Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

May 2011

Many of the 80,000 tombstones at Bukit Brown are weather-worn and covered by undergrowth, but some draw attention with their size and showiness. -- ST PHOTO: TED CHEN, NURIA LING

IF HERITAGE enthusiasts have their way, Bukit Brown Cemetery off Lornie Road would stay untouched.
But in land-scarce Singapore - and especially since Bukit Brown is sitting on a large tract of land - the reality is that the dead will have to make way for the living sooner or later.

The 86ha graveyard, along with the already-exhumed Bidadari in Upper Serangoon Road, has been earmarked for housing developments, although the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has not given a timeframe for this.

Already, plans for the Bukit Brown MRT station have been set, although it will remain closed until the area is more developed.

Meanwhile, the 200-member Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) has produced a book titled Spaces Of The Dead: A Case From The Living to document the cemeteries here and argue for their conservation in the form of open-air museums or parks.
To clear them away would cause the community to incur 'a great loss', said SHS president Kevin Tan, who edited the book.

But a URA spokesman explained: 'We have to take a balanced long-term approach in land-use planning, and be very selective in what we conserve because of our land scarcity.
'As our population grows, we have to meet increasing land needs for various uses. Bukit Brown and Bidadari occupy large land areas that will be needed for housing purposes, and are not included in our conservation plans.'

The 300-page book compiles articles and photographs of cemeteries by various authors.
Launched last Saturday, it aims to change the mindsets of two groups of people - town planners who might be thinking of exhuming cemeteries for redevelopment needs, and members of the public who might fear such places.

That cemeteries give important insights into a people's social and historical life is not lost on tourists, who are more open to visiting them.

'Such cemeteries are an intrinsic part of community life,' said Dr Tan, adding that tourists often visit a country's tombs to learn more about its people and culture.

When The Straits Times visited Bukit Brown recently, people on horseback from the nearby Singapore Polo Club were seen clip-clopping along the winding, vehicle-free paths, sharing them with joggers and dog-walkers.

Many of Bukit Brown's 80,000 tombstones are weather-worn and lost in the undergrowth. Some, such as the tomb of prominent Chinese businessman Ong Sam Leong and his wife, draw attention with their size and showiness.

Bukit Brown is among 60 cemeteries here. All but one - Choa Chu Kang Cemetery - do not accept new burials, said the National Environment Agency, which oversees many cemeteries here.

In 1952, available records indicated there were 229 registered burial grounds, including many small ones that have since been exhumed.

The bustling Ngee Ann City shopping centre and the housing estates of Bishan and Tiong Bahru sit on what were once burial grounds.

Mr Eric Cheng, 36, chief executive of real-estate agency ECG Property, noted that the sites on which Bukit Brown and Bidadari are located are 'prime spots for housing'.

Noting the precedent set here for turning cemeteries into housing estates, he said: 'These places are usually developed after the land has been fallow for some time. People forget they were ever cemeteries. It is not a challenge to market such properties.'

Former Nature Society (Singapore) chairman Ho Hua Chew, who wrote one of the chapters in the new book, conceded that SHS' cause was a tough fight because the Government is 'very pro-development'.

The avid bird-watcher, who noted that 85 bird species have been recorded in Bukit Brown, expressed hope that people would read the book and go there to appreciate the place.

Businessman and permanent resident Mark Zagrodnik, 47, who has jogged there, is already doing that. He described it as a 'beautiful, natural space'.

On the other hand, administrative officer Cathy Wee, 27, has not even heard of Bukit Brown. She said: 'I wouldn't even think of conserving it.'


Interesting plots

Bukit Brown Cemetery:

  • A 2m-tall statue of a Sikh guard (right) watches over the remains of 19th-century tycoon Ong Sam Leong. The tombs of the tycoon and his wife, rediscovered in 2006, occupy an area the size of 10 three-bedroom flats.
    The presence of the guard points to the practice of wealthy individuals in Singapore who recruited guards, mainly from northern India, as watchmen for their property.
    It is clear Ong wanted a continued role for them in his afterlife.
  • The grave of a man named Fang Shan, which dates back to 1833, was found by cemetery explorer Raymond Goh, 46, in late 2008. Historians and history buffs believe this may be the oldest grave in Singapore.

    Bidadari Cemetery:

  • It included the grave of Dr Chen Su Lan, who died in 1972. Known as the 'Grand Old Doctor', he was a campaigner against opium addiction and tuberculosis among workers. In 1945, he founded the Chinese YMCA and two years later, the Chen Su Lan Trust and the Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home.
    His tomb was exhumed in 2002.

  • Prologue

    New Straits Times,
    Sep 7, 2009

    Looking back for directions forward

    By Satiman Jamin

    As Johor prepares for a modern future with the development of Iskandar Malaysia, Satiman Jamin delves into the past for lessons in sustainable growth
    PROGRESS and development has come full circle in modern Johor as the state gears up for an even bigger leap forward with the completion of Iskandar Malaysia.

    A region about three times the size of Singapore, Iskandar Malaysia was inspired by the Kangchu system.

    In fact, when it was first introduced, the visionary, integrated development project was hailed as the modern equivalent of the system, within which investors would work hand in hand with the locals to drive Johor to greater economic heights.

    Not many realise that the modernisation of Johor started in Kangkar Tebrau. In its heyday, Kangkar Tebrau was the epitome of the success of the Kangchu system.

    The system was implemented as many areas in Johor back then were not accessible by land.

    To speed up the opening of new agricultural areas in Johor, Temenggung Daeng Ibrahim and his successor, Sultan Abu Bakar, issued surat sungai -- temporary grants allowing Chinese merchants and investors to open up vast tracks of riverside land, hence the name "Kangchu" which literally means "lord of the river".

    The activities in the region were largely agricultural, and the main crops were gambier and black pepper, for the simple reason that these crops had a fast turnover and could fetch handsome prices.

    The areas around Sungai Tebrau, Sungai Plentong and Sungai Skudai were among the first to be opened up under the Kangchu system.

    The plantations near Sungai Tebrau became the fastest growing area.

    Kangkar Tebrau was soon established as a settlement by the influx of workers and investors and flourished into a bustling town called Bandar Kangkar Tebrau.

    As evidence of the importance of Kangkar Tebrau at that time, even Sultan Abu Bakar and the British governor in Singapore saw it fit to make a trip there in 1900.

    But as the trade in gambier and black pepper declined, so did the many riverside settlements around it.

    Kangkar Tebrau's hordes of merchants left as abruptly as they came, and the once important trading hub was abandoned as quickly as it was filled.

    It was never to regain its position as Johor's economic hub.

    Today, three forlorn rows of dilapidated shops are all that remain of Kangkar Tebrau, with no hint of its former grandeur.

    These shops are but a fraction of the many commercial buildings that once stood tall and proud in that trading hub.

    The gambier plantations did not go to waste as the land was later used to plant rubber trees. Many of the rubber plantations are now housing estates.

    Taman Daya, Taman Istimewa and the numerous housing estates there may be much bigger and grander compared to the old Kangkar Tebrau, but they owe their existence to the riverside town.

    The signboard near the Sungai Tebrau bridge proclaims Iskandar Regional Development Authority (Irda)'s undertaking of a rehabilitation programme for the river which has been reduced to a polluted waterway over the years.

    The rows of shops are left to crumble away.

    Much precious information can be gleaned from the history of the tiny town, which had helped put Johor on the world map a century ago.

    As the modern day flag bearer of the Kangchu system, and as the backbone of Johor's journey into the next century and beyond, Irda would do well to examine the rise and fall of Kangkar Tebrau in the span of just one century.

    The system's strengths and weaknesses can be identified through such a study, so that Irda can easily navigate around the pitfalls and mistakes that led to the downfall of Kangkar Tebrau.
    An abbot Kwang Xuan of a Changi Buddhist temple Pu Zhao Chan Si was facing a dilemma.   A group of spirit tablets were in search of a place to house them.  The spirit tablets belong to those of a secret society Ghee Heng.
    In the early 1900s, after the clampdown and introduction of the Societies Ordinance in 1890, the influence of secret societies waned. These spirit tablets initially housed in Ghee Heng Kongsi became undesirable and were abandoned. At first they were thrown into the Whampoa river, a subsidiary of Kallang River. However the tablets did not float away, but remain there. A timber company (Teck Choon Sawmill) began to collect and house them for worship. Later due to the sawmill expansion, there were then moved to a small Tua Pek Kong temple in Lavendar Street to house these tablets. This temple was also demolished in the 1990. It was housed in another temple but that temple also need to be relocated.
    Many people in Pu Zhao Chan Si were against housing these tablets.  But Abbot Kwang Xuan had a different opinion.   They might be secret society leaders, but the period and circumstances they lived in were different,  and many of them were actually pioneers who have contributed to the economy of this region.  Keeping and preserving these tablets will have historical value.
    Ghee Heng leaders spirit tablet in Pu Zhao Chan Si
    The 98 year old Abbot is right.  
    Abbot Kwang Xuan decided to house the historical tablets in his temple
    One of these tablets bore the name of Tan Kai Soon.  It was with information from this tablet, that we now know the birth and death date and where he came from.
    Who was this Tan Kai Soon?
    In 1844,  a young man of age 41 obtained a surat sungei to open up areas for pepper and gambiar plantations.  He was Tan Kai Soon,  a leader of Ghee Heng,  a anti Qing Pro Ming secret society.  Together with some of his followers, he crossed the Straits of Tebrau (Johor Straits) and entered into Sungei Tebrau.
    Sailing through the river further inland,  he saw a vast tract of land,  a place where he can establish his farm,  and because it is also quite deep inside,  sometime like a refuge place, not dissimilar to the lair of the 108 heros of the
    Water Margin.
    Sungei Tebrau
    Tan Kai Soon at that time was the supreme leader of Ngee Heng in Johor.  4000 of Ngee Heng followers would soon follow him from Singapore and settle in Tebrau.    Pepper and Gambiar plantations soon blossomed.  It would become a bustling Kangchu area,  which was named Tan Chu Kang.
    Jalan Kangkar Tebrau
    Around Kangkar Tebrau (Tan Chu Kang) there was a road at that time known as Jalan Kangka Kechil.
    This wooden road sign, the oldest of its kind in JB, indicate Jalan Kangka Kechil in Chinese, Jami and Romanized Malay, had been in the vicinity for more than a century.
    As usual, with other Ghee Heng members,  Tan Kai Soon worshipped Xuan Tian Shang Di, and he started the very first temple in Kangkar Tebrau in the same year he landed in Tebrau.
    It was the first temple in Johor Baru – the New Hill
    The temple was named Ling Shan Temple
    It houses 3 deities,  Xuan Tian Shang Di,  Zhao Da Yuan Shuai and Hua Guang Da Di
    Around the same period,  the settlers found that the river contained many crocodiles.   Moreever, there were tigers and other wild animals found.
    A protective deity was needed to protect them from these pestilences.
    A nearby temple was established whereby the boats would landed and whereby  the settlers disembarked.
    The deity was a Teochew Pek Kong – Gan Tian Da Di
    With a sword in hand, one leg firmly on the ground and one leg straddling a tiger,  he would offer the settlers protection from all evils and beasts.
    It was believed that the joss urn from these 4 deities were brought to the Johor Old Temple which was established around 1870. 
    After 30  years of settlement,  the Hainanese population in Tan Chu Kang also grew,  and the first Hainan Association in Johor was also set up in Tan Chu Kang.
    And of course,  Mazu and her two assistants were housed first in the Association, later at a Tianhou Temple behind the Association.
    Not forgetting the 108 brothers and Shui Wei Niang Niang
    Near the Tian Hou temple, there was a well.  It was the only well for miles that yield clear water suitable for drinking.
    It was the drinking source for 5000 inhabitants of Tan Chu Kang in the hey day.
    Tan Kai Soon was not only the leader of Ghee Heng but also the first Kapitan in Johor.  He died in 1857 and was buried inside a rubber plantation in Tan Chu Kang.  However the land where he was buried was sold to a developer.  His grave was never found again and was believed to be leveled off and tombstone removed.
    Today he is remembered by a spirit tablet in Ling Shan Temple in Kangkar Tebrau, and another spirit tablet in Singapore.
    On the 1st day of the Lunar 7th month,  he will be worshipped and remembered at Ling Shan Temple.
    In fact there was saying among the Chinese community there : 
    Without Tan Chu Kang,  where does New Hill (Johor Bahru) come from?
    Present day Tan Chu Kang
    Today, Tan Chu Kang has reached a full circle.  It is now run down with only a few families and few shops from its previous heyday .
    But it has 3 old historical temples and a history of being the first settlement in Johor Bahru from Singapore.
    Someday perhaps, it will begin to start a new cycle again and attract a new breed of settlers.
    NB:  Tan Kai Soon adopted son succeed him as Kapitan and as Kangchu but not as Ghee Heng leader.  The Ghee Heng leader who succeeded Tan Kai Soon was Tan Hiok Nee who was made
    a Major China,  since there were two Kapitan China at that time.

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