Race to record Bukit Brown graves

ST News

Oct 27, 2011
Race to record Bukit Brown graves

Search for qualified people willing to help will be a challenge

By Huang Lijie

THE task to document some 5,000 graves at Bukit Brown cemetery by next March is likely to be an uphill one.

While government funds will be made available, finding enough people qualified and willing to take on the project will be a challenge, said stakeholders such as culture and heritage associations.

The Government confirmed on Monday that it will proceed with plans to build a new road through the cemetery, which is filled with graves of pioneers. The road is needed to ease traffic in Lor-nie Road and to serve future housing projects.

Construction of the dual four-lane road will begin in the first quarter of 2013 and end by 2016. About 5 per cent of the more than 100,000 graves at the cemetery, which dates back to the 1890s, will be exhumed for the roadworks.

The Government said it is committed to properly recording the area's rich history. Dr Hui Yew-Foong, 39, an anthropologist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, will be leading a working committee to do the job.

He estimates it will take 600 man days to record the affected graves.

If 10 people work full-time five days a week, the task will be completed in three months.

Formal recruitment of documentarians has not begun because the working committee is being formed. But Dr Hui said he has tapped on his personal network and that of friends to sound out potential candidates.

He said: 'We have between 10 and 15 people who have said they are willing, but mostly on a part-time basis.' He added that it may be hard to find 10 full-time workers because of the demands of the job and its short-term contract.

They will get training but must be able to read the simplified Chinese script or, better yet, the traditional Chinese one to decipher tombstone inscriptions.

They need to have an eye for details such as inscriptions of the name, birth place and genealogy of the deceased as well as tomb sculpture and fengshui markers. Those doing field work also need to be able to take photos to capture details of the graves, and be physically fit.

Dr Hui added: 'We are also limited to the semi-employed or unemployed because what we offer is a few months' work and those employed full-time may not give up their jobs to do this.'

However, Mr Raymond Goh, 47, regional director of a health-care firm and a passionate tomb explorer, said: 'If you pay them well, there will always be people who will come forward.'

The Urban Redevelopment Authority and Land Transport Authority said the Government will fund the documentation but declined to state the sum as details are being worked out.

The Straits Times understands that preliminary talks have placed the amount in the range of $250,000 and it will be used to buy equipment and hire documentarians.

Dr Hui said he may turn to stakeholders such as the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan and Peranakan Association to help spread the word and rally volunteers. When contacted, the three associations said they would encourage their members to sign up.

A spokesman for the SHS noted that criteria such as the ability to read Chinese and being physically fit may not be met by many of its more than 200 members.

Regardless of the number of documentarians he can get, Dr Hui said he will begin work once contractors start clearing undergrowth and identifying the graves next month.

Next March was set as the deadline by the authorities to coincide with the release of a registry of affected graves to notify the next of kin. Families who want to carry out private exhumations could do so between then and the fourth quarter of next year, when public exhumation begins.

Ideally, the graves should be documented before any exhumation begins and the tombs are destroyed.

Documenting the graves is just one aspect of recording the cemetery's heritage. Its history, people's memories of it and the rituals carried out there will have to be captured via the oral accounts of people who visit the place.

The exhumation will also have to be documented and it includes the recording of rituals associated with exhumation and reburial.

Documentation of the graves will be done by hand and digital photos, while video recordings may be used to document other aspects such as people's memories and the exhumation process. The records will be kept with the authorities and the intention is to make them available for research and study.

Dr Hui said the aim is to complete documenting the cemetery by the end of next year, though meeting the March deadline for the graves is his chief priority. On a possibility that the deadline may not be met, he said there would be no choice but to 'keep going' and to give priority to graves that will be exhumed first.

The authorities did not comment on whether the deadline could be postponed but said they are fully committed to the project and details are being worked out.

The SHS spokesman said: 'If it looks like the work cannot be completed by March and if the extra time needed is not too long, we hope the authorities will be flexible and continue to be as supportive.'

Aside from the upcoming road, the area south of Bukit Brown around the Police Academy will be developed for public housing in about 10 to 15 years.

The rest of Bukit Brown is also slated for housing but it was reported this will not take place until 2030 or 2040.