This is one of the most moving and patriotic tour any Singaporean can take. Named after George Henry Brown, a shipowner who owned this piece of land, Bukit Brown (Hill Brown) is also known as Kopi Sua (Coffee Hill) to locals. It was established as a predominantly Chinese cemetery in the early 20th century, and the biggest Chinese graveyard outside of China. It was eventually closed in 1970s, and has a flourishing wildlife now. You will find nature lovers, horse-riders, and people walking their dogs here.
Grave Art: Look at the intricate lines running along the fairy.
But the cemetery is disappearing because the government is building a MRT, an expressway, and new housing. I find this urban renewal very sad in many ways. Firstly, in America, when people protest, the government relents, but in Singapore, we have no voice in our own country. Secondly, the people who contributed to Singapore will forever be erased from our heritage.
Grave art tells us a lot about our own culture. For instance, this grave features a pair of pegasus, mythical winged horses from Greek mythology, showing how we incorporated both Asian and Western cultures and formed our unique Singaporean identity.
When I was on the tour on National Day Eve, I was extremely touched. The volunteers–some of whom have ancestors in the cemetery–went to research the grave one by one and brought us to 10 graves, 10 moving stories about people who contributed to Singapore.
Among these 10 stories, there are important figures, important-but-unknown figures and unknown commoners. For instance, it is interesting that Cheang Hong Lim (died 1893, grave pictured above) of Hong Lim Park fame was both an opium triad boss and a philanthropist because back then, the people didn’t see the two “careers” as mutually exclusive. He built schools, temples, women’s shelters and donated vast sums of money to charities. He bought several official titles from China, and was the highest ranked official in Singapore. He was also the benefactor of our famous war hero Lim Boon Keng whose father worked for Cheang. When Lim’s father died, Lim’s Raffles Institution angmoh principal, Mr Hullet, went to Cheang to ask him to sponsor Lim’s studies because he was an intelligent student. When Lim grew up, he fought against the opium trade. “忘恩负义 Ingrate,” my friend, who went on the tour with me, spitted. Haha.
Another famous grave we visited is Tan Kim Ching‘s, the eldest son of Tan Tock Seng. Like Hong Lim, Kim Ching was believed to be the 黑色会老大 mafia boss of the entire Malaya! He was also the consul for Japan and Russia, and was a member of the Royal Court of Siam. In fact, he was the one to introduce the widowed Anna to the Thai King, a story dramatized in Anna and the King.
Kim Ching’s descendent, Tan Kwee Wah (also buried at Bukit Brown), bought a piece of land at Outram, which was used to build Gongshan School. Another financier and the principal of the school was Lim Chek Yong whose grave we visited (pictured right). Because of his brilliant leadership, the self-financed school averted financial crisis twice. He implemented a co-ed system so girls could have a chance to study, and the school had a zoo! His grave states “He died on his job,” which probably means he worked till the last days. As a bachelor, it was likely that the school built his grave for him, and thousands of students would have shown up to pay their respect. Chek Yong’s story affected me greatly because he contributed so much to the society and has no descendants and now the only living proof of his existence will be eradicated.
Like Chek Yong, another famous figure whose history we know very little of now is the learned Khoo Seok Wan (grave pictured below). He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth but he squandered his millions (which is equivalent to zillions now) on drink and women. But because he was a highly educated poet with connections, he was offered to be the editor of Sin Chew Jit Poh (星洲日报). When his wife died (who was also buried at Bukit Brown), he was so poor that he couldn’t give her a proper burial. He pulled out his tooth and buried it with her, promising her that he would return to give her a proper grave when he had the money. The next year, he made good on his promise. (Read the living epitaph he wrote himself.)
See how these stories are connected: Cheang Hong Lim was a opium dealer-mafia boss like Tan Kim Ching whose descendant, Tan Kwee Wah, opened a school with Lim Chek Yong, who was a scholar like Khoo Seok Wan. And these are only 5 out of more than 100, 000 graves.
The last grave that left an impression on me was the grave of an unknown Dutch-Malay baby girl of 9 months old. This was interesting because Bukit Brown is predominantly a cemetery for Chinese (mostly Hokkiens). How did a Dutch-Malay child get buried here? Was her mother ostracized by the Malay community? When the child died, were there eugenic fears that the European and Asian blood could not mix? Was it grief that drove the parents out of Singapore and back to Holland?
The proverb goes, “Dead men tell no tales,” but in this case, their graves reveal to us our history, heritage, culture and art. There are so many, many more stories to be uncovered but with the destruction of their graves, our stories will be effaced. There is one last story to be told and this is the true moral of the story: the bulldozing of Bukit Brown obliterates our contribution to Singapore, making our contribution negligible and insignificant, compared to expressways and MRT stations. Our stories are unworthy to be found, unworthy to be preserved, unworthy to be told; let infrastructure of steel and macadam leave their legacy.
For more information on free Bukit Brown tour run entirely by volunteers, visit their website or facebook event page. N.B: Wear good hiking shoes, long-sleeved tops and pants. Use mosquito repellant. I provided a feast for the mosquitos that day.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.
Categories: Singapore Attractions