My piece of Bukit Brown

 ST Blogs, October 22, 2011

Ng Tze Yong

I have only been to Bukit Brown Cemetery twice. Once, when I got lost on a bicycle. And the second time, last Sunday, when my wife and I signed up for a tour with the Asia Paranormal Investigators (API) on a whim.

Oh, I thought, it would be such a yuppie thing to do, to explore a forest of ancient graves threatened by modernisation and all things evil. What a memorable Sunday it would make, to stand up and be counted, to break the monotony of daily living and join hands against the capitalists, the condo-lovers, the unsentimental.

A 50-strong crowd of families, bushwalker-types and expats had already gathered when we arrived at 9am. The API guide handed out maps and notes on the genealogy of the pioneers buried there, and touched on the finer points of Chinese grave design in the 1800s.

It was shaping out to be a quaint morning of intellect pursuit. Definitely something to lament about to friends over a latte at Dempsey.

We spent the next hour combing through lush undergrowth, exploring the more notable graves among Bukit Brown’s 100,000.

I soaked in the sublime beauty of moss on weathered headstones and vines on stone phoenixes. I snapped away on my iPhone, and thought how cool it would be to post them up on Facebook.

Amid the mass of seemingly forgotten graves, I also wondered, sometimes aloud: Where are the descendents?

And then, I stopped dead in my tracks, as a distant memory slipped back into my mind.

One hot morning several years ago, I was with a group of relatives when, as an afterthought, we drove into a lane off Lornie Road. A short but strenuous walk brought us to a grave that was almost hidden in the shadow of a lone tree under the harsh sunlight.

Chen Wu Yun, it read. My great grandfather.

I knew next to nothing about him. Nobody told me, and I didn’t ask.

I don’t remember much of that day, or what we did. I didn’t even know what the place was called.

But for some reason, I could remember what the spot looked like, and we set out to find it.

As we left the group, I called my brother. Ask Papa to write down great grandfather’s name in traditional Chinese characters, photograph it, and Whatsapp it over, I said.

A while later, we found the grave as I remembered it, slightly unkempt, in a field behind a row of terrace houses.

I held up my iPhone next to the headstone, and compared my father’s handwriting with the eroded etchings.

Chen Wu Yun, it read. You could still see it.

'Cool,'  I said. And then, I started doing what I had been doing the whole morning, admiring the sublime beauty of vines and moss...

Until I heard my wife muttering to herself behind me.

'Oi, what are you doing?' I asked.

'Introducing myself,'  she said.


For the second time that morning, I stopped in my tracks.

Following a short but wide-ranging chastisement from the wife that touched on issues such as my lack of filial piety and general blockheadedness, I came to my senses.

I began to pay my respects, but stopped almost as soon as I started.

'Erm,' I asked my wife, 'How should I address him?' (Answer: Ah Zoh, Hokkien for great grandparent)

And then, in all seriousness: 'Can speak English or not?' (Answer: Cannot)

'Ah Zoh,' I began in Mandarin, and in my heart, 'I am Tze Yong, Chwee Lian’s grandson... '

My family had foresight. My great grandfather had been put to rest beside what must have been only a sapling 70 years ago. The sapling had grown well, and its tall branches now shielded Ah Zoh from rain and sun.

I whipped out my iPhone again. But this time, instead of taking psuedo-artistic photos, I took a maximum-zoom, full-frontal shot of the photo on the headstone, something I hadn’t dared to do all morning for fear of repercussions.

I SMSed the photo to my father, who showed it to my grandmother. She got on the phone and, as she listened to me describe the grave, said in a mix of jest and regret: 'Yah lah, they haven’t been going... '

They? She said it as if she was referring to outsiders. But I knew I was one of them.

That evening, as I recounted the morning's events to my father over dinner at the Ion Orchard food court, the stories started trickling out.

Like how my great grandfather died on the second day of the Japanese air raids when he refused to retreat into a bomb shelter already jam-packed with women and children.

Like how he died in his house alongside his son and daughter-in-law, who was found sitting on the floor, arms still wrapped around her baby daughter, barely a year old.

And like how that little girl, whose back was pierced with shrapnel, fought for her life for several months in a hospital before succumbing.

My grandmother was 11 then. I tried to imagine how life changed for her, when she emerged from the bomb shelter.

That morning, while on the phone with my grandmother at the grave, I promised to rent a car one weekend and take her back to visit.

She had stopped visiting after her second daughter, who was single and accompanied her everywhere, including to Bukit Brown, died of cancer in 2008.

Grandma was excited. I told her we should get a contractor to clear the undergrowth. Maybe get rid of the giant black ants and pile of wet, rotting leaves. Tear away some of the vines.

And after all that is done, find out if Ah Zoh would need to make way for the new highway.

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