It’s been a year since the lta announced plans to build an 8-lane highway splitting bukit brown. A month since i went on a guided tour by the brownies; 11 months closer now to the planned construction. Some families have already begun their own private exhumations.
The debate is usually filed under the general name of ‘progress’, but i wonder if we need only raise one question. In a land where space is made potent by pure limitation, whether a new highway/condominium/mall pretty much amount to this question instead: what is the loss for an island that has already lost much in so little time. Because more of the same never equals better.
To know what the loss amounts to, we also need to know what is:
A rare containment of adjectives. Tranquility, heritage, nature, space. By its very nature (no pun intended), a cemetery invites you to pause your living and ponder life itself.
Largest cemetery in singapore, and the largest chinese cemetery outside of china. Bukit Brown, with the Ong clan and Hokkien Huay Kuan cluster have more than a quarter of a million traditional chinese graves, with some dating back to the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912). Many continue to be rediscovered.
A 233ha forest, twice the size of Macritchie nature reserve, and about half of Bukit Timah nature reserve (400ha). And all of the benefits such as retaining rainwater (flood much?), lowering temperature (hottest june ever), and preserving biodiversity.
Ecology. Home to 90 resident and migrant bird species, and 1/4 of singapore’s threatened bird species.
Our identity and heritage lie in the thousands of tombs. In each poetry inscription, different calendar systems used, the singaporean fusion of chinese, malay, indian and western. Feng shui. Cultural dictations of family names. Wives, daughters, sons and legacies. Carvings from china, and photography from malaya.
Bukit brown holds the real names that shaped singapore. Collectively, the cemetery weave a colourful web of chinese migration, and singapore’s social and cultural history, and position. Its own name comes from its first owner, george henry brown, a ship owner who arrived in the 1840s. Mount pleasant is the land he had bought (and other surrounding land). It passed hands to the hokkien huay kuan, who then gave it to the ngee ann kongsi. His wife was 27-years-old and considered an old maid when they married. She was also friends with anna leonowens…
Tan Kim Cheng’s grave was transferred here in 1940. Son of tan tock seng, he was a member of the royal court of siam. He introduced the young widow anna leonowens to the king of siam (leading to the love story of ‘anna and the king’).
Locally also known as kopi sua (hokkien for coffee hill).
Once a war cemetery. Casualities of the japanese invasion were buried here. The sook ching massacre
The individual stories alone are riveting enough. Each tomb is a forebear relatively newly past: Cheang Hong Lim, Chew Boon Lay, Chew Joo Chiat, Fang Shan, Gan Eng Seng, Lee Hoon Leong, Lim Chong Pang, Mrs Lim Nee Soon, Ong Sam Leong, Ong Boon Tat, Mrs Tan Cheng Siong and Tay Ho Swee.
So the blogpost looks wordy, but these are ideas skimmed off going there just once. Breathing the fresh air and peace, and walking the land, i began to unearth a selfhood that rang more true than any textbook or advertisement tries to tell.
Join one of the weekly tours here. https://www.facebook.com/bukitbrown