Tour Guide: Group 1


A war hero who received a grand send-off when he died. A coolie honoured by his clan association when he was re-interred at Bukit Brown when it opened as a municapital cemetery. The paternal grandmother of the sitting Singapore president.

Group 1 on Block 5 near the cemetery gates is a good introduction to what lies within the vast grounds of Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery, which closed as a municipal cemetery in 1973.

This DIY guide is to help you find your own way using this map.


Tay Koh Yat (1880-1957)


Tay Koh Yat’s grave


He was a pioneer in Singapore’s public transportation, but also a feisty patriot who started and led his own self defence force of 20,000 during the onset of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War 2. In 1938,  Tay noticed that local transportation was inadequate and started the Tay Koh Yat Bus Company. He built up his fleet to 120 buses and became the largest bus operator among the 10 other bus companies.Tay Koh Yat’s grave comes with a generous forecourt and benches.


Fang Shan (__-1833)

Fang Shan’s tomb (photo: Claire Leow)


This is the oldest dated tomb in Bukit Brown, and is a reburial, as Fang Shan died in 1833 and Bukit Brown became a municipal cemetery only in 1933.
He was probably an early immigrant that came from South China and worked as a manual labourer as many of the immigrants did. He died 14 years after Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore. He was survived by a son, Li Eng, and was buried at a cemetery somewhere along Tortoise hill in Bukit Merah. There he would lie for more than 100 years, until the government then decided to develop the land.

At that time there was a small Fang Clan group of labourers (from Lieyu, little Kinmen)  calling itself Boon San Association. This Boon San Association was established for the welfare of coolies working around the Singapore River at that time whereby most of them have surname Fang. It is now known as Boon San Lian Ngee Association

Fang Shee is the clan association for the Fang Surname (different from Boon San Association). According to the Fang Shee Association archives, they mentioned that the current chairman of Fang Shee Association Fang Sui Kim once interviewed a senior committee member, Mr Fang Ma Teng (deceased), of Boon San Lian Ngee Association in 1983.

At that time, Mr Fang Ma Teng informed that in 1941, when he was around 30 years old, he remembered hearing about the history of this Fang pioneer from his seniors and the relocation of the grave. Apparently the group of coolies saw the the tomb of Fang Shang, and seeing the date of the tomb as 1833 and his surname Fang, recognized him as an early pioneer of their clan who came to Singapore.

The tomb was in a dilapidated condition due to so many years of abandonment, but the Fang Clan decided to relocate the tomb to Bukit Brown cemetery for two reasons:

1) To leave behind a legacy for the Fang Clan to remember their pioneer

2) To leave behind for the Singapore Chinese Community an important historical artifact.
Also note the reference to Singapore as Sin Chew  星 洲 on the headstone (read right to left):
“Sin Chew” is a sobriquet for “Singapore” coined by Nanyang literatus Khoo Seok Wan. Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea, and with vessels and boats large and small anchored around it; the glitter of artificial lights at night are like a crown of illuminated stars (“星”) when viewed from afar. “洲” (zhou, island) and “舟” (zhou, boat) are homonyms: while the boat lights are like stars, those on the island are like the Big Dipper to accentuate the constellation. This is why the term “Sin Chew” is widely known by folks here and afar. (Liang Shao Wen, “Nanyang Travels”, p. 62, circa 1920s, translated by Lai Chee Kien)
Raymond has a blog post here on life in Singapore then.
Fang Shan continues to get visitors, 179 years after he died:

Fang Shan at Qing Ming, April 2012 (photo: Claire Leow)

Fang Shan’s tomb is a reminder that Bukit Brown is home to the ordinary people who came and built early Singapore. We should not forget their toil. (Khoo Seok Wan’s tomb can be found in Group 9.)

Mrs Tan Cheng Siong (d. 1965)

Mrs Tan Cheng Siong (photo: Claire Leow)


Mrs Tan Cheng Siong, nee Lee Guay Eng, is mother of Tan Chin Guan, which makes her the paternal grandmother of Singapore’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

Hers is a Christian tomb, using more secular design features such as the lotus seed. The tomb also features both English and Mandarin script. It uses the Ming Guo (Ming Republic) calendar, based on the 1911 Revolution as year zero. The revolution marked the end of the Chinese imperial dynasties and led to the establishment of the Republic of China.

(Members of Sun Yat Sen’s Tongmenhui (United League), part of the Chinese diaspora who helped in the cause of the revolution, are buried in Bukit Brown.)

Tan Chin Guan’s name is inscribed on her tomb.

(Raymond Goh, amateur historian, has also found the grave of Tan Cheng Siong, the grandfather of the president on Block 5. See his letter to the president here. )