In the midst of clean urban architecture and the beautifully maintained gardens of Singapore, one doesn’t expect to find any place that is totally wild, unkempt and peaceful. And yet such a place exists, right at the center of Singapore! Bukit Brown cemetery, in the heart of Singapore is an abandoned Chinese cemetery where the trees and shrubs have been left to grow unrestricted around the beautifully decorated traditional Chinese graves. It’s quite fascinating and although not as dramatic but it reminded me of the temple ruins from Cambodia. It’s like witnessing the history of Singapore in the middle of a lush green tropical forest where all that one can hear are the chirping of birds and the hustling of leaves.
Bukit means a hill in Malay and the cemetery was named after its first owner, George Henry Brown, a ship owner who had arrived in Singapore from Calcutta in the 1840s. Also known as Kopi Sua or Coffee Hill by the local community probably due to the coffee plantations at Mount Pleasant, Bukit Brown was established on 1st January 1922 and managed by the municipal authorities as a public burial ground for the Chinese communities in Singapore. There are more than 100,000 graves in an area of about 233 acres at the cemetery, which is situated between Lornie Road and Mount Pleasant Road; one of the most beautiful roads for a drive in Singapore. In 1970s the cemetery was closed and is now home to many bird and wild life species, some of which are endangered. It’s popular among nature lovers and great for a stroll in a peaceful setting. There are lots of people who walk their dogs, jog and do horse riding here.
Bukit Brown has immense historical importance as many famous and prominent Singaporean pioneers lay buried there including Mrs. Eu Kong, mother of Eu Tong Sen (Eu Tong Sen Road was named after him); Loh Kye Wee, director of Malaya Broadcasting Co.; Tan Lark Sye, philanthropist and co-founder of Nanyang University; Ong Sam Leong, renowned entrepreneur; Ong Boon Tat, proprietor of New World Park; Chew Joo Chiat (Joo Chiat estate); Mrs Lim Nee Soon, Lim Chong Pang, which Chong Pang village was named after; and Chew Boon Lay of Boon Lay estate.
Due to the problem of land scarcity in Singapore, a lot of former cemeteries and burial grounds were cleared to make way for urban development. It’s Bukit Brown’s turn now, as the Land Transport Authority (LTA) of Singapore has finalized the plans for a new road across the cemetery. A part of the cemetery will be affected to build the dual four-lane road and LTA will undertake the exhumation of the affected graves. Only the graves marked on a white stake with a serial number are to be exhumed. Bukit Brown MRT station (part of Circle Line) has already been built and will open when the surrounding area develops.
Chinese cemeteries are generally on hillsides since this is thought to improve Fengshui. The tombs are decorated and carved beautifully with mythical beings and sculptures, which are believed to have protective powers and guard the grave. There are still fresh offerings and burnt incense sticks on some of the graves.
The graves and tombstones are like pieces of art adorned with murals, sculptures, painted ceramic tiles and photos of the deceased. Most of the graves are covered with moss and has plants growing all around them.
The sepia-toned photos on the tombstones are like memoirs of the past, and each one of them tells a story. There is a strange calmness in the photos as there is at the cemetery.
A feeling of sadness and spirituality filled my heart looking at the graves, and I wish they are preserved and maintained as a precious remembrance of Singapore’s heritage and history, which can never be forgotten.
Records of the burial registers from April 1922 to December 1972, in chronological order are here.
Getting to Bukit Brown Cemetery : The cemetery is on Lornie Road, off Sime road and Kheam Lock road near Mac Ritchie Reservoir. Botanic Gardens, Caldecott and Marymount MRT stations on the Circle line are closest to the site. Please refer to map below.
P.S. Please carry mosquito repellant and water if you plan to explore the area.