National day history – Bukit Brown

Today in Singapore, I spent National Day wandering through Bukit Brown. Someone asked whether there was any point going there more than once, for me everytime I come here I continue to be surprised at what is there to discover; the history and stories told by the volunteers, the little details in the graves, the nature and so on. 

One of the stories that stuck with me was that of  Lee Choo Neo. In a time when girls were being raised to be wives age she persevered to become the first straits Chinese girl to get the senior certificate and go on to medical school.  She became the first female practicing doctor in Singapore.  She also founded the Chinese women’s society and was part of the committee which looked into Chinese marriage laws in Singapore.  Their findings formed part of the Womens charter decades later which finally outlawed polygamy. Prior to this several families had 2 or more wives and this is apparent in the tombstones. 

The lives and rights of women seems to have changed dramatically in those days. Women were traditionally considered as belonging to men passing from father to husband to sons. There were no or few protections with regards to marriage abuse traffic etc,  however as British subjects laws were established which started to provide some protections. Several fathers also started to support or even promote education for girls.

The graves in Bukit Brown also have various designs and started of new design trends. Being established after the Chinese revolution, people felt freer to design the tombs as they wished in contrast to cemeteries in other places. One such thing was the pictures inlayed in the headstones. This was made popular in Bukit Brown before being taken up elsewhere. 

On this National Day it was also nice to hear about the multiculturalism and immigration that existed from the early days. Although a Chinese cemetery, marriages to Indonesian or others of mixed heritage are apparent in the names and histories. Such unions pointed to trade and travel that gives the impression of something a lot more than a sleepy fishing village. 

The Sikh guards also point to the union and acceptance of the various cultures that were here. It truly becomes Singaporean cultures rather than individual Sikh or Chinese cultures.

For some who migrated here being buried here seemed like a negative thing with inscriptions of being buried in a “barbarian/foreign land” . Others however embraced this land as home. A couplet on Tan Ean Kiam who moved here as a teenager  and was a successful business man, reads:

“No need to bury me in my hometown, For the same quilt will have the same dream. 

Just bury me and let me have a deep sleep, For where you close the coffin lid that will be my abode”

Bukit brown is also where other cemeteries come to die. When other private/ public cemeteries were exhumed to give way for development Somme remains were reinterred here including those who came to Singapore around the time of Raffles. 

Unfortunately it is unlikely to be the final abode for those who thought it would be or those who were rehomed here. Already parts have been cleared for the highway and the entirety us set to be cleared for housing within the next 15 years. Some headstones may be preserved and those whose families come forward can claim the remains and may be interred at the columbariums. However others may have their remains scattered at sea. 

Bukit Brown is amazing place of “living” history. Books and museums can’t give the same sense if life and stories as this place.  On top of that it is a fantastic park. We met horse riders, people hiking, walking their dogs etc. It is strange to think that this was once just manicured flat ground. The secondary forest that has grown up around the graves since the cemetery was closed in the 70s provide a nice shade the sun. They also serve as a great habitat for local and migratory birds. 

Whether all or some of it will be conserved remains to be seen.  For now I at least don’t want to lose the opportunity to learn more about this place or the people there.  There was some irony there today when we listened to the stories that told a lot about the early days of the country while being interrupted by the roar of the jets on their way to take part in the national day celebrations in the city.  In looking to make way for the future maybe it is not always necessary to drown out the past.

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