Reflections in Bukit Brown


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:

  1. 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.

The grave of Lee Kim Soo

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.

The grave of Soh Koon Eng

The grave of Soh Koon Eng

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.

  1. 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.

The grave of Teo Chin Chay

The grave of Teo Chin Chay

One of the statutes of a Sikh guard at the grave of Teo Chin Chay

One of the statutes of a Sikh guard at the grave of Teo Chin Chay

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.

grave of Dolly Tan with powder applied to bring out its inscriptions

The grave of Dolly Tan with powder applied to bring out its inscriptions

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.

  1. 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.

Bukit Brown with the highway under construction in the background

Bukit Brown with the highway under construction in the background

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.