Bukit Brown Cemetery (aka Kopi Sua or Coffee Hill) was officially set up as a public Chinese burial ground on 1 January 1922. It was opened for more than half a century until its closure in 1973. There are about 100,000 graves in an area of about 200 hectares in size.
The cemetery was named after its first owner, George Henry Brown a shipowner, trader and broker who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. The land was then later bought by Ong Kew Ho and the Hokkien Huay Kuan, who gave it to the Ngee Ann Kongsi. To meet the pressing need for more Chinese burial grounds, the Municipal government acquired a section of the land and converted it into a public cemetery. By 1929, Bukit Brown Cemetery accounted for about 40 per cent of all officially registered Chinese burials within municipal (city) limits.
Many well-known and prominent Singaporeans are interred at Bukit Brown Cemetery. They include Lim Chong Pang (Chong Pang Village), Gan Eng Seng (Gan Eng Seng School), Ang Seah Im (Seah Im Road), Chew Boon Lay (Boon Lay Town), Cheang Hong Lim (Hong Lim Square) and Chew Joo Chiat (Joo Chiat Road). The grandfather (Lee Hoon leong) and aunt (Lee Choo Neo) of Singapore first Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew are also buried in Bukit Brown. Bukit Brown is also “distinguished” for having some of the oldest and biggest graves in Singapore. The oldest grave in Bukit Brown dated to as early as 1833. The headstone belongs to a man called Fang Shan, who died in 1833. The tomb of Ong Sam Leong and his wife is said to be the largest tomb in Singapore. It is as big as a few Housing and Development Board (HBD) flats.
Over the decades, Bukit Brown has evolved into a rich ecosystem. Many species of birds are spotted including migratory and endangered ones. However there are plans by the government to clear the cemetery for new development. A shell MRT station (Bukit Brown MRT Station) was already built in the area. Construction of a new road that cuts through the cemetery will also begin in year 2013. In fact the whole area is earmarked as a future new town by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Conservationists object to this, saying the area is rich in heritage and biodiversity.
The above is the main entrance to the cemetery. The yellow sign on the pillar reads “The main gate of this cemetery will be locked daily at 530pm from Monday to Saturday….”. The fencing along the perimeter of the cemetery is long gone. I suppose no one locks the gate any more.
There are a few groups ( Nature Society, All things Bukit Brown, API etc) that organises guided tour of Bukit Brown. The above map from API shows the layout of Bukit Brown and grave locations of its prominent residents.
There are directional signs left behind by API along the trails that indicate the grave locations.
Lim Chong Pang (b. 6 June 1904, Singapore d. 21 July 1956, Singapore) was a prominent businessman and long-time member of the Singapore Rural Board. Chong Pang Village and Chong Pang Road (both expunged) were named after him. He was the second elder son of Lim Nee Soon (http://mymindisrojak.blogspot.com/2012/01/lim-nee-soon-and-family-bukit-brown.html)
Gan Eng Seng (b. 1844, Malacca d. 9 September 1899, Singapore) Chinese ethnic leader, labour contractor and a landed proprietor of early Singapore who contributed considerably to charities like hospitals and schools. Gan Eng Seng school is named after him. He possessed a Qing dynasty imperial title of the 5th rank. (http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_848_2004-12-28.html)
Ang Seah Im (d. 1927, Singapore) was a Chinese community leader and have business in mining, rice, rubber and trading. He owned properties in Malaysia and Singapore especially along Telok Blangah Road. Seah Im was named after him.
Chew Boon Lay (b. 1851 or 1852 d. 2 June, 1933, Singapore) was one of Singapore’s early pioneers. He bought acres of marshland and jungle in Jurong which he converted into pepper and gambier, and later rubber. plantations. The Boon Lay housing estate and its Mass Rapid Transit station is named after him. Its grave looks relatively new, sign of refurbishment by his descendants.(http://mymindisrojak.blogspot.com/2012/02/chew-boon-lay-bukit-brown.html)
Tay Koh Yat (b. 1880 d. 1975 Singapore), was a pioneer in Singapore’s public transportation and a feisty patriot who set up a defense force during the onset of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War 2.He started Tay Koh Yat Bus Company, one of the biggest the largest bus operator before the era of Singapore Bus Service (SBS). When he died, a huge procession of 100 buses, lorries and cars followed his hearse. His graveyard is one of the most “visitor friendly” in Bukit Brown. There are stone benches (part of the graveyard structure) in front of the tombstone, probably for visitors to sit down and rest after the long walk to the cemetery.
The grave of Lee Hoon Leong (b. 1879 d. 1942 Singapore), – grandfather of Lee Kuan Yew is a nondescript one. If one had not known better, one would just give it a cursory glance and bypass it. The grave is surrounded by overgrown vegetations and seems that upkeep has not been done for quite some time. Lee Hoon Leong had risen to riches but saw his fortunes decline with the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Chew Geok Leong (d. 1937, Singapore) was a Chinese physician who opened a TCM clinic in Geylang Serai Shophouse. He had prepared his coffin, tombs and Sikh statues while he was still alive and kept them in one of his servant’s room. The Sikh statues are carrying rifles with puppies beside them.
Some of the more elaborate graves in Bukit Brown also have Sikh statues guarding both flanks of the graves. During British colonial times, large number of Sikhs were recruited from India to Singapore to help maintain peace and order. They were specially suite for the job because of their big size, fierce bearded look and bravery. Anyone who is not versed in British colonial history will be completely puzzled by the presence of Indian statues in Chinese graveyards.
The grave of Ong Sam Leong (b. 1857, Singapore – d. 7 February 1918, Singapore) is the largest one at Bukit Brown Cemetery. It is as big as a few 5-room HDB (Housing Development Board) flats. Interestingly, the actual location of this tomb was only rediscovered in 2006 by Tan Beng Luan who was then an ex-employee of National Archives.
Ong Sam Leong made his fortune as the sole contractor supplying mining labour to the phosphate rich Christmas Island (used to be part of Singapore till 1957). Sam Leong Road in Jalan Besar was named after him. His son, Ong Boon Tat was also a prominent businessman and Boon Tat Street was named after him. Together with his brother Ong Peng Hock, they started the New World Amusement Park (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_World_Amusement_Park) at Jalan Besar before selling it to the Shaw Organisation in the 1930s. The park closed in 1987.
Ong Sam Leong and his wife Yeo Hean Neo were buried beside each other. Ong Sam leong died when he was 60 in 1918. His wife died in 1935 at the age of 73. The above right and left photographs show the tombstones of Ong Sam Leong and his wife respectively.
The tombstone of Ong Sam Leong has many intricate figurines and cravings that depict chinese fables and mythologies like the “Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety”, “Eight Immortals”, “Fu Lu Shou” etc
The moat of the grave is so wide that you can easily lie flat inside it. It is about knee level deep.
Two Silk guards and two stone lions provide protection to the grave. These sculptures are more than 2 metres in height.
The earth deity shrine (a celestial deity who ensures good fortune, prosperity and safety) is usually the size of a few bricks in most graves. The one for Ong Sam Leong shown above is even bigger than most of the graves in Bukit Brown.
A flight of staircases leads up to the Ong family graveyard. Most probably the only place in Bukit brown with staircases. But to reach this flight of staircase, one has to a climb a certain distance uphill and bash through some vegetations.
The above grave is that of a little boy. The front of the grave are adorned with a cupid and a Chinese dragon sculptures. A fusion of east and west.
The biggest grave’s enemy is not tomb raider nor weather but tree roots. Many graves were damaged badly by tree roots. There are even trees which grow directly out from the grave. A testimony of nature carbon cycle.
Bukit Brown is not a national park, the flora in the area is not maintained by National Environmental agency (NEA). There are quite a few deadfalls in the areas. When exploring the area, keep a lookout for falling trees and branches especially after a rain. There are some nice streams that flow through Bukit Brown. With the re-development of the area, these streams will be converted into concrete canal.
It is common to see horse shit on the trails. The Singapore Polo Club is located just beside Bukit Brown and riders frequently use the trails for strolling .
There are many private terrace houses around the fringe of Bukit Brown. The one above is less than 10 metres away from the trail. Imagine having a garden of tombstones in your backyard.
Future of Bukit Brown
A new dual four-lane road will be constructed across Bukit Brown Cemetry to alleviate the congestion currently experienced along Lornie Road and the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) during peak hours and cater to expected growth in traffic. This new road will feature a vehicular bridge that will run for nearly a third of its 2km length. The 670m vehicular bridge, which will run over existing creeks in the area, will minimise “impact to the existing terrain and surrounding environment”, while allowing for wildlife movement under it. A total of 3,746 graves (5% of total graves) from Bukit Brown will be exhumed to give way for the road. Construction of the road is expected to complete by 2016.
Near the cemetery at Jalan Mashor is the Bukit Brown MRT Station (along the MRT Circle Line). It is actually only a “shell station” which is to be topped off when further development in the area warrants the operation of the station.
As early as 1990s, Bukit Brown had been earmarked by URA for housing. The cemetery occupies prime land that could one day house 15,000 flats for some 50,000 residents, or 40 per cent of Toa Payoh township.
A number of conservationist and environmental groups are lobbying actively for the shelving off of these development plans. In view of the scarce land and rapid population growth of Singapore, these lobbying effort is unlikely to yield any significant compromisation by the government.
How to get there
Bus services available: 52, 74, 93, 157, 165, 852, 855.
By MRT and Bus : From North: Go to Marymount MRT and walk to bus-stop #53019 along Upper Thomson Road. Take Buses 52, 74, 165, 852, 855 Alight 6 stops later at bus-stop, #41149, opposite Singapore Island Country Club (SICC), Adam Road. Walk towards Sime Road in the direction of Kheam Hock Road until you see Lorong Halwa.
From South: Go to Botanic Gardens MRT and walk to bus-stop #41121 at Adam Road, in front of Singapore Bible College. Take Buses 74, 93, 157, 165, 852, 855 Alight 2 stops later at bus-stop, #41141, before Singapore Island Country Club (SICC), Adam Road. Cross the bridge and walk towards Sime Road in the direction of Kheam Hock Road until you see Lorong Halwa.