Between a rock and a hard place: Bukit Brown

I paid one last visit to the graves at Bukit Brown last weekend, the weekend before the rumble of machinery thunders into this pristine sanctuary. There were several occasions I had visited this grave (even one creepy night when I drove in by accident…which is another story) , but it was only on this weekend that I had the company of guides, tourists and fellow Singaporeans.

It was typical March weather. The insects were restless, the air was damp and the ground wet from an earlier shower. My last trip here was with the company of a friend. Cruising along in a vehicle, our appreciation of the graves were limited to bouts of “wow, she died a long time ago…” and “look at those statues!”.

Today, however, was a little different.

The guides took us to the grave of one Ong Sam Leong. If you’re a Singaporean, you must have heard of the street called “Sam Leong Road”. Well, Sam Leong Road as you know, is located in Little India – in an area unceremoniously known for it’s “adult” services. But who is Sam Leong, and why was his grave of such interest to the guides?

 

sam leong road

 

His tomb, is a palace of a tomb. The surveyable area seems almost as large as a 4-roomed HDB. Exquisite tiles pave the side of a small hillock. As you approach, you will meet with a small D-shaped moat, large and was once functional as a decently sized aquarium. As you walk up the brick paved arena and onto another layer of Peranakan styled tiles, you will meet with two massive tablets, inscribed with Chinese writing. Behind the inscribed tablets are two bulging mounds, underneath which probably rests the skeletal remains of Mr. Ong and his wife.

 

ong sam leong

 

The grave is surrounded by a knee-high wall of little sculptures and engravings. Normally, you wouldn’t give these another look. It is afterall just little stone depictions of people from an ancient time. We’re quite familiar with these images – you see them at any other temple. But the guide that toured us the grave, gave us an oration of each individual carving and then suddenly, the quiet hillocks of Bukit Brown, seemed to come to life. Each carving on Ong Sam Leong’s tomb is a tale of Chinese filial piety. Each one told the tale that felt at once both sad and remorseful. It was the type of story that made you reflect on your own life and made you wonder why you had not done that little bit more for your parents.

Take for example this carving:

hugging grave of mother

Two fearsome looking creatures, known in Chinese mythology as the gods of thunder and lightning. It then shows the image of a man clasping his arms around a tombstone.

This is the story:

“His mother dreaded most the sound of thunder-claps;

He knelt beside the bed to calm her fears;

Still he hurries to her grave and circles ’round,

Each time a rumbling thunder-storm appears.”

 

These stories made me reflect on the fate of Bukit Brown. Indeed being filial is the standard taught to every Chinese person, since the days of early childhood. It is an abomination to be nasty to your parents. The worst punishments of Chinese mythical hell is dealt to those who have been unfilial – and even though in modern days these standards have fallen, we still consider this to be a virtue worthy of defence.

So when the Government had to make a decision to exhume graves to make way for an expressway, I can imagine that it is not an easy one. No civil servant, save the minister, would take the responsibility of signing the documents authorising the digging up of somebody’s father, mother, grandfather or grandmother.

 tan chuan jin

(See Tan Chuan Jin’s remarks here)

It is a painful decision and I would like to believe that unless we had alternatives, MND/LTA would not have wanted to disturb the ancient resting place of so many of Singapore’s forefathers.

Have a read at some of these names, see if you found them familiar:

– Cheang Hong Lim,

– Chew Boon Lay,

– Chew Joo Chiat,

– Gan Eng Seng,

– Lim Chong Pang,

– Lim Nee Soon,

– Ong Boon Tat,

– Tay Ho Swee

Yes, if you added the words “Street, Road or MRT” (or nasi lemak) behind each one, lo and behold – you see where their significance comes in. Each one was a respected person in their own right, respected enough to have entire villages named after them.

Aside from the expressway, the further future of Bukit Brown remains a difficult decision. Should the country cater for more economic (and thus population) expansion? How do we preserve our heritage and still keep up with an expanding population? Are there no other sites identified for development, that will not interfere with nature (like Pulau Ubin) or history (like Bkt. Brown)?

The pragmatic will say, “Our grandfathers would rather us use the land than preserve it at cost to the living”, whilst the rest of us will rather have this space for our children and children’s children to come and appreciate where we’ve come from, why we did so and where do we go from here.

I certainly do not envy the decision maker of the fate of Bukit Brown.

 

About the author

Tay Leong Tan

Tay Leong Tan is a collective of 3 writers. Tay, Leong and Tan. (Who were you expecting?!) We are enthusiastic about labour issues, economics and current affairs in particular.

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