Blog Post

Remembrance of a Storied Past

Bukit Brown, a former municipal cemetery from 1922 to 1973, is most often known as a cemetery for Chinese pioneers of Singapore. Here are stories of educators, philanthropists, community leaders, and champions of women's rights. Fortunes were made and lost, sometimes remade, through sheer hard work, serendipity, or, sometimes, less-than-savory business practices of the day. Many more were ordinary folks who endured oppression, widows forced to raise handfuls of children alone, victims of bomb raids during the Second World War, individuals who succumbed to hunger and malnutrition, or mothers and children lost during childbirth. Even the graves of men and women who died alone with no families to tend their graves are cared for—a task temples and strangers have taken upon themselves. Bukit Brown is for the living as much as for the dead. Acts of compassion and of remembering affirm our humanity when we have empathy for our fellow men, even in death.

There are 100,000 graves—chapters of our collective memory—to be researched, many yet to be written, certainly worthy of being pieced together to better reflect the society Singapore was over a period of almost 200 years, with the earliest tombs marked from the 1830s. Here is the forgotten history of Singapore, all the more enchanting for being set in what is now a lush forest since it closed 40 years ago. It is a living museum, a naturally endowed heritage park just kilometers from the city center—a glimmering cityscape of skyscrapers, a financial hub and trading port a-swagger with its cosmopolitan success. The contrast is not so much a contradiction, but, more accurately, the city today is a modern iteration of what this country has always been. It behooves us to remember the roots of our people—that then as now, immigrants came ashore to carve out a living, some falling by the wayside to a tough life and others achieving wealth and distinction. In between, many step in and step up to help our fellow men. In fact, this is the story of humanity writ large.

It is this observation that bestows on Bukit Brown its universal heritage appeal. The stories resonate with the ordinary man, woman and child who visit and hear the volunteer guides piece together fragments of lives past, trying to place them in the context of their times and contemporaneous events. The site and our society would benefit from the preservation of Bukit Brown as a repository of our history and cultural heritage.

That World Monuments Fund chooses this week to have Bukit Brown as Watch Site of the Week is even more timely, as it marks the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore in 1942 and the beginning of three and a half years of occupation. Some of the last battles on the last day before surrender to the Japanese (Feb 14, 1942) were fought in Bukit Brown, in the last-bid attempt by the Japanese to seize the nearby Thomson Water Works to cut supplies to the city, where 1 million civilians were refugees. It was here that young British lads and seasoned Indian soldiers laid down their lives in the defense of the civilians. Malay and Chinese villagers in its surrounds had been under attack and had fled their homes. This too is the forgotten and seldom-told story in an important chapter of Singaporean and WWII history.

This week marks the start of the Sook Ching Massacre, where an estimated 50,000 Chinese men were killed over a period of three weeks by the Japanese forces. Many war victims lie in Bukit Brown, and deserve their eternal rest. Many descendants also survived, and honor them with visits, prayers, incense, and food offerings. Visitors on the guided tours observed a minute of silence this week.
To remember all our pioneers is to remember our society and fragmented history. To advance as a people, we need to piece together our collective history and not have selective memory. Bukit Brown serves this gap in our society. There is a social movement to preserve this site, to promote education tourism, heritage tourism, and war tourism. We hope more will become aware of the significance of this heritage park and living museum.

Taking the founding of modern Singapore as 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles established a British trading port, the city-state would commemorate 200 years of founding in five years' time. There is no better time to assemble our storied past for future generations.