by Wee Jing Long
Drawing from my experiences at Bukit Brown (doing research, conducting heritage ‘races’), what surprised me most was the realization that I am able to learn so much more about the Singaporean Chinese culture and tradition from a cemetery. Though I am unable to speak for other cultures, Chinese burial practices do shed light on Chinese traditional beliefs and customs. The concept of ‘afterlife’, for example, teaches one to respect the dead, for he is still ‘present’. Also, the Buddhist idea of ‘reincarnation’ shines through with the 往生纸being burnt as an offering. What is so special about Bukit Brown Cemetery, however, is that it is unique to the cultures of the local communities (not only the Chinese community).
Take for example, the use of decorative tiles to adorn a gravesite, to put across a message, to symbolize one’s family background. These decorative tiles were closely related to Singapore’s past as a British colony, given that such tiles were originally manufactured in Britain and had made its way to Singapore through shipping roads. Similarly, the practice of erecting Sikh guards by gravesites as protecting figures carries an exotic local flavor. It is again a testament to Singapore’s history as a British colony alongside India and Singapore’s past as a bustling trading port.
It astounds me that many of Singapore’s pioneers whom we have been taught in Social Studies when we were young were laid to rest at Bukit Brown. Even more shocking is how Bukit Brown draws the connections that exist between each of these pioneers, whom we were originally taught as distinct, separate individuals. Research into the people who were buried at Bukit Brown showed the complex relationships they had, like family connections, business partnerships, an alliance for war efforts etc. For instance, it was a refreshing experience for me, to read up on ‘Tan Tock Seng’, ‘Tan Swee Lim’ and ‘Tan Bin Cheng’ (who are all buried at Bukit Brown) on separate occasions only to find out that they shared a three generational relationship (grandfather, father and son respectively). Also astonishing was the discovery that Lim Chong Pang is the son of Lim Nee Soon; two individuals whom I originally thought were unrelated to one another. The discovery of the gravesites of Lee Hoon Leong and Lee Choo Neo, who are the grand-father and aunt of ex-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew respectively, also surprised me.
All that has transpired within me as I grew closer to Bukit Brown, however, did not only concern the past. It was interesting seeing how contributions that pioneers buried at Bukit Brown made to Singapore are still observable and present even with the passing of over half a decade. For example, the garden which was built before the ‘Central Police Station’ in the past (now Kreta Ayer Neighbourhood Police Post) by Cheang Hong Lim is present-day Hong Lim Park, or the Speaker’s Corner, which is a hallmark of Singapore’s progress in democracy and free speech. In addition, as a student, it was heartening for me to discover that many who were buried at Bukit Brown were old-boys of Raffles Institution, most notably Mr. Ong Boon Tat, along with many others who made generous donations to school funds, most notably Mr. Lee Hoon Leong.
When we made a trip to Bukit Brown in later-March, early-April, during this year’s Qing Ming Festival, traditional Chinese notions of filial piety were elucidated most clearly. Despite many of these graves being nearly a century-old, given that Bukit Brown Cemetery closed down early, we still observed many descendants arriving at the cemetery in 40-sitter chartered buses, who painstakingly trekked through the overgrown terrain to reach their ancestor’s grave which were no longer easily assessed. I was also impressed with the caretakers, who all seem to be as committed to their task of keeping gravesites neat and tidy even though the cemetery was abandoned near 40 years ago, and the cemetery is now marked for housing development. Feeling that sense of loyalty and ceaseless dedication from the caretakers somehow makes me a little sad knowing that many of them were caretakers from the 1960s.
Throughout the course of this project and duration of my interaction with Bukit Brown, what struck me most would be the sense of civil society, active citizenry that I see arising from non-governmental organizations and normal people regarding plans to build a road through Bukit Brown cemetery and subsequently plans to develop the area as a housing estate in 30 years. I find such efforts inspiring in a sense because I feel ‘empowered’ somewhat to stand up for my beliefs. The Asian Paranormal Investigators for example, by conducting dedicated weekly heritage tours for the public, is doing a fantastic job, in my opinion, in educating people and teaching them certain customs, traditions, features, exposing them to a heritage that is uniquely Bukit Brown. Efforts by the API to help people locate the gravesites of their ancestors at Bukit Brown is also important, given that people can now trace their roots and origins, and that the cemetery is paved for development in the coming decades. Websites like BukitBrown.org and sosbukitbrown.wordpress.com, by organizing get-together activities at Bukit Brown and uploading interesting and informative content onto their websites, also ‘empowers’ me in a way.
All in all, this project at Bukit Brown, and the products we have created (websites, Board Game, Handbook), were all established from sheer inspiration from websites like bukitbrown.org, api.sg, and individuals like Dr. Hui Yew- Foong, volunteers who have helped out with documentation efforts, public and caretakers etc. This project has been an enriching experience I doubt I would ever forget.
Thank you, Mrs. Ong, for the opportunity.