Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

April 2012

ST News

Apr 7, 2012

Dead end for tomb trade
As cemeteries make way for the living, businesses which engrave tombs by hand are struggling

By annabeth leow

Stonemason Raymond Toh (above), one of the rare stonemasons who engrave tombstones by hand, uses tools such as an angle grinder. -- ST PHOTOS: RAJ NADARAJAN

Booting up his desktop computer to create a stencil sticker, Mr Raymond Toh, 42, carefully counts the number of Chinese characters in the design his client has requested.

If the total number is inauspicious according to a traditional five-character mantra he subscribes to, he has carte blanche to add or delete characters.

A maverick modern-day graphic designer? No, Mr Toh is possibly the only second-generation stonemason in Singapore who still engraves tombstones by hand.

'We may not know if fengshui is true,' he says, 'but I will not be able to rest easy at the possibility of the wrong inscription cursing the deceased's descendants.'

With cemeteries in Singapore making way for highways and high rises, Mr Toh is in a dying trade. He started learning the trade fresh out of school at 17, at a time when electric tools were starting to catch on, but modernisation has not completely smoothed over the difficulties of his job.

Hunched over on a low stool for long hours and stirring up clouds of fine dust, he has had lumbar surgery to fix a lower back injury and is at risk of developing pulmonary inflammation from the dust.

'In 10 years' time, we may just be making memorial plaques for niches with sandblasting,' he predicts. 'I won't say I'll be very sorry about it, even though this is a family business.'

The said family business is Toh Hong Huat Trading, a tombstone-making outfit in Woodlands Industrial Estate. His father, Mr Toh Ah Kim, has been self-employed since 1966, first running a stonemasonry business called Yeo Hoe Marble. He renamed it Toh Hong Huat in 1993, when the younger Mr Toh formally came on board.

As an apprentice at Bukit Brown Cemetery for 10 years, the elder Mr Toh earned 50 cents a day. He learnt to engrave tombstones by hand, chipping out names and dates on slabs of stone brought in from Malacca. The 73-year-old is now semi-retired, but still helps Raymond, his second son, in their workshop. None of his three other children is interested in stonemasonry.

Increasingly, craftsmen like the Tohs are becoming rare. Originally, stonemasons who carved tombstones worked either out of cemeteries or in areas such as Kampong Glam in Sultan Gate. Many have since been relocated to industrial estates such as Woodlands or Ubi.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) has a list of 19 registered monument makers in Singapore, but some have retired from the trade, citing less demand for traditional tombstones.

In 1998, the NEA introduced the New Burial Policy, which limited the lease period of graves to 15 years. Since 1993, only the government-run Choa Chu Kang Cemetery Complex has been in operation, although historical graveyards are dotted across the island. The short lease and the scarcity of grave plots have made burial an unappetising option for many. In 2010, there were 3,477 burials in Singapore.

Says the younger Mr Toh in Mandarin: 'In the 1990s, we would have orders for tombstones coming in every single day. Now, we make only two or three a month.'

Orders typically come from businessmen and older Singaporeans, who are known for their fidelity to traditional beliefs. Mr Toh's business has had to diversify by providing cremation services and metal engraving for sign-makers to keep afloat.

Other tombstone-makers favour sandblasting, in which fine jets of silica sand are sprayed at high pressure onto the stone to form the desired engraving. The method is ideal for smaller inscriptions, such as those on columbarium urns. On larger surfaces, the uneven depth of sand penetration makes the engraved letters rough. Despite this, sandblasting is convenient as it is fast. A hand-engraved tombstone takes at least a day to complete but sandblasting takes three hours.

Mr Soh Eng Chin, 49, is one stonemason who has given in to modernisation. He owns Sin Rong Stone Engraving Service, which operates in the same factory block as the Tohs. 'Ten years ago, all the tombstones we did were handmade, but now very few are,' says Mr Soh in Mandarin. He was apprenticed into the trade at the age of 13 and his late father also carved tombstones. 'We will do handmade tombstones only if clients request them.'

In a move that defies economic sense, Mr Toh charges the same price for hand-carved and sandblasted inscriptions - from $3,500 for a simple Chinese tombstone to more than $10,000 for larger and more elaborate designs. 'Those are mainly for clients in Indonesia,' he explains, pointing to a stack of 2m-wide granite slabs. Grave plots here are restricted to a standard size of 1.2 by 2.4m.

Indeed, Singaporean clients can be put off by huge tombstones of the past. Scrap metal dealer George Tan, 51, who buried his father in 2008, opted for a plainer Western-style tombstone. 'The modern tombstone does not look as scary as the traditional kind,' he admits.

Wryly, Mr Toh adds that other customs can come in handy. A traditional waiting period of 100 days after burial gives him more time to source for raw materials from his Chinese supplier in Fujian province and to prepare the tombstone itself.

After characters and designs have been carved onto the tombstone, they are filled with pure gold leaf. The gold comes in tissue-thin sheets of about 25 sq cm, which are sold by purveyors of traditional Buddhist iconography and cost $1 each.

Despite helping his father carve the tombstone when his paternal grandmother died, Mr Toh does not envision himself being buried as 'it's not practical these days'. Married to an insurance agent, the father of two has no wish to see his children, currently in secondary school, enter the trade. 'It's not an easy life,' he says. 'I want them to do better for themselves.'

Stonemason Raymond Toh, one of the rare stonemasons who engrave tombstones by hand, uses tools such as an angle grinder (above). -- ST PHOTOS: RAJ NADARAJAN


ST Forum
Apr 6, 2012

Bukit Brown should be a destination park

OUR position is to recommend to the relevant authorities that Bukit Brown be made into a public or heritage park for the benefit of all Singaporeans, not just for nature lovers or nature romantics ('Don't get carried away by biodiversity' by Mr Heng Cho Choon; last Saturday).

Bukit Brown should retain its natural and cultural values and be simultaneously promoted as an area for recreational pursuits like hiking, jogging, strolling, family picnics or appreciating nature.

Our view is very much in line with the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) laudable plan to open 20 new parks in the next five years ('Coney Island set to become nature park'; Feb 19).

Bukit Brown, with its multi-faceted values, qualifies as a top candidate for a 'destination park'. Because of its cultural assets, it has great potential as a tourist attraction too.

As there is room for 20 new parks anyway, given whatever plan the authority may have for population increase and new settlements, it should be made part of URA's park scheme.

Our concern now is the planned dual four-lane expressway which will destroy the existing features of the area that are valuable assets for such a park.

The road will damage if not wipe out a beautiful valley and the service roads around it, apart from the adverse impact on the adjacent woodlands and wildlife.

This portion of Bukit Brown is also the most popular and most frequented part of Bukit Brown for visitors.

Given the value at stake, we think it is necessary to explore more carefully the possible alternatives to the planned expressway.

Being an area of more than 200ha in greenery, such an ecosystem serves all Singaporeans.

Its eco-functions include carbon sequestration, free natural air-conditioning and flood control.

Although globally small, it is highly significant in its contribution in terms of the percentage of Singapore's total land mass or population. It is imperative that we think globally but act locally.

Ho Hua Chew

Conservation Committee

Nature Society (Singapore)

BBC News
April 6, 2012

Singapore to drive road through historic cemetery
By Rebecca Lim

Bukit Brown is the kind of place that could be easily missed in skyscraper-filled Singapore.

Bordered by a major highway and several major roads, this 90-year-old cemetery sits in a peaceful, green pocket almost in the centre of the bustling city state.

Believed to be the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, it hosts about 100,000 graves - many belonging to Singapore's pioneering immigrants and war heroes.

But now the place of repose is in the spotlight. The government wants to build an eight-lane road through a part of it.

Down the line the area will be developed to provide housing for some 50,000 people and a future train station.

The fate of the site has lit a fire of activism among some Singaporeans. Not one, but seven civic groups have appealed to the government to rethink its plans.

''Development need not come at the expense of heritage, and vice versa,'' said Terence Chong, a committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, one of the seven groups.
'Brown's hill'

Public interest in Bukit Brown was kindled in the middle of last year after it was reported that the area was designated for residential development. Letters pleading the case for the cemetery began pouring in to the newspapers.

Bukit Brown, which means ''Brown's hill'' in Malay, was named after a British merchant, George Henry Brown, who lived in the area in the 19th century.

The heritage society published a book on Singapore's disappearing cemeteries - Bukit Brown is not the first to fall victim to urban sprawl.

The Nature Society of Singapore, extolling the ecological value and biodiversity of the area, proposed that it be designated as a park that could potentially be listed as a Unesco heritage site.

Last month, officials announced details for the planned road that included some concessions.

A part of the road will be built as a bridge across a valley, hence minimising the impact on the flora and fauna and helping to preserve natural drainage.

The exhumation of graves will now take place next year, instead of later this year as planned, to give family members more time to register the graves.

For the first time, the government is funding the documentation of the tombs. A committee has been tasked with ensuring detailed records of personal histories, heritage and rituals are kept.
Living heritage

But for the activists behind the call to save Bukit Brown, that does not come close to the outcome they had wanted.

Bukit Brown is not just any old cemetery, they said. It retains a distinctive slice of the multi-ethnic country's fast disappearing heritage.

''It's one place where you can actually touch the 100-year-old tombs and see faded photos of men and women who contributed to Singapore's story in one way or another,'' said Erika Lim of the SOS Bukit Brown group.

''That's very different from viewing artefacts in a museum or reading about historical events in a textbook.''

On the same day that the details of the road were announced, the activists called for a moratorium on all development plans for the area.

''Bukit Brown is the last historic remaining cemetery in Singapore,'' said Raymond Goh of Asia Paranormal Investigators - better known as the ''ghostbusters'' of Singapore.

Mr Goh, who conducts heritage tours in Bukit Brown, said that the earliest grave found in the burial grounds dated back to 1833. ''Once destroyed, it is gone forever,'' he said.

But the decision on the road has been made.

''Planning for the long-term in land-scarce Singapore does require us to make difficult trade-off decisions,'' the Ministry of National Development said in an email to the BBC.
Engagement issues

This is not be the first time that the government, not known for tolerating dissent, has faced public outcry over development plans.

But it has also shown itself amenable to civic concerns. A plan 10 years ago to reclaim a wetlands area on an island was pushed back after nature lovers led a campaign against it. The parks authority has since built new amenities for visitors to the area.

The activists for Bukit Brown have expressed disappointment at the ''lacking'' engagement with officials.

But, the ministry said, it was ''not consulting'' on whether to build the road ''from the onset''.

''While we disagree on the road and development of Bukit Brown, we do share the belief that we need to retain and also celebrate the heritage of Bukit Brown,'' it said.

It welcomed suggestions and would continue to study ways to do so, it added

The Bukit Brown issue also points toward an evolving social compact between the government and an increasingly vocal electorate.

Singaporeans are now ''much more educated and vocal'' and ''organise together more easily'', Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters this week after the Asean summit in Cambodia.

The government, he said, had changed the way it engaged with Singaporeans, and that had been ''necessary'' and ''helpful''.

Since the country's last general election in May 2011, when his ruling party saw the lowest share of overall votes since independence at 60.1%, he has called for more engagement.

''But it will take some time more, and the balance between speaking out and working together is something which still needs to be worked upon," he said.

For many families, however, the Qing Ming festival this week could be the last time they carry out the annual Chinese tradition of visiting and cleaning the ancestral tombs in Bukit Brown.

One of the more than 3,700 graves making way for the road is a 1940 tomb that is the resting place of Toh Yong Soon's grand-aunt.

When he performed the Qing Ming rites this year, he said, he informed her that she would soon be ''moving house''. He has made plans to relocate her grave.

''We don't want to be in the way,'' he said, of the planned road. ''But it is a waste. Bukit Brown is a living museum.''


 BBC News

6 April 2012

In Singapore, where land is scarce, the government has come up against an unusual challenge after announcing plans to build an eight-lane highway through an ancient burial ground.

Activists are calling for the preservation of the century old Chinese Bukit Brown cemetery - home to an estimated 100,000 tombstones - which, they say, is rich in cultural heritage.

The public outcry has called into question the nation's ongoing need to put development ahead of other considerations.

The BBC's Sharanjit Leyl reports.


Apr 4, 2012

Government has changed how it engages Singaporeans, says PM Lee

By S. Ramesh

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says one year after the General Election in Singapore, the government has changed its approach in many areas - particularly in the process of engaging the electorate and in policy outcomes.

Mr Lee said this was a necessary and helpful change.

As Singapore enters a new phase, this two-way process should result in both sides working together to make Singapore succeed.

Mr Lee was speaking to the Singapore media in Phnom Penh at the end of the 20th ASEAN Summit.

The 6th of May 2011 will be a year since Singapore had its last General Election.

After the polls, Mr Lee had spoken of greater engagement with the people, and he says the process has been helpful.

Mr Lee said: "It's a necessary change, I think it has been helpful. But it is something that must work in a two-way process. It's not just what the government does, it's also about how the electorate sees its role in the new environment, and how it sees it can contribute and what it thinks its responsibilities towards making the system work in a different way.

"Because this is not about what more the government can do - of course the government must do all it can, that is its responsibility. But it's also how we can work together to make Singapore succeed. And that calls for Singaporeans to not just speak out, but also to participate and to feel the responsibility to do their part to make things happen the right way."

As for how Singaporeans have done on this count, Mr Lee thinks the process is still on-going.

Mr Lee said: "I believe that after a year there is a certain stability which has been restored in terms of the mood and the expectations. But it will take some time more and the balance between speaking out and working together is something which still needs to be worked upon."

He cited the example of the feedback on building studio apartments at Toh Yi for the elderly as one where speaking out and working together fell short.

Mr Lee said: "Look at the recent Toh Yi Drive case of the studio apartments and other cases where we have had senior citizens, day care centres, nursing homes that need to be built.

"People respond more articulately now, they organise together more easily, the Internet has enabled this to happen much more readily than before, and also people are much more educated and vocal. And so we have to manage this.

"We must not go into a position where NIMBY (not in my backyard) becomes a general attitude among Singaporeans because then we will stymie ourselves.

"If we take this self-centred approach to problems, we will not be able to do the best for ourselves as a community."

"It's one of our major strengths over the years, that we have been able to take it overall, rough and smooth. So on a particular project, one group may gain more than another, some groups may have some adverse effect, because there are some consequences and side effects that you live with - noise, dust, or inconvenience.

"But taken as a whole, because we have been able to go on this broad approach, Singapore has made a lot more progress and you have a much better Singapore than if we had stayed put and everything had been "No".

"And we must make sure we don't end up a lot of things "No". We have to consult, we have to adjust - you look at Bukit Brown, you have to talk, you have to explain. But if at the end, we cannot move at all, you will not only not have tomorrow's Singapore, we wouldn't even have today's Singapore."

"You will be where you were in the 1960s, and I think it will be a very unhappy state," said Mr Lee.

He said Singaporeans must also feel together ethnically so that race, language and religion do not become sensitive issues, especially in the Internet age where it is easy to get people upset about such subjects."

He also addressed the furore over blog posts by NUS scholar Sun Xu, who is from China.

Mr Lee said: "You look at the Sun Xu incident, he shouldn't have made that blog post. He did. He has been chastised. He has been disciplined. He has expressed his contrition. He's sorry about it. And I think we should accept that. We should have been able to move on from that and deal with it as one person who mis-spoke.

"We should not because of one incident make that into an issue - that all immigrants are like that, or all Singaporeans should feel like that towards not even immigrants, but towards non-Singaporeans who are in Singapore, either studying or working here. That is something we have to be conscious of."

- CNA/de


Bukit Brown – A Unique Cemetery with Uncertain Future (translated from German)
April 3, 2012

(Translated from feature article by Heiko Schulze  in Impulse Magazine, leading magazine for the German-speaking community in Singapore, April 2012 issue)

The narrow tarred roads lead into a mild hilly and park-like landscape. Some of the pathways are lined with huge rain trees that provide shade under their boughs, and big bird’s nest ferns are lodged on the branches. On both sides of the way, one finds old Chinese graves amidst the vegetation, with traditional frames in horseshoe shapes. Some of them are well maintained, while others are overgrown with grass, but these graves of varying sizes and diverse forms of decorations provide an impressive witness to the early sepultural culture of the Chinese diaspora in colonial Singapore. But what impressed me above all in my frequent strolls through this unique cultural landscape, which has partly been reclaimed by nature, is the extraordinary peaceful atmosphere of the Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Living Space for the Birds

For strollers, this historically rich landscape provides an oasis of peace. And for the numerous species of birds, this area is an ideal living space. In this 200-hectare area of gentle hills between Lornie Road in the northwest, Thomson Road in the east and the Pan Island Expressway in the south, there are 85 bird species sighted, among them a type of woodpecker (Dryocopus javensis) which is facing extinction, and a type of owl (Strix selouto) which is also equally under threat. The diversity of bird species can be best experienced in the early morning, when the air is filled with the calling and chirping of different birds. Most unmistakable is the coo-coo of the Asian Koel. But other members of the bird community here are noteworthy too: the drongo, kingfisher, golden blackbird, sunbird and many more.

Hill for the Deceased

Actually, three well-to-do Chinese of the Ong clan meant this place to be a village for their poorer countrymen, incorporating a cemetery, as they acquired the land in 1872 from George Henry Brown, after whom this area is still named today. But the village did not come into being, only the development of the place as a cemetery was found to be a good idea. Hills are considered ideal places for burial according to Chinese belief. They provide excellent conditions for good Feng-Shui, which involves the placing and alignment of graves in harmony with the surroundings and the cosmic energy. Even the form of the graves and their decoration with sculptures, mostly in pairs, contribute to good Feng-Shui according to Chinese belief. There is no doubt that the graves in omega shapes and the wonderful figures help achieve a harmonious atmosphere with the surroundings. It was in 1973 that the cemetery, to date the biggest of its kind outside China, was closed from further burials.

Guards and Helpers for the Souls

The graves are ornamented by numerous sculptures and reliefs of various forms. The purpose is in no way purely decorative, for these serve important functions for the souls of the deceased. Most frequently seen are pairs of lions, which are meant to scare off demons. Although lions are not native to China, they play important roles as ‘watchmen’ in funeral rites at least since the Han dynasty which ended two centuries after Christ.

In a reflection of the more modern time, such function of the guards has been replaced with sculptures of Indian (Sikh) soldiers.  Whereas the use of lion sculptures had to do with the spread of Buddhism in ancient China, the adoption of Indian (Sikh) soldiers as guards of the graves was a side effect of British colonialism in this part of the world. The first of these soldiers came to Singapore in January 1819 with Stamford Raffles who established Singapore as a colony. Through the decades, more and more of them came here as soldiers, policemen or guards. Hence it came to be that their role for the living also became transferred to the world of the dead.

Apart from protection from evil forces, many deceased also supposedly have the assistance of Jin Tong (Golden Boy) and Yu Nü (Jade Girl) in the afterlife. These figures are the equivalents of angels, standing by the sides of the ancestor tombstone. As to whether they are more like servants or guides in the underworld, scholars have offered different perspectives.

Reliefs for the Descendants

Some graves have in parts particularly elaborate reliefs for the tombstones. These are depictions of old mythology and legends on one hand, but on the other hand also depictions of stories on filial piety of children towards their parents. This is one basic tenet of Confucian ethics and is also manifested in ancestor ‘worship’. Many reliefs tell stories of selfless love of children towards their parents. For instance there is a depiction of a poor young man who carried his old mother all day from a dangerous area full of bandits to a safe place. Or the story of a scholar who declined an appointment to an exalted official position, so as to take care of his aging parents. Somewhat less dramatic but nevertheless popular are some depictions of children who take care of their parents at home. The reliefs are a clear reminder to the duties of the descendants: Respect your parents! Be in awe of your ancestors!

Respect for the Ancestors

The most important Chinese festival for the worship of ancestors is Qing Ming (literally meaning the festival of ‘clarity’). This festival dates back to old animistic imaginations and was first celebrated in the Tang Dynasty (618-906). The proper date of Qing Ming this year should be Wednesday, 4th April. During this season of Qing Ming, the graves would be cleaned and in some cases the inscriptions may be given a fresh coat of colour. On the days of Qing Ming, families would visit the graves and carry out a series of rituals. Members of the family would bow before the grave of the ancestor, offerings would be brought, candles and joss sticks lit up, some wine or tee poured onto the grave and coloured paper spread around the grave. The last is to beautify the grave and also to bless any soul around that has not been visited by family members. These are times when the usual quiet of Singapore’s cemeteries, including of course Bukit Brown, would be interrupted by lively activities. Many families with ancestors in Bukit Brown Cemetery would however be visiting the graves of their ancestors here for the last time.

Streets and Houses for the Living

In September 2011, the Singapore Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced the plan that a multi-lane highway will be constructed through the middle of the cemetery. About 5,000 graves, including graves of famous pioneers of early Singapore history, such as Ang Seak Im, Chew Boon Lay, Chew Joo Chiat, will be affected. This turn of event has upset two prominent groups in Singapore’s civil society particularly: the Singapore Heritage Society and Nature Society (Singapore). In official dialogues with the authorities, they have called for the preservation of the cemetery. The media has also indicated in many reports the biological and cultural significance of the cemetery, and many citizens have expressed their opinions in readers’ letters to the newspapers. However, one does not reckon that the plans would change.

The fate of this cemetery is not entirely unusual. Other burial grounds in Singapore have also been robbed of their peace and the deceased ‘resettled’. For example, the shopping centre Ngee Ann City, the housing estates of Bishan and Tiong Bahru were all built on lands that were previously cemeteries. For Bukit Brown too, there are already further plans: in 20 to 30 years’ time, 15,000 houses are to be developed there. The basic construction for an MRT station along the Circle Line is already completed.

Will this in a way mean a fulfilment of the vision of the Ong clan in making Bukit Brown a residential settlement after all? It looks to be so currently. Increasingly more citizens are hoping however, that the urban planners of Singapore, the decision-makers behind the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), will in the coming years somehow come to be aware of the biological and cultural values of this unique cultural landscape.


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