Bukit Brown for beginners

Several tours are recommended if you live on the Red Dot. Today’s tour of Bukit Brown cemetery had been on my list for a long time – especially as the whole place is currently being cut up to make way for a big road, with ancestors being dislodged and moved to stacked vertical resting places (or worse, but we won’t think about that).
‘Whoohh,’ said my Mandarin teacher last night when I told her of this morning’s trip, ‘is it still there?’ And when I replied that it was, she said with a note of suspicion: ‘Er, we don’t really go to cemeteries very often.’
I know what she means, it’s not an obvious choice for a fun day out, but when you think about all the famous cemeteries of the world (Highgate cemetery in London with Karl Marx, Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris with Jim Morrison) then the prospect of a guided tour around some tombstones becomes a perfectly sensible suggestion.
And that’s why we found ourselves on a morning ramble, my friend and I, threading our way through thickets and brambles with 16 other guests, crashing to scare off potential snakes while our leader, herself a relative of some Bukit Brown residents, gamely pushed giant morning cobwebs out of our way (meanwhile my friend apologised to anyone we stepped on by accident).
It’s because we are tour guides that we were invited on the morning tour today, although you can always go round yourselves (and there were people dog-walking, horse-riding and scootering). Isn’t it always a bonus to have someone guide you, though? And not just to chase off the spiders.
Some might say you actually need a tour guide here, because Bukit Brown is a proper adventure – a thick, bushy maze of partially obscured graves scattered over several hillsides. In these hallowed acres lie whole families, grouped war victims, famous local personalities. The person showing us around is also a guide at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, and it was invaluable to have her help decode the traditional Chinese lettering and point the way around the woody place. We found tombstones tucked deep in brambles. Other graves had been tidied up, untangled, so you could clearly see the stark geometric art deco carving, the orange brickwork and Victoriana tiles. Some were exposed all on their own by the road, others placed neatly side by side or dotted one over the other up and down the sides of the hills, backed with sweeping armchair-shaped walls and guarded by stone gods, creatures, figures.
Many had little rocks placed on top, some trapping a slip of paper. Don’t move them, we were told, this is a visitor’s way of telling the ancestors, I’m here – I’ve come to see you. I did a little Google of this when I got home and it seems it’s a Jewish tradition too. Some say it means the relative is anchored in place. Whatever the reason the stones looked reverential, thoughtful, an earthy equivalent to the cut flowers you see in western graveyards.
You’d need a hard heart not to have been moved by our visit but it wasn’t an entirely solemn morning at all, quite the opposite. Our guide lead her long-trousered chatty crocodile with energy: ‘This way!’ she would shout, suddenly off-roading to the left beneath a hanging curtain of lianas, with us scrambling along behind in a cloud of Deet.
She saved the best til last – the biggest grave in Bukit Brown. After a vertical stomp the jungle opens up to a clearing with the most enormous Chinese armchair-shaped memorial. This grave belongs to prominent businessman Ong Sam Leong, who clearly did very well for himself. Once surrounded by a fish-filled moat, the tomb covers 600 square metres, has its own skate-rink sized forecourt of beautiful tiles, and is guarded by stone lions and mossy soldiers. Most graves have their own earth stone deity off to one side – not this one: this one has an entire earth god tomb all to itself.
What a morning, one of the best tours I’ve experienced since moving here: fun, exciting, and very precious to be able to see the stones before the threatened eight-lane highway swallows them up. You can take yourself off to Bukit Brown; driving is best, and there are parking spots along the roads. There’s an unopened MRT station, but who knows when that will come into play (or if we ever actually want it to). Or you can hop in a cab and get dropped off for a stroll.
When I see my Chinese teacher next week I will recommend she pops by and says hello, before the ancestors melt away into history.
IMG_2284 IMG_2266 IMG_2255

2 thoughts on “Bukit Brown for beginners

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

AlphaOmega Captcha Classica  –  Enter Security Code