There were also seemingly ordinary people there who we can easily identify with, such as Soh Koon Eng, a young woman who was presumably engaged. Unfortunately, she passed away at the tender age of 19 in a Japanese air raid in January 1942.
Perhaps, just as they are traditionally believed by the Chinese to serve as portals to the world of the deceased, the graves of Bukit Brown can serve as a portal for all of us to access the myriad stories of the individuals who make up Singapore’s history. As we learn about them then, it should not be surprising that we come away with a fuller and more holistic sense of our past.
- Bukit Brown is emblematic of Singapore’s multicultural and diverse landscape.
Taking a walk around Bukit Brown, Singapore’s multicultural past is evident. For instance, the graves of Teo Chin Chay, a trader in commodities in the pre-war era, and his wife are flanked by two Chinese lions, two Sikh guards and two topless angels, while adorned with many exquisite engravings of Chinese motifs. The décor of this grave certainly shows the mingling of Chinese, Indian and Western cultural influences by the time of the early 20th century.
Another fascinating “multicultural” grave is that of Dolly Tan. Although not much is known of her, her grave has an interesting feature: it has Japanese inscriptions. In fact, as Claire pointed out, there are not only three different languages on her tombstone—Chinese, English, and Japanese—but also three calendar systems on it too: the Chinese mínguó calendar, the Japanese kōki imperial calendar, and the Western Gregorian calendar.
Indeed, the fact that disparate cultural symbols can appear in a single tombstone at Bukit Brown shows clearly that Singapore has always been multicultural and diverse. We are defined by the connections between cultures, rather than their divisions.
Hence, as we head toward an increasingly diverse population in Singapore thanks to globalisation and immigration, it is worthwhile to consider this past. As Bukit Brown shows us, being accepting of different cultures is a part of who we are.
- The plight of Bukit Brown forces us to confront the trade-offs that development brings.
Since the authorities first announced plans to construct a highway across Bukit Brown in 2011, what was originally an obscure and largely-forgotten cemetery became seared into the national consciousness as many Singaporeans from all walks of life banded together to petition the authorities against doing so.
Although the construction of the highway went ahead, the advocacy work of groups like All Things Bukit Brown catalysed much discussion about larger issues revolving around the consequences of our development choices. Bukit Brown, in a sense, has forced us to confront and consider the trade-offs that development brings: heritage and nature on one side, and transportation and housing needs on the other.
There is no easy way to resolve this tension, but it is an uncomfortable one that we Singaporeans have to grapple with. The trappings of the bustling global city that we often take for granted do not come for free. Sometimes, they require us sacrificing something, of which we must ask ourselves: are we willing to give it up?
Eugene Ang is just a regular young adult in Singapore, who is embarking on his working life in a cubicle, like many others in Singapore. Having spent some time overseas in the US and Turkey, he returned home with a renewed curiosity about Singapore’s own unique heritage and past.
On 14 August, Samira Hassan joined Brownie Peter Pak for a Ramble thru’ Bukit Brown to Kopi Sua Cemetery .
It was Samira’s first visit and she penned these reflections to share.
“I doubt there are textbooks or academic sources that would be able to do justice to the arcane yet insightful details the places in Bukit Brown had revealed about our past – and these pieces of our tangible history are truly irreplaceable.”
by Samira Hassan
Dateline: Bukit Brown (14th August 2016)
We started the trail off the sidewalk on Lornie Road near a clearing just pass the turn in to Caldecott Hill. It would have been all too easy to miss it whilst walking – overgrown creepers had landscaped the steep steps that led us down the path to the trail. The steps themselves were uneven and rickety, an omnipresent feature in Bukit Brown’s landscape.
The cemetery is sprawled over 5 hills (blocks) as high ground was thought to represent the back of a dragon, an auspicious symbol in Chinese culture.
We first made our way to the tomb of Lim Kee Tong and his wife.
Their tombstone was largely inspired by post-modernist designs of colonial times with Chinese lions. A mound behind the tombstone is where they are buried, enclosed in a horseshoe shape defined by a brick border. Each feature on the tombstone it seems had its own specific meaning; for example, the vines of grapes at the border of the headstones, because of its seeds, signified the wish for many more generations to follow.
The horseshoe shape is also reminiscent of a womb, alluding to the circle of life. The design of the grave incorporates a drainage system which would direct rain water to flow to the bottom, an important component in fengshui. Water is “chi” or energy and also represents wealth. Diverting water away from the mound helps to stay the course of decomposition, although it is inevitable.
Inscriptions on the tombstones included names of the deceased, dates of death and place of origin. It was explained that sometimes posthumous auspicious names were given as mark of respect by the children. Names of children are also included in the inscriptions so it seems like each grave is family monument in itself. Features and inscriptions on each grave can reveal some aspect about the person’s life and hopes for the family.
And in Bukit Brown, every grave has a story to tell – even the grave of paupers. Moving into the pauper area of Bukit Brown, we learned of the rickshaw puller Low Nong Nong who died in clashes with police when rickshaw pullers went on strike and demonstrated against the increment of rickshaw rentals.
The other rickshaw coolies then pooled together enough money to buy Nong Nong a tombstone and a funeral to acknowledge his sacrifice. In the midst of the other *pauper tombstones where there was barely enough money to erect a simple headstone, Nong Nong’s tombstone was comparable in size to the tombs in the paid plots and also because the mound itself had been cemented over, perhaps because his comrades realised that since he died without kith and kin, there would be no one to help maintain his grave should they themselves pass on or manage to make enough money to return home to China
*Under the colonial administration, free plots in Bukit Brown were set aside for those who died destitute
The fact that even paupers like this rickshaw puller had a story, had a voice, was something that I really appreciated in Bukit Brown: there was no particular class, or group of people, that were entitled to the plot of land, that all of these seemingly disparate narratives had managed to tell a bigger story of Singapore’s history. Such heterogeneity transcended into Ong Sam Leong’s tomb as well, the biggest one in Bukit Brown.
The most fascinating thing about his grave were the statues of the Punjabi guards stationed at each side. Around Malaya at that point in time, the British had recruited Punjabi soldiers and policemen from India. Given their positions of authority, they were almost seen as the “guardians of the state” They became also personal body guards of rich towkays such as Ong Sam Leong at a time where lawlessness was more prevalent. For me it demonstrated a deep level of trust between diverse communities and reflected a nascent multicultural society Singapore in the 1900s.
Bukit Brown has grown to be more than a resting place for the deceased – it has become a physical emblem of a society that was present in early 20th-century Singapore. From the most minute details in the tombs to the way the entire cemetery is organized – all of these provide important snippets to what civil society used to be like back then, I think this really goes to show that there is sometimes no alternative for trails and fieldwork such as this one.
I doubt there are textbooks or academic sources that would be able to do justice to the arcane yet insightful details the places in Bukit Brown had revealed about our past – and these pieces of our tangible history are truly irreplaceable.
Samira is a year 5 student with Raffles Institution, who is currently serving an internship with Singapore Heritage Society to better understand the challenges of conservation and heritage development
Information on public guided walks when and where and how to register can be found by following Bukit Brown Events on Peatix
An update on this post as Jing Xiang has completed his Masters thesis
Abstract : Housed within Bukit Brown Cemetery are the many tombs of pre-independent Singapore pioneers with syncretic elements of a multicultural milieu. It remained a largely forgotten site except to families who visit the burial ground especially during the annual Qing Ming (tomb sweeping) festival.
In 2011, the state announced plans to redevelop Bukit Brown. Civil society groups, who saw the site as one rich in biodiversity and embedding an important historical past, contested the decision. This contestation rehearses a long-standing tension between heritage and progress in Singapore. This dissertation recasts Bukit Brown Cemetery as a highly charged site where notions of identity and belonging are latent.
The dissertation argues for an understanding of this forgotten landscape as integral to the Singaporean psyche of home and nation. Using Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities and Henri Lefebvre’s spatial trilectics as its theoretical
frameworks, this paper outlines the spatial taxonomies present in Bukit Brown, and how identity is produced and anchored in those spaces. The inquiry unfolds on two scales: the first is a micro-territorial scale where the spatial practices of the individual and domestic unit are studied in relation to the tombs and myths found within and around Bukit Brown. The second one looks at Bukit Brown as macro-territory dotted with cultural anchors signifying collective histories.
Taken together, these two scalar frames reveal the complex structures of individual and collective identity, and how such structures are still actively forming/reforming at the Bukit Brown Cemetery.
His thesis can be found here
First Published on the blog on 20 August, 2014
Some elements in the drawing are all too familiar landmarks in the cemetery, while others suggest hidden secrets, or things that,as of the present moment, has disappeared due to the roadworks. The drawing straddles between what is real and what is imagined, what is there and what is not there, or ‘not there’ because we can’t see it (yet) like other intangible (forces or) values of Bukit Brown.
(please click to view and appreciate full image)
By Zhang Jiayi
In the early afternoon last Sunday (2 August, 2015) I dreaded my decision to go for a guided walk around Bukit Brown cemetery. However, I have promised my friends that I will turn up, so grudgingly, I made my way to the meeting point for the walking tour. Three hours and a lot of mosquito bites later, it is a decision that I did not regret.
Tombstones don’t lie. All aspects of the tombs – from the layout, the materials used, the carvings and statues around the tomb – give us snippets of information about the individuals and the Chinese immigrant community in early Singapore. The tour shed light on the stories of the individuals; after the tour, the occupants of Bukit Brown turned from random people to dignified individuals who made a difference to the social reality we experience today. Our history and social studies curriculum doesn’t do justice to the various individuals who made a difference to Singapore. While we know a significant bit about Tan Tock Seng, we overlooked the contributions of his eldest son, Tan Kim Ching, who is also buried in Bukit Brown. Tan Kim Ching not only participated actively in philanthropy, just like how Tan Tock Seng did, he also had a close relationship with the royal family of Siam (known as Thailand now), and played an important role in diplomatic relations between the Straits Settlements and Siam. It is also to my surprise that the 72nd generation of Confucius also set foot in Singapore, and is also buried in Bukit Brown cemetery *.
The diversity of the ‘residents’ of Bukit Brown was jaw dropping. Tombs of Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, men, women, the rich and the poor can be found in Bukit Brown cemetery. A range of calendars was used in the inscriptions of headstones in documenting the time of birth and death of individuals. Some Chinese pledged allegiance to the Ming dynasty of China and at their time of death dreaded the fact that they would be buried in a foreign land, while others were content to call Singapore home and to be buried here. I saw for myself the intricate Peranakan tiles laying some of the tombs of wealthy Peranakan Chinese, who chose to be buried in Bukit Brown as they did not identify with their Chinese dialect clans. It was also fascinating to gain an insight on how the early Chinese viewed death – many of them viewed their tombs as their homes in afterlife, and the layout of the tombs resembled the layout of homes. Much thought was put into the building of tombs; some tombs had carvings transmitting values like filial piety, some had intricate statues symbolizing prosperity, fertility and abundance, while other had inscriptions revealing how they felt when they were buried in Singapore. The trip was especially meaningful for me, as a female.
I learned more about the contributions of early Chinese women to the cause of gender equality we have today. Ms Lee Choo Neo, the founder of a Chinese Ladies Association, lobbied for the right of females to live a more enriching life. The Association taught domestic skills, supported education for females, and sponsored a rescue home for women. She was in her teens when she started these big projects. She can be rightfully known as, according to my understanding, the grandmother of the civil society in Singapore. The experience exposed how much I didn’t know about the history of Singapore, beyond what was taught in our social studies and history textbooks. I was deeply humbled by the number of times I widened my eyes in surprise as the volunteer guides (Brownies) dropped nuggets of trivia about prominent early Chinese immigrants. There is just so much the cemetery revealed about who we are as Singaporeans before Singapore’s independence, and the place unjustified the sweeping claims about how Singapore is ‘cultureless’.
As we celebrate 50 years of Singapore’s independence, let us remember, as the guides rightly pointed out, that it is also our 70th year of liberation from the Japanese Occupation, and almost a century from the time we were first part of the Straits Settlements. It is my hope that the stories told during the tour are documented and made available to a wider audience, lest our social history be like those resting in Bukit Brown cemetery – buried six feet underground, never to be seen or heard by the future generations of Singaporeans.
*Editors Clarification: The 72nd direct descendant of Confucius had prepared his grave with the intention of being buried beside this wife who passed away before him, but he was buried at Bidadari instead. We thank Jiayi for taking time to pen her thoughts on her first visit to Bukit Brown and invite anyone who would like to contribute a blog post to write to firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on guided walks please visit bukitbrown.com for weekly updates.
About Jiayi: Jiayi is a young Singaporean still in search of what makes her Singaporean. She is interested in issues relating to the Singaporean society as a whole, including social stratification, education and national identity.
The Penang Heritage Festival 2015 will be soon be upon us, mark your calenders 4th July to 7th July, book your flights and head north, for this year’s theme will leave you salivating.
‘EAT RITE: Rituals Foods of George Town’, Heritage Celebrations 2015 puts the focus on the city’s festive heritage with emphasis on the special foods made to celebrate each occasion. More than just a source of nutrients, such foods are rich with significance and symbolism that express the beliefs and hopes shared by the community.
The Brownies had a heritage blast last year and had their fill of the landmarks of Georgetown and the stories recounted here in:
To Penang With Love.
by Simone Lee
Penang and George Henry Brown (1826-1882)
Though at opposite ends of the Malayan peninsula, the islands of Penang and Singapore share common ground in culture and history, and even identity. Last year (2014) the Brownies set out exploring the connections with Singapore’s past while celebrating the Penang Heritage Festival in commemoration of George Town’s listing as a UNESCO Heritage site.
While the Bukit Brown Cemetery volunteer guides were in Penang, they paid homage to the person that the cemetery was named after. George Henry Brown arrived in Singapore in the 1840’s from India and bought parcels of land around Upper Thomson including Mount Pleasant, which he named because of its pleasant surroundings. Although Mr.Brown did not buy the exact piece of land that now holds Bukit Brown cemetery, his name was adopted as the locals referred to the hills in the area as “Kopi Sua” or Brown’s hill ( *kopi literally means coffee but is here referred to as brown for its colour, due to limitations in the dialect vocabulary.) In the 1880’s, Mr.Brown sailed to Penang following an accident with a tapioca machine on his estate in Singapore, which severely injured his arm. He was there to recuperate in his brother’s home but complications from injury set in and he passed away. He was buried at the Old Protestant Cemetery in GeorgeTown.
The Old Protestant Cemetery is the oldest christian cemetery in Penang. It is where Sir Francis Light, the founder of colonial Penang, was also laid to rest. Thomas Leonowens, the husband of Anna Leonowens is also buried there. After the death of her husband, Anna moved to Singapore and with George Brown and Tan Kim Ching’s (son of Tan Tock Seng) recommendation, she became the English tutor to the children of King Mongkut in Siam. Her story is immortalized in various versions of The King and I (or Anna and the King).
Kapitan Chung Keng Quee (1821-1901) and the Tan Kim Ching (1829-1892) connection
High on the Brownie itinerary, was the hunt for the biggest tomb in Penang (and possibly in Malaysia). The immensity of the space where life sized statues guard the grand tomb of Kapitan Chung Keng Quee is a jaw-dropping experience. Kapitan Chung or Ah Quee was a leader in the Chinese community and was known for his generous contributions. He was also the headman of the Hai San secret society who led the group through the 4 Larut Wars and supported the Pangkor Treaty. The fierce fighting over the booming tin mining territories in Taiping (formerly known as Larut) involved members of the Ghee Hin and Hai San secret societies from as far as Singapore. To end the bloodshed, Prince Abdullah who himself was embroiled in a succession crisis and was sympathetic to the Ghee Hin faction, traveled to Singapore to seek help from Tan Kim Ching. As a prominent leader in the Chinese community Tan brought to bear his influence in the matter and called on the British administrators who had charged of The Straits Settlements to intercede and broker a peace agreement. The rest as they say is history. The Pangkok Treaty ended hostilities with a truce and Larut was then named Taiping – 太 (tai – ‘great’) and 平 (ping – ‘peace’). More on Romancing Taiping here.
Back in Georgetown, Penang, Kapitan Chung was also known for his expansiveness and exquisite taste in architecture and all things Chinese culture and history. His grand townhouse in Georgetown showcases some of the finest artisan work of that time imported from both China and Europe and is now opened to the public as the Penang Peranakan Mansion. Next to his townhouse is Kapitan Chung’s private temple. A life-size bronze statue of Chung stands in this temple.
Khoo Tiong Poh (1830-1892) and Tiong Bahru
Resting at a corner of the Jalan Free School roundabout is buried the man who is named for Tiong Poh road in Singapore, Tiong Bahru. Khoo Tiong Poh was a Chinese merchant and ship owner. He owned the shipping and trading company, Bun Hin & Co at Malacca Street, in Singapore, and within a few years opened branches in Penang, Hong Kong, Amoy and Swatow, making it the largest and leading shipping enterprise in the Straits. He was also known for his philanthropic deeds which included donations made to cemeteries and temples in Penang, and to the coastal defence and flood relief in China, earning him the title Dao Tai 道台 by the Qing government.
After a prolonged illness, Mr.Khoo passed away in Singapore and his body was shipped to Penang to be buried at his plantation. His son, Khoo Phee Soon, who resided in Singapore till his eventual death is buried in Bukit Brown Cemetery.
No trip to Penang is complete without visiting the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi. The clan association which has opened it doors to the public as a living museum, displays the rich history behind the Khoo lineage, the grand architecture, and the elaborate Chinese decorations, paintings and carvings. It also showcases prominent pioneers who made their names in the society and contributed generously to the community in Malaya and Singapore. These men include Khoo Seok Wan, Khoo Teck Phuat and his father, Khoo Yang Tin.
Over the years, the Leong San Tong has gone through a number of restorations. Over the span of 3 years (1999-2001), the biggest restoration exercise saw conservation specialists and craftsmen from China and India, flown in to work on restoring and reinstalling parts of the building with materials that were traditionally used. These included traditional organic paint, and terracotta tiles which were imported from China. The massive restoration brought Leong San Tong’s shine back to its authentic glory and garnered the National Heritage Restoration Award in 2000, and helped sealed Georgetown’s UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008.
For the few short days, the Brownies visited a few other sites in Penang which had links to Singapore but yet to explore some completely, saving them for future Brownie adventures.
We are grateful to members of the Penang Heritage Trust for their hospitality and guidance in our trip. Special thanks to Salma Khoo, Lim Giak Siang, Clement Liang and Joanna Khaw.
A special mention is the place the Brownies called ‘home’ for 3 nights; the Ren I Tang Heritage Inn. The shophouse once housed the oldest traditional chinese medical practice in South East Asia, Yin Oi Tong, for 124 years. It went through a 2-year restoration process which retained much of the original features, including the air-well, wooden staircase and roof tiles. Today, one can find himself soaking in Ren I Tang’s history at the comfort of his room, while sipping a cuppa at the bistro or just bybrowsing through the museum.
About the Brownies and their off-site sojourns:
The Brownies’ yearning to connect to history and thirst for adventure, brings them to various locations within and beyond Singapore. The objectives of these retreats are, to study the historical and cultural links to Singapore, and to strengthen kinship amongst the brownies.
(Brownies are the volunteers who conduct regular weekend guided walks and independent research on heritage, habitat and history of Bukit Brown Cemetery.)
It has been a long time coming, 3 years in gestation but Darren Koh – a pioneer member and solid contributor of the FB group community Singapore Heritage Bukit Brown Cemetery – has finally joined the ranks of Brownies who conduct guided walks. All Things Bukit Brown (atBB) caught up with Darren – whose day job is lecturing on taxation in a tertiary institution – and asks why now and what took him so long?
atBB : You have been following and contributing to the community online for a number of years, why have you now decided to join the ranks of brownies who conduct guided walks?
Darren I blame Chew Keng Kiat! Some time ago, we were chatting and I asked him if he recalled when the “brownies” came into being. He dated the Brownies back to one evening in Sago Lane – in fact the funeral of Raymond Goh’s father. Keng Kiat mentioned there was this group of people at a table at the end of the tentage. I reminded him I was there too – I was sitting with Mil, Su-Min and Vicky at one end. Keng Kiat mentioned that everyone at the table agreed that the Goh brothers could not possibly hunt down tombs and spread the knowledge of Bukit Brown all on their own. Plans for the 8 lane highway had just been announced and time was short. That was about when everyone at the table agreed to take on the guiding so that Raymond and Charles could focus on the tomb hunting. “Teach us. Let us do this for you.” And so – to the memory of Keng Kiat at least, the Brownies were born. Unfortunately for me, my asking when the Brownies was born also pencilled in his memory that I had not guided any walks. Since my conversation with him about that evening, he has often taken the opportunity to ask when I would actually guide. Even as recently as this year’s Chinese New Year dinner, Keng Kiat nudged me again and said “Look around you – everyone at that table so many years ago has gone on to guide. You are the only one who hasn’t. When are you going to do so?”
Truth of the matter was that it was always going to be a matter of time. I was in the midst of getting a new programme running at the university, and that was just soaking up my time. I did not have many people helping me teach then, and I was teaching many of the courses myself. And the courses took place at the weekends. So I really could not go out to the hills as often as everyone did. As you point out, I have been keeping in touch with the Brownies and following the discoveries, the developments, the joys and the lows. But always once removed. I must say, the Brownies were kind enough to include me in many of the offsite events (read – dinner!, etc) and it was at one event when one of our guests asked if I was a Brownie that I sort of blurted out “Not really – I have helped out in some walks but have not guided one myself. I do not think I can wear the title until I have done that.” And that I think was when Catherine jumped in an said, “He’s an Associate Brownie!” So yay! I had a place!
Now that the programme at the university is more settled, I can breathe again, and I was looking to get out of the air-conditioned world, and maybe get more exercise, and do something I like…. I realised why not just guide walks. It ticks all the right boxes – it’s in the midst of nature, it’s out of the artificial world of the office, I will walk a lot, and I will get to do what I like – tell stories. A perfect fit. And so, after a couple of weekends of doing my homework (i.e. walking the hills, trying to find the tombs, getting lost amongst the stones), I started guiding.
atBB Share what has been your experience like so far after 3 guided walks.
Darren It’s been great! Each one has been different: the routing, the tombs we visited and therefore the story that was told was different. And in the last walk, I even had to abort a visit to two tombs and think of rapid replacements as the tombs I had wanted to visit were inaccessible.
It is usually good to have people ask questions – although sometimes that is scary as you never know which angle they will come from. But the good thing about being a volunteer guide is that I can say “I don’t know – will have to get back to you on that.” A bit more difficult to say that in my normal classes!
The one thing I am reminded of, is a piece of advice shared with me by a good friend Tony Oldham, whom I got know well while we were travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was an archaeologist and anthropologist, and was also a tour guide in Europe. He said, “Never let a few facts stand in the way of a good story.” Something which I have since learnt is very true: the people who come for the walks are not here for a history lesson, or a degree in decorative arts. The finer details therefore do not exactly matter. What matters however, is the story of the person we are calling upon: we bring that person to life when we relate their life and times. Even more so if we can weave a line from the person we are calling upon, to the visitors today. You can see for instance, the change in people when I reveal that we know so much about how Soh Koon Eng died because the daughter of the boy Koon Eng shielded with her body told us the story. Or when they realise the man in the small grave I am talking about was none other than Lee Kuan Yew’s grandfather … All links from the past to the present that they know.
The one regret to date? I wish I had more time to share more with the visitors, but we have 3 hours before we tire. There is only so much we can share in each session. The only problem is when there are certain expectations – just as Frances Yip will never be allowed to have a concert where she does not sing the theme song from the Bund/Shanghai Beach, there are certain tombs that visitors ask for. Then you are stuck in who else to call upon with the time you have left in the walk after up have visited those “top tombs to visit”. I think I will have to be a bit more creative in routing my walks, or just learn to say “Not this time.”
atBB What would you say is your main interest in Bukit Brown?
Darren It’s the transmission of culture and the understanding of history! There is much to be told from the stones: they tell of the person. From the research we get the story to enable us to link the person from the past to what it means today. That is the job of the storyteller – that’s why I love it when people get the stories! Personally – I’m not the greatest fan of bush bashing – the effort undertaken to find the tombs of people. I think my mechanical-pencil hands were not meant for hacking through forests with machettes. But give me the facts, and let me tell the story – that is my forte. Right now, we need to tell as many as possible the wealth of history and culture that lies in Bukit Brown.
atBB notes: bush bashing does not involve machettes as such, more walking sticks and some Brownies carry a small cutter to help them clear vines.
atBB Tell us a little something about yourself.
I have been telling stories since I was young – I even won a school prize and represented the school in a story telling competition when I was in primary school! I think the best way to tell an idea is to put it in a story that the listener gets. The question is how the listener gets it: and I have to tailor the story to the listener.
Darren In many ways, all my past I have been a story-teller: as a lawyer and a chartered accountant who specialises in taxation, I have learnt to use the skill to help in negotiations, in drafting documents, in preparing defence files and in tax audits. Since I switched to academia – it is all about telling stories again, although this time I tell them to students, in the hope they will learn to tell their own stories themselves.
Having dissected a snake in school, I am not that worried about them. But I do fear cockroaches – don’t ask me why – so thank goodness they are not one of the worries i have out in Bukit Brown.
I used to be able to say that I have worked in all the northern continents except where the polar bears roam – but the bears are now roaming further down south into North America so I will probably have to revise that statement now.
atbb observes : As you can tell from his interview, Darren is quite a wit and most diligent, the bonus is he comes with a wealth of knowledge about Chinese culture and temples and is also one of the pioneer membersof the yahoo heritage news group. His next guiding session is at the first regular first weekend guided walks, atBB is launching, starting in June on the morning of Saturday 6 June, 2015, so please register here if you want to “experience” him in person.
For more photos of Darren, the brownie in action please click here and note that you need to have a facebook account to view these photos.
On 8 November 2014, the Standard Chartered team returned to Bukit Brown for the third and last time in the year for the Tour and Clean-up CSR event. Bolstered by the presence of a number of veteran volunteers, the team cleared a record 20 tombs, including a few challenging ones! Two first-time volunteers, Anastasia Francis & NurHafizah Daud, write about their experience.
“A people without history
Is not redeemed from time,
For history is a pattern
Of timeless moments”.
We stood in the midst of lush foliage peppered with hundreds of grey tombstones, as we listened to the lilting voice of a woman reciting T. S. Eliot. It was an idyllic November morning. Clouds hung low in the sky, and light raindrops gently grazed our skin. Birds and crickets chirped; the atmosphere was inviting, uplifting.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning”
This surreal experience was definitely not what we had expected when we signed up for the Bukit Brown CSR event. In fact, we had not quite know what to expect, as neither of us had ever done anything remotely similar to this before.
The woman reading poetry was Claire, our guide for the day. Claire was one of the Brownies, a group of citizen volunteers who devote themselves to the preservation of the Bukit Brown Cemetery. Listening intently to her every word, we hiked in a single file as she led us on a tour through some of the 100,000 tombs in the colossal graveyard. Occasionally stopping at particularly prominent tombs, she would give us eloquent anecdotes about the persons who lie beneath, or share some of her impressive historical and cultural knowledge. The passion and dedication that emanated from her was inspirational.
We were surprised to learn that this charming heritage site is the final resting place of some of our nation’s finest pioneers (Chew Joo Chiat, Chew Boon Lay, Gan Eng Seng, etc.), and holds so much of this nation’s history and heritage. The narratives told by Claire conjured and replayed the lives of those who sleep below in our heads in a most mesmerizing way – what they did, what they said, how they lived, how they contributed, how they died…
At the end of the tour, we reached a clearing where a variety of tools were laid out neatly on the grass – shovels, changkols, brooms, shears and the like. We donned gloves and with a tool in hand, set to work restoring the tombs of the forgotten. Some were in a truly shocking state, with a few feet of soil and shrubbery covering the concrete and intricately patterned tiles. Despite being born-and-bred city girls, and completely unaccustomed to manual labour, we tied our hair back, paid no heed to the balmy heat of the afternoon, and put in our best for a few solid hours. The guidance from the Brownies and veteran volunteers was invaluable.
Two hours later, our work was done – 20 tombs were cleaned! The sense of fulfillment upon seeing dignity restored to the resting places of forgotten pioneers, with our hands-on manual work, was immense and touching.
Brimming with stories, teeming with nature, Bukit Brown is a timeless little corner on our island where past pioneers sleep. We are glad we played a small part in heritage preservation, and we would be back for more in the future!
The tombs cleared are chosen because they have fallen to neglect, and are not cared for by descendants who pay tombkeepers to do so. As a volunteer group, we do not clear tombs tended by tombkeepers so as not to affect their livelihood. Some of these graves chosen are identified for research reasons. An example of the before and after of a tomb cleared by the Stanchart CSR crew in Sept 2014:
Preserving Our Heritage by Perry Tan, the first CSR effort by Stanchart in April 2014
Take 2, the Second CSR outing, Sept 2014
Intrinsic Value of Bukit Brown by Claire Leow
Give Us a Chance – a plea to the government
Remembering Yeo Bian Chuan
by Simone Lee
Qingming or Tomb-Sweeping Day is a traditional festival on the Chinese calendar in remembrance and respect of ancestors. Families visit their ancestors’ ‘home’ – the grave, for a ‘spring clean’ and replenish their needs by leaving ‘worldly’ offerings. This year, the festival fell on the 5th of April and 10 days before and 10 days after is the period where rituals are conducted.
Bukit Brown is busiest at this time of the year. Jams are not uncommon. Throngs of people drive around the historic cemetery to look for their ancestors’ tomb. They carry with them bags of offerings and cleaning tools. Yet, for another year, Yeo Bian Chuan’s grave laid forgotten.
In February 1915, during the Indian Mutiny in Singapore, Yeo Bian Chuan saved 17 Europeans’ lives by hiding them in their home from a bloody massacre. For this he was awarded a commemorative gold medal but died before receiving it.
Today, Yeo Bian Chuan’s tomb is in a state of neglect, not what a hero deserves. We can only hope that soon a descendant would identify him and restore the glory of his ‘home’, one which he deserves.
Read more on Yeo Bian Chuan’s story at Peter Pak’s blog here.
Welcome to a new year, as we cross the threshold into 2015, we look back on the year that has passed.
A is for Advocacy
It was an honour that we could not have dreamed off when we started our journey in January 2012 to raise awareness about the heritage,habitat and history of a 90 year old cemetery, that many say had been “abandoned” and “forgotten”.
Well, here’s the news, they were wrong. And this is why: over 13,000 participants to the guided walks – comprising a demographic from all walks of life, from all ages, from students to community constituency groups, photography enthusiasts, international academics, meet-up groups, and media crews, travel writers, civil servants, docents etc etc; 4 exhibitions over 2 years, the first ever listing for Singapore as a heritage site under threat, under the World Monuments Fund Watchlist 2014, and this year alone, 3 major academic publications. It is a record which speaks for itself, carried by a momentum, best described as organic in nature, and a ground up initiative. When it comes to development in Singapore and how it impacts our history and heritage our sense of identity and place , Bukit Brown as a cause, as a movement, as a place in the memory scape of Singaporeans, refuses to die.
B is for Bukit Brown
2014 was a year Bukit Brown went off-site and “broke new ground” in 2 major exhibitions and inaugural guided walks in the City.
In March, Woon Tien Wei and Jennifer Teo, the husband-and-wife artist-activist team behind Post-Museum curated “The Bukit Brown Index” which was one out of 28 local works featured in an exhibition called “Unearthed” The highlight of their work was a wall on which the names of the exhumed and unclaimed which had to make way for the highway through Bukit Brown, were hand written with the help of Brownies, among others in the heritage and artistic community.
In July, Bukit Brown : Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge was officially opened by MOS (MND) Desmond Lee at the National Library. It represents almost one and half years of research and working the ground documenting some 4,153 tombstones which are affected by the building of a new highway across Bukit Brown, by a team under the leadership of Dr. Hui Yew-Foong, an anthropologist with ISEAS. The exhibition is currently on tour at regional libraries until next year.
In conjunction with the exhibition, All Things Bukit Brown curated 2 special guided walks The Descendants Stories which featured descendants of pioneers sharing their stories of uncovering their roots in Bukit Brown.
Our march into the city was sealed when we partnered the Singapore Heritage Society and co-curated the Bukit Brown in the City and the City in Bukit Brown Walk walks for the Singapore Heritage Festival 2014 in July.
And in a nod to the Bukit Brown Jane’s Walk, 2 participants Louise and Bridget organised of their own initiative and without any assistance from the brownies, a guided walk for a group of ten of their friends in September. We thank them and hope they will do more!
In September also All Things Bukit Brown, was invited to make a 10 minute presentation in the “Singapore Dreaming” workshop by the Asian Urban Lab as a lead up to a the major conference in 2015 where leading artists, academics, professionals and other thinkers across diverse disciplines will share and explore alternative visions of a Singapore that is sustainable, creative and vibrant.
In 2014, Bukit Brown continued to be featured in student media projects, international news analysis on Singapore’s issues of development and heritage, local TV programmes from “My Grandfathers’ Road” to “Secret Singapore” and its sheer beauty and remembrance of Singapore as as a major battleground in WW 2 was visually showcased in an award winning art house film called “The Canopy” screened at this year’s Singapore International Festival in November.
Next year, watch out as one of the Brownies will guest host a new programme on Channel 5 to introduce Bukit Brown.
After a hiatus and the completion of The Adam Park Project TAPP , the ever popular Battlefield Tours conducted by Jon Cooper returned – once a month every first Sunday – and continue to be over subscribed.
In 2014, we conducted more guided walks by private request. Of all the requests for guided walks, the most enthusiastic and frequent requests came from our educational institutions from secondary to tertiary institutions both local and international for “Learning Journeys”
We shifted gears from guided walks and organised on request by Standard Chartered Bank, a Corporate Social Responsibility event which was so successful, the bank has already completed 3 sessions at Bukit Brown of clearing and cleaning selected tombs between May and November 2014. They will make a comeback in 2015.
On site, as we have done, for every year since 2012, we celebrated NDP ’14 , Our Bukit Brown, Our People with both gusto and with sadness in an landscape which has changed and will continue to change as the road works encroach slowly but surely .
On site, sometime in November, while we were not looking, the ole raintree was chopped down and overnight it was gone, our consolation comes from our shared memories.
C is for Community
It has been the heart of community and your passionate support which has sustained, encouraged and uplifted the Brownies over the past 3 years. A community which includes academics, journalists, artists, writers, descendants, tomb keepers and fellow activists in heritage and the environment. We single out for our gratitude the Singapore Heritage Society and the Facebook Group Community Heritage Singapore- Bukit Brown Cemetery.
When a call was made for feedback to be given on the URA Draft Masterplan 2013 in December of the same year, we received some 30 responses which were sent to the Ministry of National Development. You wrote on how important it was to preserve Bukit Brown for future generations, for the environment, as a space important to root Singaporeans to the land and for the sharing of collective memories.
In June 2014 the Masterplan was gazetted with no changes to plans for Bukit Brown. But if you thought, your efforts were for naught, let us reassure you, it was noted and it did make a difference in paving the way for better engagement on the future of Bukit Brown. We have only just began.
In 2014, three major academic papers on Bukit Brown were published
We thank : (Drs) Natalie Pang and Liew Kai Khuin “Archiving the Wild Archivists”, Dr Terence Chong (Singapore Heritage Society) “Bukit Brown municipal cemetery: Contesting Imaginations of the Good life in Singapore” and Prof Huang Juanli ” Resurgent Spirits of Civil Society Activism: Rediscovering the Bukit Brown Cemetery in Singapore” for their comprehensive and thoughtful and thought provoking papers.
To the descendants who have trusted us with their stories, we salute you.
And a special mention and shout out to Zaobao journalist Chia Yei Yei and the heritage reporters of Zaobao for the breathe and depth of coverage they have given to all things related to Bukit Brown from pioneers to Brownies in 2014.
The Chinese daily capped off the year in recognition of the part the Goh Brothers have played in uncovering our historical and heritage gems by headlining them among the paper’s Personalities of 2014.
We ended 2014 on site, in the last guided walk of Bukit Brown for the year with some 50 people turning up.
50 is of course a significant number as we cross the threshold into 2015. 2015 is SG50, a year of national celebration of 50 years of our history and achievements. But what can we look forward to in a landscape which will continue to be pockmarked and drastically changed by construction work on the development of a highway?
We will keep calm and carry on, engage constructively, walk the ground, walk the talk, continue to be excited by new discoveries and we will – and this is a clue – write a new chapter on our past and take it into the present. In short, we will continue to honour our heritage, habitat and history, and remember those who laid down their lives in memoriam for without them, SG50 would not be possible.
“Lest we Forget”
We remember Victoria Tan and Edmon Neoh-Khoo
Compiled by Catherine Lim
by Catherine Lim
Canopy by Arron Wilson is a World War Two film shot mainly in Sungei Buloh and Bukit Brown, with flashback scenes that takes viewers to the Australian outback farm from where Jim, the Australian fighter pilot – one of only 2 lead characters – is from. It has a script which consists of a few phrases of incoherent Hokkien spoken by Seng, the Chinese resistance fighter – incoherent perhaps because my rudimentary Hokkien could not grasp it – a smattering of Japanese dialogue among patrolling Japanese solders for which they were no subtitles, and Jim himself as I recall spoke nothing more than his own name through out.
But it did not matter, because the cinematography draws us into the depths of the landscape of war set in lush, verdant green as if we were there, and the sound scape of gunfire, bombs, distorted bird and insects calls, , the menacing rustling of undergrowth and the silence of the jungle tells the story of a bond that is formed over just one night.
Canopy unravels the story of of 2 lone young fighters, from two vastly different cultures – where even the sound of their names Jim and Seng are so alien to each other’s tongues – running into each other, caught in the bewildering jungle of war and what happens reaches spirituality.
There is an eye averting sequence when Jim tends to the wounds of Seng, and is forced to gag his screams as the Japanese soldiers patrol pass. The mirror scene is when Jim relives his nightmare of falling into the canopy of trees and he wakes up with Seng’s hand over his mouth. Seng is watching Jim even as he sleeps, the same way Jim had watched over Seng.
They are drawn together by a common enemy but more than that, faced with fear, pain and ever present danger, they find in each other more than just comfort and respite.
Something quite extraordinary is experienced between Jim and Seng which passes in the moments of silence and solitude in the jungle. They bond in a way that plunges into their stream of consciousness even as the camera plunges the depths of the jungle. It is as if they had a shared past in the flashback of the farm Jim lives in and in the black the white photograph of Seng’s parents. It is intimate, it is visceral.
War destroys lives but war is also the great leveler , breaks down the divide of colour, culture, race and religion, and forges a connection that unites humanity and uplifts the spirit in endurance and compassion.
The story of Jim and Seng is not an unlikely story, it is a story that could have happened in the 3 years of Japanese Occupation in Singapore between 1942 and 45, it is a story that surely must have happened with the same intensity, in some corner of war- torn Singapore. It is a story among many others, waiting to be uncovered.
The time has come to reclaim our past.
“Lest we forget”
Catherine was invited under All Things Bukit Brown to a private screening of the film as a guest of the Australian High Commission A short discussion followed with producer Aaron Wilson and local film maker Pek Lian who produced Synonara Changi which covered the theme of war remembrance.
Next year, All Things Bukit Brown will commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Singapore from Japanese Occupation.