Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

January 2013

VOA News
January 25, 2013

Singapore Cemetery Demolition Angers Residents
by Kate Lamb

The ornate tile detail on one of the many overgrown graves at Singapore's Bukit Brown Cemetery. (VOA/K. Lamb)

The ultra-modern city state Singapore has become a model that other Asian nations aspire to - organized, immaculate and efficient - but at what cost? Some residents say that plans to plow through one the country’s most important heritage sites show that Singapore’s rapid urbanization has reached a crucial tipping point.

The sprawling overgrown rainforest of Bukit Brown is less than a 10-minute cab ride from the heart of Singapore.

A haven for nature lovers and joggers, the lush 23 hectares is also a cultural treasure.

Dotted amongst the large moss-covered banyan trees and ferns are some 100,000 traditional Chinese graves dating back to the 1800s.

The ornate tombstones of many famous Singaporeans, some who are now immortalized in the city’s street names, reside at Bukit Brown Cemetery. But they might not rest in peace for too much longer.

Demolition plan

The Singaporean government recently announced plans to build an eight-lane highway through the ancient graveyard.

Some 4,000 graves will be exhumed, including that of Ong Hui Lin’s great grandmother. “It’s a tragedy that is no longer mine, but maybe the nation's. Lost families, you know and lost heritage. The idea of family, family unity, ancestors and descendants, these ideas are very important,” said Ong.

Ong, 56, is a fourth generation Singaporean who has visited the graves of her ancestors at Bukit Brown for as long as she can remember. The retired schoolteacher says the plan will destroy an important symbol of Singaporean history and culture.

“In Bukit Brown, every grave and every cluster of grave tells the family history. It is just something that is unique. People say that dead men can’t tell stories, but these do because the stories are standing there and staring at you," Ong stated. "And it’s beautiful, it’s not something ugly, it’s beautiful and it’s just so sad that it’s got to go.”

Save Bukit Brown

​​​​Several groups are campaigning to save Bukit Brown, believed to be the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China.

In a country where political protest is a rarity, supporters of Bukit Brown are quite vocal.

Groups such as the Singapore Heritage Society say there are alternatives for the proposed road, which is expected to support new housing developments.

Tay Kheng Soon is the former president of the Singapore Institute of Architects who says the idea that land is scarce in the city state is pure fiction. “It is a useful fiction because it increases land prices," he said. "Because of the presumed scarcity therefore the price goes up. That’s the way in which the state generates high land values in order to cream off for the state’s coffers.”

Tay says the state getting rich is not necessarily a bad thing. But he argues that the rapid urbanization of Singapore is reaching a crucial tipping point, on the verge of becoming an ultra modern state with no soul.

“I think that increasingly, Singaporeans - and I think decision makers - are becoming more aware that the soft aspect of Singapore is important, identity is important, but it has yet to be translated into monetizable values. So Singapore has reached this moment in history where it is beginning to realize that there’s something that’s missing,” Tay noted.

As the country rapidly modernizes, and more and more foreigners become permanent residents, Bukit Brown is a reminder of a Singapore that was.

Material anchor

Sociologist Terence Heng says the cemetery is a kind of material anchor for the Chinese diaspora. “It’s a reminder of who we were and the fact that it has now been overgrown because it was closed in the 1970s, it is a bit of a parable of what we could become if we chose certain paths in life,” he added.

The government says it considered alternative routes for the new road, but none was found.  The plan to cut through Bukit Brown, it says, will have the least impact.

Accompanied by traditional ceremony, some graves have already been exhumed and moved to a nearby columbarium.

Construction of the highway is expected to begin early this year.

For more information, visit bukitbrown.com


ST News
Jan 25, 2013

Many yet to claim graves at Bukit Brown

Exhumation to begin after Qing Ming; documentation work close to completion
By Grace Chua

Cemetery guide Raymond Goh pointing out a pair of unclaimed graves in Bukit Brown belonging to a husband and wife. -- ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

STUDENT Toh Zheng Han and his family will be conducting Qing Ming Festival rituals at the Bukit Brown cemetery this year for the first - and last - time.

His maternal great-great-grandaunt's grave is among 3,746 that will be exhumed to make way for a new road.

The 25-year-old's family claimed the grave last September after finding the burial record in a family genealogy book.

But some two-thirds of the graves affected by the new dual four-lane road, meant to ease peak-hour congestion in Lornie Road and the Pan-Island Expressway, remain unclaimed.

The cemetery, in existence since 1922 and closed to burials since 1973, has some 100,000 graves in all.

Heritage buff and cemetery guide Raymond Goh said the unclaimed graves may be Qing-dynasty ones moved from other parts of the country or those belonging to Hokkiens and Straits Chinese.

Other dialect groups such as the Cantonese and Teochews had other cemeteries in the past so fewer of them are likely to be buried at Bukit Brown, added Mr Goh, who has been helping descendants locate graves.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has said the deadline for relatives to claim graves has been extended till after the Qing Ming period in late March and early April. Exhumation will begin after that.

The LTA will pay for the cost of exhumation, the cremation of remains and the storage of ashes in a government crematorium and columbarium. Ashes from unclaimed graves will be scattered at sea after three years.

The LTA's tender to build the new road closed last October and has not yet been awarded.

Meanwhile, documentation work on the affected graves is almost complete, though the data has not yet been analysed, said Dr Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, who is leading the process.

It was commissioned by the authorities after heritage groups spoke of the need to commemorate the history of the place.

Dr Hui said the deadline extension may help those who, for one reason or other, have not made claims.

"Sometimes, claimants may not have come forward because they think other relatives may be claiming. The extension also gives families more time for closure," he added.

But Mr Goh pointed out that some may not even know they have relatives buried in Bukit Brown.

Polytechnic administrator Gan Su-Lin, 46, realised she had kinfolk buried there only after she checked the LTA's burial register.

Her family had the remains of her grand-uncle and his wife - who she thought were buried in Malaysia - exhumed privately in October.

"I'm vexed that we rushed his disinterment, believing that the public exhumations would begin before Qing Ming 2013," Dr Gan said.

"Many of us who arranged for private exhumations did so because we wanted to do right by our ancestors and ensure they were resettled properly and with dignity."

To view the Bukit Brown burial register and find out details on how to go about claiming graves, visit http://app.lta.gov.sg/exhumation.asp.


Jan 22, 2013

Exhumation at Bukit Brown cemetery deferred

By Lip Kwok Wai

SINGAPORE: The registration deadline for exhumation of graves at Bukit Brown cemetery has been extended till April.

The Land Transport Authority (LT A) said as of 21 January 2013, LTA has received 1,216 applications to claim unmarked graves.

Authorities have also said the exhumation date has been pushed back as some graves have not been claimed. Documentation work of over 3,000 graves is nearly complete.

The exhumation comes as the Land Transport Authority will construct a new dual four-lane road by 2016 in Bukit Brown to alleviate congestion along Lornie Road and the PIE during peak hours.

Users of Android smartphones or tablets can now turn to an app, developed by the Working Committee and Centre of Social Media Innovations for Communities, to seek information about selected graves.

For a start, there will be information on 23 graves and more graves will be included later. There are also plans to document exhumation-related rituals.

Leader of the working committee for Bukit Brown cemetery, Dr Hui Yew Foong, said: "Usually we look out for interesting rituals that are performed before exhumation. Or if we suspect there are interesting artefacts buried with the deceased, we will ask the family for permission to document the exhumation itself.

"One recent case involved a family that came from China. They came from China, to go through the exhumation process, claim the remains of their ancestors, went for the cremation. Then they brought ashes back to China, so we did the documentation of the whole process."

ST News
Jan 21, 2013

400 gather to celebrate Bukit Brown's heritage

By Leslie Kay Lim

Ms Serene Tan (left), 48, and Ms Millie Phuah, 52, who both have great-grandparents buried at Bukit Brown, lending their support to the Celebrating Bukit Brown event yesterday at The Substation. The day-long event featured a host of activities from exhibits and readings to a documentary screening. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

BUKIT Brown cemetery hogged the limelight yesterday at The Substation's Black Box Theatre, when up to 400 people gathered to celebrate its heritage.

Organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the group All Things Bukit Brown (ATBB), the day-long event featured a host of activities from exhibits and readings to a documentary screening.

The cemetery had made headlines in recent years when it was announced that parts of it would have to make way for new roads. Of the 100,000 or so tombs there, 3,746 must be exhumed.

"We want to inspire people to go to the site before it changes too much," said Dr Chua Ai Lin, vice-president of the SHS.

More than 4,000 people have participated in 190 tours - organised by the ATBB, SHS and Nature Society - to date.

Said an ATBB volunteer, production manager Khoo Ee Hoon, 47: "There's a lot of excitement. We can go in, 'bush bash' and find tombs. There are many yet to be discovered."

Her area of interest is genealogy and trying to determine which tombs are linked to people who are related.

Descendants of those buried at Bukit Brown also lent their support yesterday. Ms Millie Phuah, 52, read from Kuo Pao Kun's play The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole. "It's a real sense of identity," said the video producer about finding her great-grandfather and two great-grandmothers' plots at the cemetery in 2011. "It's like you know who you are, with family history set in stone."

The event also included an update on the Bukit Brown documentation project by Dr Hui Yew Foong, 40, a senior fellow and anthropologist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Explaining that the project is a "holistic" one, he spoke about the rituals and social history of the cemetery. Some 4,000 graves, including previously exhumed ones, have been documented as part of the project.

The crowd also caught the first public screening of a 45-minute documentary, Bukit Brown Voices, by Khoo Su Mae and Brian McDairmant. It follows the families who come each year to pay respects to their ancestors, as well as those who exhume the graves.


The Business Times,
Jan 18, 2013,

Remembering Bukit Brown

by Cheah UI-Hoon

EVER since the government announced plans in 2011 to build an eight-lane road through Singapore's oldest Chinese cemetery, Bukit Brown cemetery has seen a steadily growing stream of visitors - everyone from descendants to volunteers, academics, and artists.

"As we learnt more about the place and made more discoveries, we realised how little we know and how much there is yet to discover," says Chua Ai Lin, vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society. The society had, in 2011, declared its regret that there was no consultation prior to the decision for the road.

However, the short time span between the announcement made in 2011, for plans of exhumation of over 3,000 graves and road construction by 2014, galvanised Singaporeans who realised the cemetery's importance.

Bukit Brown cemetery is the only Chinese municipal cemetery in the island state; and with more than 100,000 graves, it's one of the largest Chinese cemeteries outside of China. The oldest grave is Fang Shan's 1833 grave, although that was moved there from another site. The Bukit Brown cemetery itself was officially opened in 1922.

Over the course of the last year, a small but active community group had sprung up around it – as they started documenting the cemetery and giving tours, maintaining an active Facebook page as well as a blog. It has in fact grown into one of the biggest interest groups to save a cemetery – a first in Singapore.

“I think it’s partly due to the fact that Singaporeans are more aware now of their heritage and the role that history plays in our life. Because of the rapid changes in society, we wonder more about our roots and identity,” says Dr Chua, who ‘s also a history lecturer at the National University of Singapore.

People have rallied around Bukit Brown – more so than say, the exhumed Bidadari Cemetery – because of the splendour of the site and the fact that it houses many of the graves of Singapore’s pioneers. “There is also a sense of Singapore’s Chinese roots,” she adds.

As it turns out, private and public research has also shown that Bukit Brown, at 72 hectares, is part of a larger cemetery complex, of up to 160 ha. “There are adjoining areas like kopi sua (coffee hill) and lau sua (old hill) as Bukit Brown connects to the clan cemeteries of which we don’t have records,” Dr Chua explains.

This Sunday, there will be a mini festival celebrating the cemetery. Local volunteers, academics, and artists who have dedicated their time and craft to capture, record, and understand the over 200 year old cemetery will present their findings.

The afternoon event will see photo exhibitions, poetry, expert presentations, theatrical readings, a public forum, and a film screening. Highlights include a 40 min documentary on Qing Ming rites at Bukit Brown by Su-Mae Khoo and Brian Mcdairmant, a presentation of the cemetery’s material culture by architecture professor Lai Chee Kien, and a talk by battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper on the possible war finds at Bukit Brown.

“We found a mass grave site dating back to World War II but no research or digs have been done there yet. There’s have been some excavation at Adam Park, which as you know, is very near Bukit Brown,” says Dr Chua. The six hour long festival will culminate with a public forum; the last one was held in 2011

Celebrating Bukit Brown is organised by The Singapore Heritage Society and All Things Bukit Brown
Sunday 20 January 2013, 2pm – 8pm at The Substation Theatre. Admission: is free. Please go to
http://www.substation.org/celebrating-bukit-brown for more details.

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