Ghosts of Bukit Brown

One of Singapore’s hidden gems used to be Bukit Brown Cemetery, which was located north of the Botanic Gardens and south of Macritchie Reservoir. While the cemetery is still existing in some form, it has been closed for many years (since the 1970s for new burials, although it was still an attraction until 2015) and is now a building site for a new road that will cut straight through many of the graves, requiring a mass uprooting of the dead in the process.

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Located in the central area of Singapore, bordering Lornie Road and parts of the Pan-Island Expressway, Bukit Brown Cemetery was the first Chinese municipal cemetery in colonial Singapore. As early as 1904, the Chinese community in Singapore had been lobbying the municipal government to set aside a cemetery for non-Christian Chinese. At that time, such burial needs were taken care of through private family cemeteries or clan association cemeteries. However, changes in the laws then were constricting the amount of space available for such burial grounds, which was why the Chinese clamoured for a public cemetery to take care of their burial needs.

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A Chinese cemetery like Bukit Brown Cemetery is a familial space. Every year, during the Qingming Festival in March and April, Chinese families will trudge through the undulating landscape to locate their ancestors’ tombs, clear the overgrown foliage, and make offerings to their forebears. This is a family affair and the grave is a space for families to commemorate their ancestors. It is not the place to go jogging or for a picnic, but polite and respectful viewing was recommended to visitors. I found it a nice place to get out of the sun for a while and to respect the dead while in the Central Catchment area of Singapore.

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At the same time, the materials used in the construction of tombs, such as fine stone reliefs from China and decorative ceramic tiles from Europe, demonstrate a material culture that is very much integrated with the global economy of the early 20th century. Furthermore, the cemetery features some of the largest, most intricate and oldest graves found in Singapore. For example, the tomb of Ong Sam Leong and his wife is said to be the largest tomb in Singapore, and it is one of a small number that features statues of Sikh watchmen standing guard over the grave. It was these designs of the tombs and graves that really engrossed me. I could stand for ages listening to the sound of the cicadas in the undergrowth while admiring the graves themselves. While it was open to the public, Bukit Brown really a cool place.

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Since 2012, there were plans drawn up to build an expressway through the cemetery, which would require the digging up of thousands of graves. As expected, these plans were met with uproar from most residents who Singapore, who see Bukit Brown Cemetery as an important part of their heritage. Still, the plans are underway and the aforementioned expressway is indeed being laid down in small parts, although some tombs will remain in their current state.

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4 thoughts on “Ghosts of Bukit Brown

  1. tell me about it. the only feeling i felt that time was sadness. looking back at the dates, its obviously been hundreds years back and knowing that they might not have anymore living person visiting, saddens me. but im soo intrigued how the tombs still stand strong and clean after all those years. the calamity and peacefulness one can feel is undeniable. it reminds us how short life is and that death will come to us anytime. nice write up.

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    1. As times change, and needs change, it seems all the good parts of Singapore are being knocked down and relocated. It is a shame what happened to Bukit Brown Cemetery. 😦

      I even heard a rumour last week that soon there will be HDB flats where the Gardens by the Bay area is now. That would be shocking!

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      1. exactly. But you know, when greed comes, evrywhere that could bring in money will be renovated to ensure that more money can be collected. do you know about Lim Chu Kang? That’s where the old cemeteries used to be. But it has been relocated to the new cemetery to make way for the hdb housing which is already done up by now and lots of people actually bought it due to its pricing.

        you kidding me? that gardens by the bay?? oh ya i heard it since a few years back, that there plans for hdb and private housing over at Marina South. No, Gardens by the bay will remain though.

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