Recording for Posterity

Dr Hui Yew-Foong, a member of the team working to document the graves, unearths a wealth of memories.

Bukit Brown Cemetery opened in 1922, was the earliest Chinese municipal cemetery in Singapore. Currently, with about 100,000 graves sprawled over 173 acres of undulating terrain and lush greenery, it is also one of the largest historical Chinese cemeteries outside of China. Before Bukit Brown was opened, the Chinese were generally buried either in clan association burial grounds or private family plots. Others were buried in religious cemeteries such as Bidadari Cemetery. In contrast with conventional burial grounds, Bukit Brown has Chinese of diverse surnames, dialects and provincial origins buried next to each other. These different origins often influence the inscriptions and style of the grave, and it is this diverse and colourful cultural heritage that the Bukit Brown Documentation Team seeks to record.

Since starting work on 1 December 2011, the team has documented some 4,000 graves that could potentially be affected by the road project that would cut across Bukit Brown and Seh Ong cemeteries. Such documentation involves copying inscriptions and photographing all pertinent features of the graves, such as the intricate stonework and tiles.

In the course of our work, we have discovered the graves of some of the more prominent residents of early 20th century Singapore. The table below is a non-exhaustive list.

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What is interesting about this list is the sheer diversity of the backgrounds of these personalities. There are names of businessmen, community and political leaders, a high-ranking colonial servant, and Chinese intellectuals who contributed to the cultural life of Singapore. Those who were concerned with the political plight of China included Khoo Seok Wan, for  example, who at one time had sympathies for the Reformist Movement led by Kang Youwei, and others like Ong Seah Say and Khoo Kay Hian, who supported Sun Yat-sen and the Tongmenghui. Kang Youwei’s Reformist Movement sought to reform and modernise imperial China and institute a constitutional monarchy during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor. Sun Yat-sen’s Tongmenghui, on the other hand, was an alliance that sought change in China through revolution. Others buried at Bukit Brown were more rooted in local politics, serving as municipal commissioners and a Kapitan China.

Lim Kim Seng’s grave is a good example of a Teochew grave embedded within a family cluster. The graves situated in front of and beside Lim Kim Seng’s grave belong to his two wives, while the grave behind is that of his mother’s. The headstone is couched against a rounded armchair-like frame that extends outwards in a curving manner.

Although all major Southern Chinese dialect groups like the Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese are represented in the Bukit, the most dominant are the Hokkien and Teochew. In terms of tomb style, the Hokkien and Teochew styles tend to be the most common and distinctive as well.

Another distinctive style that stands out involves the use of tiles by Peranakan Chinese to decorate graves. This is the massive grave of Oon Chim Neo, wife of Ong Boon Tat.

It is important to note that many of those interred there did not come directly from China, but like the Peranakan Chinese, could trace their more recent roots to the immediate region. The examples in the list show connections to the Straits Settlements and even the Dutch East Indies. This regional dynamic can be seen in the language of the inscriptions as well.

The use of different languages common to the region including Dutch and Thai, suggests diverse origins for those who found their final resting place in Bukit Brown.

See Tiong Wah’s grave is a more elaborate rendition of the Hokkien style. The headstone consists of three panels put together, with an offering table in front. These have intricate stone reliefs depicting Chinese fables that were cut out of fine stone imported from Fujian, China, in the early 20th century. The arms of the grave stretch out in an angular manner.

There is much to be learned and I believe we have only just begun to scratch the surface. The graves form a mnemonic  landscape that reminds us not only of our forebears, but of the history and material culture of pre-independent Singapore and the region. In a sense, the place triggers a desire for memories we have never known.

One of the graves we came across in our documentation work had Dutch inscribed onto the headstone. The inscription reads:
In Memory
of our Beloved
Father
TAN TANG HOAJ
aged 65 years
died 7 August 1923
—–
Wife
Lim Boon Nio
The use of Dutch and the way the Chinese names were transliterated suggest that Tan Tang Hoaj was probably a Peranakan Chinese from the Dutch East Indies. His name was recorded as “Tan Tang Whye” in the burial register, following British convention. In another case, a son with a non-Chinese sounding name inscribed Thai onto the headstone to commemorate his mother.

About The Peranakan Association

The Peranakan Association was setup on17 August 1900 with Tan Jiak Kim as its first president. One of its original objectives was “to afford facilities for the discussion of all questions relating to the social and moral welfare” of the Peranakan community.