Tales from Tombstones at Bukit Brown, Singapore

The boisterous chirping of birds, thick foliage that is home to a variety of snakes and insects, the final resting place of many of Singapore’s Chinese forebearers – from towkays (prominent businessmen) to sinkeh (new immigrants from China, many of whom ended up working as coolies).

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

The place is Bukit Brown Cemetery or as some of its supporters lovingly call it – BBC. It has been topmost on my ‘list of places to visit in Singapore’ and today was the day!

‘Bukit’ is the Malay word for ‘hill’.

The hill was named Bukit Brown after its first owner, George Henry Brown, an English ship owner, who had come to Singapore from Calcutta in the 1840s.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

BBC was officially opened on 1st January 1922 and is the earliest Chinese municipal cemetery in Singapore. With about 100,000 tombs here, it is believed to be the largest Chinese cemetery outside China. It was closed for burial in 1973.

The place is a treasure trove of stories – of the life and times of Singapore’s pioneers who are interred here.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

Intricate carvings and stone statues of ferocious lions, celestial beings and Sikh guards adorn several of the tombs.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

You may wonder, how did Sikh guards come into the picture? What many people don’t realise is that Singapore and the Sikh community have an age-old relationship.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

The British established the Sikh Police Contingent in Singapore in 1881. Some Sikhs, who didn’t meet the stringent requirements of the British police force, took up employment with Chinese businessmen as private security guards. It is only fair that even in the afterlife, these Chinese businessmen would want to be guarded by their trusted Sikh ‘jagas’ (‘Jaga’ is the Malay word for ‘guard’).

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

Some of the tombs are also decorated with colourful glazed tiles, indicating that the person buried there was a member of the Peranakan community. More about the Peranakans in my previous post, Peranakan Tiles of Singapore.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

This green lung is also home to over a third of Singapore’s 90+ bird species (including 13 endangered species). We spotted this little guy in the underbrush (a white crested laughing thrush) along with several other bird species that were too quick for us to photograph.

Bukit Brown Cemetery - Singapore

It was a lot of walking for one hot morning and I resolved to be back with some of my ‘Brownie’ friends to learn more about the people who are buried here.

Today, BBC faces strong redevelopment pressures and there is a public movement to conserve the cemetery and all that lies therein. Its historical and ecological importance to Singapore is undeniable.



Filed under Asia, Singapore

7 responses to “Tales from Tombstones at Bukit Brown, Singapore

  1. Annelise

    Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. francis siew

    Wah, the way you wrote and the passion you feel for this place. Catherine Lim, not the famous one, will hunt for you to act as a guide

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emmanuelle

    Thank you for this nice paper… it gives me more desire to go there and visit BCC.
    The past week i went to Kopi Sua Cemetery via the entry close to Onraet Road.
    With all the public works, it seems to be difficult to visit BCC, via Lorong Halwa Gate.
    Could you please explain me the way you went ?
    Thank you in advance

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thnx for your kind words, Emmanuelle. I’m not aware of the other entrances to BBC. We visited BBC in mid-April and used the Lorong Halwa gate. The ‘brownies’ should be able to help you. Do you know any of them? If not, I could connect you to one of them.


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