The Bukit Brown Cemetery Documentation Project

\ what is bukit brown cemetery?

 

Bukit Brown Cemetery (BBC) was the first Chinese municipal cemetery in colonial Singapore. As early as 1904, the Chinese community in Singapore had been lobbying the municipal government to set aside a cemetery for non-Christian Chinese. At that time, such burial needs were taken care of through private family cemeteries or clan association cemeteries. However, changes in the laws then were constricting the amount of space available for such burial grounds, which was why the Chinese clamored for a public cemetery to take care of their burial needs. The colonial government was reluctant to venture into starting a municipal cemetery for the Chinese because they expected that the Chinese, with their beliefs in geomantic principles (with very individualized preferences for size and direction, and therefore given to what would appear like a haphazard layout), would not be willing to subject themselves to the grid-like standard plots of a municipal cemetery. However, by the late 1910s, the municipal government was convinced that such a cemetery was feasible, and by 1919 had acquired 173 acres of land for the public cemetery.


In 1922, BBC became the first Chinese municipal cemetery to be opened by the colonial government. It was a cemetery that did not require communal affiliations, that is, a relationship with a family or clan, before one could be buried. Thus, it was the first Chinese cemetery that facilitated a pan-Chinese identity in organizational and spatial terms. That is, Chinese of diverse communal origins, such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese, or surnames could be buried next to each other.


Initially, the Chinese were reluctant to subject themselves to the discipline of a municipal cemetery. It was more than three months before the first burial took place, and only 93 were buried in the cemetery during its first year of operation. However, by 1929, more than 40% of all burials within municipal limits were at Bukit Brown. It became acceptable and commonplace for Chinese of different communal origins, whether rich or poor, elite or commoner, to be buried at Bukit Brown. This trend continued till 1944 when the cemetery became full, although those with reserved plots could still be buried in BBC till it was officially closed in 1973. As such, it is also commonplace for Chinese Singaporeans today to have ancestors buried in Bukit Brown.


Adapted from Hui Yew-Foong, 2012, "Debating Bukit Brown: bringing a cemetery to life in Singapore", in The Newsletter, issue 62, p.44. Leiden: International Institute for Asian Studies, available from: http://iias.nl/the-newsletter/.