Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery
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The Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery, located between Lornie Road and Mount Pleasant Road, was officially opened on 1 January 1922. Previously a 211-acre plot of land that belonged to the Hokkien Ong clan, the Municipality had acquired a section of it in 1918-1919 to serve the burial needs of the wider Chinese community. It was opened for more than half a century until its closure in 1973.
Early beginnings of Bukit Brown
Bukit Brown was named after George Henry Brown, a shipowner, trader and broker who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. He opened a company named Brown, Knight & Co., at Malacca Street in 1865, and was also listed as a petit juror in the Singapore almanack and directory (1870). Brown's place of residence was located at Mount Pleasant Road/Drive, a road close to the present Bukit Brown site. Although the hill on which Brown's residence stood was named after him, the road leading to Bukit Brown did not exist until much later. When an access road to Bukit Brown was constructed, the road was named Bukit Brown Road in 1923. This road has since been expunged.
Seh Ong (Hokkien) Cemetery
Prior to the opening of the municipal cemetery, the area was owned by three wealthy Hokkien entrepreneurs, Ong Kew Ho, Ong Ewe Hai and Ong Chong Chew, who came from the same village of Bai Qiao in Xiamen, China. In 1872, the trio bought a 211 acre site at Bukit Timah Road, also known as Bukit Brown (next to the Teck Rubber Estate at the fourth milestone), with the intention to set up a self-sufficient village for poorer members of the Ong clan. The land was to serve the community's residential, agricultural and burial needs. However, the land eventually came to be used solely as a burial ground. The reason for this change is unclear. The hill on which the Seh Ong Cemetery stood was also known to the Chinese as Tai Yuan Shan , Xing Wang Shan and Kopi Sua (coffee hill). The latter probably derived its name from the coffee plantations at Mount Pleasant.
Opening of the Bukit Brown Cemetery
To meet the pressing need for more public Chinese burial grounds, the Municipal government acquired a section of the Seh Ong Cemetery in 1918-1919 to serve the needs of the wider Chinese community. The cemetery officially opened on 1 January 1922. Initially, various aspects of the cemetery's management were handled by the Municipal Commissioners. However in 1923, they decided that internal arrangements relating to the cemetery should be left to the Chinese Commissioners to make their recommendations to the Board.
A cemetery for the wider Chinese community
Since the Bukit Brown Cemetery was set up to serve the burial needs of the wider Chinese community, rich and poor, all were to be given equal access to burial plots. To this end, an amendment (Section 245, no. 9) was passed at a special meeting of the Commissioners held on 25 August 1922. The amendment stated that no special favours would be given to any members of the community. Incidences where one person was allocated to two burial plots were no longer permitted. The by-law came into effect on 21 September 1923. Between the date when the amendment was passed and its effective date, two cases of double occupancy took place in January 1923 and April 1923 respectively.
Bukit Brown was initially unpopular with the Chinese because of its small plot sizes. However, it slowly gained acceptance after improvements were made to the layout. It was reported that by 1929, 40% of all officially registered Chinese burials within the municipality took place there.
The Commissioners also sought to improve the conditions of the cemetery. In the beginning, two rest houses were allocated for funeral visitors. A regular water supply was provided through the construction of water pipes and wells, and gardeners were hired to maintain the site. Despite this, complaints about the unkempt appearance of the cemetery occasionally appeared in the newspapers.
Other problems at the cemetery
Aside from municipal issues, murders, robberies and faction fights were also known occurrences.
One of the earliest murders at the cemetery took place in 1927. A fight between two groups led to the fatal stabbing of two Chinese men.
On 24 July 1933, The Straits Times reported on a fight which broke out in the middle of a full funeral procession of a famous towkay, attended by 1,000 people at the cemetery. The clash was sparked by two secret societies in conflict. As a result of the skirmish, six people were taken to the hospital.
In 1980, a robbery took the life of the cemetery's caretaker and part-time gardener. The caretaker was found dead with 15 years of his life savings missing.
In addition to murders, fights and robberies, there was also the peculiar problem of the illegal swapping of burial plots. There was considerable black-marketeering of Chinese burial plots. This is evident in the advertisements of that period. Notices inviting transfers of burial plots at Bukit Brown Cemetery were advertised in the newspapers. Such transactions were against the Municipal's by-laws and were not recognised by the Commissioners. Despite the Commissioners' assurance that there was no lack of burial space, such practices continued. It is not clear from the reports what drove the demand for blackmarket burial plots or the illegal swapping of burial plots. It could be due to lack of space as some felt that the sizes of the burial plots were too small or the Chinese preference for burying family members close by, hence the need to swap plots.
Prominent personalities buried at Bukit Brown
Many well-known and prominent Singaporeans are interred at Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery. They include Mrs Eu Kong, mother of Eu Tong Sen; Loh Kye Wee, director of Malaya Broadcasting Co.; Tan Lark Sye, philanthropist and rubber magnate; Ong Sam Leong, renowned entrepreneur; Ong Boon Tat, proprietor of New World Park; Mrs Lim Nee Soon, Lim Chong Pang, which Chong Pang village was named after; and Chew Boon Lay of Boon Lay estate. Some of these graves have been around since the establishment of the Seh Ong Cemetery.
One of the more memorable funeral processions that took place at the cemetery was the singing of Malay pantun-pantun (poems) at the funeral of Koh Hoon Teck, one of the "old guards" of the Peranakan community in Singapore. It had been one of his wishes that Malay poetry be sung at his funeral. As he was a pantun expert and a founding member of the Dondang Sayang Association, his family members, close friends and members of the association arranged for a "pantun party" to be held at the cemetery. This was done in an elaborate Ming fashion as his other wish was to be interred in robes of the Ming period.
Features of tombs
The tomb of Ong Sam Leong and his wife in Bukit Brown is said to be the largest tomb in Singapore. Built in 1918 before plot sizes were fixed, the area is reported to be as large as 10 small Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats. Unlike most tombs that have either a small groove or ditch, its front perimeter is 15m long. Also, while most graves are adorned with decorations from traditional Chinese mythology such as lion statues, the Ong tomb is one of several tombs that have statues of Sikh watchmen which stand guard over the grave instead.
On 21 March 2010, a newspaper report claimed that the oldest grave in Bukit Brown dated to as early as 1833, not 1844 as previously claimed. The headstone belongs to a man called Fang Shan, who died in 1833. Fang Shan's grave is looked after by the Fang Shee Association, a local clan association for those with the surname Fang.
The more important part of this discovery was that it was also believed to be the oldest known grave to date. According to the National Archives of Singapore, which keeps burial records, the oldest grave here dates back to 2 April 1865. This grave was at the Bukit Timah Road Old Cemetery, also known as the Kampong Java Cemetery. According to the National Environment Agency, it was exhumed together with the other 8,461 graves in the cemetery, and the remains reburied at Choa Chu Kang Christian Cemetery in 1970.
In 2006, The Straits Times reported that a tomb dating back to 1842 had been found near the current National University of Singapore law school campus.
Roads in and around Bukit Brown
On 1 June 1923, the Committee of Municipal Commissioners decided to name the first portion of the road from Bukit Timah Road to the golf club Bukit Brown Road. It was also decided that the the road from Bukit Brown Road leading to the cemetery should be called Kheam Hock Road, in memory of Municipal Commissioner Tan Kheam Hock, who had actively lobbied for the establishment of the cemetery. Tan had passed away in April 1922. In 1925, one of the Municipal Commissioners, See Tiong Wah, noted the growing popularity of the road leading to the cemetery and suggested a widening of Kheam Hock Road to 60 feet and the wooden bridge leading to it. This suggestion was, however, rejected.
The portion of the state land of Bukit Brown was exhumed to make way for the alignment of Lornie Road, off Adam Road, in 1965. Later, the graveyard was also divided into two sections due to the construction of the Pan Island Expressway in the 1970s. The other part of the cemetery is called Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Exhumation in Bukit Brown Cemetery
In 1965, the Public Works Department (PWD) issued a statement that the graves on state land in Bukit Brown Cemetery, about 237 tombs, were to be exhumed to make way for the realignment of Lornie Road, off Adam Road. On 18 January 1965, these tombs were exhumed for interment at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. A notice by the PWD, published in The Straits Times on 25 March 1965, provided the names of the deceased, the number of the corresponding grave plots, previous addresses and burial dates.
Closure of the cemetery
The Bukit Brown Cemetery closed for burial in 1973. There were about 100,000 tombs at that time.
Though the Bukit Brown Cemetery faces the threat of redevelopment in land-scarce Singapore, no formal plans have yet been made known. The Land Transport Authority has, however, announced the construction of a Bukit Brown MRT station at Jalan Mashor, near the cemetery. It will be one of the 13 new MRT stations along the Circle Line between the Thomson Road area and Harbour Front. Although the Circle Line is due for completion in 2010, the Bukit Brown MRT station will remain unfinished until the area becomes more developed. In the meantime, the proposed MRT station will be constructed as a "shell station" - a stop with basic structures such as ventilation shafts for the MRT tunnel, and underground concrete boxes to house the future station.
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The information in this article is as valid as at 2010 and correct as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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