Bukit Brown remains the largest cemetery in Singapore for the war dead in situ, and there are many untold stories of bravery, resilience, tragedy, survival and, amid the darkness, hope. World War II – Bukit Brown offers new material and insights into the human tragedy of war, adding another layer to the already vast literature on WW ll in Singapore. It 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 highlight of the book is 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. The stories are nested around essays – which provide context and background – written by the community of volunteers, who have come to be known as Brownies, operating under the banner of All Things Bukit Brown. They are neither historians nor academics but the editorial team conduct regular guided walks on site which in themselves are learning journeys as they expand on their body of knowledge from engaging with descendants and a myriad web of networks including academics and historians.
The Bukit Brown Cemetery
Bukit Brown Cemetery opened on 1 January 1922 – a municipal cemetery administered by the British and opened to all Chinese, regardless of dialect group and status. As a burial ground, it was a marked departure from the traditional practice of linking the final resting places for the Chinese, exclusively to ties of kinship and dialect communities. In short, it was as inclusive as clan cemeteries were exclusive. 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.
Bukit Brown is named after George Henry Brown, a Briton who came to Singapore in the 1840s via India. A shipping merchant, Brown bought land and built his home on Mount Pleasant Road, an area later known as “Mr Brown’s Hill” on old maps. The cemetery came about after Dr. Lim Boon Keng (1868-1957), a noted community leader and businessman, first petitioned the British for a Municipal Chinese cemetery in 1904.
What emerges from Bukit Brown is a continuation of ties of kinship and clanship that bind under the British Administration with its own tradition of orderliness and social equity, with a well-maintained burial registry to record important details, such as date of death, cause of death and dialect group. The last burial at Bukit Brown took place on 30 November 1972 and the cemetery officially closed for burials from 1 January 1973 as burials were no longer allowed within the perimeters of the city. 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.
When the government announced plans to build an eight-lane highway across Bukit Brown in mid-2011, it piqued the interest of ordinary Singaporeans. It was the first time since the mass exhumation at the Bidahari cemetery 10 years ago that the government was embarking on a major development, which would mean exhuming about 4,000 graves on a 90-year-old site acknowledged by the government to have heritage and historical value. Bukit Brown had also been identified by the Nature Society of Singapore as one of 28 sites having “considerable ecological and biodiversity value” as far back as 1991.