Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bukit Brown - erasing Singapore's heritage, grave by grave

Bukit Brown has been on me Singaporean to-do list every since I saw some enchanting pictures of its jungle-covered hills with ornate grave stones for almost a year ago. Somehow, I didn't manage to get there until today, despite a couple of unfortunate attempts, one of which ended up all the way at Woodlands on the other side of the island thanks to the less than adequate GPS in our tiny car. But then, Singapore is a small island.

The Jade Maiden - the Golden Boy and Jade Maiden are often found standing on either side of a grave. They serve as guides in the Underworld and guide the soul of the deceased to the Western paradise.
For a reason unknown even to myself, I have a huge love for old cemeteries. Not are they only soothingly quiet with verdant greenery spilling over their intended spaces and places. Walking among the lichen-clad grave stones and memorials remind of how this all will pass - and how there is nothing we can do about it, but to fulfill our role as yet another link in a long chain.

After a simple walk through the winding paths of Bukit Brown this morning, I would like to declare that I have found one of my favorite places in Singapore. Over 200 acres of amazingly lush jungle covering the heart of this tiny island filled with thousands and yet thousands of graves, from the magnificently elaborate to the tiny stones of the paupers, all in different degrees of dilapidation. A real treasure trove for anyone interested in Chinese culture and arts, all carved on the stones and monuments dedicated to the dead.
 Another little Foo Lion, ready to scare off evil spirits so that they won't disturb the deceased... very typical for Chinese tombs.
Now, being a tiny island, space is a scarce resource in Singapore, and like many other remaining open spaces, Bukit Brown has been earmarked for residential development in about 30 years time. And already now, a part of it - as the developers say "only" 5% of the graves, have been marked for exhuming, from the way of a new 8-lane highway that will cut through the cemetery in the near future. I was upset about this even before, but after seeing the place, I cannot understand how it has been possible for Singapore's decision makers to take this step. There has been a huge grassroots' movement, thousands of signatures have been collected in order to stop the plans, but with no avail. Even my 11-year old daughter got almost tears in her eyes, wondering how anyone could disturb the dead so, after seeing a small child's grave with a white marker on it telling about its dull destiny.
Graves marked with white slats for exhuming. Not even the ever so vigilant foo lions can save them from destruction.
As I said already, Bukit Brown in a  pearl that should be left as it is for the Singaporean public and in the tending hands of loving historians and amateurs. These lush hills, covered by the silent graves and luxurious greenery, are something that cannot be replicated. There is simply nothing that modern Singapore can build that could come even close in terms of historical, cultural and even recreational values. For us "westerners", Cimetière du Père-Lachaise has more famous people buried, but in terms of charm, Bukit Brown plays at least in the same league (I actually find its wild beauty much more attractive). Once it is gone, it is gone forever - and if the spirits come up from their disturbed graves, I know whom they should go and haunt...

Many grave stones have pictures of the deceased, and incense and offerings are left on the tombs to please the ancestors and make their life in the spirit world easier. If they are happy at the other side, they might even bless their descendants in this world and make them more successful...

About Bukit Brown:
Bukit Brown was named after George Henry Brown, a ship-owner and trader who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. The 211-acre site was bought in 1870s by three wealthy Hokkien entrepreneurs, Ong Kew Ho, Ong Ewe Hai and Ong Chong Chew, who all came from the same village in Xiamen in China. They had intended the area as a self-sufficient village for the poorer members of the Ong clan, but in the end, it was only used as burial ground. Some of the graves are even older; a grave stone belonging to Fang Shan from 1833 was found on the grounds in 2011. After the government bought the land in1918, Bukit Brown was opened to serve the wider Chinese community as burial grounds in 1922.

When Bukit Brown was closed for burials in 1973, it contained about 100 000 graves, making it the largest Chinese cemetery outside China.

Many of the tombs are built in the rounded form of an armchair, the ideal form for a grave for many Chinese, as it gives a sense of wealth, comfort and dignity. In the olden days, only the elite class could afford armchairs, so they symbolize authority and power. By erecting a grave in the armchair shape, the Chinese believed that their ancestors could enjoy comfort, dignity and pride in the spirit world.
Learn more and support Bukit Brown
Bukit Brown Cemetery - Our Roots, Our Future:
SOS Bukit Brown - do something!
Bukit Brown, a place with rich heritage and biodiversity:
The Long and Winding Road (beautiful photos):

An update - see a little glimpse of Bukit Brown live: check out a video called "Voices from Bukit Brown" - an independent film team made a whole documentary, I'm checking how to get it online or on DVD:

My favorite grave guardian - but whom would this cute little creature that looks like a wombat have scared off?


Unknown said...

I regret having not gotten to Bukit Brown cemetery (it looks like an incredible place), but agree heartily about Singapore's dismantling of the bits of cultural history there in the name of modernization and expansion. The old Botanical Gardens there were so beautiful with large and ancient trees, now slated for development I believe?

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Vanessa,
I guess development is inescapable in a small island like this, but there is still many wonderful things left - the Botanical Gardens are for example protected, and will never be torn down. Also, there are beautiful heritage areas like Joo Chiat and many others. My friends from Hong Kong never cease to admire how much old buildings and parks there are in Singapore (compared to HK), so even if many things unfortunately disappear, many things are done right, too. Thanks for leaving a comment!

Gloria said...

Lovely photos. I have been walking my dogs at bukit brown for many years, a month ago I took two Dutch visitors and they loved the place. On the way out as we stopped on the road to take a picture of a small wooden shrine, a young Singaporean man came out of the bush! He saw us taking the pictures and showed us on his phone the most lovely little temple that was being cleared, apparently it was built by his grand father.
I never have seen it it was obviously hidden. I plan to go and make some pictures with a friend who likes photography. I thought you may be interested in seeing it too.


Bukit Brown said...

Hi, volunteers at Bukit Brown, who call themselves, brownies, conduct regular guided walks at the cemetery Check the event page for weekly for updates