Surprise! Do you know that Singapore’s very own Bukit Brown Cemetery has been placed as 1 of the 67 sites from 41 countries on the 2014 World Monuments Watch? This puts the 91 years old cemetery together with other remarkable places such as the romantic city of Venice (Italy), the iconic Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (USA) and the ancient civilization of Cerro Sechín (Peru) on the Watch. According to the official website, the World Monuments Watch is a call to action for cultural heritage around the globe that is at risk from forces of nature and the impact of social, political, and economic change.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you must have read that the government will be exhuming an estimated 5000 graves to make way for a highway that will cut through Bukit Brown Cemetery. This had resulted in a public outcry and many activists have been very consistent in their efforts to campaign for the preservation of Bukit Brown Cemetery but to no avail. Honestly, I think with land being so scarce and precious in Singapore, it is just a matter of time that most of our “under-utilised” land will make way for commercialism, e.g. more properties or malls (Do we really need that many shopping malls?).
Nonetheless, the re-development of a portion of Bukit Brown Cemetery had raised much awareness about the historical and cultural value of this once forsaken place and roused many people, both locals and foreigners alike, to develop a sense of enthusiasm for it. Guess there was some good that eventually came out of this controversy.
Although cemeteries are places reserved for the dead, I do, however, think that there are different aspects of the cemeteries that should be embraced. Other than it being a place so steeped in history, there are also many other interesting facts for one to discover, for instance the significance of the architecture of the tombs with the after-life. I have long wanted to visit Bukit Brown Cemetery, even way before the controversy, but procrastination and other priorities came into place. Anyway, through pure coincidence, I found out that 1 of my colleague is an avid supporter and volunteer guide of Bukit Brown so I guess that’s no more excuses. On this note, I would like to give a huge shout-out to my dear friend, Christine, who agreed to join me on the “The Ladies of the Straits Settlements” thematic tour without any hesitation! 🙂
“The Ladies of the Straits Settlements” theme tour was a tribute to the endurance, resilience and the strength of character of our women pioneers, who played a significant role in championing greater freedom and education for females in Singapore, with support from the forward thinking men of their times.
The largest single occupant tomb in Bukit Brown belongs to Madam Oon Chim Neo , who was 1 of the earlier batches of Chinese ladies to receive western education in Singapore and graduated top of her class from the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. Her parents-in-laws’ tomb (Mr and Mrs Ong Sam Leong) is the largest and grandest tomb site in the cemetery and is said to cover an estimated area that is equivalent to the size of 10 3-bedroom HDB apartments!
Dr Lee Choo Neo, auntie of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, overcame surmounting cultural barriers and stigma to become the first woman medical doctor in Singapore. She was a determined lady who disagreed and challenged the conventional norm of the olden days and fought for Chinese women to further their education and English literacy.
Though not as famous as the other 2 ladies, Madam Oon Tuan Cheng‘s life story is one that reflects strength and endurance in the face of tragedy. Widowed at the age of 37, Mdm Ong was left to look after 6 young children by herself. Unfortunately, the Sook Ching massacre that happened during the Japanese Occupation claimed the lives of her elder 2 sons, who were supposed to take on the role as the “head of the family”. Misfortune continued for her when her oldest daughter passed away suddenly and left her with 7 grandchildren under her care. Despite the loss of loved ones and an increasing amount of responsibilities, Mdm Oon had never once gave up hope and continued to fight on courageously in order to provide the best for her family. Her tombstone is pegged for exhumation to make way for the construction of the highway.
Large A4-sized portrait of Mdm Oon on her tombstone, a rare sight as most portraits are usually no bigger than palm-sized.
Features of a Hokkein grave – The tombstone has a slight S-shape on the sides and it generally takes up a bigger space as it has an additional U-shaped shore beyond the tombstone.
If you appreciate the unique designs of the Peranakan tiles, why not consider a visit to Bukit Brown Cemetery as there are many tombstones adorned with these beautiful tiles? Visit this site for more pictures.
This is one of my favourite feature of a Chinese tombstone that I found to be very distinctive and peculiar. Notice how this tombstone has a pair of angels at the top corners? This juxtaposition of East and West shows us how Western art influence had made its way to the predominantly Chinese Bukit Brown Cemetery, even in the early 20th century.
This Sikh guard, along with the adorable dog at his feet, is definitely 1 of the most photographed statue in Bukit Brown Cemetery. Back in the days where Singapore was still under the colonial rule, many of the Sikhs were employed either as policemen or security guards. In fact, many wealthy Chinese businessmen also entrusted their family’s security to their Sikh bodyguards. Hence, it is not a surprise that they would also erect statues of these Sikh guards at their graves, to protect them even in the after-life.
Click here if you’re interested to learn about these guard statues in Bukit Brown.