Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Unkempt Beauty of Coffee Hill (Bukit Brown)

Update 24 Feb 2014: Preventing a grave error

For the longest time Bukit Brown has been a forgotten cemetery, removed from public view, awareness, and scrutiny. But now it has been identified as a 2014 World Monuments Watch site — a gravely endangered place of cultural heritage – about to be irreversibly damaged with the construction of an entirely avoidable 8-Lane Expressway, built through its most scenic and historically precious grounds, forever altering its unique nature, and destroying not just a huge swathe of nature, but 4000 graves in its path. Even as I write, the bulldozers are about to rumble. The point of no-return is nigh.

I am a great admirer of Singapore’s civil servants. They are highly competent, incorruptible, and think hard of solving present and future problems that Singapore faces. They got us to where we are today, with an enviable reputation of being a place that “works.”

But in the case of their plans for Bukit Brown, they have fallen short. So a rethink is needed. An intervention. Having previously approved this plan, in the light of new circumstances and considerations, their political masters should now act to halt a grave error.
Tender awarded for four-lane road cutting across Bukit Brown cemetery

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has awarded a tender to build a new road linking Adam Road, the MacRitchie Viaduct and Thomson Road via Bukit Brown Cemetery at a cost of $134.7 million. The winner of the tender is local contractor Swee Hong, which is expected to complete construction by end 2017.

The new dual four-lane road, which was first announced in 2011, is meant to ease peak-hour congestion on Lornie Road and the Pan-Island Expressway.

To make way for the road, public exhumation of affected graves will begin from the fourth quarter of this year. LTA has received 1,263 claims for affected graves.

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Bukit Brown cemetery

A tender has been awarded for the construction of a dual 4-lane highway across Bukit Brown Cemetery resulting in the destruction of 4,153 graves.

Plans for the highway were first launched in September 2011 and a working committee documented that 4153 graves would be affected.

Since the plans were made, there has been a lot of concern from Singaporeans about the project as Bukit Brown is a site of great historical significance. A number of facebook pages were also set up for the cause including SOS Bukit Brown and facebook group Heritage Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery.

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What is Bukit Brown Cemetery?

Bukit Brown Cemetery (BBC) was the first Chinese municipal cemetery in colonial Singapore. As early as 1904, the Chinese community in Singapore had been lobbying the municipal government to set aside a cemetery for non-Christian Chinese. At that time, such burial needs were taken care of through private family cemeteries or clan association cemeteries. However, changes in the laws then were constricting the amount of space available for such burial grounds, which was why the Chinese clamored for a public cemetery to take care of their burial needs. The colonial government was reluctant to venture into starting a municipal cemetery for the Chinese because they expected that the Chinese, with their beliefs in geomantic principles (with very individualized preferences for size and direction, and therefore given to what would appear like a haphazard layout), would not be willing to subject themselves to the grid-like standard plots of a municipal cemetery. However, by the late 1910s, the municipal government was convinced that such a cemetery was feasible, and by 1919 had acquired 173 acres of land for the public cemetery.

In 1922, BBC became the first Chinese municipal cemetery to be opened by the colonial government. It was a cemetery that did not require communal affiliations, that is, a relationship with a family or clan, before one could be buried. Thus, it was the first Chinese cemetery that facilitated a pan-Chinese identity in organizational and spatial terms. That is, Chinese of diverse communal origins, such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese, or surnames could be buried next to each other.

Initially, the Chinese were reluctant to subject themselves to the discipline of a municipal cemetery. It was more than three months before the first burial took place, and only 93 were buried in the cemetery during its first year of operation. However, by 1929, more than 40% of all burials within municipal limits were at Bukit Brown. It became acceptable and commonplace for Chinese of different communal origins, whether rich or poor, elite or commoner, to be buried at Bukit Brown. This trend continued till 1944 when the cemetery became full, although those with reserved plots could still be buried in BBC till it was officially closed in 1973. As such, it is also commonplace for Chinese Singaporeans today to have ancestors buried in Bukit Brown.

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Matters of grave concern

FOR those who think of Singapore as an antiseptic place of high-rise buildings, bustling streets, glitzy shopping malls and immaculately tidy parks, Bukit Brown comes as a bit of a shock. An expanse of wooded green space in the heart of the island, it is full of Chinese graves. Over 100,000 of them, by some estimates, many wildly overgrown with tropical greenery. 

From 1922 to 1973 it was a public graveyard. But many of the graves are even older, dating back as far as the 1830s. Before the public cemetery opened, there were private ones in the area. And some tombs were moved here. 

Perhaps that disruption helps explain one mystery about Bukit Brown: why, in a place where thousands of statues, tombstones and inscriptions offer testimony to the importance of filial piety, so many ancestral graves have within just a couple of generations been so forgotten and neglected.

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Grave concerns

IN SINGAPORE, a small, crowded island where the population has more than doubled in a generation, the dead have long had to make way for the living and the unborn. In the 1960s, as a graveyard was cleared, a government minister dismissed objections with the question: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents, or do you want to look after your grandchildren?” These days, however, resistance to the planned building of an eight-lane expressway through another cemetery, at Bukit Brown, is less easily swept aside.

Not only is this a special cemetery—the biggest Chinese graveyard outside China, and Singapore’s first municipal pan-Chinese one (as opposed to those for different clans or dialect groups). Singaporeans are also less docile than they were. Bukit Brown, which closed to new applicants in 1973, has become embroiled in their search for a sense of national identity; and hence in a debate about what sort of country Singapore wants to be.

Bukit Brown, 230 hectares of lush greenery in the heart of Singapore, is for much of the year a peaceful haunt. But at Qing Ming, the annual grave-sweeping festival that culminated this year on April 4th, it bursts into life, crowded with filial clusters visiting their ancestors’ graves. They clean them, burn joss and candles, leave offerings of fruit, cakes, tea and other goodies and make bonfires of ghost-money and gifts for the afterworld. One lucky grandmother this year got a handbag, a pair of shoes and a frock. One elderly man keeps the voracious undergrowth away from his great-grandfather’s grave because “I promised my granny,” but when he is gone his own daughter may not come; he does not want to burden her with the responsibility.

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Elegy for an urban graveyard

AT QING MING, the annual two-week-long tomb-sweeping festival that culminates this year on April 4th, Bukit Brown springs to life. The biggest Chinese graveyard outside China, its expanse of lush greenery in the heart of Singapore is for much of the year the peaceful haunt of joggers, birdwatchers, cyclists, strollers and the descendants of those buried there. At Qing Ming, this last group expands. The cemetery becomes crowded with clusters of the filial, visiting their ancestors’ graves. They come because they do so every Qing Ming. But this year, their visits have a greater significance: Bukit Brown is in danger, and has become embroiled in a debate over what sort of country Singapore wants to be.

They sweep their ancestors’s graves clean and slash back the foliage with which the jungle tries to reclaim untended tombs. They scrub the headstones and sometimes repaint the epitaphs. They burn joss and candles and strew coloured paper. They make bonfires of paper ghost-money and of gifts for the afterworld. One lucky grandmother this year got a new handbag, a pair of shoes and frock. A great-grandfather, dead these past 80 years, scored an iPhone5 (in replica but, one assumes, preloaded with all the apps a contemporary ghost might need). They leave offerings of fruit, cakes, tea and, sometimes, duck, fish, pork or cockles (to be consumed by the living, with the shells scattered about to symbolise money).

Little old ladies have to be carried up the muddy paths between the graves. Some families are in a rush, with other ancestors in other cemeteries to visit later on. Some make a day of it, taking time to fold the ghost money, and staying for a picnic of the foodstuffs the dead will not, after all, enjoy by themselves. Tai Liu Sai’s elderly great-grandson, who has rescued his grave even while a number of its neighbours have been subsumed by the undergrowth, does so because “I promised my granny.” When he is gone, his own daughter may not come; he does not want to burden her with the responsibility. Just down the hill is the grave of Lee Hoon Leong, a grandfather of Singapore’s founding prime minister, and great-grandfather of the incumbent. As of the morning of March 30th, it had not been swept during this Qing Ming.

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The special Bukit Brown Heritage Tour

This main gate of Bukit Brown Cemetery is likely to make way for the proposed highway. 

Soon, it will be the last Qing Ming for the almost 4000 tombs that will be affected by the dual four-lane highway. I wondered if it was absolutely necessary to construct a highway across Bukit Brown at this point in time?

How long would it take for the trees in the affected Bukit Brown forested area to grow to their existing height if they were destroyed? Will anyone in the world today have the craftsmanship and technology to replicate a cemetery that is as unique as Bukit Brown?

A hundred years in the future, what will my descendants have to say and feel if they learnt that a highway that only takes a few years to build was to totally alter the landscape of an almost century-old cemetery that was planned by man and subsequently nurtured by Nature?

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Bukit Brown: a place with a rich heritage and biodiversity

The caretaker shed. If one is lucky to find the caretaker here, he/she could ask for directions to visit the largest tomb

Bukit Brown was named after George Henry Brown. He was a shipowner, trader and broker who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. Brown's place of residence was located at present-day Mount Pleasant Road, which was close to the present Bukit Brown site

The area was later brought over by three wealthy Hokkien entrepreneurs, Ong Kew Ho, Ong Ewe Hai and Ong Chong Chew. They came from the same village of Bai Qiao in Xiamen, China. When the trio brought the site known as Bukit Brown in 1870s, they had intended to set up a self-sufficient village for the less well-to-do members of the Ong clan. However, the site was eventually used solely as a burial ground and its ownership was passed on to the Seh Ong Kongsi. In 1918-1919, the Municipal government acquired a section of the Seh Ong Cemetery to serve the need of the wider Chinese community for more public Chinese burial grounds.

The Bukit Brown Cemetery was closed for burial in 1973.

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The unkempt beauty of Coffee Hill

Greenery in abundance - the grounds of Bukit Brown also provide bird watchers with opportunities to spot birds which are a rarity across the rest of the island. 

Beyond the beauty that human hands have made, the crumbling gravestones combined with nature’s reclamation of much of what is unattended spaces gives the cemetery a certain beauty beyond that of the manicured beauty of parks and gardens we pride ourselves as having.

It is in what is essentially an unkempt beauty, that many who have expressed misgivings about redeveloping what must now be an extremely valuable piece of real estate, fear to lose. Strange as it may seem, the cemetery for some is regarded as a recreation space. Many seeking solitude and serenity have found it in a stroll or a jog through the meandering paths that weave through the grounds.

The cemetery has not just become a place to escape, it is a place where horses I was told are sometimes ridden, as if ridden through a countryside that many of us do not realise is there. It is not just for the historical value but for the beauty that the serenity of Bukit Brown brings to us that makes any proposals to preserve it certainly worth reconsidering, for if it does go the way in which the highest bidder wins, it won’t just be the dead, but the living that would have lost a peaceful resting place.

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Bukit Brown Cemetery

Although talks of eventually developing Bukit Brown Cemetery into housing and other buildings for the living have been ongoing for quite some time, it seems as though an urgency to visit this peaceful place has come about in recent weeks. I visited the cemetery a few weeks ago and was taken aback by hill after hill of beautiful tombs and graves. Some appeared to be visited and cleaned regularly, but many were in various stages of neglect.

Officially opened on New Year's Day in 1922, Bukit Brown Cemetery was the final resting place for many members of the Chinese community in Singapore. The cemetery is an expansive and verdant space covering an area of about 213 acres. When the cemetery closed in 1973, it contained approximately 100,000 tombs. The oldest grave in Bukit Brown Cemetery dates back to 1833 (source).

It is not just a place for the dead to rest; the living make good use of the beautiful cemetery as well. Bukit Brown Cemetery is a quiet place perfect for clearing your head and heart. The roads winding through the cemetery are ideal for runners or for those wishing to take a relaxing stroll. Because the trees form such a dense canopy in some parts of the cemetery, the temperature feels much cooler than if you were on a normal city street. And if you love to bird-watch, bring your binoculars. It is home to some of the most beautiful birds I've ever seen.

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The walk to Bukit Brown

Now that the Bukit Brown Cemetery has been marked for 'new development', many people are visiting wanting to know 'where their ancestors lay'. My first thought would always be to check first with the LDS (Latter Day Saints) in Salt Lake City (USA) as they would have documented most if not all of the departed here at BBC

Before its closure in 1973 it was a public Chinese cemetery established in the early 20th century.  It was also known to the local community by the names Kopi Sua or Coffee Hill.  The cemetery was named after its first owner, George Henry Brown.  He was a ship owner who arrived in Singapore from Calcutta in the 1840s he bought the area of land and originally named it Mount Pleasant

The land was later owned by the Hokkien Ong clan and subsequently acquired by the municipal authorities in 1919 and the cemetery opened on the 1 January 1922

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An evening ride through Bukit Brown

“It’s an absolute shame they are building a road…. Singapore should be protecting what it has. Very soon whatever makes Singapore special will be gone,” he laments the impending dissection of the cemetery. Nature versus asphalt. Asphalt wins.

I only learnt about the existence of Bukit Brown after the conserve/develop debate but I have come to realise what a beautiful place it is. I wish we would preserve it. It’s hard for me to imagine an eight-lane highway cutting through this peaceful piece of land; even harder to imagine that a housing estate will rise up.

But I can understand the economic imperative. It is undeveloped land for the dead. We need to develop land for the living.

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Not your usual playground

Who would have thought that a cemetery would become a place-of-interest in Singapore? Bukit Brown is one of the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China. Surrounded by lush greenery, and water catchment area, if not for the tombstones, Bukit Brown can be any nature park!

Try to spot the various birds, jog along the rustic track, and if you are lucky, you might even bump into magnificent stallions from the nearby horse stables. Bukit Brown contain much of Singapore's heritage and history. Buried within it's hills are famous people. Nothing spooky at all (Except maybe the Tall Sikh guard), each tombstone's inscription tells a story. Each burial plot (position, design and even raw materials) give us a background into the dead's background.

Try to make a trip before the land is earmarked for future development. We saw families, and interest groups combing the hills out of curiosity. For first timers, it is recommended to go as a guided tour, do not stray off the tracks.

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Bukit Brown

A "Jade Girl" in Qing Dynasty costume, Bukit Brown Cemetery

This cemetery has certainly become my outdoor "archive", and through my fascination with it, I have learned something about the early pioneers and their contributions to Singapore. I have a glimmering of understanding the practice of feng shui or geomancy and how this practice relates to the positioning of a burial site.

I know a little about the importance of proper death and burial rituals and why the observation of filial piety remains of utmost importance, even after the death of a parent. I can finally recognise and name a selection of the gods and deities whose carved images grace the tombs and I have explored the history and wonderful myths and legends associated with them. I have learned about and have experienced the Ching Ming Festival and the Festival Of The Hungry Ghosts and have investigated the wealth of symbolism which can he found intricately carved onto the tombstones.

Chinese culture has a rich variety of symbols that are not only decorative but are also expressions of religious beliefs, of good wishes for luck, wealth and longevity. The cemetery is a wealth of symbols - from a tiny mouse and dainty butterfly to a powerful dragon and a soaring phoenix. From plum blossoms and peonies and the gentle Chi'lin, to tigers driving demons and splendid temple lions with their gargoyle-like smile

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Bukit Brown Cemetery

I spent an afternoon at Bukit Brown Cemetery, the final resting place of many of Singapore’s Chinese pioneers, earlier this week. I saw species of tropical birds and butterflies there that I have never before seen in my life. I touched graves adorned with colorful Peranakan tiles or marked with weathered, cameo-like photographs.

It was a haunting, eerie, serene, beautiful, contemplative, and lush experience. I don’t think there are enough adjectives in my vocabulary to convey to you how inspiring my afternoon there was. I can assure you that you will find me there again soon, if only to photograph the two statues of Sikh guards who stand faithfully over Qing Dynasty magistrate Chew Gek Leng’s tomb.

On May 30, 2011, The Straits’ Times reported that this verdant, 213-acre piece of land will give way to a housing development sooner or later. Many Singaporeans are arguing for the preservation of Bukit Brown and sharing their memories on Facebook and elsewhere.

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The Bukit Brown Experience

Bukit Brown Cemetery, otherwise also known as Coffee Hill or kopi sua to Singaporeans, was a public Chinese cemetery in the mid-1900s. It was officially opened as a public municipal cemetery for people of all socio- economic backgrounds on 1st January 1922. Within a short span of 7 years, the cemetery had grown to account for over 40 per cent of all officially registered Chinese burials in Singapore.

The fact that the cemetery was managed as a public burial ground by an appointed committee also meant that burial registers and death records were clearly documented. With approximately 100,000 graves buried beneath its ground, the cemetery was eventually closed after a final burial in 1973. 

Throughout its service as a public municipal cemetery for over more than half a decade, the cemetery has laid to rest many notable people, most of whom were pioneers of Singapore, each having played instrumental roles in local development. In addition, having remained relatively untouched for the past 30 to 40 years, the area’s flora and fauna has flourished, along with its bird population. Even more recently, the area has become popular among expatriates looking for a retreat from the hustle and bustle of life in Singapore.

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The Queen of Bukit Brown

It was her passion and interest to search for her roots in Bukit Brown that give us Brownies a sense of mission,  to help her to look for more tombs related to her, and to research more into the history of these pioneering families, many of whom she has some links to

For us, the loss of Brownie Vicky was not only the loss of the most connected person in Bukit Brown,  but the loss of a true friend whom we have just found this past year, when the Brownies were united in one purpose, trying to research more and preserve this cemetery park

During the past year and the past month whereby some Brownies walked with her and her family on the last leg of her short journey in life, we have learnt so much of life and death.   We may have lost our Queen of Bukit Brown,  but we  have also encountered Angels along the way  that help and motivate us on our sojourn in life and our mission for Bukit Brown

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The forgotten heritage at our own backyard

For the cosmopolitan Singaporeans, it still come to them as a surprise that the Bukit Brown area is the largest Chinese cemetery complex in the world outside of China, with more than 200,000 tombs (The greater Bukit Brown is estimated to be about 233 hectares in size and encompasses the municipal Bukit Brown Cemetery and 3 other adjacent cemeteries)  It is also the mother of all cemeteries in Singapore, whereby graves from previous cemeteries were re-interred in Bukit Brown.

As recently as a few months ago, the tombs of the first batch of pioneers who came during the time of Sir Stamford Raffles, dating all the way back to the 1820s was discovered in the greater Bukit Brown area. In fact, many of the history and heritage of this place is just coming into light within these 2 years. Recently the government has started to promote Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall (Wan Qing Yuan) a heritage institution under the National Heritage Board, which traces Dr. Sun's revolutionary activities in the Southeast Asian region and highlights the impact of the 1911 Chinese Revolution on Singapore as well as Singapore's contributions to the Revolution

And yet, few would know that the only place worthy to be a Revolutionary Mausoleum, whereby 20 members of the Tong Meng Hui (Chinese Revolutionary Alliance) members who supported Dr Sun and 15 members of the early Chinese Republic Party formed at that time is actually at Bukit Brown.

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Keeping the memories of Bukit Brown cemetery alive

A collective of seven photographers have come together to showcase the rich cultural history of  Bukit Brown cemetery before it undergoes redevelopment.

Their upcoming photo exhibition aims to highlight the three themes of nature, heritage and spiritualism associated with the place which is the burial place of many pioneering heroes of Singapore.

The cemetery made headlines last September after authorities said they will be constructing an expressway across it. The news also galvanised the online community to protest the decision and fuelled debate about preserving the country’s heritage and history. Around 3,700 graves out of the estimated total 100,000 graves are expected to be affected.

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Navigating a new terrain of engagement

A passionate attempt to save Bukit Brown Cemetery has not turned out as civil society groups hoped it would. What does the saga teach about engagement between the Government and citizens?

If dead men could talk, imagine the stories that those buried at Bukit Brown would tell their loved ones this Qing Ming. Left peacefully alone for decades barring the annual spurts of visits during the grave-sweeping festival in early April, they have, over the past year, been witness to a sudden hubbub of conversation and activity at their resting place.

Government officials have trooped up and down the undulating terrain, overlaid with gnarled roots, to survey the tombs and plant stakes by the 3,746 that would make way for a eight-lane road - in turn, a precursor of the eventual development of the entire cemetery for housing. Passionate debates over its fate have swirled around the elaborate tombstones, as anthropologists, filmmakers and heritage enthusiasts hauled cameras around to document those affected.

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Bukit Brown: Spaces for the Living

Bukit Brown: Spaces For The Living is a photo exhibition that showcases the splendour of one Singapore’s oldest and historically rich treasures, as it aims to foster an appreciation of the legacy of Bukit Brown.

Featuring works by the collective the Shutterbugs, the exhibition is the first of its kind in Singapore to spotlight Bukit Brown. It pays homage to this historical landmark by highlighting the intertwining three themes of nature, heritage and spiritualism that reside at the core of Bukit Brown through the visual medium of photography.

The exhibition was a result of 6 months’ worth of work. Shawn Byron Danker said, “I put this whole thing together because I felt it was important to educate, to engage, and most importantely to create memories for people who haven’t been there, who need to learn about this place and its value for Singapore and the fabric of its soul”

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Paying the price of progress

Since independence from Malaysia in 1965, the Republic of Singapore has undergone a radical metamorphosis, emerging from kampongs and swamps to a glittering 21st-century city-state. It is one of the world’s richest countries, with over five million people packed into the small island, alongside skyscrapers, neon shopping malls, and luxury condominiums.

Over the years numerous heritage locations have been swallowed by the rapid urbanisation of Singapore. The next imminent casualty is Bukit Brown Cemetery, the largest Chinese cemetery outside China and home to over 100,000 graves. The Singaporean government intends to build an eight-lane highway through the heart of the site. Construction of the 2km-long road starts next year, heralding a wave of building that will eventually include a new train station and housing for 50,000 people.

A firestorm of protest has erupted from heritage activists and online communities, with the media dubbing the burgeoning crisis ‘the Battle for Bukit Brown’. As the last great historic cemetery in Singapore and final resting place of many pioneering immigrants who shaped the nation, the site is loaded with cultural significance. Named after a British merchant who arrived in the early 19th century, Bukit Brown was established as a public Chinese burial ground in 1922, and contains Qing dynasty tombs dating back to the 1830s.

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Singapore Cemetery Demolition Angers Residents

The ornate tile detail on one of the many overgrown graves at Singapore's Bukit Brown Cemetery. (VOA/K. Lamb)

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No eternal rest for the dead in crowded Singapore

Eternal peace does not last long in Singapore.

Starting early next year, workers with heavy machinery will begin constructing an eight-lane highway across the small country's oldest surviving major cemetery, overriding the objections of nature lovers and heritage buffs.

Singapore, with its 5.3 million people crammed onto an island less than half the size of London, is already more densely populated than rival Asian business centre Hong Kong, making permanent burial space unfeasible.

The whole of Bukit Brown - the resting place of more than 100,000 people, including some of Singapore's pioneering business and clan leaders and their large, intricately carved tombs - will eventually be used for residential development. At least 30 people buried there have streets named after them.

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SOS Bukit Brown – Save Our Singapore!

The Singapore government wishes to build a highway the size of CTE (8 lane – 48 m wide by 2.2 km) through Bukit Brown. The process of exhumation and highway planning will start as early as March 2012. The result will be the losing of 5000 graves, destroying the forest, bio-diversity, global warming and other environmental impacts like the risk of flooding.

We are asking everyone concerned with the fate of Singapore to step forward to lend your voice to this campaign. Your voice can help the various authorities understand the importance of Bukit Brown and the highway is not right. Your voice can change their minds and save Bukit Brown.

Join the thousands to SAVE Bukit Brown 100%. Say No to the Highway.

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History lost to development

Look at the peaceful place

Sunday for me, is family time! The last sunday, we finally visited Bukit Brown. I’ve been eyeing the guided tours there for some time! Check out All Things Bukit Brown here for more information on events and guided tours available.

Since I was at Bukit Brown, I should talk a little about the graves right? I learnt so much about the traditions of our ancestors that day. Typically, Chinese are buried horizontally (sounds like common sense. But Muslims are buried vertically, facing Mecca!) with a circular (may be other shapes) row of bricks surrounding the body. Generally, it’s disrespectful to step inside the brick wall. At the feet of the deceased, a tombstone is established. It would bear the name, gender, courtry of origin and date of death of the person buried, sometimes the relationship between the people in joint graves. The 男左女右 rule applies in burials too. Generally, there would be statues like the 金童玉女, one of the 8 immortals (八仙), for example to bring the ancestors luck. Feng shui is important because it affects the future generations.

There is a belief that good feng shui can accumulate luck for the ancestors and be passed down to the descendants. I was thinking that this was probably the motivation for people to build proper graves for their ancestors. The area infront of the tomb stone, is the “courtyard”. Generally, famous pioneers who are commemorated would have a large courtyard in front of their graves, with benches. Welcoming people to visit. At one corner of the courtyard you would find a stone with the words “福神” (one of the gods) carved on it. Typically, people would pray and give offerings to the gods, before doing so for the ancestors.

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What you didn’t know about Bukit Brown

The Economist (of all news outlets!) has an excellent Qing Ming-themed piece about Singapore’s Bukit Brown cemetery. (“Elegy for an urban graveyard” 1 Apr 2013).

Did you know that it’s the largest Chinese graveyard outside China? Or that Lee Hoon Leong, the grandfather of MM Lee Kuan Yew (and great-grandfather of PM Lee Hsien Loong) is interred there?

Chances are most Singaporeans wouldn’t either, unless they’ve been following the Bukit Brown controversy. Despite concerted efforts by activists, an eight-lane expressway is set to be built through the historic cemetery by 2014. Not all its 200,000 graves will be affected by the development, and there are plans to document the area and its history — but proponents of the peaceful, picturesque and culturally rich site say that the character of the place will be lost forever, taking with it an important marker of Singapore’s pioneer heritage. No more than a third of the 3,746 graves to be disturbed by the development have been registered for exhumation (the deadline is 15th April). The Economist muses, grimly, that this may be a sort of last resort “passive resistance”. If you can’t stop the bulldozers, at least delay the bureaucracy?

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Holistic Strategy for Bukit Brown

NOW that the Government has announced that the redevelopment of Bukit Brown will proceed, attention has shifted away from the proposed bypass road from Upper Thomson to the PIE interchange at Lornie/Adam roads, to the development of the old cemetery. It also appears that the road will proceed first as a priority to reduce congestion along Lornie Road.

Over the past few weeks, I personally went to experience the peak morning traffic from Upper Thomson to the AYE (the outer ring road system), starting respectively from Mandai, Yio Chu Kang and MacRitchie. I did so twice from each point. 

While the traffic was not fast-moving and was slow in places, this was more due to various traffic lights or the occasional accident.

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Lee Hoon Leong - grandfather of Lee Kuan Yew

Situated at a nondescript corner of Bukit Brown Cemetery sits the grave of one Lee Hoon Leong. If one had not known better, one would just give it a cursory glance, just as one would perhaps the more than 100,000 other graves at the graveyard just off Lornie Road.

But Lee Hoon Leong is no ordinary man, given the distinguished lineage of which he is part of, and his role especially in the early life of his grandson, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister and Minister Mentor of Singapore.

In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew refers to his immigrant background as a fourth-generation Chinese Singaporean: his Hakka great-grandfather, Lee Bok Boon (born 1846), emigrated from the Dapu county of Guangdong province to the Straits Settlements in 1862.

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Tan Hap Leong (Bukit Brown


Tan Hap Leong (Tan Hup Leong) had the honor of being the first Straits born Chinese to undertake a travel around the world for leisure in April 2, 1895. His route brought him to Penang, India, Marseilles, Paris, Germany and England. His return was via way of America, Japan and China.

He carried with him letters of introduction  from several members of the mercantile community (namely Messrs. Paterson Simmons ) and Foreign Office passport, a certificate stating he is a British subject and assurance of British protection, the first Straits Chinese to obtain this privilege.

Tan Hap Leong was one of the pioneering members together with the Tan Jiak Kim, C.M.G and Dr Lim Boon Keng in the formation  of the Chinese Volunteers and had the honor to accompany the local Straits contingent to London for the Coronation of King Edward VII.

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Missing Amongst the Dead

A rendition of the Battle at Bukit Brown (National Library)

Japanese map of the tank action on Bukit Brown

On the evening of 14th February 1942, the rolling hills of the Bukit Brown Cemetery were suddenly engulfed in a barrage of flame and fire. It appeared like scene from Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Artillery from the Yamashita’s advancing XXV Army opened up their most intensive bombardment of the Singaporean campaign to date plastering the grave covered hills with high explosives rounds that made the earth tremble and sent the headstones spinning through the air. Onlookers recalled being deluged with dust, debris and human remains.

The gunners’ targets were the men of the 4th Suffolks, a fresh-faced territorial battalion of the 18th Division who had only landed in Singapore two weeks earlier. The Suffolks, raised from the country towns and farming communities of East Anglia, had already seen combat up at Bukit Tinggi and had been forced to retreat back towards the Lornie Road by the relentless drive of the IJA’s elite 5th Division.

The Suffolk’s hasty withdrawal and the stubborn defence of Adam Park by the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires had allowed the men to establish new positions overlooking the eastern end of the SICC golf course and southern tributaries of the MacRitchie Reservoir. They were all that stood between Yamashita’s army and the all important water pumping stations at Thompson Village and Woodleigh. That evening Yamashita’s exhausted and battle weary troops were to launch one final effort to break through to the east. The leading units of the 11th Regiment of the 5th Division were by now running short of ammunition and artillery shells and the bombardment and attack was to be their final assault. It was to be a ‘make or break’ attack on the hills of Bukit Brown.

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New road in Bukit Brown to ease congested Lornie Road

A new dual four-lane road will be built in Bukit Brown to alleviate congestion currently experienced along Lornie Road and the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) during peak hours.

The new road will connect the existing Thomson Road near Caldecott Hill and will cut through parts of the existing Bukit Brown Cemetery before joining Adam Road near the slip roads leading onto Pan-Island Expressway (PIE)

Upon completion of this new road, the current Lornie Road will be converted to a dual two-lane road and the space freed up used for future park connectors along the existing nature reserve.

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Impact on Bukit Brown cemetery

The new road will also connect Bukit Brown with the rest of the road network.

Various agencies, including LTA and National Parks Board, have worked together to balance the immediate transport needs and long-term development plans for the area.

Care was also taken to avoid adversely affecting the nature reserves near MacRitchie Reservoir, and to avoid any private land acquisition for this road project.

It is estimated that the new road will affect about 5,000 of the more than 100,000 graves currently sited in the Bukit Brown cemetery.

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Bridge for Bukit Brown road more costly

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has finalised the alignment of the new road across part of Bukit Brown Cemetery following the completion of topography studies and grave identification work

It said on Monday that the new road alignment, which consists of a bridge 10cm off the ground, minimises land take in the area and impact to the existing terrain and surrounding enviroment (see graphic below). A 600m section of the 2km road has been designed as a bridge due to the undulating topography of the area, which has several small hills and creeks, the LTA said.

This ensures that eco-linkage can be maintained, said the LTA. Under it, wildlife in the area can continue to traverse between both sides of the road.

The bridge section between the hills and across the existing streams will minimise the impact on the hydrology of the area

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Relatives claim about 1,000 Bukit Brown graves

1,005 graves in Bukit Brown have been claimed by relatives in the last four months, reported The Straits Times today.

This works out to be about a quarter of the 3,746 graves that will be exhumed to make way for an expressway. Relatives will have until Dec 31 this year to claim the graves.

Unclaimed remains will be cremated, with the ashes to be kept by the Government for three years, after which, the ashes will be scattered at sea.

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Car mechanic at Bukit Brown resigned to losing his trade

His hands dark with motor grease, the old man ate silently under the van's raised boot as the rain fell. His tools of the trade: A can of engine oil, spanners and a car jack lie in a heap at the back of his van.

A former car mechanic, he runs a mobile workshop out of his beat-up Toyota van at the gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery off Lornie Road, where he does simple repairs for a small fee

Rain or shine, he will be there, said a regular group of bus drivers and cabbies who share the spot for a quick rest

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All things Bukit Brown - Heritage, Habitat and History

a.t. Bukit Brown, all things Bukit Brown, is a labour of love born out of the twin desire to record history and, in a nod to our pioneers, contribute to education by sharing what we learn and find. “We” are  a loose  group of strangers who became friends on the Facebook page, Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery.  As we interacted organically, we began to have extraordinary experiences in finding our roots  – of Singapore,  our own families and the rich eco system which  is flourishing  in Bukit Brown.  And those experiences deepened exponentially when shared, even reaching out to  the Singaporean diaspora and touching regional connections.

As beneficiaries of this unique process, we decided to formalise this so that we can share on a more structured platform and reach out to individuals,  especially educators and students.  We hope a.t.Bukit Brown will be the starting point for  individuals to begin their own journey of discovery, to bridge their past to the present

There is a splendid rain tree located near the fork in the centre of the park where many of us met face to face for the first time  and began to put faces to stories.
a.t.Bukit Brown aspires to be like the loving tree a place where strangers come together and share their stories and knowledge, where friendship grows in a common quest for identity, where wisdom may take root. 

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The Bukit Brown road is a case in point – how many people had even paused to think when it was first announced that the circle line includes a stop at Bukit Brown?

Obviously, you don’t build facilities or plan for it unless there is a foreseen need for ‘it’. The ‘BB’ station is certainly not meant for some ‘ghoulish’ travel plan for some of our forefathers long interred there! Now, that brings to mind too the Bidadari Cemetery, viz., its Circle Line station’s (Woodleigh) eventual and subsequent opening recently and before that the mass exhumation. It’s truly a wonder that all such events and issues didn’t ring (ALARM) bells at the time they should, when first publicly announced!

Truly, Singaporeans must be terribly so busy, so focused on making a living and other stiffs, oops, I mean stuffs. Why are interest/interested groups and individuals only just now making what sometimes seems to be rather obsequious and disingenuous noises about the looming excavation at Bukit Brown, just another one of our ancestral burial grounds that is the latest in the ‘series’ to ‘go’? 

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Visiting Tips! (All Things Bukit Brown)
Bukit Brown Cemetery (Singapore Heritage Society)
All Things Bukit Brown
Bukit Brown Heritage Park
Wild Singapore
Oon Tuan Cheng: A Life of Loss
Tok Cheng Tuan (Bukit Brown) by Rojak Librarian
The Fall of Singapore - 15th February 1942
Tay Koh Yat (Bukit Brown) by Rojak Librarian
Heritage trail of Bukit Brown Cemetery by Dexterine Ho
Tan Yong Thian by Rojak Librarian
A dutch tomb in Bukit Brown by Rojak Librarian
Tan Swee Kee (Bukit Brown) by Rojak Librarian
Unveiling Lee Kim Soo by Rojak Librarian
Died of Grief Tan Keng Lee (Bukit Brown) by Rojak Librarian