Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery



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. 

Beginnings
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 

Prominent personalities 
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

Exhumation 
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

Future developments
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



Author

Kartini Saparudin



References
1. Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG); Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA-[HIS])
2. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: University Press, p. 302. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO); Savage, V., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2004). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, pp. 66, 269. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG)
3. Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG); Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA)
4. Savage, V., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2004). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, pp. 66, 269. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG); Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 18. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA)
5. Singapore almanack and directory. (1870). [Microfilm no.: NL 1173]. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 43, 127.
6. Wee, L. (2000, March 16). Go take a stroll on the spooky side. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore almanack and directory. (1870). [Microfilm no.: NL 1173]. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 132; Savage, V., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2004). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, pp. 66, 269. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 18. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA)
7. Savage, V., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2004). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, pp. 66, 269. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
8. Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: University Press, p. 285. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO)
9. Savage, V., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2004). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, pp. 66, 269. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG) 
10. Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, pp. 33–34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG)
11. Savage, V., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2004). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, pp. 66, 269. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG)
12. Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG)
13. Savage, V., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2004). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, pp. 66, 269. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG); Wee, L. (2000, March 16). Go take a stroll on the spooky side. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA)
15. Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG); Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: University Press, pp. 301–302. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO)
16. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: University Press, p. 302. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO)
17. Municipal matters: Arrangements at Bukit Brown Cemetery. (1923, April 14). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: University Press, p. 302. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO)
19. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: University Press, p. 303. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO)
20. Bukit Brown Cemetery. (1922, September 27). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Faction fight in a cemetery. (1933, July 24). The Straits Times, p. 12; Fight at a funeral. (1927, July 21). The Straits Times, p. 8; Cemetery blaze: Firemen’s 45 minute battle. (1935, January 17). The Straits Times, p. 12; Heat wave brings fires in Singapore. (1948, April 6). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Fight at a funeral. (1927, July 21). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Faction fight in a cemetery. (1933, July 24). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Caretaker’s death: Murder, say police. (1980, May 5). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Illegal to swap burial plots. (1948, May 23). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Neo, H. M. (2002, May 20). Unearthing history in a Chinese cemeteryThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Late Mrs Lim Bock Kee. (1928, September 25). The Straits Times, p. 7; Mr Koh San Hin. (1929, September 14). The Straits Times, p. 12; Chew Cheng Keng: Well-known Singapore Chinese dies. (1933, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 16; Funeral Of Mr. Teo Hoo Lye. (1933, November 27). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. The late Mrs Eu Kong. (1927, March 19). The Straits Times, p. 9; Mr Loh Kye Wee. (1934, May 6). The Straits Times, p. 12; Simple funeral for Lark Sye on Sunday. (1972, September 13). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Tan, N. P. T. (2007). Bukit Timah: A heritage trail. Singapore: National Heritage Board. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 TAN-[TRA]); Au Yong, J. (2006, June 4). Tycoon’s tomb uncoveredThe Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Tan, N. P. T. (2007). Bukit Timah: A heritage trail. Singapore: National Heritage Board. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 TAN-[TRA]); Au Yong, J. (2006, June 4). Tycoon’s tomb uncoveredThe Straits Times, p. 12; Neo, H. M. (2002, May 20). Unearthing history in a Chinese cemeteryThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Yong, N. (2011, April 10). Buried: A life. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 20. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Neo, H. M. (2002, May 20). Unearthing history in a Chinese cemeteryThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 20. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA)
33. Goh, P. (1956, February 16). Sing pantuns for me at my funeralThe Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Ong, C. I. (2006). The journey from White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew family tree. Singapore: Keepmedia International Pte Ltd, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 929.2095957 ONG); Municipal Commission. Public amusements. (1923, June 6). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: University Press, p. 302. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO); Tan, N. P. T. (2007). Bukit Timah: A heritage trail. Singapore: National Heritage Board. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 TAN-[TRA]) 
36. Late Mr. Tan Kheam Hock. (1922, April 22). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: University Press, p. 302. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO); Municipal Commission. (1925, April 29). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Graves to be exhumed for road alignment. (1964, December 17). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Chan, C. (2004, November 27). Hardly a ‘pleasant’ final resting placeThe Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Chan, C. (2004, November 27). Hardly a ‘pleasant’ final resting placeThe Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Graves to be exhumed for road alignment. (1964, December 17). The Straits Times, p. 5; 237 Graves on state land at Bukit Brown to be exhumed. (1964, December 25). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Notice: Public Works Department, Singapore. (1965, March 26). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Tsang, S. (2007). Discover Singapore: The city’s history & culture redefined. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TSA); Tan, N. P. T. (2007). Bukit Timah: A heritage trail. Singapore: National Heritage Board. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 TAN-[TRA])
44. Exhumation of Bt Brown graves affected by road works to begin in Q4. (2013, August 5). Channel News Asia; Public exhumation at Bukit Brown cemetery begins. (2013, December 17). Channel News Asia; Chia, L. (2016, April 5). Keeping traditions alive. The New Paper. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
45. New alignment for road cutting through Bukit Brown? (2011, December 5). Channel News Asia; New dual four-lane road in Bukit Brown to ease heavy traffic. (2011, September 13). Today. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

46. Bukit Brown Cemetery placed on 2014 World Monuments Watch. (2013, October 9). Channel News Asia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/




Further resource
Sikh guards at Chinese tombs ‘show there were strong links’. (1993, January 12). The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved 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.

 

Subject
Heritage and Culture
Streets and Places
Ethnic Communities
People and communities>>Customs>>Death customs
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
Cemeteries--Singapore
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Historic sites--Singapore