Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Fun with Bukit Brown’s Natural and Cultural Heritage

By Gloria Seow, Chairperson of the Education Group

Some of Bukit Brown’s many lion statues.


The rain poured on and on and refused to stop. When it finally gave way to a drizzle, we got out of our cars and cancelled the event on 21 April 2012. However, since five families braved the downpour to turn up, we decided to show them around as private individuals rather than as an official NSS Kids’ outing.

Armed with umbrellas and raincoats, we set off in the gloomy weather, albeit under a lightning-free sky. The walk was led by Uncle Peter Pak, an active Bukit Brown culture guide and NSS member, as well as good old Uncle Tim. Our first stop was a cluster of four tombstones belonging to former Chief Chinese Translator for the colonial government Ho Siak Kuan and his family. This grave group stood out as each tomb is characterised by a rectangular tablet capped with a roof, a style reminiscent of northern China. Sadly, this tiny cluster, as well as some 3,000 odd tombs, are due to make way for an eight-lane expressway that will slice the cemetery in two. The affected tombs are indicated by numbered stakes.

This unique group of graves will sadly make way for an expressway, as indicated by numbered stakes. It belongs to the family of the former Chief Chinese Translator for the colonial government.

Next, Uncle Tim pointed out the many Rain Trees that line the cemetery along its tarmac path, giving it a park-like feel. The trees themselves are home to epiphytes growing on their branches, such as Bird Nest and Staghorn ferns, as well as Pigeon Orchid. Due to the incessant downpour, the birds were all in hiding.

A typical Hokkien tomb has bricks outlining the womb-shaped mound. Similar-looking Teochew tombs also have womb-shaped mounds but these are not brick-lined.

Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China housing some 100,000 graves. It is also the oldest surviving Chinese cemetery in Singapore, with certain tombs nearing 200 years old. For the bulk of the graves found here, the building style is predominantly Hokkien or Teochew. Many of these womb-shaped tombs are covered in elegant carvings, far more elaborate compared to their modern counterparts. Both Hokkien and Teochew tombs feature a courtyard in front of the grave slab. The courtyard serves to gather in qi (life force) and good fortune. Directly behind the slab is a mound of earth shaped like a woman’s womb. Hokkien tombs have bricks outlining the womb shape, whereas Teochew tombs lack this feature. The grave slab itself states the deceased’s ancestral village in China, serving to confirm if the tomb is indeed Hokkien or Teochew.

As we sloshed along, Uncle Tim showed kids and their parents plants such as the Croton, a reddish shrub that is toxic but commonly planted around graveyards for luck. As Bukit Brown has been left relatively undisturbed for a long time, it is overgrown with secondary vegetation. These include the Macaranga, Noni tree, mile-a-minute creeper, figs, palms and more. The further one strays from the paved path, the thicker the vegetation becomes. This verdant greenery is home to some 92 bird species, mammals like the Long-tailed Macaque, Sunda Pangolin and Colugo, as well as fishes, eels and frogs in its streams.

Uncle Peter showed us the famous Sikh Guard statues, as tall as a boy, guarding the tomb of a Singapore pioneer.

Uncle Peter was animated in telling the stories behind some of these graves. Many belonged to important personages who were instrumental in building up early Singapore. Kids were intrigued with the famous tomb featuring a pair of Sikh guard statues, vividly painted in red, yellow and black. Those who stayed throughout the walk, were rewarded with a visit to the Ong Sam Leong family grave. It is the largest burial site in Bukit Brown, the size of 10 three-room HDB flats. To reach it, we had to traverse the hilly terrain, passing many smaller tombs that were draped with attractive foliage. We were greeted at the top by a male Crimson Sunbird chirping its lungs out, the only visible bird for the trip. The Ong Sam Leong family tomb has another pair of Sikh guard statues, and is decorated with Chinese carvings of the Classic 24 filial piety acts. We then finished the circuit around the cemetery to end where we had begun.

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