As we sit around the grave of one of the pioneers of Singapore, military battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper, who has taken us inside the Bukit Brown Cemetery, asks us to be silent. It is a hot summer day, and the sun is unrelenting, and in this humid island, surrounded by trees and vegetation, most of us are sweating profusely. My friend Claire offers me her sole bottle of water, which I gulp down, without shame.
“Now imagine you are a young lad,” Cooper says. “You have just stepped off the boat from England after a long voyage to bolster the sagging morale of British troops defending themselves against the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA).” The IJA has already sunk Britain’s major warships, the HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse, and the Japanese troops are busy overrunning Malaya, threatening to invade Singapore. “And now imagine yourself in this cemetery,” Cooper continues. I picture the lads, fearful of ghosts, bats, snakes, and all sorts of insects, some of which can sting.
Adam Road and Lornie Road divide the cemetery from the golf course along Sime Road, where tanks were thundering along. “It is night, and the visibility is poor: The only light is from the large moon, and the only sound is of bombs going off, and of armoured vehicles advancing towards you. And then, hundreds of Japanese soldiers emerge, carrying swords, screaming Banzai!, their terrifying war cry, the swords gleaming in the moonlight,” Cooper adds. The young soldiers would have been shivering, not knowing whether to shoot, where to shoot, and where to flee. By morning, the graveyard has more corpses.
In the grand narratives of World War II, the attempt to defend Singapore once Japanese troops had landed on the island is a footnote. But the cemetery echoes stories of Singapore’s recent and distant past, and in a country which believes in reinventing itself all the time, those memories are now struggling to remain alive. The government would like to build an eight-lane highway and a mass transit station, with plans for more homes. If the construction goes ahead as planned, many of the graves will be exhumed and the remains will be moved, and a part of Singapore where you can’t find skyscrapers, will get transformed.
Such transformations are not new to Singapore. Over the past four decades, without letting sentiments interfere, Singapore has moved thousands of homes from former kampungs, as villages are known in Malay, to build world-class infrastructure, and has provided homes in high-rise public housing to the former kampung dwellers. In so doing, Singapore has not become a concrete jungle—an extraordinarily large proportion of the island’s land area is green. But each time the state remakes the island’s urban geography and redraws the highways, it comes face-to-face with its history. Singapore doesn’t get emotional about preserving its past, but a new generation of better-educated Singaporeans wants to hold on to the links with that lost time; they want to pause and reflect, to listen to those who moved from their former homes and cherish the memories of Singapore’s pioneers—the migrants from Chinese provinces who came to the island to search for a livelihood and to help build the metropolis.
I have joined a walking tour of the cemetery that a group of volunteers called All Things Bukit Brown offers on weekends. There are about 20 people with me, including Japanese journalists, an Indian expatriate married to a Singaporean woman, and a few Singaporeans who live abroad. The vast majority of the group is made up of young Singaporeans, keen to learn about their past.
Across, in the cemetery, we come across elaborately-carved gravestones. Some are covered by moss. A few have intricate carvings recalling Chinese fables. There are graves of brothers who supported the Kuomintang in China, helping Sun Yat-sen unify China. Some tombs have statues of Sikh guards, suggesting how the communities mingled; others have mythical guardians and venerable servants. Another beautiful carving shows a family looking after its elderly, reinforcing the message of filial piety that Confucian societies are supposed to exemplify. There are elaborate tombs of businessmen like Ong Sam Leong and also of Fang Shan, a humble coolie.
Many tombs have remarkable ceramic tiles. The decorative wall tiles were often found in Peranakan homes, in the interiors of shophouses in which Straits Chinese families lived. Usually glazed, the tiles often carried floral motifs. Some carry auspicious Chinese patterns, and you can see some today in eastern Singapore homes, in Katong and Joo Chiat, or in Emerald Hill downtown.
This city doesn’t seem to believe in permanence. I lived in Singapore from 1991 to 1999, and yet, when I returned there after more than a decade, I would get lost in certain parts of downtown. Patches I used to know as grassland had made way for high-rise towers; the apartment that had been my last home had been torn down, replaced by a similar-looking skyscraper.
Change is the only constant; transience the only certainty. The Bukit Brown Cemetery offers an eerie reminder of the island’s past. Later, as Claire, Catherine and I go to the other side of the cemetery, we find a stream where a few old men have gathered on a rock, exchanging gossip. Their kampung made way for development. Water flows gently, and there is a hut in which a tomb keeper lives.
We are surrounded by trees; there is not a single skyscraper in sight. In the small garden, papaya, pineapple and bananas grow. The men laugh and wave at us as we walk by. Across the road is the tomb of Koh Eng Khee, the grandfather of Koh Tsu Koon, former chief minister of Penang in Malaysia. Its stone wistfully says: “May the hills and streams be clear and beautiful forever and the sweet smell of green grass linger.”
Write to Salil at email@example.com
Also Read | Salil’s previous Lounge columns