I’m not spiritual, or at least that’s what I tell myself. If I ever forget, I’m sure friends and family will remind me of my lack of spirituality. However, you don’t have to be spiritual or even religious to appreciate Bukit Brown Cemetery’s beauty.
No, I’m not mixing up my choice of words. This eerie plot of real estate for the departed is home to beauty that is perhaps, a little bit unconventional.
Who’d want to walk around a cemetery where death is the status quo. However, the final resting places of the deceased aren’t so final after all. The life and existence of Bukit Brown Cemetery hangs in the balance. On life support in the form of volunteers fighting to preserve as much of this cemetery that’s made it onto the World Monuments Watch/Fund.
For the pantang (superstitious), I’ll assure you that this isn’t disrespectful or a sure fire way to incur the wrath of spirits. In a culture so disconnected, uninterested and unwilling to talk about death let alone explore a cemetery, I was all too prepared for the stares and doubts to come flying when I proposed the idea.
The monsoon season marks the advent of Christmas and the good ol’ end of year cheer — our version of winter in the tropics. However, replace the snow with torrential rain.
In true 2016 fashion, the tour we joined dubbed “Twas The Night Before Christmas — It’s a Wonderful Life!” on the 24th of December Christmas Eve was graced by the heavens. The heavens opening up on us that is.
As the ominous clouds gathered, getting drenched was all but an inevitability. Perhaps, it was a forewarning to turn tail and run home. But, the history buff in me spurred me on. For the love, preservation and personal curiosity of local culture and heritage — we walked on.
Keng Kiat, our guide for the day led the way unfazed by the rain, which had reared its ugly head and was now a full blown storm.
Besides the Chinese guardian lions, Foo Dogs or simply “shi” in Chinese — Sikh guards, much like the Terracotta Army stand eternally ready to serve their Emperor. However, in the case of the Sikh guards, they watch over the tomb of their deceased employer.
Of all the tombs that have employed Sikh guards as their guardians for eternity (or till construction crews come in the name of progress), this tomb is the best preserved. Others are harder to find because of the lack of maintenance and the unkempt undergrowth.
How Sikh guards got their job though, are a reflection of the melting pot of cultures that Singapore is. Brought to Singapore by the British, they were then chosen by others to watch over them in their afterlife.
Having visited Bukit Brown before when I was perhaps, a bit too young to appreciate the intricate carvings, tile and stone-work. I felt a tinge of regret — why had I not seen the beauty and history of this place? Instead I saw it as land I shouldn’t tread on, lest I wanted to invite paranormal misfortune onto myself.
But standing in front the tombs once again, there was so much to appreciate. Even if our guide Keng Kiat wasn’t there, you could appreciate the art work on the tombs that are hidden in plain sight.
Cynical and perhaps disenchanted, we complain of the lack of history and identity in Singapore. But, complain less for a bit and look closely, and you’ll find them in the least expected places. Despite the heavy rain, I managed to soak up more than water. Knowledge that there are families that have roots that are 10 generations deep.
Tombs and graves of ancestors that were here in the 1800s. Qing period graves that often lie off the beaten and paved paths are discovered every now and then by passionate volunteers who venture into the overgrowth of nature in search of these historical gems.
Though the weather prevented us from visiting every tomb Keng Kiat intended to show us, this is where our predecessors lie. Our history.
But who are we? What sort of characters preceded us? Before Insta-fame and running the gamut of our flawless system — or so some would like us to believe. We aren’t just the descendants of simple traders but, deviants, rebels, opportunists, plantation barons, revolutionists and more.
Revolutionists who aided the Kuomintang (KMT) during China’s years of infighting and even opium lords have been laid to rest in Bukit Brown. And if not for the volunteers who spend their weekends not only leading tours but, telling the stories and documenting as much as they can before the demands of progress force our ancestors to relocate.
Like an eulogy for Bukit Brown Cemetery, these shall be my parting words. Perhaps, like a grieving loved one desperate to keep the memories (of Singapore) alive.
Each volunteer having preferred points of interest, you can rest assured that no two tours will be the same. With the fate of (what remains of) Bukit Brown up in the air, my advice is to pop in for as many tours with the men and women fighting to preserve it.
Tours are typically organised on weekends however, for more details on tour dates and timings check out their Facebook and Peatix pages.
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