Stories from Bukit Brown

When it comes to Singapore’s heritage, Bukit Brown is undoubtedly one of the nation’s most important sites. This 95-year old cemetery is the final resting place of many of Singapore’s historic figures and heroes, and yet the area is slowly being chipped away in order to make way for highways and MRT lines in this land-scarce country. This 213 acre site used to be just an abandoned cemetery that was popular with Halloween thrill seekers, but recently more and more Singaporeans are trying to reconnect with their country’s vanishing past.

One of the oldest cemeteries in Singapore, it was established in 1922 and was named after its first owner, George Henry Brown. Locals used to call it Kopi Sua, or Coffee Hill, and it was believed to be the biggest Chinese cemetery outside China.

It was the final resting place for about 100,000 Singapore families until it was closed in 1973.

Many of the grave sites are very old – one in particular belonged to ‘Fang Shan’, whose headstone indicates that he died in 1833, some 14 years after Raffles first landed in Singapore.

Some tombs were built like mini fortresses guarded by stone lions or soldiers, others decorated with Taoist and Confucian symbols decorated with the distinctive Chinese tiles, while some had Malayan influence. Many had interesting stories to tell.

For example, there’s an enormous mausoleum of Ong Sam Leong (died 1917), who supplied labour to the Christmas Islands. Quite possibly the biggest tomb in Bukit Brown, it is flanked by Sikh Guards (representing wealth) and features elaborate carvings of the Chinese 24 Tales of Filial Piety. It’s about the size of ten typical three-room HDB flats, at 600sq.m.

There’s also Tan Kim Cheng who introduced Anna to the King of Siam, and Yeo Bian Chuan, whose forgotten grave tells a sad story of a man who helped save 17 Europeans during the Singapore Mutiny of 1915 – for his heroic deed, he was awarded with a gold medal that sadly never arrived as he was forgotten.

Some reflected Singapore’s multiculturalism: the grave of Dolly Tan features Japanese inscriptions in addition to Chinese and English, plus also three calendar systems: the Chinese mínguó calendar, the Japanese kōki imperial calendar, and the Western Gregorian calendar.

Some of the more famous figures at Bukit Batok include Lim Chong Pang, Gan Eng Seng, Chew Boon Lay, Chew Joo Chia, and Lee Hoon Leong (grandfather of Lee Kuan Yew).

Bukit Brown is a huge treasure trove of stories, but the government’s plans involve paving over these grave sites for future development – such as the north-south highway and MRT tunnels – making it difficult to retain much of the site.

Thanks to lobbying by groups such as a.t. Bukit Brown, the government is slowly changing its plans. Originally, 5,000 graves were to be moved, but that has been reduced to 3,700. The tombstones are now being catalogued and stored in a warehouse (instead of being pulverised), and a heritage assessment board has been set up to review future projects.

However, with land scarcity, it may be impossible to predict the fate of Bukit Brown in 40 years’ time. Sometime in March, construction work underground for the Thomson-East Coast line caused one of the graves – which belongs to Chen Yi Kua who was from Fujian – to collapse.

Our nation is still young, but in the race to the future, we can’t forget our past.

Before we lose this important piece of heritage forever, you can join numerous tours of the cemetery by a volunteer group who call themselves ‘Brownies’. Check out their website which details the cemetery’s history.