Bukit Brown – A Unique Cemetery with Uncertain Future

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.