May 2016


notices, tales of legal disputes, land and business transactions,” says Kostas. Searching these documents is simple enough: you start by entering the date of birth and death on a tombstone. Other sources include the repository of the 100,000 digitised Teochew Letters (see – which includes letters sent by Singapore’s coolies, or unskilled migrants, to their families in Teochew in the eastern part of the Chinese province of Guangdong. Many coolies were illiterate, so their words were recorded by letter writers, and sent with their savings by remittance service providers to families back home. Tales include that of Mr Lee Kim Soo who passed away in 1933 and is buried in a remarkable Art Deco-inspired “Gotham City” grave. It was only rediscovered when an unrelated person was searching for another grave. It’s a dominant and masculine representation of the entrepreneur, who was educated at the Victorian Institution in Kuala Lumpur and went on to become an industrialist; he founded a matchstick company and a ceramic factory to make the pottery cups to capture the sap dripping from the rubber trees in the region’s countless plantations; he also ran a chair manufacturing business.Then there’s Mr Tay Koh Yat, who died in 1957. He helped organise the resistance movement before the fall of Singapore in 1942; he then fled to Indonesia. After the war, he witnessed the hanging of Japanese generals convicted of war crimes. He went on to start a bus service to the then far-flung East Coast, which grew from two buses in 1921 to well over a hundred buses. Of these stories, Darren Koh says, “History defines a place and defines a people. Remove us from the history and do not be surprised that people are not attached to the place we live in.” What’s ahead? With the road now well and truly under construction (effectively cutting the cemetery into two halves), advocates have turned to raising awareness about Bukit Brown’s heritage, nature and beauty. With land scarcity a major issue in Singapore – and with the government actively encouraging population growth – does Bukit Brown remain under threat in the long term? A spokesperson for the Urban Redevelopment Authority (the government department with responsibility for Bukit Brown) has this to say on the matter: “In the Master Plan 2014,

which guides the physical development plans for Singapore, we have proposed to retain historical and community spaces that are memorable and meaningful to our people. “For Bukit Brown Cemetery, the Government had commissioned a documentation of the graves affected by the new road. Between July 2014 and early 2015, key findings from the documentation project, which involved historians and anthropologists, were exhibited at various local venues. “The bulk of Bukit Brown Cemetery will only be developed in the longer term and the plans are still being studied.” While some may view this interest in cemeteries as macabre, I choose to view Bukit Brown as not only a cemetery, but as a place of history and nature. I have no ancestor buried there, but as a visitor, it’s one of the few places in Singapore to escape cars, roads, buildings and crowds. Peaceful, tranquil and calm, Bukit Brown is well worth a visit any day for a guided walk or a solitary stroll to discover a unique piece of Singapore’s history. READING A GRAVE The ideal position for a Chinese grave, according to feng shui principles, is facing away from a mountain or hill, with a clear view in front – a larger clearing tends to denote a person of wealth and means. In Bukit Brown, the large Hokkien and Teochew clans have graves that are slightly different shapes, while Christian graves are clearly delineated with a cross, yet retain a traditional Chinese grave shape. Look out for the beautiful Peranakan tiles on some graves, as well as stone guardians, including angels or Sikh guards with turbans. When walking among the graves it’s permissible to step carefully around the peripheral wall.

Above: Road under construction

Find out more • Join a walking tour; see for details. • Read Remains: A Singapore Journey by Kostas Ikonomopoulos (

• Learn about the Urban

Redevelopment Authority documentation project at

Getting there: Access to the cemetery is from two directions; either Kheam Hock Road, or take a left off Lornie Road (in the direction of Dunearn Road) onto Sime Road. Look out for large signs which display maps of the cemetery and its internal roads.



Made with