death by paper cut

{February 5, 2012}   Bukit Brown Cemetery

the truth is, i wasn’t familiar with bukit brown cemetery before the news about plans for parts of it to be demolished for the highway expansion. since then, news articles and blog posts about its cultural and ecological importance have appeared in accelerated frequency in support for its demolition to be stalled and alternative arrangements to be made to spare this place.

an example of such a campaign is lead by SOS Bukit Brown – Save Our Singapore. they aim to collect 100,000 signatures to participate in the petition, one for each grave at the cemetery.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Nature Society (Singapore) 1

the tension between material progress at the expanse of the loss in heritage especially spatial heritage will always exist, and is made more acute in a place like singapore because of land scarcity. increasingly, there has been a heightened sense of awareness of significant cultural and ecological places and the advocacy to conserve them.

so what importance does bukit brown cemetery have? i made a trip there to have a look myself. and since its days are numbers, now is as a good time than later.

bukit brown cemetery is actually not too difficult to get to. its entrance is along lornie road and lies directly opposite singapore island country club. i took bus 52 from the west and alighted just outside the entrance at kheam hock road, leading onto lorong halwa.

bukit brown cemetery was officially opened in 1922 and closed in 1973. it was named after george henry brown, a shipowner, trader and broker who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. although named after george henry brown, the area was originally owned by three wealthy hokkien entrepreneurs and eventually used as a cemetery to meet the increasing need for more public chinese burial grounds. more information can be found here.

it was fortunate that at the visit to bukit brown cc spotted this make-shift signpost attached to a tree trunk.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 1

if not, i would have missed out on visiting the largest and most opulent resting place in the cemetery.

to find it, follow along the dirt track until it makes a bend behind some foliage…

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 2 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 3

…that leads you to a clearing…

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 6

…where the grave of ong sam leong and his family lies and guarded by sikh sentries.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 22 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 23

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 9 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 8

surrounding the headstones are intricate engravings depicting stories of filial piety. i’m not familiar with the moralising chinese folk stories so i could not identify them.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 16 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 18

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 13 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 21 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Ong Sam Leong 15

however, you should check out oceanskies‘s post that does match some of the engravings to the stories including – which i missed noticing – lady tang feeding her mother-in-law from her breast and yu qianlou tasting his father’s feces to determine the severity of his illness. now i need to return to bukit brown to have a second look with this new knowledge.

of ong sam leong, infopedia says:

Ong’s early land transactions turned out profitably. He then became interested in timber concessions in Pahang and Kemaman. In 1899, Ong secured the contract with the Christmas Island Phosphate Company Limited to supply mining workers to Christmas Island, 400 kilometres south of Java. His company, Ong Sam Leong and Company, held the monopoly. They obtained the labour from coolie houses located along Pagoda Street in Singapore. Most of the labourers were from Guangdong or Guangxi, China. Ong also owned a sundry shop on Christmas Island. He made profits from supplying daily provisions to the coolies.

Ong also owned the brickworks in Batam, Indonesia. In addition, he held large interests in numerous sawmills in Singapore. He later became involved in the construction industry in and outside of Singapore.

Ong had two sons, Boon Tat and Peng Hock, and a daughter (Mrs. Khoo Peck Lock). His sons, referred to as the Ong Brothers, were better known as the co-owners of the New World Theme Park in Jalan Besar (the other owners were the Shaw Brothers), which they built in 1923. The park closed in 1987.

Both sons were educated at Raffles Institution and became prominent men among the Straits Chinese merchants. The elder son, Boon Tat, was born in 1888 and commenced his business training under Ong when he was 19 years old. Peng Hock was trained in the timber trade by Ong.

boon tat street at tanjong pagar and sam leong road at little india are named after this boon tat and sam leong.

considering that this grave belongs to an influential and wealthy family, i would have thought that it would have many descendants tending to it. however, that is not the case. ong sam leong’s grave was abandoned and left derelict until discovered by someone in 2006. since the discovery, NEA clears the tomb of weeds and foliage and National Archives documented it. i guess that goes to show how fleeting life and riches are. your legacy might not be remembered by your future generation. a location map of ong sam leong’s tomb can be found here.

not all the tombs however, are left unattended. during my visit, i did see a family bringing bags of provision to pay respects and another man maintaining a grave.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tomb of Chew Geok Leong 2 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Graves 43

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Graves 42 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Graves 41

each tombstone has its own story to tell and they are all pioneers of singapore, whether well-known or not. and some, belong to mere children.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Graves 3 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Graves 1

for now not all tombs need to be exhumed. only those that have been marked with a white stake with a serial number such as these.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Graves 24 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Graves 38

this is because only 5% of bukit brown cemetery needs to be claimed for the highway expansion. however who is to say that the remaining parts of bukit brown are safe from future developments. it might be a matter of time before the entire plot of land succumbs to the pressing need for progress. so do visit while you still can.

a Today news report published on 4 February 2012 (Adjustments to reduce impact of Bukit Brown Cemetery for Roads) portends that,

While there are disagreements over this development, Minister for State for National Development, Brigadier-General (NS) Tan Chuan-Jin said he is “keen to focus on the common ground and chart out what we can do”.

The current documentation effort, led by Dr Hui Yew-Foong from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, should yield lessons on how to proceed with the next phase, he said. said he is “keen to focus on the common ground and chart out what we can do”.

Acknowledging that “tensions over development and environment-history-heritage will become more acute” in years to come, Mr Tan noted that when developed, the Bukit Brown area could house 15,000 homes for about 50,000 residents.

“This is not meant to trivialise the heritage value of Bukit Brown Cemetery, which I truly appreciate, but to put on the table the choices we have to make,” he said.

the attraction of the cemetery is not only the resting places singapore’s pioneers. in fact, the route makes for a very nice morning stroll. it is frequented by caucasian families and their dogs and also horse riders from the nearby polo club.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Walkabout 11 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Walkabout 10 Bukit Brown Cemetery - Walkabout 12

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Walkabout 14

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Walkabout 21

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Graves 4

view other pictures here.


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