The proposed building of a major highway and expected extensive housing projects in the forgotten Chinese cemetery at Bukit Brown of Singapore in 2011 ignited unprecedented national and international attention. Opened in 1922 by the British colonial authorities and eventually embedded with over 100,000 graves of the Chinese diaspora within a site rich in biodiversity, it is now touted as one of the largest Chinese cemeteries outside of China and a possible candidate for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This paper is not intended as a major theoretical framing of larger issues; instead, the focus is on chronicling the important resurgence of civil society activism in the process of rediscovery and tracing the challenges posed to the disciplinary political authorities of Singapore. Previous studies about contestation over Chinese burial grounds in Singapore are centred on Western versus Chinese practices and on parochial sub-communal interest versus modernist developmental regimes, without bringing heritage concerns directly into the microphysics of power. This new narrative on Bukit Brown will unveil the extent to which heritage, history and identity suddenly surged to the forefront of citizenry consciousness and interrogated the fundamentals of governance and national developmental agenda.
2014 Personality of the Year by Zaobao weekly, Dec 28, 2014
Raymond Goh (51) and Charles Goh (46)
Looking at history through the departed
If not for praying to one’s ancestors, one would not usually go to the cemetery. That day the reporter asked a taxi driver to drive her to Bukit Brown cemetery. The driver was not very happy, and so she has to alight at approx. 200 metres from the cemetery at the road cross junction. But the Goh brothers does not have any sort of taboo. They keep on bringing people to the cemetery to look for their roots, rediscovering old tombs hidden in the depths of the forest, bringing history back to life.
Ever since Sep 2011 when news broke out that part of Bukit Brown has to give way to a road and approx 5000 tombs has to be exhumed, nearly twice a month during weekends and public holidays, one would see volunteer guides from all walks of life known as “Brownies” wearing Bukit Brown heritage T shirts, and guiding the public on the history and heritage of Bukit Brown.
Raymond and Charles Goh are a familiar pair among the Brownies and the pioneering guides among them.
Bukit Brown Pioneering Explorers
Charles Goh is a construction safety manager and has from young like to explore the unknown to get to the root of matters. Some things will be forgotten or disappear as one grow up, and Charles hope to revive the forgotten collective memories. Since the SARS crisis of 2003, Charles responded to the call of STB and together with his brother registered as tourist guides. They do voluntary guiding for visitors to the cemetery, and let these visitors know Singapore in an unique way.
Together with Raymond Goh, a pharmacist, they founded Asia Paranormal Investigators, as a step forward to fulfil their ambition to research all things unknown. Since 2006 they also started to lead tours to Bukit Brown, do research into tombs and even design a cemetery map for the public to do DIY tours on their own.
Raymond said that Bukit Brown and the surrounding Seh Ong and Hokkien cemeteries has a total of 200,000 tombs, with the earliest dating all the way to 1826. From that year to the closure of the cemeteries in the early 1970s, one can see 150 years of changes and transformations reflected through the tombstones of Bukit Brown. Our history is gathered piece by piece from the collective stories of all these tombstones.
2014 Great Finds
Through the efforts of Charles, Raymond and the Brownies, there has been a surge in interest to find one's ancestor. Due to the passage of time and insufficient information, the success rate of finding one's ancestor for these tombs is only about 50%, but the rediscoveries of pioneers’ tombs provide much encouragement to the Goh Brothers. This year alone, the two great finds are the founder of Hong San See temple Neo Jin Quee and the family cluster tombs of Lee Kuan Yew maternal ancestors.
According to the archives, Hong San See founder Neo Jin Quee was relocated to Bukit Brown cemetery. When Raymond Goh first encountered this tomb, he combined forces with local history researchers Walter Lim and Ang Yik Han to research into this tomb and finally confirmed the identity of this tomb. The discovery of Neo Jin Quee’s tomb and the tombs of his wife, son and daughter-in-law provide important clues to the study of the immigrant stories of early Lam Ann people to Singapore.
Apart from this, in Jun this year, a news report to find the rickshaw puller Koh Teong Koo made Raymond recalled about Lee Kuan Yew maternal grandfather Chua Kim Teng and maternal grandmother Leong Ah Soon. Based on the clue provided by tombkeeper Soh Ah Beng, Raymond and Walter Lim finally found the tombs of Chua Kim Teng, his second wife and his father’ tombs. They later managed to find Leong Ah Soon’s tomb from the burial register, that is Chua Kim Teng’s third wife. The Chuas were a typical Peranakan family, and Chua Kim Teng was a successful merchant. These finds provide important historical information for the study of this early Chua pioneer family.
Apart from graves, Charles Goh is also interested into heritage sites and ruins. Not long ago, together with NHB Group Director (Policy) Alvin Tan, they rediscovered a century old lunatic asylum wall, which provide valuable information for the study of this early institution.
The greatest difficulty in finding graves is not mosquitos and insects bites, nor wild snakes or animals, nor wild vegetation, but the limited information and resources to find the graves.
Although there are burial records in Bukit Brown, many descendants does not know the dates their ancestors passed away, and some can only remember their ancestors’ Chinese names, while the records are in English. The lesser the information, the more difficult will be the tomb find.
As such, Raymond said that sometimes it require more than the efforts of one or two persons, but the combined efforts and expertise of many volunteers to help find a tomb.
As for 2015, the Goh brothers will keep on their volunteer work of researching and finding tombs, and their mission is to find an earlier tomb than 1826 as there were already Chinese people then who died before that.
By Mok Mei Ngan
Photo by Yap Chin Tiong - Raymond and Charles Goh has been researching and rediscovering old tombs in Singapore and sparked local grave interest
THREE more aged tombstones have been uncovered in Outram - mere weeks after a 150-year-old grave was found there, back in September.
Grave hunter Charles Goh stumbled upon the three relics last month in a wooded area, just metres away from his earlier find.
But the four graves are set to make way for an open-air carpark for Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and other health-care facilities in the vicinity.
Excavators have already swept in to clear trees and level the hilly terrain, which is about the size of two football fields.
The Ministry of Health (MOH), which owns the land, said the new carpark - bounded by MacAlister Road and SGH's multi-storey carpark H - will "better provide for the needs of patients and visitors to SGH and the other health-care facilities in the area".
The Straits Times understands that the new carpark will have approximately 620 spaces, and could be ready by July next year.
Nurse Brenda Lee, 56, said it might help address parking woes in the area. She said: "It can get very busy during peak hours. Some carparks here provide valet services because the wait can get very long."
Still, Mr Goh, 46, hopes the authorities will leave the tombstones intact as they are remnants of the now-defunct 1859 Tiong Bahru Cemetery and serve as valuable historical markers.
The construction safety manager said: "They have remained untouched, standing in a single row, over the past century.
"They should be left as they are, as a reminder of how the area has evolved over time."
He called for the ministry to give more time for the graves to be studied: "We need historians, researchers and relevant clan associations such as the Hokkien Huay Kuan to do a thorough documentation of the tombs before they are exhumed."
When contacted, an MOH spokesman said work around the tombstones has stopped. The ministry has also notified the National Heritage Board (NHB) and the National Environment Agency (NEA), which oversees public exhumation works.
NHB said research work on the tombstones has started.
The MOH spokesman added that it "will work with NEA and NHB on the appropriate management of the graves, including putting up a notice in the public domain to alert next-of-kin who wish to claim the remains".
The SGH area is home to institutions such as the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, the Singapore National Eye Centre and the Health Sciences Authority. By 2020, the Outram Community Hospital will also be there.
Preliminary research by Mr Goh and his brother Raymond, 50, a pharmacist, shows the hilltop graveyard where the tombs rest belonged to the Seh Chua Clan. According to an 1884 land deed, it was owned by Chua Bian Kay, an early trustee of the Hokkien temple Thian Hock Keng.
The four tombstones bear the names Madam Ho Koon Neo (1860s), Madam Ee Leong Neo (1872), Mr Chua Chi Siok (1876) and Mr Chua Soon Chin (1878).
Other Tiong Bahru Cemetery graves were exhumed and relocated to Greater Bukit Brown after the 1920s to make way for SGH and housing projects. firstname.lastname@example.org
Work around the aged tombstones uncovered in Outram has stopped, a Ministry of Health spokesman said. The ministry has also notified the National Heritage Board (NHB) and the National Environment Agency, which oversees public exhumation works. NHB said research work on the tombstones has started.
Contray to popular belief, tomb hunters Charles and Raymond Goh, who discovered a 150-year-old grave in the heart of Outram last month, rely on cold, hard facts and not the supernatural to lead them to their next find.
Tomb hunters Raymond Goh (left) and Charles Goh, at Bukit Brown Cemetery.
Likening themselves to fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, the co-founders of Asia Paranormal Investigators (API) spend their weekends poring over old records and trekking through forgotten forests and graveyards.
The specialised heritage hunters may not have come face to face with a ghost but they have found hundreds of graves, including those of pioneers Seah Eu Chin and Chia Ann Siang.
Said Mr Raymond Goh, 50: "We set out to break taboos and show Singaporeans that cemeteries are wonderful repositories of historical data. The multi-ethnic make-up of some of our old graveyards testifies to how Singapore was at the crossroads of the East and can reshape how we interpret our history."
Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin said the Gohs have become authorities on old tombstones.
"They are driven by their passion and have spent years slowly accumulating wide-ranging knowledge, sometimes with no specific goal in mind, resulting in surprising discoveries and finds.
"We need to acknowledge their skills and recognise them as serious researchers," she added.
The brothers said they work well together. The strong suit of younger brother Charles is map work. He digs up land records detailing past and present occupants of an area. By comparing old and new maps, the 46-year-old construction safety manager is able to narrow down search areas.
Older brother Raymond, a pharmacist and Hwa Chong alumnus well-versed in Chinese culture, then writes a report of the tomb inscriptions, lineage and significance of each grave.
They have found the graves of lesser-known Singaporeans, whose stories are no less important, they said. These include rickshaw puller Low Nong Nong, whose 1938 grave was found in Bukit Brown Cemetery last year.
Low had been on strike with other rickshaw pullers seeking better wages and died in a confrontation with police. The tombstone noted that fellow coolies pooled money to bury the penniless Low, who had no kin here.
The brothers credit their late taxi driver father and 73-year-old mother, a former kway chap hawker, for instilling a love for reading, learning and research in them and their three other siblings.
Mr Charles Goh said he spent his younger years reading voraciously, borrowing books from the old National Library in Stamford Road. "Our noses were always buried in books. At the dinner table, our mother would tell us to put our books away," said the younger Mr Goh, whose wife, 44, works in retail.
After buying his first computer in 2001, he dived into local urban legends online.
"There was so much misinformation... I wanted to be the alternative voice in the midst of all the rumours," he said.
This led him to set up API with his older brother in 2005. Both conducted tours at supposedly haunted houses and graveyards. They would relate findings from their interviews with witnesses and use coroner's reports to debunk myths of hauntings.
These trips, including tours to Bukit Brown, sparked a desire to find out more about Singapore's ancient relics.
The brothers have since helped about a hundred Singaporeans locate their ancestors' graves, at no cost. They said it is meaningful to see families connecting with their relatives despite the decades.
Mr Raymond Goh's wife, Angeline, 40, a housewife, sometimes jokes that he spends more time with the dead than the living. But, like their children aged 14, 19 and 20, she said she is proud of him.
The brothers hope the likes of the National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore will recognise them as serious researchers and open their archives and resources to them for free.
They are also calling for more support from clan associations, educational institutions and the National Heritage Board for their research work at Bukit Brown. The older Mr Goh said: "We are on the threshold of discovering even more heritage gems in our backyard and we need back-up."
We set out to break taboos and show Singaporeans that cemeteries are wonderful repositories of historical data. The multi-ethnic make-up of some of our old graveyards testifies to how Singapore was at the crossroads of the East and can reshape how we interpret our history. - Mr Raymond Goh
Raymond 50 (white) and Charles Goh 46 discovered the last Tiong Bahru tombstone near Singapore General Hospital.
A forgotten tombstone in the heart of Outram has been found, on the heels of the rediscovery of an abandoned reservoir on Keppel Hill last month.
Wrapped snugly by creeping tree roots in a forested area, the 150-year-old tombstone was discovered last month by intrepid grave hunter Charles Goh, 46.
He made his latest find last month while bashing through the forest hunting for remnants from old cemeteries in the Tiong Bahru area.
"I often walk by the forested area, but I had no idea that it housed an ancient treasure and relic from Singapore's first few Hokkien cemeteries," he said.
The construction safety manager had also stumbled across the lost reservoir near Mount Faber back in 2005, without knowing it, while he was tomb-hunting.
The lone grave in Outram has stood the test of time even as modern Singapore grew around it, staying untouched in its original spot since the 1860s. It is sandwiched between the defunct 1828 Tiong Lama and 1859 Tiong Bahru cemeteries.
Mr Goh hopes the tomb, which belongs to Madam Ho Koon Neo, will be included in heritage tours of Tiong Bahru estate.
Both cemeteries were exhumed after the 1920s to make way for the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and later housing projects.
Most of these exhumed graves now rest in Greater Bukit Brown, which Mr Goh and his brother Raymond, 50, a pharmacist, have been researching and documenting.
The brothers, who also co-founded Asia Paranormal Investigators, realised some relocated tombs and urns in Greater Bukit Brown had been haphazardly rehoused, leading them to believe that some reburials were done in a hurry.
Mr Goh said: "We then wondered if some graves had been left behind from the Tiong Lama and Tiong Bahru cemeteries."
After consulting maps, he narrowed his search down to a forested parcel of land about the size of two football fields. Bounded by College Road, Jalan Bukit Merah and MacAlister Road, the forest is part of the SGH compound.
According to an 1884 land deed, the hilltop graveyard where Madam Ho's tomb rests was owned by a Chua Bian Kay.
The 1m-high tombstone states that Madam Ho, who married into the Chua family, was from Zhong Shan in Fujian, China. Her exact date of death is not listed, although her grave states that she died during the 1862-1875 reign of Chinese emperor Tongzhi.
The tomb also lists her children - son Gim Guan, daughters Huat Neo and Eng Neo, and grandson Choon Swee.
The Goh brothers, who have hunted down hundreds of graves including those of pioneers Seah Eu Chin and Chia Ann Siang, are appealing for Madam Ho's descendants to come forward.
They hope the National Heritage Board (NHB) clan associations and other volunteers can help do more research on the country's pioneers.
An NHB spokesman said the board looks forward to doing research on the grave with the brothers to "shed more light on the discovery".
Meanwhile, Mr Kelvin Ang, the chairman of Seng Poh Residents' Committee in Tiong Bahru, said residents who conduct heritage tours and talks on the conservation estate might consider including the tomb as part of their talks.
He added that the find proves "history is all around us". "Mr Goh's discovery adds to the historical knowledge of the area and, hopefully, as we go on, more stories can be built upon such finds."
This article was first published on October 15, 2014.
The Last Chapter - Bukit Brown, A Ch 8 documentary. A relook at some of the tombs before exhumation, including that of Khoo Seok Wan and Tan Boon Hak. 武吉布朗坟场，俗称咖啡山，已经有180年的历史了。2012年，陆路交通管理局宣布了一项挖坟建路的计划，三千多个坟墓受到波及，其中就包括了陈嘉庚堂兄--陈文学之坟。《最后一页》回溯墓主陈文学生前的点滴，记录了他安息91年的老坟墓，如何度过在咖啡山的最后一夜，并捕捉了墓主后人为老墓搬迁的全程记录。