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