Only 2km west of the entrance to MacRitchie Reservoir Park, the Chinese cemetery at Bukit Brown is imbued with a sense of history, of how Singapore society and customs have changed and are still changing. The site, threatened with redevelopment, has been the focus of a concerted campaign to save it, one by-product of which is that volunteers sometimes lead free half-day walking tours that anyone can turn up for (search the web for the latest, or try bukitbrown.com). Even if you don’t come on a tour, the cemetery is well worth wandering for an hour or more: the grounds are lush, there’s the chance to spot wildlife and the tombs are fascinating for their architecture. On a practical note, be sure to bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
Bukit Brown is named after G.H. Brown, a British businessman who lived in the vicinity in the mid-nineteenth century. The land was subsequently bought by three Hokkien businessmen, and then in the 1910s, the colonial government acquired part of it to create a sort of official cemetery open to all Chinese subgroups. That section, launched in the 1920s, has become the Bukit Brown cemetery of today. In the 1970s the cemetery was deemed full, since when it has been more or less abandoned (and since when cremation has become largely standard practice in Singapore, given the lack of land).
Bukit Brown’s significance today stems not merely from the importance of some personages buried there, but also from its sheer size – it stretches 2km east to Thomson Road – and location fairly close to downtown. Despite the huge potential of the site, it remained untouched while other old cemeteries were uprooted for redevelopment without a great deal of outcry. But with Singaporeans seemingly becoming much less compliant, a campaign of online petitions, Facebook groups and the like has greeted the government’s recent plans to push a highway down the middle of the cemetery.
At the time of writing, exhumation of graves in the path of the planned road was ongoing, and the road itself may be built by the time you read this. It’s hard to say if the rest of the cemetery will ultimately give way to new housing estates or other projects.