Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

September 2015

Sep 30, 2015, The Straits Times

by Melody Zaccheus

SINGAPORE - The iconic cast iron gates that greeted visitors entering Bukit Brown Cemetery for close to a century have been removed from their posts to make way for an eight-lane road.

The cast iron gates and four concrete columns (above) at the entrance of Bukit Brown Cemetery are making way for an eight-lane road.

Still, the good news for heritage groups is that the rusting metal structure in Lorong Halwa will be refurbished and eventually relocated at the mouth of a new access road near its original location.

On Monday, construction firm Swee Hong removed the iron gates and placed them in an on-site Land Transport Authority (LTA) storage facility alongside other cemetery artefacts such as tombstones. The concrete columns will be removed in the coming weeks.

After that, the National Heritage Board (NHB) will hire a contractor to carry out refurbishment works.

The Bukit Brown entrance gates comprise several components including a pair of cast iron gates through which cars used to drive in, two side gates for pedestrians, and four free-standing square columns.

Likely prefabricated in Britain, the cast iron gates were shipped to Singapore while the square columns were cast on the spot. The cemetery opened in 1922.

The refurbishment is an initiative by a recently formed multi-agency work group chaired by the Ministry of National Development (MND). It includes the NHB, LTA and civic organisations All Things Bukit Brown and the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS).

Some parts of Bukit Brown have been razed as the LTA constructs a major eight-lane road through the cemetery to connect the MacRitchie Viaduct to the Adam Flyover. The LTA said the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

NHB assistant chief executive of policy and development Alvin Tan said the gateway is significant: "It is one of the last remaining cemetery structures of its kind and serves as an iconic place marker for the cemetery and its heritage."

SHS president Chua Ai Lin said said the SHS played an "important role advising the working group on conservation best practices".

Among its suggestions: to construct a wooden frame to support the iron gates' structure upon removal and during storage; to minimise handling and movement; and to enlist a specialist metallurgy conservator.

On the gates' future position at the mouth of a smaller road, Dr Chua said this would affect the visitors' sense of arrival.

"The old entrance was majestic and had a sense of grandeur as you stepped forth down a wide road to the historic graves beyond," she said.

But she added that "the relocation of the original gates does help to preserve some sense of continuity".

A spokesman for MND said the working group is looking at issues such as future use of the cemetery's artefacts and enhancing the site for visitor access.

All Things Bukit Brown's co-founder Catherine Lim said the group's discussions have been "fruitful and productive" so far.

She added: "Our belief is that Bukit Brown is definitely a heritage site worth preserving. We are contributing ideas to the working committee to see what we can do for it in the short and long term."

Said the MND spokesman: "The Government will continue to support the efforts of civil society, interest groups and interested individuals to discover more about Bukit Brown, and for the heritage of Bukit Brown to be shared and celebrated with more Singaporeans."

Sep 21, 2015
By Mayo Martin

Drama Box’s poignant tribute to Bukit Brown Cemetery wraps up festival

Construction for an eight-lane highway cutting through Bukit Brown Cemetery has already begun, but questions surrounding its fate continue to haunt us.

And, as this year’s edition of the Singapore International Festival of Arts came to an end over the weekend, the issues behind the world’s biggest Chinese cemetery outside of China — the campaigns to save it and the debates that surround it — got an airing once more with theatre group Drama Box’s second production under its It Won’t Be Too Long series, titled The Cemetery.

It had come after The Lesson, which took place during the General Election and saw audiences deciding on what site they thought most expendable in the name of a fictitious new MRT station and progress. With a fictitious columbarium-cum-heritage site chosen as the least important site to keep in two of the four nights, Bukit Brown was thrown into even sharper relief in The Cemetery.

Directed by Kok Heng Leun, it comprised two distinct shows: Dawn and Dusk. The former took place at the famous cemetery, with audiences gathering at 5.30am to witness a wordless performance of what could be interpreted as a gathering of the place’s own ghosts — a group of dancers in white performing on a candle-lined inclined road, on top of which was a piano.

In the show, they slap their hands, move around playfully, sometimes monkey-like, and in this specific context, their actions have literal narrative meanings: When someone tries in vain to prop up his slowly collapsing fellow performers, you imagine the latter as the tombstones. When a truck briefly (and unexpectedly) interrupts the performance by passing through, you think of the highway. All these without a single word being said, and instead, you have the audible exhalation of breath, as if a sigh, or a humming of a poignant melody, later ending with a piano performance by dancer Leong Jian Hao.

All these take place in the middle of the cemetery, lending the performance not only ambience but immediacy. And as the show ends, volunteer tour guides (aka Brownies) offer a brief trip around the premises, highlighting the now-famous Sikh guards watching over graves and even the grave of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s grandfather — even as construction hoardings stand as a reminder of a different kind of passing.

Forming the Dawn show’s counterpoint is the Dusk performance, held at School of the Arts at night. The real-life cemetery has been transformed into a map outline inside a theatre, the early morning’s performers are back but there is now the added layer: Actors Jo Tan, Karen Tan and Tim Nga were reading lines.

Whatever emotions were evoked by the physical performances and ambience of the morning show is now grounded in fact and history, as we hear the different accounts of a saga that began in 2011 when the Land Transport Authority announced plans to build a new road across a cemetery that had disappeared from public consciousness for the past three to four decades.

The voices, compiled by playwright Jean Tay, are varied: You had the Brownies, nature lovers, relatives of those buried at the cemetery, amateur historians, a tomb keeper, and civil society and government leaders such as Singapore Heritage Society’s Chua Ai Lin, SOS Bukit Brown’s Jennifer Teo and then-Minister of State for National Development and Manpower, Tan Chuan-Jin.

It is a saga that many of us are familiar with: The clash of history, culture, heritage and nature on one side, and urban development, economic growth and so-called land scarcity on the other (with 24 golf courses in Singapore, someone pointed out in the show).

The different perspectives have already played out on mass and social media. But the show also offers added context and perspective: How the specter of the old National Library’s demolition in the name of a tunnel loomed over this issue; that the Bukit Brown saga was post-GE2011 and there was also the Rail Corridor issue with the railway land given back to Singapore that same year.

At the same time, it also draws on distant history: The government’s hand in the cemetery’s current transformation is uncannily similar to what took place in the early 1900s — albeit in a reverse fashion when it decided it needed a municipal cemetery and acquired a portion of land owned by wealthy Hokkien businessmen.

But, this is not just the story of a cemetery. In many ways, it is also the story of Singapore’s civil society in its infancy, a motley group of people seemingly unprepared as they were thrust into the sudden role of the cemetery’s champions. It was not so much the lack of support, one of the interviewees mentioned after the disheartening news that the project was to push through. It was the lack of “making-noise-ability”.

And as the floor’s map outline is eventually covered by many footprints, noise does surface near the end: Instead of the tinkling of piano keys, you had the loud guitar-driven song August Is The Cruellest by the band The Observatory. “Soon we forget what is wrong, what is right,” goes its lyrics, as the music evokes anger, frustration, despair and destruction — but perhaps also the slightest trace of hope (from a band with an album titled Time Of Rebirth, after all). As a sign of respect, the names of all the dead whose graves were exhumed are flashed on the screen one last time before we are left to ponder what is next for the living.

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