Alvin reflects on Bukit Brown



Theatre and Film Community guided by Raymond Goh (photo: Jasmine Ng)

Theatre practitioner, Alvin Tan visits Bukit Brown for the first time and shares his impressions and reflections on where he sees its place in the Singapore story – past, present and future

It began with a text message:

Jasmine alerts me to a Bukit Brown walk (Saturday 14 April 2012) on SMS:

Hi all,

Any one up for a stroll through Bukit Brown this Saturday morning 14th APRIL from 9am to 11-ish? The good volunteer peeps of the Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown facebook group have agreed to take us on a walking tour led by the  tomb whisperer himself – the brilliant Raymond Goh. Pls sms me if you’re inTERESTED. Pls ask along friends family other filmmakers. Children and infants in baby carriers are always welcome! <<jasmine

I responded that I was interested but unable to confirm because it was a very busy week and I might be too exhausted.  I’m not much of a morning person.  I stalled.  Jasmine persisted.   And on Saturday morning, I was on the MRT meeting Jasmine at Tiong Bahru Station, jumping into a cab and we were on our way to Bukit Brown.

I was relieved that I reached Bukit Brown with such ease. Getting off the cab, friends from the theatre and film communities were already there. And soon we were to be inducted into the Bukit Brown community as we waited for for Raymond to arrive.

The tranquil environment was soothing; ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.  Why is the dead impacting on us so much with this Bukit Brown saga?  Why is heritage beginning to matter to us?  Have we been losing too much of that in recent years and more Singaporeans are feeling the loss?

(photo Alvin Tan)

It’s happening at a point in Singapore’s history, after GE 2011, after the KTM/Green Corridor episode.  It’s been bringing Singaporeans from all walks of life together – advocates, interest groups, NGOs and the public.  I’ve never witness a cause being mainstreamed so fast here in Singapore that it is beginning to take on a momentum of a small movement.

Petitions have been started, position papers on both the heritage and habitat of Bukit Brown have been  written, outreach activities to create awareness and appreciation of Bukit Brown to draw the Singaporeans and visitors from all walks of life, took flight. Whether it shows a sign of maturity, that Singaporeans are beginning to be stakeholders as citizens of this country is not as important to me as the fact that it’s the only kind of Awakening Singaporeans can afford. There is not just a small group of people, a core of activists who can be easily contained, labelled, character assassinated and dismissed.

The realisation that organic change is the best revolution for me accompanied me throughout the morning at Bukit Brown as I took in the stories shared so generously by the tomb whisperer, Raymond Goh.  Just looking at all of us being attentive and learning about our history, cultural heritage made me appreciate the moment we were all in as we moved from one tombstone to the next.

(photo Alvin Tan)

Then the Peranakan tombs came into focus.  It was not just the Chinese that were buried at Bukit Brown.  There were so many Peranakans buried here as well.  The tiles that lined some of the tombs made me wonder again how the Peranakans were determined to distinguish themselves from the other Chinese (sinkehs) who came later.  The fact that the Peranakans integrated and assimilated successfully in Nanyang again arose in my mind, juxtaposed to our contemporary reality of new migrants arriving at our shores today.  What would that outcome be like compared to the Peranakan story of our past?  How rich these lessons are or can be and how did this visit to Bukit Brown inspire such multi-layered discourse in my mind?  What can happen if history teachers, dramatists and other artists have site-specific happenings, engaging the public.  Surely this would be something concrete that the Community Engagement Programme would gladly commission to build social cohesion meaningfully amongst Singaporeans.

Then of course a friend’s question bothered me: ” Why only now?  Before the whole ruckus, who bothered about Bukit Brown?  So why bother about it now?  It can go, it wouldn’t bother me.  It didn’t bother me before, and so, it shouldn’t bother me now.  It’s a loss I can afford. “

Or can we? As we walked the trail, with nature all around us, I easily fell into deep reflection, sometimes conscious of the people around me and sometimes just amazed at how beautiful Singapore can be.  Why do we make invisible what is astoundingly beautiful to replace it with something that comes from economic pragmatism?   I can’t find it in myself to grief.  Maybe because I am 49 and  have been toughened over the years.  There is never much use fighting for causes, fighting for what we believe in because we will come face  to face with disappointment and disillusionment especially when it is already a done deal.  Why should this time be any different?

(Photo Alvin Tan)


But the above picture shows a group of people strolling downhill towards our next destination and those who were ahead loved the image so much that we all whipped out our cameras, almost simultaneously to capture the image.

Therein lies the hope:  this small group of believers were walking down because they had walked up the tiny hill before this.  This group of travelers believed enough to submit to the necessary demands of this route.  There will always be people who will continue to persevere for what they believe in, shaping expectations along the way, building capacity, developing and strengthening community bonds.   This is the birth and nurturing of stakeholders.  No cynicism should discourage that impulse.  It is not a group of people egging the public on.  It is the public coming from all walks of life meeting at the cross road called Bukit Brown.

By the end of the walk, Bukit Brown had become a metaphor in my mind.  But it will not become just a cerebral relic.  Something in my heart was beating and burning.  Something I have missed for some time – the quiet rhythm of a community forming, unbeknown to most of us.  Something young and raw but definitely alive amongst the thousands of tombs all around us.

Editors note:

We have included additional photos from the tour including this “hat trick” of  great spontaneity and generosity, instigated by Tan Pin Pin. $200 was collected to pay a tomb keeper to clear a couple of graves of undergrowth

Tan Pin Pin (photo Anthony Chen

Group photo film and theatre communities at Ong Sam Leong

About Alvin Tan and

The Necessary Stage 
Founded in 1987 by our Artistic Director Alvin Tan, The Necessary Stage is a non-profit theatre company with charity status, with a mission to create challenging indigenous and innovative theatre that touches the heart and mind. The Necessary Stage is also the organiser and curator of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
For more information, visit  www.necessary.org
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