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ST News
Nov 3, 2011

Bukit Brown deserves bustle of life

By Andy Ho

HORSE riders, bird watchers and dog walkers lament the fact that Bukit Brown will soon be re-developed.

Closed as a Chinese burial ground in 1973, tombs as early as 1833 can be found there. There are now plans to build a dual four-lane road through it from 2013. This road will cover an area of 24ha and affect about 10,000 of the reputedly 100,000 tombs spread over 86ha there. Housing is slated to come up only in another 10 to 15 years.

The largest tomb there - the double one of Mr Ong Sam Leong (1857 to 1918) and his wife - is 10 times the size of a three-room Housing Board flat. If a 40-storey block were built over it, the land it alone occupies now will yield living space for 400 households.

Individuals may have different values and these values can be incommensurable, but, to me, it is always wrong to sacrifice human interests on the Gaia Altar of Biodiversity - a main reason being trotted out by those vociferously urging that Bukit Brown be left pristine.

Space is always contested, all the more so on our little island. For me, humans will always trump flora and fauna.

As detailed in 'The remains of the dead' by Tan Boon Hui and Brenda Yeoh in Spaces Of The Dead (2011), edited by Kevin Tan, resistance to state acquisition of burial land in times past came largely from clan associations to whom cemeteries 'represented a major focal point for community-bonding'.

But clan affiliation is arguably a minor component of one's identity these days. Thus, even a clan cemetery would resonate little emotionally with many a (younger) Chinese here today.

Accordingly, Bukit Brown preservationists generally have no genealogical ties to those interred there. These heritage buffs just love its historical and cultural value.

To be sure, famous people like Mrs Lim Nee Soon, Mr Lim Chong Pang, Mr Chew Joo Chiat and Mr Chew Boon Lay are buried there. They did well in life and even now are immortalised in many a place, street or town name here.

If stones could speak, their tombstones and other artistic pieces can be preserved in a (geomantically favourable) corner of Bukit Brown. The whole space could also be preserved digitally, as indeed some have suggested.

But those touting the historical and cultural reason for preserving the whole site untouched assume without arguing for it that there is something sacrosanct about keeping every stone in its place.

Be that as it may, there was indeed something sacred about Bukit Brown - but only as long as it was functioning fully as a burial ground.

As Tan and Yeoh note, 'to the various Chinese sub-communities, the burial grounds were a sacred landscape of repose'.

Yet no space is intrinsically sacred.

When temples and churches are moved, it is the continuing worship by their faithful - comprising what may be termed a theo-drama - that makes their new spaces sacred.

Meanwhile, the old sites they occupied, which used to be sacred places, revert back to being profane spaces, fit utterly for bold redevelopment into sites useful to the living.

Cemeteries do not just house the dead but also serve as platforms for their related living to perform various religious rites and rituals of respect.

It is these culturally appropriate practices, if ongoing, that transmute mere burial spaces into sacred places for the living with ties to the dead.

In short, it is the living who make the dead's place of repose sacred for the living. But in another 10 to 15 years, very few will foreseeably come by Bukit Brown for the Chinese spring and autumn ancestral rites of respect and remembrance.

Most tombs there are now weather-worn and have obviously been neglected for a very long while, being overwhelmed by creepers and undergrowth.

There is no longer any living theo-drama here. Bukit Brown's sacrality has vanished. But if no longer a sacred place, it has no legitimate claim that only it can be the last place of residence for the specific dead interred therein.

Exhumed with care, respect and decorum, any remains could be housed in columbarium niches, which can become sacred if their related living come by again to worship.

No more a sacred place, Bukit Brown has reverted to being a profane space, by which I mean an open and neutral container to be filled by human activity. The unbounded space it has become connotes future possibilities.

It deserves to now be filled with the daily drama of the living instead. And for as many of us as possible, not just the elite given to the equestrian, ornithological or canine. Or heritage buffs.

andyho@sph.com.sg

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