14 May 2016: World War II – Bukit Brown

“The stories have taken us to the Endau Settlement in Johor, to Taiping and to the battle fields of Europe in ways so unexpected they took our breath away. It is a slow and at times painful unraveling of family history, lost in memory but for the persistence of descendants. It is…but a     first step in the difficult journey of rediscovery and remembering.”
– Claire Leow and Catherine Lim, editors

World War II – Bukit Brown is a collection of stories, essays and poems which looks at the Japanese Occupation in the Second World War (1942-1945) and the impact on Singapore from the perspective of those interred at Bukit Brown Cemetery. The generously-sized book offers new material and insights into the human tragedy of war, and there are many untold stories of bravery, resilience, tragedy, survival and hope. These stories, shared by descendants from family oral archives and albums of their ancestors who survived or perished in the darkest chapters of Singapore’s history, are written by a community of volunteers known as Brownies. Operating under the banner of All Things Bukit Brown, the Brownies conduct regular guided walks on site while learning and expanding on their body of knowledge from engaging with descendants and a network of academics and historians.

The cemetery was named after George Henry Brown, a shipping merchant who had initially settled in Penang in 1840 after arriving from Calcutta. Although he moved to Singapore two years later, Brown returned to Penang in 1882 for medical treatment but succumbed to his injuries, and was interred in the same cemetery as Francis Light. An estimated 100,000 who lived and died in Singapore from the 1800s to the late 1900s were buried in Bukit Brown Cemetery, making it a valuable capsule of 19th and 20th century history. Despite its significance, the site was largely forgotten by many locals, and Bukit Brown may well have remained mired in obscurity had it not been for an announcement by the Singapore government to build an eight-lane highway across the gravesite some five years ago. In a fortuitous turn of events, Bukit Brown found itself at the forefront of discussions centering on heritage and habitat, capturing attention which extended well beyond the island’s boundaries – including an entry in the 2014 World Monuments Watch List.

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. The largest cemetery in Singapore for the war dead in situ, it was part of a complex collectively known now as Greater Bukit Brown, the largest cluster of Chinese graves outside of China with an estimated 200,000 graves and covers an area spanning nearly 400 acres. The last burial at Bukit Brown took place on 30 November 1972 and the cemetery officially closed for burials from 1 January 1973 as such were no longer allowed within the city’s perimeters.

About the editors: Professionally trained as a journalist, Claire Leow is passionate about photography, heritage and community projects. She founded All Things Bukit Brown  to raise awareness of the oldest Chinese cemetery in Singapore, and the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China. Catherine Lim is the co-founder of the same blog. In 2012, she produced an eight-part television documentary series called History from the Hills on Bukit Brown for local television.