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.
Dunman Secondary School brought around 40 students to Bukit Brown on 16 August 2014 for a learning journey. Our students marveled at the vast, rich sloping terrain covering over 200 hectres of land space. Some graves dot all the way to Mount Pleasant Road (along PIE).
Our students know that Joo Chiat and Boon Lay are familiar residential estates but little did they know them to be named after our pioneers who lie buried at BB. Tan Ean Kiam, the pioneer whose foundation donated to the construction of our school hall, lies buried at BB alongside his wife. Our students observed a minute of silence as a mark of respect for him.
Our students learned about the strong cultural links our pioneers had with China expressed in the Chinese poetry and the rich artistry in the sculptures and carvings on their grave stones.
The ultimate aim of education is known to be character-building, but certain values such as filial piety and fortune expressed in an abundance of descendants and sustaining blood lines, are so deep-seated that our pioneers bring them down to their graves in forms of figurines symbolizing these values. One grave had carvings showing a a daughter in law breastfeeding her aged and toothless- mother-in-law, choosing to feed her over her crying child, in an act of filial piety. Another grave had 2 Sikh guards standing erect and tall each by the side of a rich tycoon’s final abode. He even had them enshrined as a “sepoy” (stationary guard) and a “prowler” (one who patrols around). This setting reveals the trust placed on the Sikhs for protection during colonial times. Our students were amazed by the detail and rich history of Bukit Brown.
Our students learned that war time graves were smaller and have a unique serial numbering. They were also informed that mass graves were a norm during the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945.
We offer our deep heart-felt thanks to the brownies ( the Bukit Brown volunteers) Yik Han, Beng Tang and Catherine for an informative and educational tour of BB. Their passion and love for the history and heritage of the pioneers is evident during their explanations and guidance of the tour. We truly believe that Dunmanites in the tour benefited greatly from the sharing and discussions.
By Gopie Silvarajoo Naidu Prem ( Teacher in Charge)
The students were from the schools NPCC. Their teachers had worksheets which they worked on immediately on-site after the guided walk. The learning journey was documented and later published in their newsletter. We thank the teachers especially of Dunman for going the extra mile to do this despite their very busy schedule. We note that this was the third time the school has requested engagement on Bukit Brown with Brownies for various groups of students. There was one previous visit to Bukit Brown and a brownie had also made a presentation on Bukit Brown at the school itself.
Thank you for sending atBB the PDF of the newsletter.
Schools who are interested in learning journeys, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. and give us least 3 weeks notice.
by Sally T.
One recent Saturday, some friends and I had the pleasure of being guided around Bukit Brown Cemetery on a special tour led by three descendants of notable people buried there. The Descendants Tour was presented in partnership with the National Library of Singapore – a great community initiative on the part of the library. A few seasoned guides helped lead the group, which really helped to add insight and context along the way.
Each of the three descendants had fascinating stories to share and we were treated to what I would describe as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hearing them so passionately and proudly tell familial histories and sing songs in honour of their ancestors, many of whom were pioneers of early modern Singapore, will be something I look back on as a highlight of my time living here. We visited the resting places of enterprising business people, diplomats and philanthropists – the type who have streets named in their honour.
In recent years I had heard a lot about Bukit Brown, a national treasure that had been rediscovered by a caring community and was being hard fought for. Despite my curiosity I’d never visited, perhaps not wanting to feel inappropriate or as an invasive foreigner, but a conversation with a friend who is a passionate historian prompted me to look up the next tour available. The fact that three descendants were taking the tour alongside a few experienced Brownies seemed like a unique opportunity and one not to be missed. I was right.
Our meeting point was just near the LTA temporary set-up, which we figured was the site headquarters for the current exhumation works taking place in certain sections of Bukit Brown. There’s no denying that it’s a confronting reality. While I’ve known for a while that exhumation is fairly common here, I learned that it has a relatively long history in Singapore and happened under British rule too, as one of the graves we visited had actually been moved there from somewhere else in the 1930s or 40s. The current works were well underway when we visited, with high fences erected throughout. From the main road, you would easily have mistaken it for any construction site.
Once the large group of about 30 was assembled, we walked a short distance to the tomb of Chia Hood Theam, who was a respected businessman with a lovely black and white home called Rosedale at the corner of Devonshire and Killiney Roads. Chia’s maternal great-great granddaughter Noreen Chan, along with some other family members present, shared a series of beautifully preserved photographs and stories that had been passed down through the generations. Noreen described how as well as being a ‘comprador’ – the business relationship managers of the old banking regime – her Peranakan grandfather was an early champion of women’s education in Singapore. The tomb was well preserved and had beautiful tiling work.
Next stop was the tomb of one of Dr Lim Su Min’s several ancestors buried at Bukit Brown. On this mother’s side, Dr Lim’s lineage can be traced back to Tan Tock Seng, a prominent merchant and philanthropist who of course the hospital is named after. We visited the tomb of a relation of Tan Tock Seng. An impressive tomb turned a rusty orange from the lichen, the resting place was a little way up a small hill. After sharing his fascinating family history, Dr Lim treated us to an intimate and special moment as he sang a song he had written in his ancestors’ honour. Standing there with only jungle noises to compete with the ukulele, we knew we were witnessing something heartfelt.
The third tomb we visited was tucked much further into the jungle, and on the way we passed some extraordinary tombs, all with different style and character. Clearly, grieving family members had gone to a great deal of trouble to put their loved ones to rest in a place of beauty. The third descendant to share with the group, Serene Tan, went on a mission to find her family’s cluster of tombs after being visited by a man in Mandarin robes in her dreams who encouraged her to visit. After a long search and some coincidences that could only have been fate, one of the Brownies came across the tomb of Serene Tan’s ancestors, including Tan Quee Lan, which were in somewhat of a rundown state. Together with family members, the Tans have done an magnificent job of restoring the tombs with an impressive marble structure.
Dr Lim Su Min once again led us to the last tomb of the tour, which belongs to the eldest son of Tan Tock Seng called Tan Kim Ching, who was successful in further expanding the family’s business empire with rice mills and tin-mining in Siam. The size and stature of the tomb was very impressive and Tan Kim Ching was clearly an important man. After gaining the trust and respect of the King of Siam, Tan Kim Ching was appointed a Singapore-based diplomatic representative of the court of Siam. We learned that he also represented Japan and Russia in diplomatic relations in Singapore. One of the most intriguing things I learned was that Tan Kim Ching was responsible for the posting of British governess Ann Leonowens to Siam to famously teach the children of the King.
I found Bukit Brown majestic in both the grandeur of the tombs and the beauty of nature which has enclosed or almost seemingly protected the site in its forgotten years. When one of my friends who came along mentioned that he was visiting Bukit Brown to some Singaporean business associates, he was met with wide eyes and trepidation! While I wouldn’t want to go there at night, it wasn’t as eerie as I suspected so I would strongly encourage those with an interest in Singapore’s history and culture, and strong sense of family values, to visit this special place. My friends and I will pass the word on about the tour to our friends – foreigners and locals alike – in the hope that more people will come and experience Bukit Brown. Who knows whether they will find an ancestor of their own.
The Descendants’ Stories – A Guided Walk at Bukit Brown (English)
Saturday, 8 November 2014, 4 pm – 6.30pm.
All Things Bukit Brown* is pleased to curate a guided walk in conjunction with the roving exhibition “Bukit Brown: Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge”
Registration is required and all queries is through the NLB website here , spaces are limited to 28.
About the Walk:
News that a highway was to be built across Bukit Brown in 2011 led some descendants who had lost touch with their ancestral tombs to embark on a quest to find them. Some of those who were successful shared their stories of reconnecting with their ancestors and family oral history with the volunteers on the ground, called Brownies.
For this special walk, 3 descendants of prominent figures in business, philanthropy and diplomacy in the 19th and 20th centuries will be sharing their stories first-hand at the tombs of their ancestors.
- Dr. Lim Su Min’s maternal lineage can be traced back to Tan Tock Seng, whose eldest son Tan Kim Ching grew the family’s fortunes, expanding into Siam with rice mills and tin-mining. He became a confidante of the King of Siam, and was appointed a diplomatic representative of the court of Siam. (He held similar positions representing Japan and Russia.) Among the stories Dr. Lim will share at Tan Kim Ching’s tomb is his introduction of a young English widow, Anna Leonowens to the Siamese King, a story which became immortalized in an Oscar winning musical.
- For Serene Tan, the journey of discovering her family’s cluster of tombs at Bukit Brown started the night a man in traditional Mandarin robes came into her dream and passed her a note that simply said “Why no one visit?”. Serene will share how she was finally able to find the tombs of Tan Quee Lan of whom she is a direct descendant on her paternal side after a few years and in the process connected with a long lost cousin. Both then went on to restore and refurbish the family cluster of tombs at Bukit Brown, which had for so long been forgotten.
- Noreen Chan comes from a long line of influential and wealthy “compradors” – the business relationship managers of the old banking regime. At the tomb of Chia Hood Theam, Noreen will recount stories of her maternal great-great grandfather’s frugality and contributions to women’s education from family oral traditions and historical records
Please read if you are attending our guided walks for the first time, useful info on safety : Getting There/游览信息
*All Things Bukit Brown is the banner for a community of volunteers called “Brownies” who conduct regular weekend guided walks and do independent research on the heritage, habitat and history of Bukit Brown. They have guided over 13,000 people since they started their guided walks at the beginning of 2012.
The Story Behind Peg 2906
by Norman Cho
How many of us believe in the unexplained? There are reasons why certain things happen unexpectedly. But are we receptive enough to take the cue from such signs? One recent account was of tomb 481 which was pegged 2906 at Bukit Brown Cemetery, slated for exhumation to make way for the 8 lane highway due to slice the cemetery in half by 2017/
A post about the Ee Hoe Hean Club in the Facebook page of Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery, spurred me to do a search on my granduncle, Mr Tan Kay Tiang (ie) the husband of my paternal grandmother’s second sister, Mdm Yeo Say Neo. Grandmother had once told me that he worked for an exclusive millionaires’ club called the Ee Hoe Hean Club. No details of the position which he held or the period where he was under their employment were given.
Out of curiosity, I did a Google search over the internet and found to my astonishment that he was buried in Bukit Brown Cemetery and that his tomb was marked for exhumation with the peg number 2906.
I made a few enquiries and discovered that the tomb had yet to be claimed and that it was due for exhumation in only three weeks! I tried to contact the deceased’s three grandchildren unsuccessfully to make a claim. They are in their fifties and sixties and I sensed their reluctance. They probably have their reasons to decide not to do anything about it.
Looking back, I realised that discovering his tomb just three weeks before the exhumation was no mere coincidence! Possibly, he was trying to reach out to someone to handle his exhumation and to relocate him during the desperate final few weeks. I felt very uncomfortable if I did nothing about it and so I decided to claim the tomb on behalf of the family. To make sure that I had identified the correct tomb, I verified the name of his only child on the headstone – 月娘which corresponded with the name of my late aunt, Guek (Guat) Neo. I found a newspaper article in the online digital archive (Newspapersg) which confirmed the identity of the tomb.
Family accounts has it that he died due to septic wound on his foot caused by a nail which he accidentally stepped on. He had concealed nails on the ground along the exterior wall of his house at Neil Road to deter thieves. The irony was not lost on me that these nails were what caused his death, A newspaper report in The Straits Times, 19 June 1938, “Nail Causes Man’s Death” returned a verdict of misadventure. The date of death on the tomb was 10 June 1938.
Tan Kay Tiang married my grandaunt, Yeo Say Neo, in 1923 at his family home in Neil Road. He was 39 and she was 27. During those days when people commonly married in their teens, they were considered an old couple. The couple stayed together with Kay Tiang’s widowed elder sister and his mother.
My grandmother recalled visiting the 3-storey townhouse and was intrigued by the many carpets that she saw on each floor. The couple had their first and only child, a daughter, Guek Neo, in 1925. He was a doting father who was known to piggy-back his daughter till she was nine or ten. The maid would take over after he was tired. As a child, my aunt was thoroughly spoilt and there was an account where the maid was made to walk the dark alley to buy her favorite char siew pau for her supper.
After her father’s death when she was twelve, Guek Neo’s life took a drastic change. She had become a sensible young lady. The house was sold several years later and Guek Neo was arranged to be married to a Baba named Robert Chia, the son of a well-known nyonya medium in the 1920s and 30s who was known by the name “Ah Lian Potong Lemo” She could predict fortunes by reading the sliced limes.
Mrs Tan Kay Tiang (Yeo Say Neo) was the ideal wife and homemaker. She excelled in cooking and sewing. She was soft-spoken and mild-tempered. She did not gamble and hardly stepped out of the house. The maid would run all the family errands and do the marketing. To supplement her living expenses after the death of her husband, she made nyonya kueh which her maid would take to the coffee shop at Joo Chiat Road to sell. She eventually had to let her maid go as she could no longer afford to keep her but the maid was reluctant to leave her and stayed on for a few more years.
Every tomb is a repository of personal stories of the family that was left behind
Moving forward 76 years later, I had made a claim for the tomb to be exhumed on 14 July 2014 and the remains to be re interred at Block E0116-202 in Choa Chu Kang Columbarium. It would be easier for me to visit since most of my relatives are placed there. He was buried in the traditional Chinese coffin which was relatively intact and had several funeral artifacts which included miniature clay kitchen utensils and two pieces of circular glass which I suspect could be reading glasses – one concave and the other bi-convex.
About Norman Cho:
Norman Cho is a regular contributor to atBB and guest blogs about his search for his roots and Penanakan material culture. He is the founder of the facebook group Peranakan Material Culture
“Ullambana” Festival by Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong @ Tangling Halt.
by Sugen Raniah
The Ullambana Festival is observed and celebrated by the Buddhists during the Seventh Lunar Month. The Sanskrit term, ‘Ullambana’, refers to the compassion for all beings suffering in the realms of misery. The observance of this festival is based on a discourse by the Buddha – where Maudgalyayana, a disciple of the Buddha, discovers that his mother, Lady Niladhi, had been reborn into the realms of misery. The troubled Maudgalyayana then seeks the Buddha for help. The Buddha advises him to make offerings to the Sangha, as the merit of doing so would help relieve the suffering of his Mother, and that of other beings in the same state.
Here in Singapore, it is a common sight for Teochew sian t’ngs (temples) to perform these rituals during the seventh lunar month. I observed and documented the Ullamabana Festival at Tanglin Halt Market and Hawker Centre by the members of Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong.
There are three temporary ceremonial altars set up in the tentage – the main altar of the three Buddhas, the altar for the Patron Deity, Du Di Gong and the last for Da Shi Ye (King of Ghosts). Offerings of dried goods and drinks, vegetables, a variety of meat and paper offerings are assembled in the centre of the tentage. Here associate members of the market and members of public are invited to offer joss sticks to the wandering spirits. There are also smaller areas around designated for the spirits for ‘lodging’, ‘washroom’ and ‘leisure’ purposes.
Unlike the elaborate Taoist salvation rituals by Xuan Jian Dian, the Buddhists embrace the recital of Ulka Mukha Sutra. Men, draped in red vestments, are represented as the Sangha (the community of disciples). The Sutra recited is an amalgamation of the mind, body and mouth. Mind in absolute contemplation, with hand gestures of the mystical Mudras and together with the recitation of esoteric words of the Sutras- they invite the wandering spirits to listen to the teachings of Buddha and liberate them from all sufferings. These men sing the Sutra in Teochew and the lyrics are accompanied by beautiful Teochew styled music. It is meant to work like a beautiful charm that draws the spirits to listen and attain liberation.
The day ritual comes to a close with the tossing of longevity buns. The food offerings are then packed and distributed to contributors and friends. Members of the temple take a break before preparing for the dance of the auspicious lanterns later in the evening.
Sugen Ramiah a teacher by training, has been observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples for the past one and half years.
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 Joshua Ng
Instead of enjoying a quiet and uneventful Saturday, I chose to spend it at a live tomb measurement exercise. Armed with a trusty can of mosquito repellent, jeans and covered shoes, I arrived at the Bukit Brown Main Gate at 3.30pm. It was 35 degrees Celsius and I started to doubt my decision.
After a round of introductions, I was assigned to a team with Wei Ming (the drawing maestro), Andrew and Simone who are Brownies (volunteer guides). We had met briefly during the previous week’s theory and briefing workshop at NLB.
Our assigned tomb was Tan Ean Kiam’s wife, Ye Yan Niang (葉焉娘). Our task was to measure and draw the front view, section view and the plan view of the tomb.
Initially I was wondering why we needed four people to measure a tomb. It only made sense when we began our work. The curves, elevation and non-rectilinear structure makes it really hard to get an accurate reading. We had to use strings, bamboo sticks, IKEA flexible paper rulers, a metal tape measure as well as insect repellent to get it done.
The little insects that make their homes around the tomb were not amused — I even got a few ant bites on my hands. Some even crawled up my covered shoes and jeans and bit my calves.
Thankfully, after three hours of hard work, we finally finished our sketch. Our drawings were not the best. We committed at least one mistake, which was to assume that the sides are mirror images of each other. Chee Kien told us that we should not assume but measure and draw the tombs just as they are found. He pointed out that sometimes in a “couple” tomb, part of the tombs may be intentionally elevated so that the “water” will flow towards the descendants of one side.
This is not the first insight I gained from these two weeks of tomb measuring. I also learned that the different dialect groups have very different tomb designs. The one we measured clearly had a Hokkien design. Besides that, only the tombs in Bukit Brown have special bricks backing behind the head stone. It would have been very expensive to import bricks from China, so brick making was one of the earliest industries in Singapore.
As our assigned tomb was Tan Ean Kiam‘s wife, I figured he must have been some important person. I looked him up and found out that he was one of the founding members of OCBC Singapore. And he was also one of the founding members of the Tong Meng Hui (同盟会), which supported Sun Yet Sen’s revolutionary effort.
Another unique feature of this tomb is that the history of Mrs Tan was written by Tan Ean Kiam himself. According to the Brownies, Tan Ean Kiam’s own handwriting was inscribed on the body of the pedestal altar. Other than the fact that Tan Ean Kiam was alive when his wife passed away, we also know that he must have loved his wife a lot to do something so unusual as to personally inscribe her life story.
What amazed me the most is the fact that such a simple exercise like tomb measuring could connect the dots in my understanding of those who went before me. It makes me wonder what interesting facts I can discover from my grandparents’ tomb. Qing Ming (清明) would have been more fun if we were told about all these unique cultural factoids.
Mrs Tan’s tomb is just one tomb. There are about 4,000 tombs that are going to be destroyed without proper measurement and documentation because of the building of a highway that will cut Bukit Brown into half. Who knows what other important life insights we might have missed by not preserving and treasuring the stories of those who went before us.
There are 100,000 graves at Bukit Brown. Imagine how much time and effort will be needed to document them all. And as a digital heritage enthusiast, I can’t help but wonder if there could be better and faster ways to do this. Looks like my journey have just begun.
Documenting and taking precise measurements provide valuable data to analyze the proportions and variations through IT applications and ultimately relate it to Feng Shui. Tombstones are not just built, they are “feng shui’ed” Citizenry participation in a project like this is crucial because of the sheer size of Bukit Brown and because it signals a deeper engagement of ordinary people in wanting to understand all aspects of Bukit Brown. So kudos to Lai Chee Kien for this initiative and the first batch of participants for signing up. Hopefully there will be more.
What the tomb measurement workshop covered here.
In a report, published on Sunday, 22 June, 2014, Bukit Brown emerged as among the top 3 sacred sites in Singapore, voted by readers in a Straits Times poll.
On learning of the news, Claire Leow, co founder of All Things Bukit Brown reflects:
“To see the Singapore Heritage Society recognised is most apt, for they sparked the civil society response back in November 2011.
To see the Brownies identified as a group is itself moving, as this disparate group of volunteers, heritage enthusiasts and selfless sharers of knowledge and skills has been utterly inspiring. You don’t get more organic than this community, active on site, offsite, beyond keyboards and in cyberspace. Hats off to sifu Raymond Goh and Charles Goh for their inspiration.
And to see others rally behind the Brownies, to cheer us on, to lift us up when we are down, to join us when we utter the rallying cry to stand up and be counted, to share sunny weekends and stormy ones at Bukit Brown, and just patiently adding to the knowledge we are just uncovering day by day, gently correcting our mistakes, boldly stepping in with expertise, shaping the very history of this campaign. Amazing. Very moved……”
Bukit Brown – one of the three sites Singaporeans voted as a sacred place.
The overgrown graves stretching for 200ha bang amid the city bustle make for a restful, peaceful spot rare in urban Singapore.
But when Bukit Brown Cemetery was slated for redevelopment for roads and residential buildings, it was more than its lush beauty that resulted in that rarity in Singapore – vocal protests to preserve it.
The site tugged at Singaporeans’ heartstrings, being the resting place of many forefathers of the country, a living repository of the Chinese diaspora’s tomb culture and design, and where descendants today visit for traditional rituals such as tomb sweeping.
Two civil societies – the Singapore Heritage Society and heritage enthusiasts who dub themselves “the Brownies” – organised petitions and embarked on efforts to document tombs.
No substantial concessions were made by the Government, however, to save the site from an eight-lane road running across it. It is also slated for residential development beginning with its southern portion.
Yet, it’s among the top three sites that Singaporeans deemed as “sacred” places in a recent Straits Times poll.
The poll itself followed a call by academic Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, for a list of sacred spaces and places to foster a love for Singapore, to help it fully become a true city.
Singapore already has essential aspects such as “busyness” and being “safe”, he said in a commentary in The Straits Times, citing American urban geographer Joel Kotkin. However, it lacks the sacred, he said, which Kotkin defines as any unique institution or spot “that (makes) one feel an irrational commitment to a place”.
Certainly, pockets of the population saw the Bukit Brown protests as verging on irrational, given the need for more roads in congested Singapore.
Still, Professor Kishore’s commentary comes amid increasing efforts to make more of Singapore’s heritage, such as the conservation bid by Pearl Bank Apartments’ owners in April.
And it puts the spotlight on the approach to heritage preservation. Insight looks at the challenges and what more might need to be done.
Blunders of the past
In 2004, Singapore’s red-brick National Library building was unceremoniously razed to the ground to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel.
Built in 1959, it was considered by some as architecturally undignified compared with its grander neighbour, the National Museum of Singapore.
Despite extensive efforts by the community to save the space – with a normally passive public penning angry forum letters in the media, and architects such as Mr Tay Kheng Soon proposing alternatives, including re-routing the tunnel – the dissent was swept under the carpet.
Experts say this marked a turning point as it sparked a rise in civic activism and was when Singapore’s conservation movement took root.
It crystallised the idea that heritage conservation and preservation goes beyond protecting splendid colonial buildings to encompass our social and cultural soul.
Retired shipping manager Yeo Hock Yew, 65, says the library had been part of his life since he was a schoolboy studying at nearby St Joseph’s Institution.
“In my university years, I headed there to do research and, as a father, I brought my children there every Saturday morning.
“It was part of the whole landscape of bookshops from the Bras Basah row and the MPH building in Stamford Road. If you couldn’t afford buying from these places, you headed to the library.”
During Singapore’s early years as a new nation in the 1960s and 1970s, swathes of the country fell victim to the wrecking ball. The Government’s main priority, understandably, was to improve living conditions and build up the economy.
Still, awareness of the need to save heritage sites began to emerge. In 1971, the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), which last year became the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), was set up to provide legal protection for national monuments. The division now falls under the wing of the National Heritage Board (NHB) and its role includes offering monument owners guidance and regulatory support.
The board itself is the big daddy of Singapore’s heritage custodianship, promoting heritage appreciation through managing its national museums, documentation and outreach efforts.
Then there is the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), established in 1974 and charged with studying old buildings for possible conservation as part of land use planning.
On the private scene,the Singapore Heritage Society, a non-governmental organisation, was established in 1987.
Academics note that people are talking more avidly about heritage than they did 10 to 15 years ago. “People have grown more expressive about protecting their heritage. It has become part of public discourse,” says Professor Johannes Widodo.
This has also given rise to the recognition that there are new categories of heritage which deserve protection……Read on here
The Story behind the Painting
by Alvin Ong
The story of 3 affected graves at Bukit Brown not too long ago inspired a revival of family interest; Tan Yong Chuan (Blk 4, Div C), Tan Tiam Tee (Blk 3, Div B), Wee Geok Eng Neo (Blk 4, Div 6) were exhumed in May 2014. Old photos were unearthed from family albums, and heirloom objects from another era suddenly came to light. For the first time in decades, stories and narratives unlocked themselves from these objects and brought new layers of meaning to the notions of home and identity.
Tan Tiam Tee was the son of the magnate Tan Hoon Chiang (buried in Bukit China, Malacca), one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Co. His wife, Wee Geok Eng Neo, and his son, Tan Yong Chuan were all affected by the proposed highway.
(click on images for a bigger view)
Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)
Miniature cooking pots were interred in Mrs Tan Tiam Tee’s tomb, presumably for her to cook in the afterlife, along with a pearl sanggul, and bracelets. According to my relatives, a set of gold teeth with an engraved heart shape was also found in Tan Yong Chuan’s tomb.
Tan Yong Chuan (son of Mr and Mrs Tan Tian Tee) was finally reunited with his wife for the first time in Holy Family Columbarium after 77 years. The columbarium has an unusual regulation that all photos of the deceased must be in color.
No color photographs of the deceased had existed at that time, so with the help of numerous correspondences, scans were digitally emailed, and the photos doctored and hand-painted.
Studying overseas has allowed the artist the space, physically and emotionally, to explore ideas of home and identity. These graves were only re-discovered shortly after the redevelopment plans were announced. The sight of the many abandoned tombs on the artist’s first visit to Bukit Brown had sparked questions about what happened to the descendants of the people who were interred there, which in turn, prompted the artist to explore if there were indeed any family connections to the cemetery at all. Beyond the historical and material significance of the place, it also felt like a site where mystery, the past, and present all came together. Reuniting with the tombs for the first time in many years became an emotional moment for some, and it also made us feel as though we have touched history, an experience that is becoming exceptionally rare in Singapore.
These were ideas that all came together in the painting, which were almost auto-biographical in that they featured vignettes of the artist’s experience with the discovery of the pioneers of Singapore and his roots. One random memory was a trek with Raymond Goh to Seah Eu Chin’s grave; One of the Teochew stone lions guarding the perimeter of the tomb eventually found its way into the picture. Raymond was featured in the early stages of the work, but in the end, this idea of displacement, loss and discovery surfaced in the final version titled, “Moving House”.
This is not the end of the road. There is yet another tomb whose story remains waiting to be told, my maternal great grandfather, Peck Mah Hoe, pictured here. The artist will be heading to the Peck clan temple in attempt to uncover more. And hopefully, there will be more paintings to come.
About the writer who is an artist :
Alvin Ong is reading fine art in Oxford, and did architecture at the National University of Singapore. In 2004, he was the youngest winner of the UOB painting of the year award at the age of 16. He had his first solo exhibition at 17, in the presence of His Excellency President S R Nathan.