Magical spaces : Bukit Brown in the rain

5 09 2016

A place so magical, there is no need for words ….


More magical Singapore spaces:

51 photographs taken in Singapore that will take you away from Singapore


 

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Riding on in a world that will soon change

26 11 2013

One of the few places in central Singapore left untouched by the spread of the concrete jungle, the area bounded by Thomson, Whitley Road (Pan Island Expressway) and Lornie Road, will in the not so distant future, see the change it has long resisted.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area, a large part of which Bukit Brown Cemetery and the cemeteries adjoining it occupies, is where a calm and peaceful world now exists, one not just of cemetery land reclaimed in part by nature, but of laid back open spaces, colonial era bungalows beautifully set in lush greenery, and where horses sometimes outnumber cars on a few of its roads.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

While it may be a while before the concrete invasion arrives – much of the area has been earmarked for housing developments in the longer term, the winds of change have begun to pick up speed. Alien structures related to the MRT Station have already landed and exhumation of graves affected by the new road through Bukit Brown will commence soon.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Close-by, across Thomson Road, which will soon see construction work beginning on the North-South Expressway, Toa Payoh Rise has been widened and looks nothing like the quiet and peaceful road it once was.

Toa Payoh Rise losing its gentle feel in 2010 as work started to widen the once laid-back road.

Marymount Convent, a long time occupant of the mound next to Toa Payoh Rise, already once affected by the construction of Marymount Road, held its last mass – the convent will have to vacate the land on which it has occupied for some 63 years. Not far away – at the corner where Mount Pleasant Road runs through, the houses and the Old Police Academy another with a long association with the area, will also not be spared. The expansive grounds of the academy was where many would have spent a Sunday afternoon in simpler days watching grown men kicking a ball on the field. Besides football matches close-up, one could sometimes get a treat of a glimpse at a parade or a Police Tattoo practice session as one passed on the bus.

Riding off into a sunset - the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

Riding off into a sunset – the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

With the many changes about to descend on the area, one probably constant along that stretch of Thomson Road – or at least the hope is there that it would be, is the Singapore Polo Club. A feature in the area for more than seven decades, the club first moved to the location, just as the dark days of the Occupation were upon us in 1941.

The Polo Club's grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

The Polo Club’s grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

Sitting across the huge monsoon drain in which many boys would once have been seen wading in to catch tiny fishes, the grounds of the Polo Club – with it huge green playing field, is one that I almost always kept a look out for, in the hope of catching a glimpse of a match underway.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

The grounds, the lease on which the club holds for another 20 years, wasn’t the club’s first. One of the oldest polo clubs in the region (as well as being one of the oldest sporting clubs in Singapore) dating back to 1886 by officers of the King’s Own Regiment – not too long after the rules of modern polo was formalised. The first grounds on which the sport was played at was one shared with golfers of the Singapore Golf Club at the Race Course or what is Farrer Park today.

The Polo Club's Indoor Arena and Stables.

The Polo Club’s Indoor Arena and Stables.

It does seem that from a 1938 newspaper article contributed by René Onraet, the Inspector General of the Straits Settlements Police from 1935 to 1939, who was a keen polo player and also a President of the club that the game was also played at the reclamation site across Beach Road in front of Raffles Hotel. This was where the NAAFI Britannia Club / SAF NCO Club and Beach Road Camp were to come up, a site currently being developed into the massive Foster + Partners designed South Beach residential and commercial complex.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The club sought new premises after being prevented from using the Race Course grounds in 1913 – moving to its first dedicated grounds at Balestier Road (Rumah Miskin) in June 1914 – grounds now occupied by the cluster of buildings which once were used by the Balestier Boys’s School, Balestier Mixed School and Balestier Girls’ School.

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The grounds were unfortunately limited in size, and a search was initiated for a new ground at the end of the 1930s. It was the club’s President, René Onraet, who was instrumental in securing the current premises, which incidentally was right by what was the Police Training School – the Old Police Academy.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941. The grounds were said to have been used as vegetable plots during the Japanese Occupation.

Although the grounds were ready at the end of 1941, it wasn’t until 1946 that the first game of polo was played on the grounds which by the time required some effort to restore it. The war had seen the grounds turned, as a couple of newspaper reports would have it, into vegetable plots – complete with drainage ditches and water wells. The club’s website makes mention of the Japanese Imperial Army converting the grounds into a gun emplacement area, before turning it into a squatter’s camp.

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Over the years, the club has expanded it membership and now includes activities such as equestrian sports, as well as having facilities for other sports. Along with club, the area around the club, also plays host to the likes of the Riding for the Disabled Association and the National Equestrian Centre at Jalan Mashhor.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The National Equestrian Centre - with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The National Equestrian Centre – with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The area where a healthy cluster of horse related activity centres are located is one which based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Draft Master Plan 2013 will be retained for sports and recreation use in the future.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released URA Draft Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released 2014 URA Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change (https://www.ura.gov.sg/maps/).

While it does look like this might remain a beautiful world for some time to come, time is being called on the gorgeous world which now surrounds it. It won’t be long before the wooded areas across Thomson Road are cleared for development. The greater loss will however be the places of escape to the west. That is the green and beautiful world of the cemetery grounds. Grounds where men and horses, and perhaps the good spirits of the world beyond us, have but a few precious moments in which they can continue to roam freely in.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

The road to nowhere ... at least for the time being.

The road to nowhere … at least for the time being (MRT related structures are clearly visible).


More on the game of Polo and how it is played in Singapore: A Royal Salute to the sport of kings.





Introducing Bukit Brown Voices

21 05 2012

A trailer for a short independently-made documentary by Su-Mae Khoo & Brian McDairmant of Two Chiefs, BUKIT BROWN VOICES. The film tells the story of Singapore’s oldest Chinese cemetery, Bukit Brown Cemetery, on the cusp of major change. Filmed during what is the last Qing Ming (grave sweeping) festival for some families whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery, we hear their thoughts and memories about what the place and the customs they practise mean to them. Do drop by (click on the image) and let them know what you think :).





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.








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