尘封轶事：从武吉布朗追溯新华两百年 (Chen Feng Yi Shi: Cong Wu Ji Bu Lang Zhui Su Xin Hua Liang Bai Nian) traces past stories and memories of the Bukit Brown cemetery and sheds light on the history of Chinese in Singapore for over 200 years. Before it was officially known as Bukit Brown, the Chinese community called the area Tai Tuan Shan (太原山) or Xing Wang Shan (姓王山).
Bukit Brown comprises a municipal cemetery and three Chinese clan cemeteries. The Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery (BBMC), located between Lornie Road and Mount Pleasant Road, was set up by the colonial government in 1922 as a public burial ground for the wider Chinese community. Bukit Brown was named after Mr George Henry Brown, a British ship owner and trader who came to Singapore from Calcutta in the 1840s. Mr Brown bought a piece of land where he lived which later became known as “Mr Brown’s Hill”. In 1872, it became a cemetery for the Seh Ong Kongsi, a Hokkien clan association for people with the surname Ong. Since then, Bukit Brown had become the final resting place for many Chinese pioneers as well as ordinary migrants until its closure in 1973.
The Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced plans in 2011 that Bukit Brown had been earmarked for residential and an eight-lane road development. It became a focal point that galvanized many citizens and grassroot groups to come forward and advocate for the preservation of this historical site with its rich cultural heritage. Prior to 2011, few people realised that BBMC and the surrounding three Chinese clan cemeteries were home to more than 200,000 graves, the largest Chinese cemetery outside China. When old cemeteries around Singapore were cleared for development in the early 20th century, many graves were moved to Bukit Brown. As such, the graves in Bukit Brown dated as far back as the early 19th century. Those buried there included prominent pioneers such as Khoo Seok Wan (邱菽园), Cheah Hong Lim (章芳林), Chew Boon Lay (周文礼), Gan Eng Seng (颜永成), Ong Sam Leong (王三龙), Boey Chuan Poh (梅泉宝), Ong Boon Tat (王文达) and many more.
The author, Walter Lim (林志强), a local amateur historian, spent seven years to complete the book. From the names of the tombs’ owners and the inscriptions on the headstones, he deciphered the stories behind them using various reference materials including historical newspapers, archives such as the Bukit Brown Registry and Cemetery Exhumation Record, books and online resources. The book consists of 30 essays divided into 5 sections, namely, Discovering Cemetery (坟山探索), Reform Movement of 1898 (维新革命), Untold Past Stories/Chen Feng Yi Shi (尘封轶事), Local Customs and Traces (风土足迹) and Operas and Films (舞台春秋). The appendices include a map of the Bukit Brown Heritage Trail with brief introductions of 59 tombs and directions to Bukit Brown Cemetery by MRT, bus and car.
The first section of the book narrates the historical events and characters connected with Bukit Brown, including changes of political powers in modern Chinese history, the Brown family, old Chinese private cemeteries, Japanese cemetery and members of secret societies from Ghee Hin Kongsi (义兴公司). The second section highlights the stories and contributions of some pioneers who left meaningful legacies in the form of schools, hospitals, banks, newspapers, temples and associations that they had set up. The third section discusses the development of schools and bilingual education in early Singapore as well as the history of the Straits Chinese. The fourth section narrates the history of Sun Yat-Set Nanyang Memorial Hall, Alkaff Mansion, different locations of Chinatown in Singapore during the 19th century, Maha Sasana Ramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple and 15 street names associated with Burma. Lastly, the fifth section talks about the transformation of Chinese operas and films in colonial Singapore, covering Li Chun Yuan (梨春园) Theatre, Sheng Ping Yuan (升平园) Theatre, Amoy Films, Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳), Lim Chong Pang (林忠邦) and others.
The book provides valuable reading material for those who are interested in exploring the history of Singapore. Bukit Brown is indeed more than just a cemetery. It is a living archive that allows us to make our own discoveries and observations through walking its grounds, and in combination with all the other available resources. For Singaporeans and people residing in Singapore, a better understanding of Singapore’s history and heritage would increase our own sense of belonging to Singapore, and remembering the past will shape how we view ourselves and our future. As Jo Prudence, the great-great-granddaughter of George Henry Brown, points out in the prologue of the book,
“We all need reminding of our roots, we all need an invitation to evaluate the past. And most significantly we all need to be able to honour the past and our ancestors and all that they created before us but we cannot do that unless we have books, like Walter’s, setting the truth of our history before us.”