The New Paper, 21 March 2010, by Bryna Sim
Tucked away in Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery off Kheam Hock Road, is a long forgotten grave with a 60 cm high granite headstone.
Two empty drink cans that held joss sticks indicate that someone still remembers the final resting place of a man known as Fang Shan. It is on a small hill, amid creeper plants and weeds, one of about a hundred graves in the western section of the cemetery.
The red Chinese characters on the weather worn headstone says Fang Shan died in 1833, some 14 years after Sir Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore.
Historians and history bluffs believe this may be the oldest grave in Singapore.
According to the National Archives of Singapore, which keep burial records, the oldest grave here dates back to 2 Apr 1865, and was at the Bukit Timah Road Old Cemetery, also known as the Kampong Java Cemetery. The National Environment Agency said it was exhumed, together with the other 8,461 graves in the cemetery and the remains reburied at Choa Chu Kang Christain Cemetery in 1970.
There is one other contender for the oldest grave title. In 2006, the Straits Times reported that a tomb dating back to 1842 had been found near the current National University of Singapore law school campus.
It contained the remains of Chinese settler Qiu Zheng Zhi. It was then believed to be the "oldest in situ Chinese tomb in Singapore", meaning that it remained at the site where it was first built.
Now cemetery explorer Raymond Goh, 46, believes the title should go to the grave of Fang Shan. Mr Goh, who stumbled upon the grave in late 2008, said : "Although the Fang tomb is not the oldest in situ tomb here, its dating back to 1833 trumps the 1842 record".
Fang Shan Grave. Erected on the 13th year of the reign of Emperor Dao Guang. Relocated on 1941
Mr Goh, a pharmacist by day, spends much of his free time researching tombs and cemeteries. The interest begin in 2006 after he felt the importance of "preserving the past". He has since found more than 10 graves of Singapore's pioneers. (See infographic on facing page)
Fang Shan's grave is looked after by the Fang Shee Association, a local clan association for those with the surname Fang. According to the association secretary Akita Chua, 67, there are no known descendants of Fang Shan. On the left side of the headstone, it says that the tomb was relocated in 1941.
Mr Goh believes that the original location of the grave was at Heng Shan Teng, a cemetery for the Hokkien community around Silat Road in Bukit Merah.
However, the association says the grave was moved from a cemetery around the Fort Canning area.
Mr Chua said that since 1962, clan members have been paying their respects to Fang Shan and other ancestors annually during the Qing Ming festival. "In the past, we used to have to charter a bus during Qing Ming. But fewer than 10 people go these days."
The inscriptions of the tomb don't mention his hometown or year of birth, but state he had a son called Fang Li Eng. Mr Chua said Fang Shan, a government official in China, moved here to be a businessman.
His grave is among many other historically significant ones in the Bukit Brown cemetery, which was officially opened on 1 Jan 1922. It stretches across more than 80 hectares and there are about 80,000 graves there now. They are unaffected by the 800 or so exhumations carried out by the Public Works Department in 1965 and 1993.
For now, they remain largely untouched by development. Over the next few weeks, they may get some visitors, who come by to perform the annual Qing Ming rits for their ancestors.
After that, all will be quiet again.
'Protect cemetery as it's a historic gem'
Preserve the Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery, say local heritage enthusiasts and cemetery conservationists.
This comes after fears that graves at the cemetery would be affected by the construction of the nearby Bukit Brown MRT station at Jalan Mashor.
The station is due to be completed this year.
A Land Transport Authority spokesman has said that Circle Line work would not affect "any of the graves", although there is some work for the station gooing on around the cemetery.
An Urban Development Authority spokesman said that while there are "longer term plans to develop the Bukit Brown cemetery", including the reserve area next to the cemetery for residental uses, there are no plans to redevelop the place at present.
At its fate is hanging in the balance, individuals and groups have expressed the desire for the cemetery to be protected and enhanced permanently.
Dr Kevin Tan, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, hopes it will not end up like the Bidadari Cemetery.
The entire Bidadari cemetery grounds were cleared in January 2006, and while it was intitially planned to be a residential estate, the area is now used for recreational and lesiure purposes.
Adjunct Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore's Department of History, Mr Kwa Chong Guan, said that there is a constant "dilemma between land use needs and preservation".
However he thinks that the Bukit Brown cemetery has a valid cause for presvervation.
"It's a repository for social memories and a green space. I believe these reasons outweight urban planning needs," he said.
Mr Kwa is also currently chairman of the National Archives and was formerly the director of the Oral History Centre and the National Museum.
He and Dr Ho Hua Chew, chairman of the Nature Society's conservation committee, feel that the cemetery is rich in flora and fauna and is a good exercise location.
"If you don't have the traditional 'pantang' (superstitious) inhibitions, the roads in the cemetery are pleasant for strolling and watching birds and butterflies," said Dr Ho.
During the New Paper's visits there, people could be seen walking their dogs, jogging and even taking driving lessons around the cemetery grounds.
Dr Ho said that at least 84 species of birds have made the cemetery their home, which makes "the ecological importance of this place immense".
The Singapor Polo Club also uses designated trails at the cemetery for their members to ride their horses.
This was permitted by the then Ministry of the Environment in the 1980s.
According to the NEA, which now oversees this partnership, this activity does not adversely affect the cemetery grounds as it does not encroach into areas which are graves.
The presence of many graves of Singapore pioneers also explain why many are so eager for it to be preserved.
Dr Tan called the cemetery a "historic gem", where "people can go to learn lessons about the past".
Others such as Miss Tan Beng Luan, who worked at the National Archives for 11 years in its Oral History Centre, also felt that the graves could teach people about Chinese customs and culture.
"The graves have different styles across the decades, and some show a mixture of culture and religion: Chinese style graves have Christain crosses on them," she said.
Miss Tan, the principal of Creative O Preschoolers' Bay, considers the cemetery an "interesting open aired museum".
She, Dr Tan, Mr Kwa and Dr Ho are confident that enhancements to the cemetery can come in a variety of ways.
Dr Tan felt that proper documentation of the cemetery could be done along with informative booklets or pamphlets, so as to "flesh out" the pioneers' stories.
Miss Tan and Mr Kwa also think that signposts to certain prominent graves, as well as maps of the area would help visitors to navigate.
Dr Ho even felet that the place could be designated as a cemetery cum park.
The Preservation of Monument Boards, which comes under the National Heritage Board, has said that it is possible for the latter "to commemorate the contributions of significant individuals and pioneers through
heritage markers and memorials.
Final Resting Places
Gan Eng Seng (1844 - 1899)
He was a philanthropist who helped to set up and finance the Thong Chai Medical Institution, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the Anglo Chinese Free School,
which later took his name.
Lee Hoong Leong (1871 - 1942)
He was the managing director of a shipping line owned by tycoon Oei Tiong Ham. One of his sons, Lee Chin Koon, was Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's father
Lee Choo Neo (1895 - 1947)
She was the eldest daugther of Lee Hoon Leong and made history in Jun 1920 when she became Singapore's first Chinese woman doctor.
Chew Boon Lay (1851/52 - 1933)
The successful businessman owned pepper, gambier and rubber plantations. There is an MRT station, a school and a housing estate named after him.
Cheang Hong Lim (1825 - 1893)
He ran opium and liquor businesses and donated $3,000 to convert the space in front of the old Central Police Station into a public garden, now known as Hong Lim Park
Tan Kheam Hock (1862 - 1922)
He was the Municipal Commissioner who actively called for the establishment of the Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery. The cemetery was officially opened in Jan 1922, and Tan was one of
the committee leaders managing it, before his death in Apr that year. Because of his efforts, the road leading to the cemetery was named Kheam Hock Road
Tan Boo Liat (1874 - 1934)
The wealthy local philanthropist was the great grandson of Tan Tock Seng. He was the president of the Singapore Kuomintang and a strong supporter of Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen.
His residence, The Golden Bell Mansion, still stands on Mount Faber, and is currently the Danish Seamen's Church. Together with Dr Lim Boon Keng and a few other Straits born Chinese leaders,
Tan initiated the Singapore Chinese Girls' School
His grandfather Tan Kim Ching was also a charitable man.
Tan Ean Kiam (1881 - 1943)
He was a successful businessman and merchant, and also a philanthropist. He was one of the founders of the Overseas Chinese Bank Corporation. Ean Kiam Place was named after him.
Tay Ho Swee (1834 - 1903)
He owned sailing vessels and streamers, as he was involved in the plank shipping business as well as his father's opium farm. Bukit Ho Swee off Havelock Road was named after him.