Remembering Bukit Brown

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 for more details.