The Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery was established to serve the burial needs of the Chinese community.1 Officially opened on 1 January 1922, it operated for more than half a century before its closure in 1973.2 The cemetery was previously a section of a 211-acre plot of land, belonging to the Hokkien Ong clan, that the municipal government had acquired between 1918 and 1919.3
Bukit Brown was named after George Henry Brown, a ship owner, trader and broker who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s.4 He started a company named Brown, Knight & Co. in 1865, located at Malacca Street, and was listed as a petit juror in the Singapore almanack and directory (1870).5 Brown’s place of residence was at Mount Pleasant, close to the present Bukit Brown site.6 Although the hill on which Brown’s residence stood was named after him, the road leading to Bukit Brown did not exist until much later. When an access road to Bukit Brown was constructed, the road was named Bukit Brown Road in 1923. This road has since been expunged.7
Seh Ong (Hokkien) Cemetery8
Prior to the opening of the municipal cemetery, the area was owned by three wealthy Hokkien entrepreneurs, Ong Kew Ho, Ong Ewe Hai and Ong Chong Chew, who came from the same village of Bai Qiao in Xiamen, China.9 In 1872, the trio bought a 211-acre site at Bukit Timah Road, also known as Bukit Brown (next to the Teck Rubber Estate at the fourth milestone), with the intention of setting up a self-sufficient village for poorer members of the Ong clan. The land was to serve the community’s residential, agricultural and burial needs.10 However, the land eventually came to be used solely as a burial ground.11 The reason for this change is unclear.12 The hill on which the Seh Ong Cemetery stood was also known to the Chinese as Tai Yuan Shan, Xing Wang Shan and Kopi Sua (Coffee Hill).13 The latter probably derived its name from the coffee plantations at Mount Pleasant.14
Opening of Bukit Brown Cemetery
To meet the pressing need for more public Chinese burial grounds, the municipal government acquired a section of the Seh Ong Cemetery between 1918 and 1919 to serve the needs of the wider Chinese community.15 The cemetery officially opened on 1 January 1922 and was named Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery. Initially, various aspects of the cemetery’s management were handled by the municipal commissioners.16 However in 1923, they decided to hand over these responsibilities, including making recommendations to the board, to the Chinese commissioners.17
Cemetery for the wider Chinese community
Bukit Brown was initially unpopular with the Chinese because of its small plot sizes.18 However, it slowly gained acceptance after improvements were made to the layout. It was reported that by 1929, 40 percent of all officially registered Chinese burials within the municipality took place there.19
The commissioners also sought to improve the conditions of the cemetery. Two rest houses were allocated for funeral visitors. A regular water supply was provided through the construction of water pipes and wells, and gardeners were hired to maintain the site.20
Problems at the cemetery
Aside from municipal issues, murders, robberies and faction fights were also known occurrences.21 One of the earliest murders at the cemetery took place in 1927. A fight between two groups led to the fatal stabbing of two Chinese men.22
On 24 July 1933, The Straits Times reported a fight that had broken out during the funeral procession of a famous towkay (meaning businessman or boss in Hokkien), attended by 1,000 people, at the cemetery. The clash was sparked by two secret societies in conflict. As a result of the skirmish, six people were taken to the hospital.23 In 1980, a robbery took the life of the cemetery’s caretaker-and-part-time gardener. The caretaker was found dead with 15 years’ life savings missing.24
The cemetery also faced considerable black-marketeering of burial plots, as well as the illegal swapping of plots. Notices inviting transfers of burial plots at Bukit Brown Cemetery were advertised in the newspapers. Such transactions were against the municipal’s by-laws and were not recognised by the commissioners. Despite the commissioners’ assurance that there was no lack of burial space, such practices continued. It is not clear from reports what drove the demand for black-market burial plots or the illegal swapping of plots.25
Many well-known and prominent Singaporeans26 are interred at Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery.27 They include Eu Kong (Mrs), mother of Eu Tong Sen; Loh Kye Wee, director of Malaya Broadcasting Co.; Tan Lark Sye, self-made multi-millionaire and rubber tycoon;28 Ong Sam Leong, renowned entrepreneur;29 Ong Boon Tat, proprietor of New World Park; Lim Nee Soon (Mrs); Lim Chong Pang, after whom Chong Pang village was named;30 Ang Seah Im, a businessman after whom Seah Im Road is named; Tan Kim Ching, eldest son of Tan Tock Seng; Cheng Hong Lim, a Hokkien businessman who created Hong Lim Park; and Chew Boon Lay of Boon Lay estate.31 Some of these graves had existed since the establishment of the Seh Ong Cemetery.32
One of the more memorable funeral processions that took place at the cemetery involved the singing of Malay pantun-pantun (poems). This was conducted at the funeral of Koh Hoon Teck, one of the “old guards” of the Peranakan community in Singapore. Koh was a pantun expert and a founding member of the Dondang Sayang Association, and according to his last wishes, his family members, close friends and members of the association arranged for a “pantun party” to be held at the cemetery. This was done in an elaborate Ming fashion, as his other wish was to be interred in robes of the Ming period.33
Roads in and around Bukit Brown
On 1 June 1923, the Committee of Municipal Commissioners decided to name the first portion of the road from Bukit Timah Road to the golf club, Bukit Brown Road. The road from Bukit Brown Road leading to the cemetery was also named Kheam Hock Road,34 in memory of municipal commissioner Tan Kheam Hock who had actively lobbied for the establishment of the cemetery.35 Tan passed away in April 1922.36 In 1925, one of the municipal commissioners, See Tiong Wah, noted the growing popularity of the road leading to the cemetery and suggested widening Kheam Hock Road to 60 ft, as well as the wooden bridge leading to it. This suggestion was, however, rejected.37
The portion of the state land of Bukit Brown was exhumed to make way for the alignment of Lornie Road, off Adam Road, in 1965.38 In the 1970s, the graveyard was divided into two sections due to the construction of the Pan Island Expressway (PIE). The other part of the cemetery is called Mount Pleasant Cemetery.39 In 1993, 600 graves were exhumed to accommodate the expansion of the PIE, further cleaving off the graves in Mount Pleasant from Bukit Brown.40
In 1965, the Public Works Department (PWD) issued a statement that the graves on state land in Bukit Brown Cemetery – about 237 tombs – were to be exhumed to make way for the re-alignment of Lornie Road, off Adam Road. On 18 January 1965, these tombs were exhumed for interment at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.41 A notice by the PWD, published in The Straits Times on 26 March 1965, provided the names of the deceased, the number of the corresponding grave plots, previous addresses and burial dates.42
Closure of the cemetery
Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery closed for burial in 1973. There were about 100,000 tombs at that time.43
In 2011, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that a new dual four-lane road linking MacRitchie Viaduct and Adam Flyover would be built over parts of Bukit Brown Cemetery. The road would cater to increased traffic demand and help to ease the peak-hour congestion along Lornie Road and the PIE. It is expected to be completed by the end of 2017. Details of the graves affected by the construction were published in March 2012, and exhumation of the first batch of graves began in December 2013.44
The remaining parts of the cemetery and its surrounding land, totally 200 ha, are slated for redevelopment into a new housing estate in the future.45
In October 2013, Bukit Brown Cemetery was placed on the 2014 World Monuments Watch, which records global heritage sites which are at risk of being destroyed.46
1. Ong Chwee Im, The Journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew Family Tree (Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, 2006), 34. (Call no. RSING 929.2095957 ONG); Susan Tsang, Discover Singapore: The City’s History & Culture Redefined (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2007), 19. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TSA-[HIS])
2. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: University Press, 2003), 302. (Call no. RSING 307.76095957 YEO); Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2004), 66, 269. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Ong, Journey from White Rock, 34.
3. Ong, Journey from White Rock, 34; Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19.
4. Savage and Yeoh, Study of Singapore Street Names, 66, 269; Ong, Journey from White Rock, 34; Tsang, Discover Singapore, 18.
5. Singapore Almanack and Directory (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1870), 43, 127. (Microfilm NL1173)
6. Lea Wee, “Go Take a Stroll on the Spooky Side,” Straits Times, 16 March 2000, 3. (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Almanack and Directory, 132; Savage and Yeoh, Study of Singapore Street Names, 66, 269; Tsang, Discover Singapore, 18.
7. Savage and Yeoh, Study of Singapore Street Names, 66, 269.
8. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 285.
9. Savage and Yeoh, Study of Singapore Street Names, 66, 269; Ong, Journey from White Rock, 33.
10. Ong, Journey from White Rock, 33–34.
11. Savage and Yeoh, Study of Singapore Street Names, 66, 269; Ong, Journey from White Rock, 34.
12. Ong, Journey from White Rock, 34.
13. Savage and Yeoh, Study of Singapore Street Names, 66, 269; Ong, Journey from White Rock, 34; Wee, “Go Take a Stroll on the Spooky Side.”
14. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19.
15. Ong, Journey from White Rock, 34; Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 301–02.
16. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 302.
17. “Municipal Matters,” Straits Times, 14 April 1923, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 302.
19. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 303.
20. “Bukit Brown Cemetery,” Straits Times, 27 September 1922, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Faction Fight in a Cemetery,” Straits Times, 24 July 1933, 12; “Fight at a Funeral,” Straits Times, 21 July 1927, 8; “Cemetery Blaze,” Straits Times, 17 January 1935, 12; “Heat Wave Brings Fires in Singapore,” Straits Times, 6 April 1948, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Fight at a Funeral.”
23. “Faction Fight in a Cemetery.”
24. “Caretaker’s Death: Murder, Say Police,” Straits Times, 5 May 1980, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Illegal to Swap Burial Plots,” Straits Times, 23 May 1948, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Neo Hui Min, “Unearthing History in a Chinese Cemetery,” Straits Times, 20 May 2002, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Late Mrs Lim Bock Kee,” Straits Times, 25 September 1928, 7; “Mr Koh San Hin,” Straits Times, 14 September 1929, 12; “Chew Cheng Keng: Well-Known Singapore Chinese Dies,” Straits Times, 6 July 1933, 16; “Funeral Of Mr. Teo Hoo Lye,” Straits Times, 27 November 1933, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “The Late Mrs Eu Kong,” Straits Times, 19 March 1927, 9; “Mr Loh Kye Wee,” Straits Times, 6 May 1934, 12; “Simple Funeral for Lark Sye on Sunday,” (1972, September 13). Straits Times, 13 September 1972, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; November Tan Peng Ting, Bukit Timah: A Heritage Trail (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2007) (Call no. RSING 915.957 TAN-[TRA]); Jeremy Au Yong, “Tycoon’s Tomb Uncovered,” Straits Times, 4 June 2006, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Tan, Bukit Timah; Au Yong, “Tycoon’s Tomb Uncovered”; Neo, “Unearthing History in a Chinese Cemetery.”
31. Nicholas Yong, “Buried: A Life,” Straits Times, 10 April 2011, 7; Tsang, Discover Singapore, 20; Neo, “Unearthing History in a Chinese Cemetery.”
32. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 20.
33. Philip Goh, “Sing Pantuns for Me at My Funeral,” Straits Times, 16 February 1956, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Ong, Journey from White Rock, 34; “Municipal Commission. Public Amusements,” Straits Times, 6 June 1923, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 302; Tan, Bukit Timah.
36. “Late Mr. Tan Kheam Hock,” Straits Times, 22 April 1922, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 302; “Municipal Commission,” Straits Times, 29 April 1925, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Graves to Be Exhumed for Road Alignment,” Straits Times, 17 December 1964, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; Crystal Chan, “Hardly a ‘Pleasant’ Final Resting Place,” Straits Times, 27 November 2004, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
40. Chan, “Hardly a ‘Pleasant’ Final Resting Place.”
41. “Graves to Be Exhumed for Road Alignment”; “237 Graves on State Land at Bukit Brown to Be Exhumed,” Straits Times, 25 December 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “Notice: Public Works Department, Singapore,” Straits Times, 26 March 1965, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Tsang, Discover Singapore, 19; Tan, Bukit Timah.
44. Vimita Mohandas, “Exhumation of Bt Brown Graves Affected by Road Works to Begin in Q4,” Channel NewsAsia, 5 August 2013; “Public Exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery Begins,” Channel NewsAsia, 17 December 2013; L. Chia, L, “Keeping Traditions Alive,” New Paper, 5 April 2016. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
45. “New Alignment for Road Cutting Through Bukit Brown?” Channel NewsAsia, 5 December 2011 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); “New Dual Four-Lane Road in Bukit Brown to Ease Heavy Traffic,” Today, 13 September 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “Bukit Brown Cemetery Placed on 2014 World Monuments Watch,” Channel NewsAsia, 9 October 2013. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
“Sikh Guards at Chinese Tombs ‘Show There Were Strong Links’,” Straits Times, 12 January 1993, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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