Now I know going for a walk around an abandoned Chinese Cemetery isn’t the first thought when it comes to country walks with flora and fauna, and may seem slightly macabre, but trust me, this is one cemetery you will want to visit. It is absolutely fascinating and culturally significant as well as beautifully tranquil place to take a stroll, away from the stresses and strains of Singapore life. Walking amongst the tombs of ancestors, and occasionally being passed by the riders from the Disabled Riders Association of Singapore (who have stables nearby), was peaceful as well as interesting.
What is it?
Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China with over 100,000 tombs in a vast plot of land of about 0.86sqkm. Bukit Brown Cemetery has been abandoned since its closure in 1973. The cemetery was previously a section of a 211-acre plot of land, initially named Seh Ong cemetery owned by 3 wealthy Hokkien brothers belonging to the Ong clan. From 1872 to 1921 the cemetery was reserved for members of the clan until it was converted to a municipal burial ground, that the municipal government had acquired between 1918 and 1919. Many famous Chinese pioneers are buried at Bukit Brown Cemetery.
The cemetery is named after George Henry Brown who came to Singapore in the 1840s from the UK. and built his home on Mount Pleasant. Bukit Brown first appeared on a map in 1898 and is the first official hybrid English and Malay place name in Singapore.
Bukit Brown Cemetery opened on 1 January 1922 as a municipal cemetery administered by the British and opened to all Chinese, regardless of dialect group and status (departing from the traditional Chinese practice of linking final resting places to kinship and dialect groups). The cemetery closed in 1973 and was designated as abandoned and closed.
In 2011 the government announced the building of the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) an eight-lane highway cutting through Bukit Brown cutting off part of the cemetery. By 2013 4,000 graves had been exhumed (some sources state 5,000). 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.
“Problems at the cemetery
Aside from municipal issues, murders, robberies and faction fights were also known occurrences. 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. 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. 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. The cemetery also faced considerable black-marketeering of burial plots, as well as the illegal swapping of plots.” (Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery | Infopedia (nlb.gov.sg))
The tombs in Bukit Brown Cemetery are quite diverse. The shape, design, engraving and statues differ according to the deceased’s religion, culture, and family preference. Hokkien tombs differ from Teochew tombs for instance. Some have Peranakan tiles and others have statues. All of the tombs are circular / oval in shape (unlike western graves which are rectangles). The oldest grave belonged to Fang Shan who died in 1833, more than 40 years before the land was taken over by the Ong clan. The largest tomb belonged to Ong Sam Leong (1857-1918) who was businessman, plantation owner and contractor to the mines on Christmas Island. It occupies 600 sqm and was decorated with a 15m long platform completed with stone statues of deities, lions and 2m tall Sikh guard.
There are a number of caretaker shelters in the cemetery which look a bit ramshackle and covered in blue tarpaulin as a shelter from the rain. Tomb keepers use them when they work, for generations, caring for the tombs. The tomb keepers and descendants have an informal relationship based on trust which may go back generations. They clear the grass and spruce up graves under their care including painting and the touching up of the inscriptions. They are paid only when they meet the descendants at Qing Ming. “Qing Ming”, commonly known as “tomb sweeping day” which is a time for descendants to remember and pay respects to ancestors.
Bukit Brown was open to all Chinese, rich or poor as it was a public cemetery. In 1913 the cemetery was divided into two sections: ‘general’ and ‘pauper’. The pauper plots were in a less desirable location in terms of fengshui as they are in low lying areas, close to paths and prone to water retention and therefore flooding the tomb. The paupers’ section was sub-divided into numbered plots of specific small sizes. It was free to be buried in the paupers section, (the general section costs was a plot fee of $50 and burial fee of $15) and reservations of plots could not be made. There are tens of thousands of migrants* buried in the paupers’ section as well as unclaimed bodies and babies. During the Japanese occupation in World War II many people who were not paupers were buried here too. Despite the free cost of the burial plot, there were funeral expenses (e.g. grave diggers, a simple tombstone) so guilds and clan associations would step in and provide the expenses needed. One famous person buried in the Paupers’ section is a rickshaw puller called Low Nong Nong who died in a violent confrontation between striking rickshaw pullers and security forces in 1938. His funeral cortege was probably the longest accorded to a pauper with 3000 of his compatriots accompanying the cortege.
*Migrants who travelled to a new land to seek better lives and futures but did not succeed and worked hard to eke out a living but died penniless with families left behind in China.
Chew Geok Leong 1870-1940
Chew Geok Leong’s tomb is probably the most recognisable in Bukit Brown. He was a former Qing official born in Anxi, who had fled China to Singapore with his family at the turn of the century. He established a Chinese medical practice and medicine shop (having come from a family with four generations of Chinese physicians). They lived in a bungalow elevated on stilts behind the shop. He died on 11 Feb 1940 and was buried at Bukit Brown on 13 Feb 1940.
His tomb is guarded by Sikh guards. They have a rank of ‘Naik’ (Corporal). The statues have names denoting their duties – Home Guard ‘patrolling the home’ and City Guard ‘patrolling the city’. This ‘live’ tomb was prepared by the deceased while he was alive. All parts of the tomb, including the coffin and the Sikh statues, were made in China and shipped over to Singapore. The tomb is reinforced with locally made bricks. The Sikh guards are the only painted pair in the cemetery.
Where is it?
Located in MacRitchie, it’s near Lornie Road, Singapore, 299131
The nearest MRT is Caldecott (CC17) on the (yellow) Circle Line. It’s 2.7km from the cemetery and takes about 30-35 mins to walk there from the MRT.
Bus no 851
When is it open?
It is open 24/7 – 7 days a week, all year round.
How much is it?
Free to enter.
Guided tours conducted by volunteers are available on specific weekends in the month.