Exhuming Graves, Resurrecting Memories

by Lazarus Chok

Credits: Photo taken from (http://jeromewongphotography.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/hungry-ghost-festival/)

Declare the exhumation of graves at Bukit Brown, you get a cemetery buzzing with life. In all that seems like a piece of Singapore heritage
dug out from the grounds and left exposed to the winds of urban erosion, the country may be relieving an age of renewal. It is the renewal of interest in the Singaporean culture. While it may not have reached a critical point for massive public awareness, the controversial decision to exhume more than 3000 graves has definitely hit a nerve among our citizens. It is undeniable that Bukit Brown is a piece of sensitive Singaporean architecture.

The Bukit Brown Cemetery houses more than 100,000 graves, many of which were erected more than a century ago. These graves contain the remains of notable people including Confucius’ 72nd generation, grandfather of our former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, and many founding fathers such as Ang Seah Im and Chew Boon Lay. Given the profound significance and rich history behind the graves, I felt that it was necessary for the public community to know about Bukit Brown.

In late February, my Geography teacher from Raffles Institution, Mrs Ong Wai Ling, gave us the green light to start a project on Bukit Brown Cemetery as part of our Geography Curriculum. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to spread the conservation message of Bukit Brown to our community!

Together with Jing Long and Russell, we decided to organize a Learning Tour for students in our school with the purpose of letting more people understand cultural importance of this historical landmark in Singapore. We were even more spurred on and motivated when we found out that a separate group of students from the Year 4 Geography Raffles Academy class was holding a mini-photo exhibition on the cultural artifacts found at Bukit Brown Cemetery. It was well-received. To get started, we decided to compile the information we gathered from various sources regarding Bukit Brown’s history, culture, flora and fauna, and future redevelopment plans. We ended up with a comprehensive 50-page booklet about Bukit Brown, covering nearly all aspects of it. However this was just the first step for us to understand Bukit Brown in greater depth, and would hardly suffice if we were to create an entirely novel and purposeful Tour from scratch.

We realized that the only way to understand the true meaning of Bukit Brown was to visit it ourselves, rather than relying on second-hand sources all the way. Armed with the map taken from API’s website, we got around Bukit Brown sourcing for ideas for our tour. At the end of it all, we managed to highlight and locate some of the more interesting graves for the tour – Chew Boon Lay, Ang Seah Im, Lee Hoon Leong… and the most ubiquitous item off the checklist of any Bukit Brown expedition, Ong Sam Leong’s bigger-than-life grave.

However, it came across to us that our tour needed to be more creative. Learning tours and expeditions were regularly conducted by the Asian Paranormal Investigators (API) and special interest groups such as the Singapore Heritage Society and Nature Society Singapore. In terms of breadth and depth, our tour will not be able to compare to those conducted by these groups as they would be a lot more familiar with the ground. Hence, we decided to convert our tour into one of an ‘Amazing Race’ style. The conception of the Amazing Race Tour and the planning of the Tour were not easy at all.

Thankfully, we laid the groundwork early, and all that was left to do was the construction of worksheets and Tour materials for the Amazing Race. Creativity was crucial in the process as we forced ourselves to think of creative game stations related to Bukit Brown’s culture. For one particular station, we decided to focus on offerings used in Chinese ancestral worship. We went to various stalls to purchase the relevant offering materials such as Joss Sticks, Candles, Hell Money, and went to a bakery shop to buy the ‘Fa Gao’. Instead of teaching the Tour participants the significance of each item in a ‘classroom teaching’ style, we decided to give them a hands-one experience. One idea was to let them figure out how the Hell Money is folded into an ‘ingot-shape’.

There were many specifics and details that we had to settle for the Tour. The challenge was upped since we had decided to make this an Amazing Race-styled Tour. I remember the night before the Trial Tour which I stayed up till 3am to pack all the Tour materials, including filing up the clues into labeled envelopes. Despite all the hard work all three of us had put in, I am glad to say the Tour was successful as it brought about the intended effects of awareness and interest among the Tour participants. Bukit Brown is a beautiful place in the heart of Singapore and it is unfortunate that the place will be torn down sooner or later in the urban redevelopment plan of Singapore city. Rather than harping on the fact that the Government cares nothing about the country’s country and are hypocritical when it comes to promoting cultural living, I believe that we need to focus on what we can do as Singaporeans at the current moment.

Treasure what we have.

They say active citizenry starts from home base. Before the gates of the cemetery closes for construction, Bukit Brown deserves more recognition and attention from the public. I believe this is also the reason why we started out on this meaningful project to promote Bukit Brown to our school community. With more people being aware of the Cemetery’s plight, I believe we can rally the efforts of the community to urge Town Planners to give more importance to heritage and cultural conservation. Even though the space may seem ‘dead’, there is still much ‘life’ in it.