The unkempt beauty of Coffee Hill

21 06 2011

Despite my uneasiness at visiting places where those who have passed on take a rest in, I was persuaded to pay what was my first ever visit to Bukit Brown Cemetery on Saturday afternoon. This was partly motivated by the enthusiasm shown by a newfound group of friends, and also by news that the cemetery would soon be another victim of the rapid urbanisation that has swept over much of the island. The cemetery wasn’t hard to locate, turning off to Sime Road from Lornie Road, it soon became apparent where the gates, despite a row of large diameter pipes lying by the side of the road taking attention away from the somewhat eerie looking white columns that stood out at the end of the turn-off. I seemed to be drawn to the columns, that as I approached, revealed the rusted heavy wrought ironwork that they supported. Looking beyond the columns, a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place as an opening scene for the popular TV series The Twilight Zone, came into my gaze, as I paused, trying to ignore the growing sense of unease that had threatened to stop me from stepping through the gates.

The cemetery gates seen through the lens of an iPhone ...

I did step through, the growing unease somehow giving way to a sense of calm as I stood and stared at the generous mix of green broken only by the paths that cut into the green, as well as by the numerous stone topped mounds that somehow blended into the green. The first collection of mounds we encountered begged to be more closely inspected, revealing not just intricate stone work but Peranakan tile work from the turn of the last century. There was certainly more waiting to be discovered – the cemetery which had started as a cemetery belonging to the Hokkien Ong Clan grew into the 40 hectare Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery which is said to contain an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 graves. I was to find out during a conversation with my father after my visit that amongst the possible 100,000 graves, are a few of my own ancestors – a great-grandfather and great-grandmother as well as a great great-grandfather. Also referred to by the Hokkien term Kopi-Sua or Coffee Hill, Bukit Brown is more significant historically as a resting place for many prominent Singaporeans of the early 20th Century. More information on the cemetery can be found at the National Library’s infopedia page on the cemetery.

Detail of the rusted wrought iron gates.

With the help of a certain Luke, the party I was in was quickly transported to the most impressive of all graves, that of a certain Mr Ong Sam Leong, who is buried together with his wife in what is thought to be the largest grave in the cemetery, but not before passing what must now be one of the most photographed figures in the cemetery, two painted stone Sikh guards that stand guard over a grave by the path leading to the area where the largest grave is. The largest grave is said to occupy an area the equivalent of ten HBD three-room flats. I was to learn from Pei Yun who blogs on Oceanskies, that Mr Ong who passed away in 1918, had amassed a fortune being the sole supplier of labour to the phosphate mines of Christmas Island, then administered by the Straits Settlements. Pei Yun, with an excellent knowledge of the cemetery as well as the significance of figurines and cravings found on the graves, was also able to shed some light on the significance of many of stone figurines and reliefs found on and around the tombs, including those found in and around the largest tomb, which boasts an impressive set of tiles, stone figures and reliefs which should really be carefully preserved and moved into a museum should Bukit Brown fall victim to the generals of development.

Tile work at the largest grave seen through the iPhone.

Intricate reliefs on the tomb of Mr and Mrs Ong Sam Leong that deserve to be preserved in a museum.

Guardians of Mr Ong Sam Leong's grave.

Beyond the beauty that human hands have made, the crumbling gravestones combined with nature’s reclamation of much of what is unattended spaces gives the cemetery a certain beauty beyond that of the manicured beauty of parks and gardens we pride ourselves as having. It is in what is essentially an unkempt beauty, that many who have expressed misgivings about redeveloping what must now be an extremely valuable piece of real estate, fear to lose. Strange as it may seem, the cemetery for some is regarded as a recreation space. Many seeking solitude and serenity have found it in a stroll or a jog through the meandering paths that weave through the grounds. The cemetery has not just become a place to escape, it is a place where horses I was told are sometimes ridden, as if ridden through a countryside that many of us do not realise is there. It is not just for the historical value but for the beauty that the serenity of Bukit Brown brings to us that makes any proposals to preserve it certainly worth reconsidering, for if it does go the way in which the highest bidder wins, it won’t just be the dead, but the living that would have lost a peaceful resting place.

Crumbling gravestones and nature's reclamation of unattended space provides the cemetery with an unkempt beauty.

Many enjoy the unkempt beauty of Bukit Brown and the serenity the meandering paths provide.

Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery provides perhaps a gateway to an unexpected paradise for the living.

Greenery in abundance - the grounds of Bukit Brown also provide bird watchers with opportunities to spot birds which are a rarity across the rest of the island.

Sikh figures stand guard over a well photographed grave.

Sights around Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery

The grave of Mr Gan Tiang Keng, adopted son of Mr Gan Eng Seng.

Tile work on a grave stone.

The caretaker's boots being hung up to dry.




13 responses

21 06 2011

Somehow, there was a calling in me to attend the DIY tour on Bukit Brown Cemetery last Sunday morning organised by AIP ( It was really an enriching and sobering morning walk. Amidst the serenity of the cemetary lies the remains of so many familar names that we see everyday on the roads of Singapore. And one can find even more familiar ones like Lim Chong Pang; Khoo Teck Phuat; Lee Chin Koon (grandfather of our PM); Tan Keng Yam (Dr Tony Tan), whose names were inscribed amongst the tombs as descendants. The rich flora and fauna of this place is overwhelming as well, with tall giant trees as old as those among the graves.

I was particularly astounded to find the name of Late Qing Dynasty General Rong Lu, the Viceroy of Zhili and Beiyang Minister (直隶总督,北洋大臣荣禄)inscribed in one of the tombs for bestowing a ranking official title for the deceased. Besides the more familiar Republican year (民国), I also found some tombs dating the reign of Qing Emperors Dao Guang (道光)and Guang Xu (光绪). All these treasured links to China of the past that made those current efforts to forge relations paled in comparison.

There are still huge pockets of areas covered with thick vegetation that I am sure will uncover even more historical significance. No amount of history on text books can ever stretch the imagination of our young and sadly, right before our eyes, we have this huge wealth of history and heritage that we failed to use and educate. Worse still, with now the plan to bulldoze away all these historical remnants and severed the link for good. I urged the authority to seriously rethink on this plan.

21 06 2011
Daily SG: 21 Jun 2011 « The Singapore Daily

[…] Fun Day 2011 – Leong Sze Hian: Elderly woman soon to be homeless – The Long and Winding Road: The unkempt beauty of Coffee Hill – Derek Sivers: Fish don’t know they’re in […]

21 06 2011
patc lim

Hi Jerome Lim:
Thanks for your write-up & excellent photos on Bukit Brown Cemetery. I feel closed @heart to the place as my paternal grandparents are resting there too…..since their death on the same day during the Japanese Occupation. Whatever stories or challenges my paternal grandparents’ faced during those times were told to us (their grandchildren) by my late father (their son) and my late unmarried aunt (their eldest daughter). As such, my/our impressions of them are based on what had been shared with us (the grandchildren). Presently, without my late parents’ around to lead during Qingming periods, we (the grandchildren with our immediate family, i.e., great grandchildren) would continue the traditional visit to my paternal grandparents’ tombstone to pay our respects to them. And without failed, we always conclude that they must be very contented to be resting @Bukit Brown cos the age-old trees provided such huge breezy canopy shade over them. Quote: “………Many enjoy the unkempt beauty of Bukit Brown and the serenity the meandering paths provide……”

Bukit Brown Cemetery, as a resting place for the many prominent Singaporeans of the early 20th Century, holds lots and lots of Singapore significant history and heritage which the present and future generations could learn of. Thus, I wish the plan to clear away the part of Singapore history with a huge wealth of familiar & great names has seriously need to be reconsider.

22 06 2011
Pei Yun, Cheng

Thank you for this post. I was touched to see you and your family visiting Bukit Brown together, despite your earlier reservations.

If you don’t mind, I have added a link this post on my Bukit Brown’s post:

23 06 2011

Hi Jerome, good writeup. In 1968 or 1969 my car driving instructor took me there for my few very first lessons as the area was very quiet and you could learn faster with the small hills and turns.The whole area was very serene.After leaving Spore I never went there again. This place must be preserved for the future generations.It is a museum already in its present shape,

25 06 2011

Hi Jerome! I didn’t realise that Bukit Brown is also known as Coffee Hill or Kopi Sua which I had always associated with the stretch of Whitley Road nr Onraet Road.

That was where I spent many a happy childhood day on week-ends n long school hols visiting one set of cousins who used to call two attap houses built beside grave stones and amidst durian trees their home.

There was a fresh water spring (or mayb broken pipe releasing water?) in which we kids waded and splashed one another, as tho we were at the beach. Ah, for the return of that innocence when we were too young to have learned superstition, fear of death and the dead!

This said, if we had allowed Bidadari go with little fuss, should we still hang on to Bt Brown? Ditto those graves on Old Holland Road?

If we hang on to everything significant that had gone be4 us over the millenia, would there be room for future, expanding generations?

26 06 2011
Ckh Zhong 钟

I thought you are only a railway expert… great write-up and photos, Jerome! Sorry I had to miss your walk this morning as I went for this instead… Heard it was a HUGE group this morning?! 🙂

26 06 2011
Ckh Zhong 钟

I thought you are only a railway expert… great write-up and photos, Jerome! Sorry I had to miss your walk this morning as I went for this instead… Heard it was a HUGE group this morning?! :))

14 10 2012
Bernard Lim

Hey Jerome, may I have permission to use your Sikh guard IMG- 8547 photo? I am starting a mini-campaign to save Bukit Brown in my school by getting people to sign the petition. I am creating posters to advertise this and I think your photo is a good fit!

Could I have your high-res copy of the pic? Email me quick!

10 08 2013
Tan Yen Hua

Hi Jerome,
Thanks for your nice write up and the well taken photo. Our great grandfather was one of them.

28 02 2015

A place closed to my heart. My childhood playground. My maternal grandmother and uncle family (Soh Tong Nan) used to live there until 1984. They lived in the first few houses on the right after you entered the gates. The gates were known as “Si-Ka-Ting” then. Further down the gates, there was an extra long Pavillion and a Chinese temple nearby for people to rest and pray during the Chingming time. Further down the long Pavillion, there was a “white villa’ built during the British time and a Peranakan family lived in that house. Their father worked for the SLA or NEA or some govt agency during that time. Mr grandfather, grand uncle and uncle were in the gravestones business. So probably some of the famous prominent graveastones were commissioned by them, I reckon.

28 02 2015

Would like to add, I was told the Lee family ancestors were also buried there not far from the temple.

25 02 2020

Outstanding photos! They really capture some of the unique scenes in Bukit Brown.

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