I remember as a kid, i would always fear of seeing cemeteries or even going to one to pay respects to deceased elders. I did not have a keen interest in visiting cemeteries. I must admit that cemeteries are not my thing. However, life somehow finally recently paved the way for me to take a good notice at Bukit Brown Cemetery, an unfamiliar place in Singapore that suddenly strangely felt familiar to me. This place reeked of old history. Bukit Brown is bordered by Thomson Road, the Pan Island Expressway, Mount Pleasant Road and Lornie Road. I often travel along these roads on a frequent basis but yet never once stepped into the Bukit Brown cemetery. I decided to pluck up my courage to do a documentary shoot at this largest historical (around 10,000 tombs) and yet soon-to-be redeveloped Bukit Brown Cemetery. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that a road will be built and cut across the cemetery to ease the heavy traffic flow during peak hours.
Bukit Brown cemetery was used specifically by the Hokkiens in the old hey days, particularly in the 1800s. Bukit Brown got its name from a plantation owner, George Henry Brown, a shipowner cum trader who came to Singapore in the 1800s and prospered, bought the land that later became his namesake and made his residence nearby where Mount Pleasant is.
Are cemeteries really archaeological sites? The answer is Absolutely. Archaeologists study people of the past and a wide range of places they used or inhabited. Cemeteries are also historic places. Descendants return to help clear their ancestor’ graves, as well as the graves of others lost to time and thicket. People want to see the gravesite of their forebears – it gives people a sense of their place in a larger history. We all need a tangible anchor to the past. Cemeteries may be places for the dead but they sure do bring the past and the lives of the deceased into a kind of living history.
The main gate to the Bukit Brown Cemetery. This is no longer functional and no longer close.
A path surrounded by greenery.
Collection of graves surrounded by plush greenery.
Chanced upon the tombstone of the 72th generation of Confucious.
The tombstone here seems to belong to a grandfather of a prominent politician in Singapore. I shall leave to you to guess who is it.
What makes this cemetery unique is the reflection of what once was a community of people who came, lived and subsequently died and laid to rest in this grounds. The memories, stories and impact they left behind is something cannot be duplicated anywhere else. The fusion of styles adopted as a result of socialisation with the other races they meet in their daily lives and adoption of various Asian and western influences with their own Chinese customs and beliefs, thoroughly makes this place a one-of-a kind heritage cemetery and the last in Singapore.
The Sikh guard statues are a fine example of this, where the once living, then impressed with the diligence, loyalty and bravery of the Sikh guards brought in by the British colonial masters then to provide security, decided that they would also be adequate guardians of their final resting when they pass on.
The artisans that crafted the statutes made so many of the statutes seem so "life-like", each with its on distinct features, whether it is moustached or full bearded, stiff upper lipped or with a friendly smile- indeed they are works of art and something we will never see again in this Island State.
Statues of Sikh guards armed with rifles, their dogs and two stone lions watching over the grave that belongs to Zhou Yulong, a famous late Chinese TCM doctor.
Sikhs and Indian men from Northern India, were commonly recruited as law-enforcers and watchmen in early Singapore. A number of these Indian men were employed by wealthy individual as watchmen and bodyguards.
This should be the biggest tombstone at the Bukit Brown cemetery, belonging to late Ong Sam Leong, a prominent chinese businessman in the 1800s. His tombstone as well as his son's span an area equivalent to 3-room HDB flats! It was elaborately decorated with floral tiles, bas-relief carvings, stone lions, sikh guards and there was even a moat with fish around it in the early days.
Halfway through the cemetery discovery tour, you would come upon this house-like structure that shelters a tomb belonging to Tan Boon Cheng, a late famous fortune teller.
The intriguing thing about this structure is not so much the outside but the inside where a tomb belonging to Tan Boon Cheng is located right in the middle. The shack was apparently built over the tomb as a sort of sheltered protection.
Notice that there are quite a number of dogs actually guarding this compound.
I hearsay that one of the descendants engages a caretaker to be in the vicinity most of the times.
Well, this wooden shack (the term seems more appropriate than house) is definitely not abandoned based on the above picture. You would probably have already noticed the shiny motorbike in front of the house in the previous picture.
There is a small kitchen (above) and a bathroom (below) in this wooden shack for the caretaker's daily living basic uses.
The area has remained untouched for more than 30 years, when this municipal cemetery was closed and no further burial allowed. Wildlife and trees were allowed to literally "go wild" and birds make a come back or use this area as a resting point or stepping stone to other green lungs around.
As best as i have understood, according to Fengshui, also known as Chinese Geomancy, these carved images enhance the auspicious aura of the site and protect the tombs.
Some riders from the opposite Polo Club takes their horses on a ride in Bukit Brown Cemetery.
Bukit Brown is a place with a rich heritage, a tranquil environment, an untouched jungle garden and a place with high biodiversity value. Many Singapore pioneers and notable people are buried in Bukit Brown. I would cringe to see beautiful works of art and of heritage significance being destroyed by bulldozers and machines. The craftsmen and artists who have created the graves with loving care had probably envisioned the graves to be built to last, for posterity to maintain vital links with their ancestors.
Singapore do has our own (though limited) rich heritage and artifacts in our own backyards. I would be most delighted to learn more about my own hometown not by viewing expensive exhibits from other parts of the world, but by having the open eyes to appreciate the rich value of existing artifacts and places of significance that are already available in my own country.
I had reaped way more than i had imagined that very morning at Singapore's oldest largest ceremony. If you are interested, do consider making a visit to Bukit Brown to experience this place that has a rich heritage and biodiversity. Of course, when you are there, please be respectful of the living beings (other visitors, wildlife and birds) and the Dead throughout your visit. In addition, you may wish to bring mosquito repellent, wear light-coloured long pants, long sleeves clothes and wear covered shoes with soles the grip the ground well. :-)
A freelance Singapore-based travel photographer / photojournalist. I seek the extraordinary, but finds beauty in the everyday. Life is interesting, capture it.
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