Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

April 2011

Tombkeeper Soh Han Seng, in his 50s, had lived in Kheam Hock Road Village, which sprung up around the cemeteries in the Bukit Brown area along Lornie Road to cater to the demand for the services of undertakers, tombkeepers and tombstone engravers. -- ST PHOTOS: LAU FOOK KONG

Like they have done every year for decades, the tombkeepers return to Bukit Brown Cemetery along Lornie Road for the Qing Ming festival, which fell on April 4 this year.
It is common practice for Chinese families to visit the graves of relatives in the weeks before and after the day itself, and the grave workers at Bukit Brown were waiting for them.
Armed with parangs, brooms, gloves and grasscutters, they clean and maintain many of the 80,000 graves over 80ha for a small fee. They also help families locate the lost graves of relatives.
The tombkeepers have a unique connection to Bukit Brown - many of them were born and raised there. They are the former residents of Kheam Hock Road Village, also known as the Kheam Hock Road Cemetery Settlement. The village was located in and around several cemeteries, which included Bukit Brown and the Hokkien Huay Kuan Cemetery.
The former villagers are carrying on the trade of their forefathers, who once provided services as undertakers, tombkeepers and tombstone engravers.
The village began with a single family some time in the 1910s, according to a 1968 geographical study done by Lin Gui Sheng and Zhang Wen Lin of Nanyang University.
With the setting up of two tombstone engraving shops to serve the needs of the cemeteries, those in search of work were drawn to the village.
By 1968, the village population had grown to more than 200 residents and included 10 engraving shops, temples, coffee shops and even a primary school. Villagers remember there was a car repair shop there by the 1980s.
However, the Government took back the land in 1982. The last villagers moved out in 1999.
Today, Kheam Hock Road Village is largely forgotten. Trees and weeds overgrow the former locations of villagers' houses. Jungle trails leading to nowhere dot the landscape and you can easily get lost without help from the tombkeepers.
If you brave the mosquitoes and venture in deep enough, you will see plenty of signs that people once lived here - the occasional zinc and attap hut, wells and even abandoned cars.
Almost three decades on, villagers recall a thriving community which raised livestock and grew its own fruit and vegetables. The mood in the village was liveliest during the festival of the dead.
'During Qing Ming, people from outside would set up stalls here selling food such as noodles and satay. It was like a pasar malam,' recalls Mr Soh Han Seng, in his 50s, in Mandarin. He still cycles to the cemetery daily from Potong Pasir to maintain graves.
Mr Soh's former home, which housed 40 people from three generations, was located just behind several graves in the Paupers' Section of the cemetery. The size of the family was typical of households there.
When asked if the villagers were uncomfortable about living so near the dead, the father of four says: 'What is there to be pantang (superstitious) about? They have been dead for so long.'
Many of the tombkeepers, such as production supervisor Lai, 52, who declined to give his full name, return out of a sense of duty.
Before his mother-in-law died, she instructed Mr Lai and his wife to continue maintaining the graves that she used to look after.
The couple come to the cemetery every three months, as some families ask them to look after their relatives' graves throughout the year.
Mr Lai was a regular visitor to the village when he was courting his wife decades ago. He says: 'There were houses scattered everywhere. It was quite a peaceful life.
'Now, when we come here in the morning, you can feel the fresh air. It is a change from seeing high-rise flats every day.'
Factory worker Oh Boon Keow, in her 40s, who took a month's leave for Qing Ming, shares the same sentiments.
For the past five years, Madam Oh, who has eight siblings, has been helping to maintain the graves that her late grandmother and uncle once looked after.
'I miss village life. We could plant fruit trees and do anything we wanted. But now that we live in a flat, we can plant only flowers,' says the mother of two with a laugh.

Straits Times

A 2m-tall Sikh guard watches over the remains of 19th-century tycoon Ong Sam Leong (above).

The graveyards are coming 'alive' again and it is not just due to the ongoing annual Qing Ming Festival, when many go to pay their respects to the departed.

A lively interest has sprung up in Singapore graveyards and their history, so much so that two brothers offer day and night cemetery tours based on request.

An average of 40 people a time happily shell out up to $45 each to be escorted by amateur historians Charles and Raymond Goh. The groups are a mix of young working professionals and the elderly.
However, the brothers stress that their cemetery sightseeing is not so much a quest for the dead but for living history.

Besides conducting the tours, the history buffs, who are licensed tour guides, also explore graveyards, some abandoned, in areas such as Choa Chu Kang, Bukit Timah Hill and MacRitchie Reservoir, on their own.
Even government agencies such as the National Heritage Board and the Central Narcotics Bureau have taken notice of their tours and organised such outings for their employees.

Teacher Martina Ong, 36, who has taken her secondary school class on the tour twice, says her students found the experience enriching.

'It was rather informative as they presented it from the point of view of history and culture, rather than focusing on the spooky bit,' says Mrs Ong.

The tours are conducted under the banner of Asia Paranormal Investigators (API), which conducts research into unexplained phenomena. The brothers founded it in 2005 and have become a familiar sight amid the tombs with their distinctive black Asia Paranormal Investigators T-shirts.

Finding the dead is no easy task. Raymond, 48, a pharmacist, often encounters difficult terrain and has to bring a walking stick to clear the path of spider webs.

He says: 'I try to map out the area and bring a notebook to write down any unusual graves. The tombkeepers used to wonder why I kept coming back, but now that they know my reasons, they will try and help me.'

Based on the information engraved on tombstones, the brothers do research online, in the newspapers and at the National Archives in an attempt to unearth the history behind them.

Two weeks ago, they discovered the grave of businessman Ang Seah Im, for whom Seah Im Road is named, in the 80ha Bukit Brown Cemetery.

'It is always a pleasure to find familiar names. Bukit Brown is like a living museum. You get to stand in front of the pioneers and learn about history,' says safety supervisor Charles, 43.

Charles says the brothers hope to put the knowledge they have accumulated into a book someday. As it is, they often receive calls from members of the public asking for help in tracking down the lost graves of relatives.

The brothers estimate that they have explored only about 10 per cent of the 80,000 tombstones in Bukit Brown. Some are crumbling and overgrown, while others have undergone a recent 'renovation', thanks to Qing Ming.

They include the graves of 19th-century tycoon Ong Sam Leong and his wife, which occupy an area equivalent to 10 three-bedroom flats. Statues of lions, chambermaids and 2m-tall Sikh guards stand watch over the remains, which were rediscovered in 2006.

But little-known cemeteries such as the Japanese Cemetery Park also hold intriguing historical facts.

Nestled in a quiet corner of a private housing estate in Hougang, it was initially earmarked as a burial ground for what were known as karayuki-san (literally, Miss Gone Overseas) - young Japanese women who were sold in the 19th century and brought to Singapore as prostitutes.

During World War II, the remains of Japanese soldiers and civilians were also interred there.
Charles notes: 'Things are constantly being torn down and built up in Singapore but one of the places that remains is graveyards.

'They are like hidden gems, with stories waiting to be told.'

Grave tours
Bukit Brown holds the remains of many Singapore pioneers including Chew Boon Lay, Lim Chong Pang and Lim Nee Soon, as well as Tan Kim Ching, eldest son of Tan Tock Seng.
It also includes what may be the oldest grave in Singapore - the final resting place of a certain Fang Shan, who died in 1833.
Many graves here are built in the shape of animals such as fish or snakes, in accordance with fengshui principles.
In the night, it also attracts many mediums and their followers, who conduct regular seances there.
The land was donated by brothel owner Tagajiro Fukaki in the 19th century as a burial ground for Japanese prostitutes and is now maintained by the Japanese Association of Singapore. No one has been buried there since 1973.
Famous names interred there include field marshal Count Terauchi Hisaichi, supreme commander of Japanese forces in South-east Asia during WWII.
The graves of the Japanese prostitutes, their children and their mama-sans range from simple grave markers to elaborate tombstones.
To book a tour with Asia Paranormal Investigators, e-mail events@api.sg or call 9878-8669. The cost of a tour ranges from $20 to $45 and includes transport.

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