Reflections on a Ramble


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)

Trail at blk 4

The trail off the sidewalk (photo Catherine Lim)

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.

Chyen Yee photo

Into hill 4 (photo Catherine Lim)

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.

Lim Kee Tong

Grave of Mr and Mrs Lim Kee Tong, note the grape vines on the border to the tombstone (photo Catherine Lim)

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.

Peter Pak Chyen Yee photo

With Brownie volunteer guided Peter Pak (photo Chyen Yee)

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.

photo Peter Pak

Group photo of ramblers at Ong Sam Leong’s grave, Samira is in the middle in green tshirt, carrying  blue  and pink tote bags (photo Peter Pak)

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.

Sikh guards with Kang You Wei (Photo- Lai Chee Kien)

Sikh guards protecting a Chinese reformist fugitive from the Qing Dynasty, Kang You Wei when he sought refuge in Singapore. (Photo from Lai Chee Kien)

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

Peter Pak

Almost the end of the 5.7km ramble off Gymkhana Rd (photo Peter Pak)