Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

September 2012

ST News
Sep 23, 2012

A grave discovery

News about graves to be exhumed at Bukit Brown sparked search for famous ancestor
By royston sim

(Back row, from left): Cousins Allan Chia, 51, Alvin Lee, 50, and Raphael Farid Jamaludin, 42, and (seated, from left) brothers Anthony Sng, 50, and Alphonsus, 46, at their ancestor Ann Siang’s final resting place across Malcolm Road. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A quest by finance manager Anthony Sng to unravel his family's ancestry culminated last week in the discovery of his great-great-grandfather Chia Ann Siang's tomb.

The final resting place of the wealthy land owner, after whom Ann Siang Hill in Chinatown is named, had been a mystery until now.

Yesterday, five of his descendants went into the forested area across from St Joseph's Institution to view the tomb for the first time and pay their respects. They made it just in time for the 120th anniversary of his death today.

It began with a conversation between Mr Sng, 50, and his mother, Madam Dorothy Chia, 81, in May. She told him their family had a very important relative buried in the Bukit Brown cemetery, but she could not recall who.

All she remembered was that her own mother used to take her there to pay their respects at a grave before World War II.

News that several thousand graves would make way for a road project cutting through Bukit Brown made her concerned about finding this lost relative.

That prompted Mr Sng to start piecing together a family tree of immediate and distant relatives.

He said: "For years, I've wanted to do a family tree to find out who my ancestors were. We needed to find out fast before exhumation took place, to have a last chance to pay our respects. The fact that it was someone important made it more urgent and interesting."

A cousin told his brother, shipping director Alphonsus, 46, that their family was related to Chia Ann Siang - and that they were his great-great-grandsons.

That sent Mr Sng trawling the Internet for more information about his ancestor. He also approached the National Archives of Singapore and combed through old newspapers to piece together he family tree.

He established the generations of family members that came after Ann Siang, and it was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, he said.

His research also helped him connect with distant relatives such as his cousin Alvin Lee, 50, a pastor based in Perth. Mr Lee is descended from Ann Siang's fourth son, while Mr Sng's roots go back to the third son.

Yet one crucial piece of information remained elusive - Ann Siang's final resting place.

Mr Sng said that in a family tree, several bits of information are needed to complete an entry - a person's full name, date of birth and, if they are dead, their date of death and burial place.

In a book titled One Hundred Years' History Of The Chinese In Singapore, he discovered that Ann Siang was buried in his own private burial ground adjoining the Hokkien cemetery in Bukit Timah Road.

With that clue, he began searching for information about the grave, but made no headway.

While sifting through an online newspaper archive, he found a 1977 notice which said the Public Works Department would exhume four graves belonging to the estate of Ann Siang.

"I thought his grave had been exhumed," Mr Sng said. But when he contacted several columbariums, none had records of Ann Siang's ashes being placed there.

Next, he wrote to the Ministry of National Development and was referred to the National Heritage Board. Early this month, the board told him that the private cemetery might be located within the perimeter of the Hokkien Huay Kuan burial ground near Whitley Road and Mount Pleasant.

With his brother Alphonsus, Mr Sng went to the cemetery the very next day, Sept 8, expecting to find four unexhumed graves.

"We got the shock of our lives when we saw at least 10,000 graves in that forested area. Some were located on the slopes, so we had to slide down to inspect them," he said.

They gave up looking after two hours.

While Mr Sng was having little success in his search, another group of friends was actively assisting with the search for his ancestor's tomb.

His cousin, the pastor Mr Lee, had approached cemetery guide Raymond Goh, 48, to help find the tomb. The pair had become acquainted during a heritage tour of Bukit Brown earlier this year.

Mr Goh, who began exploring the Bukit Brown burial grounds in 2006 out of an interest in Singapore history, has connected many families with graves of lost relatives.

He had already found the graves of two of Ann Siang's sons in Bukit Brown - eldest son Keng Beng and fourth son Keng Sian. Mr Goh and his brother Charles then pored over exhumation records, land notices and old maps to narrow the search.

The 1977 exhumation notice stated that the four graves were located on "Lot 93 -19 Mukim XVII".

After cross-referencing old maps, Mr Goh realised the land lot was located at the tennis courts of St Joseph's Institution. But when he checked another old map, he found a small square-shaped burial plot marked out in what is now a forested area across Malcolm Road from the school.

On Tuesday, the Goh brothers went into the forest and within an hour located a large grave.

The names of Ann Siang's four sons, three daughters and two grandsons were engraved on the tomb, which was erected in 1892 - the year he died. Other engravings stated that Ann Siang was a fifth-rank official of the Qing Dynasty.

The tomb explorers had found their man, some 12 weeks after Mr Sng first began searching.

Said Mr Goh: "I was shocked. I didn't expect to find anything. Even at the grave, I didn't see Ann Siang's name initially... He had his posthumous name inscribed."

Posthumous names were typically given to prominent people after their death, and have positive values ascribed to them.

The Goh brothers relayed the good news to Mr Sng, who informed his relatives.

Yesterday, five of Ann Siang's great-great-grandsons trekked through the forest to pay their respects at his grave, a day before the 120th anniversary of his death today.

Mr Lee arrived from Perth to join Mr Anthony Sng, Mr Alphonsus Sng and their cousins - lecturer Allan Chia, 51, and engineer Raphael Farid Jamaludin, 42. It was the first time Mr Jamaludin and Mr Lee had met their cousins.

Also with them were the Goh brothers and several other Bukit Brown enthusiasts.

Standing in front of the grave, Mr Sng said: "Just imagine, 120 years ago the children of Ann Siang were standing here. Today, we are here. It's a great honour."

At the start, he knew only 62 family members, from his grandfather's line. To date, he has found another 109 members in his family tree.

Said Mr Alphonsus Sng: "I hope this inspires other families to trace their own family heritage, and know the experiences and challenges their ancestors faced."

Three other graves have yet to be found within the private burial ground. They are thought to be the tombs of their ancestor's wife, his second son and his eldest daughter.

Mr Sng said he and his relatives will discuss what comes next, now that the tomb has been found.

The family has already engaged a tomb keeper to clean the graves of Ann Siang's two sons in Bukit Brown, and is likely to do the same here.

Said Mr Sng: "The general consensus is that the grave needs to be cleaned up, and maybe build an access route so other members can visit in the future."


Chia Ann Siang was a wealthy Malacca-born Hokkien sawmiller who became one of the leading merchants of his time.

There are two different records of his age. One states that he was born in 1834 and died at age 58, while a book by Song Ong Siang says Ann Siang was born in 1832.

He was one of merchant Chia Poh Eng's many sons.

At the age of 16, he joined British firm Boustead and Company, which traded in commodities such as natural resources, spices and silk.

After eight years on the job, he was promoted to chief produce storekeeper.

While at Boustead, he became a partner of the firm Geok Teat and Company in 1863. He retired in 1890 after 42 years in the company, during which he built up a fortune. He then went into the timber business.

At his death in 1892, Ann Siang was a wealthy man and a landowner on a large scale.

His legacy lives on at Ann Siang Hill, which has restored shophouses today.

The hill was originally named Scott's Hill after its owner Charles Scott, and then Gemmill's Hill when auctioneer John Gemmill took over the house.

When Ann Siang came along and bought part of the hill, it took on its present name, Ann Siang Hill.


Issue 55, Blog, Singapore
Sep 21, 2012

Paying the price of progress
by Tom St John Gray Filed

Since independence from Malaysia in 1965, the Republic of Singapore has undergone a radical metamorphosis, emerging from kampongs and swamps to a glittering 21st-century city-state. It is one of the world’s richest countries, with over five million people packed into the small island, alongside skyscrapers, neon shopping malls, and luxury condominiums.

Over the years numerous heritage locations have been swallowed by the rapid urbanisation of Singapore. The next imminent casualty is Bukit Brown Cemetery, the largest Chinese cemetery outside China and home to over 100,000 graves. The Singaporean government intends to build an eight-lane highway through the heart of the site. Construction of the 2km-long road starts next year, heralding a wave of building that will eventually include a new train station and housing for 50,000 people.

A firestorm of protest has erupted from heritage activists and online communities, with the media dubbing the burgeoning crisis ‘the Battle for Bukit Brown’. As the last great historic cemetery in Singapore and final resting place of many pioneering immigrants who shaped the nation, the site is loaded with cultural significance. Named after a British merchant who arrived in the early 19th century, Bukit Brown was established as a public Chinese burial ground in 1922, and contains Qing dynasty tombs dating back to the 1830s.

Bukit Brown supports a rich ecosystem. Its 233ha of wooded hillocks are home to 25% of the country’s bird population, many species of which are endangered. Recent sightings of the extremely rare Large Flying Fox (Pteropus vampyrus) suggest the sprawling cemetery contains a hidden biodiversity yet to be fully appreciated.

Activist group ‘SOS Bukit Brown’ marked the recent National Day with a clear statement to the developers: ‘Bukit Brown has no equal in Singapore or the world. It is a dishonourable and short-sighted act to destroy Bukit Brown by building a highway through it.’ This view has been echoed by Member of Parliament Ms Irene Ng: ‘We should not rush to demolish what some may treasure as heritage sites – as once demolished, what is lost cannot be recovered’.

The fate of Bukit Brown is not uncommon – since the 1960s, Singapore has relied heavily on reclaiming land from the development of former cemeteries. As far back as 1865, British civil engineer John Turnbull Thomson wrote that ‘roads are recklessly carried right through the bones of the original native settlers, and crowded streets now traverse the sacred places where many of the Singapore primeval worthies are laid in their last homes.’

Scarcity of land is a constant challenge in Singapore, and planners claim the new highway will alleviate traffic congestion, projected to increase by as much as 30% by 2020. Minister of State for National Development, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, admits that ‘difficult decisions about land use have to be made, and sometimes, the development of places such as Bukit Brown is unavoidable. These decisions are not taken lightly.’ Leading by example is founding father of modern Singapore, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has a grandfather and aunt interred at the cemetery. Defending the government’s heritage track record, Mr Tan also points out: ‘we have conserved more than 7,000 buildings and earmarked our oldest urban areas such as Kampong Glam, Little India, Chinatown, and Boat Quay for conservation. These are the things that many may take for granted as we pass them by.’

Campaigners have strongly refuted claims of land scarcity by pointing out 31 golf courses that dot the country, covering over 1,500ha and amounting to six times the size of Bukit Brown. Groups such as Nature Society (Singapore) have suggested alternative routes for the proposed highway to avoid destroying the historic gravesite. MP Ms Irene Ng argues: ‘space is always a constraint in Singapore. But it does not answer the question of why a road to cater to a group of motorists is given higher priority over what some others may value as a heritage site.’

The protests have led to some concessions being granted. A section of the road has been redesigned as a vehicular bridge, reducing the impact on flora and fauna. While unclaimed historic tombstones will be destroyed, the exhumation of the endangered graves has been delayed until next year, allowing more time for families to remove ancestral remains.

In an effort to balance the needs of both development and preservation, the Ministry for National Development has funded the documentation of the 3,746 graves marked for destruction. Dr Hui Yew-Foong, from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, has lead a team recording a wealth of new discoveries, including burials from immigrants hailing from China, Siam, Penang, and the Dutch East Indies. Dr Hui believes: ‘the material culture associated with the graves, such as stone reliefs imported from China and decorative ceramic tiles imported from England, shows how embedded Singapore was in the global economy of the early 20th century.’

Bukit Brown is more than just a collection of statues and tombstones. Campaigners fear that eviscerating the site will destroy one of Singapore’s last great cultural and ecological hotspots. Acting as a rare physical archive of a nation’s past, notes Dr Chua Ai Lin from the Singapore Heritage Society, ‘Bukit Brown is a treasure trove of personal stories that weave an intricate historical network of links between the overseas Chinese and the region.’

The backlash against development in Bukit Brown has triggered an influx of visitors, both young and old, which experts believe signals a turning point in how Singaporeans engage with the nation’s past. Dr Chua thinks: ‘it signals an era in which Singaporeans guard more jealously the sites, spaces and artefacts of their forefathers. The unrelenting waves of globalisation have made the search for authenticity more important, and this is something that has energised local heritage activism.’ As the construction date looms, the fight to preserve this unique historical and ecological haven is certain to intensify, as Singapore faces the irreparable loss of Bukit Brown for present and future generations.


Contact Form


Email *

Message *

Powered by Blogger.
Javascript DisablePlease Enable Javascript To See All Widget