Lamenting the loss of another piece of history

TODAY Voices
Nov 15, 2011

Lamenting the loss of another piece of history
by Dr Gan Su-lin

It started innocently enough; a notice in the newspapers about a Chinese cemetery making way for an MRT depot. This prompted me, in early 2008, to drive over with some colleagues for a look-see.

That visit saw us spending the next 13 months actively collecting information, oral histories, and documenting exhumation and temple-related rituals. Our photos reveal that we literally watched as the verdant serenity and historical riches of Kwong Hou Sua Cemetery (KHS) off Woodlands Road were utterly and irrevocably erased.

The lush greenery with its bird calls and cicada shrill were steadily replaced with the stink of excavator fumes and the barren lifelessness of uprooted trees and shrubbery. Pieces of once beautiful carved headstones and statuary lying, incongruously, in neat piles of smashed rubble.

Our work in KHS helped me realise I did not feel rooted to Singapore because I had few people, place and thing markers that made me feel proud of Singapore.

Physical markers I valued from childhood and adolescence - such as the National Theatre, National Library and what I remember as Pasir Panjang Beach - have been, like KHS, obliterated.

I do not envy our urban planners who must balance the need for modernisation with conservation. It is the work they are doing that helps keep Singapore an attractive place for investors whose contributions to our nation's economic wealth and comparatively advanced national development afford me the luxury of railing against policies with which I might not always agree.

Still, with each generation, our memories of our beginnings grow dimmer. How can we feel proud of and rooted to a home that offers mostly transient proof points for belonging?

How do we reconcile today's push for character education when our forefathers along with ecological riches and cultural heritage are ploughed under to ease traffic congestion?

With each visit to Bukit Brown, I have again felt the pain from the destruction of Kwong Hou Sua.

I lament the looming loss of the irreplaceable tangible history of our nation. I lament that we selectively remember the past that has made possible much of the present. Worse, that we have failed to systematically record and recount these stories so that our progeny and theirs will remember the many sacrifices and gifts that built Singapore.

Yet, in all my lamentations, I am also grateful for the gifts I have received through my cemetery documentation work. The people I have met, stories that have inspired me, lessons that I have learned, values that have been reinforced. I have been spurred to trace my Chinese Peranakan heritage and to learn more about Chinese culture and customs. These have, in turn, done more for my sense of Chinese-ness than did years of being forced to learn Mandarin.

Dr Gan Su-lin is with Republic Polytechnic.