Bukit Brown Cemetery

Text by Eugene Tan

A precious piece of local heritage now under threat, can enthusiastic locals with our relentless spirit rescue the cemetery from obscurity?

Along Lorong Halwa (Photo credit: Eugene Tan)

In 1872, three wealthy Hokkien entrepreneurs purchased a 211 acre site on Bukit Brown, with the plan to build a self-sufficient village for the Ong Clan in Singapore. For reasons still unknown, the site eventually became used solely as a burial ground for fellow Ongs, known as the Seh Ong Hokkien Cemetery. This exclusive cemetery was acquired by the Municipality in 1918-1919, to serve the burial needs of the wider Chinese community, and officially opened on 1st January 1922.

Ong Sam Leong Tomb at Bukit Brown

Now under public legislation, an amendment was passed to maximise space and distribute it evenly, limiting burial plots to one per person on 21st September 1923. Tombs with the majesty of Ong Sam Leong’s dwindled with this new amendment, diverting the expression of luxury to ornament instead of size.

Guardian animal sculpture at Bukit Brown

Initially disliked by the public due to its small plot sizes, 40% of all officially registered Chinese burials within the municipality took place here by 1929. But its reputation did not improve with the locals, with complaints about its unkempt appearance and fears of crime within the premises. There was also the peculiar phenomenon of illegal burial plot swapping occurring, so one can only imagine the activity in the night here, with shadowy figures and rustling leaves.

Tiles at the Ong Sam Leong Tomb of Bukit Brown

In 1965, a portion of the state land of Bukit Brown was exhumed to make way for the alignment of Lornie Road, with tombs interred at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. The graveyard was then divided into two sections due to the construction of the Pan Island Expressway in the 1970s, dividing it into what we now know as Bukit Brown Cemetery and Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Horse riding through Bukit Brown Cemetary

The cemetery closed for burial in 1973, having housed approximately 100,000 graves, including many of Singapore’s prominent personalities, some of which lent their names to local neighbourhoods, such as Lim Chong Pang and Chew Boon Lay. As these pillars of Chinese pioneering society lay in peace, the area transformed into a popular haunt for nature enthusiasts, with the harmony of old tombstones and sprawling vegetation creating a unique landscape and sacred habitat for flora and fauna.

Tomb relief at Bukit Brown

In 2011, the cemetery was brought under threat of further destruction with the proposal to construct a new highway across it, and became a centrepiece of local dissent and activism, with descendants fighting to protect the peace of their ancestors, nature enthusiasts fighting to protect a precious green lung in the centre of the island, and historians keen on preserving its rich heritage. While its fate remains unknown, we can perhaps rest at ease with the knowledge of the great value attached to it by the local community, assured that this has become a place rooted deeply in local consciousness.

One of the iconic Sikh Guards at Bukit Brown

Bukit Brown tombs marked for exhumation