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.