Voice for the Dead: Unearthing the Stories of Bukit Brown

By Alyssa Marie Loo (19A13A) and Kuang Shane Qi (19A13A)
Photos courtesy of Alyssa Marie Loo (19A13A)

Home to around 100,000 graves since its opening in 1922, Bukit Brown became the epicentre of heated debate in Singapore in 2011 when the Land Transport Authority announced plans to exhume the Chinese cemetery for a highway. Now in 2019, 4000 exhumed graves and a completed Lornie Highway later, Bukit Brown’s area space and grave numbers may indeed have shrunk, but public interest in conserving its history, stories and inhabitants have only grown.

Although the graveyard is only a short trip from the RI campus, following the ridge of the Macritchie Reservoir, it is a world of a difference: finding the small road leading into the cemetery is hard enough, much less navigating its uneven hills, broken paths, and overgrown vegetation.

Graves are found in the midst of dense vegetation.

Luckily for us, we had an expert guide, Associate Professor Darren Koh. He is a proud ‘Brownie’ of All Things Bukit Brown (atBB), a heritage group that conducts guided walks, collects research and stories about the site, and advocates for the preservation of the cemetery.

As a Malaysian and a lawyer, Professor Koh is not the one you’d expect to be wearing a neck towel, wielding a hiking stick and bashing through a forest to give niche tours on Singapore’s graveyard history. But regardless of his day job or nationality, one thing that he has always been interested in is the act of telling stories—and what place offers better stories to tell than Bukit Brown? In a 2015 interview with atBB, he said, “There is much to be told from the stones: they tell of the person. From the research, we get the story to enable us to link the person from the past to what it means today. That is the job of the storyteller—that’s why I love it when people get the stories!”

Professor Koh all ready for the tour, armed with a neck towel, hiking stick, backpack and a Bukit Brown shirt.

Raffles Press (RP) had the chance to conduct our own exclusive interview with Professor Koh (DK), surfacing his insights on the heritage conservation debate surrounding Bukit Brown.

RP: What is your opinion on Bukit Brown being exhumed?

DK: My opinion on Bukit Brown being exhumed? Well… sad. It is a loss to Singapore of a link to her history, her past. It is a past that is rich in personalities and cultural exchanges that unfortunately has been lost over time. The Singapore of today seems pretty antiseptic: the attractions are curated by ‘official-dom’, and everything has to be neat and nice. Unfortunately, the real world is not like that, and for some Singaporeans travelling or working abroad, it can be a bit of a culture shock.

Perhaps it is time to revisit the past and learn what real life was like, to understand how in a time where the world was facing so many disruptions, you could not rely on a government to plan its way for everyone to succeed; the reason why it’s called a ‘disruption’ is that all plans fail. The pioneers had few plans and succeeded by being resilient and resourceful; they “thought outside the box” because they had no box of preconceived ideas to hem them in. And that’s how they succeeded.

A Teochew grave with beautiful Peranakan tilings.  

RP: Is the exhumation an inevitable process of development?

DK: Is it an inevitable process of development? No. It only is if you continue to fallaciously frame the debate as a binary issue: heritage or development. That is such an easy cop-out. Brilliance would be framing the challenge as one of heritage WITH development.

I will give two examples from England: the Queen Mary College University of London has an interesting quadrangle amongst its buildings. Unlike other quadrangles which have buildings on four sides of a lawn, this one is one four sides of a Jewish cemetery. They have plaques telling the history of the Jewish people and how the cemetery came to be where it is. They didn’t exhume.

Another is found in Newcastle, England. There are still parts of the ancient Roman wall that used to surround the ancient parts of the city. When a new housing development came up right by one of these walls, instead of tearing it down, they incorporated the walls into the development, making it part of the walls around the development. Again, heritage WITH development.

RP: There have been efforts to digitise the culture and memories from heritage sites, but do you think these initiatives are effective in preserving cultural memory?

DK: They help, but no. We are humans… we are sentient, sensual beings. There is a difference between reading about a tomb, and actually being there among the trees, hearing the crackle of twigs at your feet, and hopping up when the ants get too invasive. I invite you to visit the digitised record of the tombs that were exhumed because of the road. www.bukitbrown.info is a pale experience compared to walking in Bukit Brown itself.

Professor Koh animatedly explaining the story behind a Hokkien tomb.

RP: What’s your most interesting experience/encounter at Bukit Brown?

DK: Most interesting experience? Once, at the end of a walk, someone put up his hand and asked, ‘Do you happen to know where Block 3 Division B, plot 450 is?’ Something rang in my mind and I asked, ‘Why?’

‘My relative is buried there and I don’t know how to find him.’

‘3B, Plot 450… that’s near Essel Tan…’ I said to myself, and the person said, ‘THAT’S HIM! That’s my uncle!’

Thankfully I did know where Essel Tan was, and I reunited him with his Uncle’s and his grandfather’s tombs. It was a very touching moment, watching him pay his respects to his uncle and his grandparents… and to know I was given that opportunity to link them back together.”

Professor Koh after finishing our tour!

Despite the swarms of mosquitoes and the fear of an impending thunderstorm, we found Professor Koh’s tour both exciting and enlightening. With his expert navigation, we trekked through dark foliage to find hidden graves in forest clearings, learned how to read stories just from gravestones, and discovered the dark stories behind some of the affluent Chinese businessmen of early Singapore. While Bukit Brown certainly had been a point of intellectual interest from its conservation controversy, it was only thanks to Professor Koh’s storytelling that we could see Bukit Brown for what it truly was: a monument to history, family traditions and Singapore’s early memories.

Raffles Press would highly encourage attending a guided tour hosted by one of atBB’s Brownies. Available tours are posted on atBB’s Facebook group regularly; sign up for one, and you might just see the Bukit Brown cemetery come to life.

Raffles Press at Bukit Brown!

Erratum: The article originally referred to Associate Professor Darren Koh as Mr Darren Koh. Thank you to our sharp-eyed reader Nazim who pointed this out. We apologise for the error.

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