It’s not every day that I play tourist in Singapore. There are many places I have not visited – the tourists’ areas in Sentosa, the new exhibits at the zoos. Two weeks ago, I made my first visit to the Gardens by the Bay, and that’s because someone gave me free tickets. So when my brother suggested we participate in the Bukit Brown Tour while my sister is in town, I agreed readily as Bukit Brown, for what’s it left, may not be around permanently.
Bukit Brown is the oldest Chinese cemetery in Singapore. Situated right in the heart of Singapore island, it takes up precious prime land. The recent redevelopment of Bukit Brown, where a part of it was carved out to built a highway, brought the cemetery into the spot light. Many famous pioneers of early century Singapore were buried there and destroying the cemetery is akin to taking away a part of Singapore’s history and culture, much of which have already been lost through the need for the country’s progress.
A group of volunteers who call themselves Brownies, decided to document the graves at Bukit Brown and to conduct weekend tours for interested parties. Each week, there is a different theme. On the weekend I attended, two descendants were present to tell us their ancestor’s stories.
Bukit Brown was a private land own by Ong Seh (he has the largest grave there, photo at the top) which was acquired by the colonial government to become a public cemetery in the early twentieth century. Now that most people opt for cremation, it’s an eye-opener for many of us there to see an actual grave.
Some of the graves are well kept, perhaps an indication of how much they are loved and missed by their descendants, and some are barely visible, save for the dilapidated head stones. Some have proper ‘address’, while others squatted haphazardly. These were mostly buried during the war where control was lacking and the objective was to quickly bury the deceased.
Among the graves, or tombs we visited were graves of prominent pioneers whose names are familiar as they have roads named after them
A specialist on tiles were also present to explain the origin and pattern of the European tiles used to line the graves.
The Brownies were knowledgeable as they explained the fengshui, the different types of calendar used (Japanese, Kuomintang or British), the names of the descendants that is carved on the headstones (the more the better) and the Sikh guard statues on duty.
The Brownies also pointed out the forefathers of our Prime Ministers (LKY, LHL and GCT) as well as a grave from the descendants of Confucius. A cartographer (map expert) happened to me a friend of my sister and when he discovered that we were members of his primary school, he took us to see the grave of the founder of my school, Nanyang Primary School/High School.
My 4 year-old nephew came along as I was glad to see him listening intently to the stories that were told. What a great opportunity to introduce him to history. There is sadly hardly any occasion where he, or even me, get a chance to hear what early settlers in Singapore did. Of course, those stories that I heard that day, as reflected by their opulent graves were the wealthy ones. Still, it stirred up a sense of a romantism which is oddly unfamiliar to Singapore as I looked at the old photos the dependents had kindly brought along.
If you find my blog interesting, you should sign up for the walk. The Brownies are a great jovial bunch and it would make your Sunday morning priceless. They recently conducted a Battlefield Tour and a Mid-Autumn Evening walk.