Friday, December 30, 2011

Hidden Gem of Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery

Hidden Peacock by Taking5
Hidden Peacock, a photo by Taking5 on Flickr.
In my last post, I told the story of a nameless ancestor who may or may not be buried in Bukit Brown cemetery and promised an update on my visit to BB cemetery itself.

Anyway, Bukit Brown cemetery is a Chinese cemetery in Singapore, which was in active use from 1922 to 1973. "Bukit" means "hill" in Malay, and "Brown" is after an earlier owner of the land, George Henry Brown, a ship-owner who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. A name reflecting indeed the melting pot of cultures, peoples, that Singapore was then.

The cemetery is the burial place for many pioneers of the Singapore Chinese community. Others have written about the cemetery (see this nice post by oceanskies), and of the controversy surrounding it - this quiet peaceful place has to make way for an expressway in the near future. So, I will not go into it here but instead reflect on my own visit.

It was indeed a place of contrasts. Some graves were well kept, some even with fresh paint ensuring that the names and words on the gravestones remained legible. Others were overgrown - the gravestones falling over and the grass growing halfway up the stones.
Some graves were decorated with beautiful peranakan tiles, reflecting the culture and tradition of the times, or with charming little scenes carved on the stones. One was guarded by a pair of Sikh guards, assisted by their own little guard dogs.  Others were simple solitary stones.

Some plots were large (although we were unable to find the huge plot which was apparently 10 3-room HDB flats in size, surely a difficult grave to overlook?). One near the entrance, for example, had a large area demarcated in front for mourners to gather, with two stone benches on each side for the weary to rest a while. In one corner, we saw what must have been the paupers' graves - a series of small gravestones clustered tightly together.

We did not go out of our way to look for "famous" graves. But there were little direction signs indicating where these graves are and when we came across them, we did take the opportunity to look at them. So we saw the grave of Tan Seah Imm (Seah Imm Street fame), Tan Ean Kiam (Ean Kiam Place, in Katong!), the grave of Lee Kuan Yew's grandfather, the grave of a descendent of Confucius,and so on.  But there are many other graves, of less famous people, but each one a part of the Singapore story.   This useful and educational site captures their stories.

Needless to say, I was unable to find the grave of my ancestor during my visit to BB. I had asked my aunts and father if they had any clues which would help me find the grave. But, "we walked a long way in" and "there was this big round circle" are not useful tips (see adjoining photo; many graves are demarcated by "big round circles").  They did tell me that the descendents' names were written in English on the graves, so we would have been able to identify the correct grave once we found it (if we found it, that is). 

 I did have a prime suspect as to the name of my ancestor. We managed to locate the relevant sector but alas, the sector itself was somewhat large and overgrown. It was not feasible to search it for a single grave. Instead, we spent our time just absorbing the peace and tranquility of the cemetery.  It was a morning well spent. 

How do I feel about the prospect of a road going through the cemetery, destroying my great-great-grandfather's grave?  Well, I did not know of the grave in the first place so it is hard for me to feel very much about it.  I do feel sorry that this serene place has to make way for further development, but hope that some part of it can be conserved in some way.  Also, whilst the cemetery is not in active use (as in welcoming new inhabitants, that is), it is quite clear that many still come here to pay their respects to their ancestors.

If you are planning a visit to Bukit Brown cemetery, the API website provides interesting links, including a useful map (which for some reason I discovered only after my visit). 

For more photos, do check out my Flickr set.


  1. Hi, this was posted on the Bukit Brown facebook page. I'm one of the members. Raymond Goh has helped families find their ancestors under challenging environs. You can contact him to help you, he's from API. Good Luck

  2. If you are still looking for your great-great-grandfather's grave, perhaps Raymond of API might be able to help. He has helped many find.

    Friends in the Bukit Brown facebook can also offer advice and help.


  3. Enjoyed your comments about BBC and old Katong - love the old Peranakan tiles.

  4. Thanks so much for your comments. Indeed some people have also contacted me via email to help.



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