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The Value of Bukit Brown Cemetery

In response to LTA’s decision to build an expressway through Bukit Brown, Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) published a book “Spaces Of The Dead: A Case From The Living” that argued the case for Bukit Brown preservation (click here to find out more about the Bukit Brown Espionage).

SHS’s Proposed Values

The Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), have long recommended the preservation of Bukit Brown Cemetery as a heritage site, and its conversion to a heritage park. Accordingly, SHS proposed 5 areas where value may be derived from the preservation of Bukit Brown:

  1. Space Specific to the Region
  2. Historical Connectivity to the Region
  3. A more Democratic Singapore Story
  4. Safeguarding Cultural Practices
  5. A History of People, Streets and Places

Space Specific to the Region

The gravestones and their inscription contains vital information relating to our forefathers’ provincial origins, descendants, and personal epigraphs (click here for more information on how to read gravestone inscriptions). Certain graves and tombstones contains elaborative details of artistic embellishment and inscription, and/or exhibit certain Feng Shui orientations (click here to see Ong Sam Leong’s grave site photos). These invaluable information are significant in both their historical and cultural values that they bring to us, which is also specific to our region – Straits Settlement; that would otherwise have been completely lost or forgotten.

The use of Sikh guards statues for example are perfect illustrations of our Strait Settlement history, where rich Chinese businessmen use to employ Sikh guards to guard their properties. The practices have been brought into the afterlife where statue replica have been erected besides their tombstone to watch over their graves.

Historical Connectivity to the Region

Singapore Heritage Society have described Bukit Brown as a social networks of sort. Mapping ancestral to descendent have revealed historical insights and connections that we never knew exists. For example, the cluster of graves of Chinese from Semarang, or of Tong Meng Hui members who support Sun Yet Sen, reveal connections that might sometimes not be documented elsewhere. Investigating female graves which are often left out of Chinese genealogies, enable anthropologists to construct more genealogies, that may reveal stronger links and ties to other prominent individuals or other regions within the Straits Settlement. Therefore, Bukit Brown holds significant historical meaning for more than just Singaporean but to the entire Straits Settlement as a whole.

A More Democratic Singapore

Tens of thousands of graves in Bukit Brown belong to ordinary migrants buried alongside prominent figures. The cemetery – with a large section for “paupers” – is a poignant remainder of the ordinary people who anonymously contributed to the development of our city’s port. The preservation of Bukit Brown would serve as a reminder as well as to enrich and democratise the Singapore story.

Safeguarding Cultural Practices

The value of Bukit Brown may be found in the living practices of people who continue to pay their respects to their ancestors in the form of ceremonial rituals, offerings, and other highly personalized ways. The lost of the cemetery to the construction of a dual 4-lane carriageway would deal a significant blow to our cultural practices, in sense that these traditional practises will cease to exist or lessen.

Ever since the public gained significant interest in Bukit Brown, several tours and studies have been regularly conducted within the cemetery thus, the lost of the site will inevitably diminish some of the traditional teachings and passing of knowledge to our Singaporean youths.

A History of People, Streets and Places

Underneath Bukit Brown Cemetery lies the final resting place for many prominent Chinese businessmen including:

  • Ang Seah Im, community leader and business owner of several mining, rice and rubber trading companies
  • Cheang Hong Lim, philanthropist and Chinese community leader
  • Chew Joo Chiat, property owner in Katong area and coconut plantation owner
  • Chew Boon Layfamous Chinese businessman (Boon Lay New Town was named after him)
  • Gan Eng Seng, philanthropist, Chinese community leader, and founding member of Thong Chai Medical Institution
  • Ong Sam Leong, from the Ong Clan (Sam Leong Road was named after him)
  • Tan Ean Kiam, founding member of Tong An Clan Association and Chinese philanthropist
  • Tan Cheng Sionggrandfather of current President, Dr. Tony Tan

The graves and contributions of these individuals have significant value to both Singapore and Chinese history, as well as greatly enhancing the study of toponymics.

Conclusion

Bukit Brown Cemetery holds significant value to our nation-building project. Its inherited historical and cultural values would go a long way to unlocking our roots and determining the value we place on our collective identity, our multi-texture heritage and our sense of belonging.

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