Singapore vs history…Bukit Brown

It wasn’t until I read a story by my friend Kirsten that I realized something–you don’t see cemeteries in Singapore.  I guess I had assumed they existed, but were in less congested parts of the country than where we live.

As it turns out this is both true…and false.

Singapore is 1/2 the size of Los Angeles or 1/4 the size of Rhode Island, for a handy US based comparison of size.  Total.  The population topped 5 million about a year ago (source).  By comparison, Los Angeles (which is twice as large) has a population of 4 million according to the 2010 census (source).

When the government needs space to build newer, bigger buildings older buildings are slated for destruction.  As it turns out, so are cemeteries.

Bukit Brown will be the newest cemetery to fall to “gazetting.”

According to Wikipedia, the cemetery was established in 1840 (predating the establishment of Singapore as an independent nation by over a century) and by 1929, it served about 40% of the Chinese population in what would eventually be Singapore.  The cemetery was closed in the 70’s.  Soon the graves will be removed and housing will be built in that spot.

My friend Kirsten’s family is one of the many affected by the gazetting.  She writes in a beautiful article (go read the whole thing)…

“Mrs Neo Pee Wan, died 26th April 1939, aged 47. Mr Neo Pee Wan, died 14th February 1958, aged 70.”

I stood staring at the gravestone, not quite knowing how to feel. These were my relatives, my family. Without them, I would not have my grandfather. I myself would not be alive. It was a little difficult to feel a connection, because I couldn’t picture them at all. I had never seen any photographs of my great-grandparents.

But I remember the stories my grandfather told me about them. About how his mother was an extremely musical woman with a “substantive lap” that he “rolled around on” as a child, and how his dad safeguarded his company’s money from the Japanese during the war (the amount of money involved increases with every retelling).

I also know how they died: my great-grandfather had a heart attack while combing his grandson’s hair. My grandfather went into the room after hearing the boy’s screaming, carried him to the sofa and was holding him when he died.

My great-grandmother died young. The doctor said it was hemorrhagic fever. “We stood around the bed and she was giving us a talk about family bonding,” my grandfather recalled. “Her parting words were, ‘When the day is finished, then I’ll go.’ She passed away almost exactly at midnight.”

She also says that…

To me, the stories my grandfather tells of his childhood days in Singapore are almost like fairytales. I can barely identify with them, because I cannot picture the open spaces of the kampungs, the images of children swinging from tree to tree like little Tarzans.

Listening to these stories, I often wish that I had the chance to see the Singapore he spoke of, feeling a nostalgia for a piece of Singapore’s history I never experienced, and never will.

“When you look around at Singapore, see how it’s changed, don’t you feel sad?” I asked him. “Don’t you feel sad to see the places you know disappear?”

“It can’t be helped, I suppose, unless you want to put the clock back,” he replied. “You can’t. That’s the price we pay for progress.”

Progress. It’s hard to argue with that. Everyone wants to move forward, everyone wants to develop and get better and better. I, too, feel that if we as a small country desperately need land for progress, then we don’t have much of a choice.

But then I think about the remnants of old Singapore that are disappearing one by one to make way for shiny glass-and-steel structures. I think about the lost backdrops to my grandfather’s childhood, and wonder if Progress will one day take the scenery of my childhood away too.

I think about my great-grandparents’ graves. Although my grandfather doesn’t mind their graves being exhumed to make way for development, I can’t help feeling a small sense of loss for a piece of family history, history that I was a little too late in discovering.

Apparently the gazetting of graveyards has been going on for a long time.  People did initially protest the idea, but Lee Kuan Yew, the first leader of modern Singapore slated his own family’s graves to be among the first gazetted.  Since then, it does seem like that while people are saddened by the idea, no one is upset.

This is difficult for me to understand.  Coming from Boston and with a degree in history, where centuries old graveyards are among the featured stops on the Freedom Trail, right there in the middle of downtown Boston, it’s hard not to want to preserve graves.  Art on grave markers is a really interesting field of history, and I’ve read several interesting books and articles on it.  When we clear away a graveyard, what are we removing beyond the bodies?

I think about New Orleans and the “cities of the dead” that are so deeply part of the local culture.  What would New Orleans be without the jazz funeral and the beauty of the cities of the dead?

On the other hand, as an atheist, I don’t have a strong attachment to graveyards that extends much beyond their historic value.  I don’t worry that Singapore is going to unleash a curse a la every Stephen King novel.  I may enjoy a good zombie flick, but I don’t think the zombie apocalypse will happen. I don’t particularly care about what happens to my physical body post-death.  In fact, I hope that some of my body parts can help science, whether in the service of organ transplants (I’m a donor, and as the mom of a child who may one need an organ donation–E has a single kidney–I feel like it’s good karma, so to speak to be willing to donate mine), or helping medical students, or some useful purpose (even if it’s just helping fertilize the ground where my ashes are spread).  But that’s my body.

I then go back and think about my grandmother’s grave.  I was extremely close to her, and she passed away the summer before I began 7th grade.  I was 11.  I’ve been to her gravesite twice that I can remember in the intervening 21 years…once at her burial and once when Elanor was about 5 months old.  In part because I couldn’t find the graveyard or the site without my grandfather’s assistance.  But also because it is very difficult for me to go there.  That doesn’t mean I’d be okay with the town of Monmouth, Maine just up and moving her gravesite or leveling the graveyard to build a condo.

It’s a complex discussion, and a layered one.  At the end of the day, though, Singapore has few options when it comes to expansion.  But I wonder what Singapore loses in not preserving its history.

I’ve been too ill to spend a day wandering Bukit Brown with my camera, but other bloggers have not.  Jeffrey and Flora, Laura, and Kirsten (in her personal blog) have all written about recent trips.

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4 Responses to Singapore vs history…Bukit Brown

  1. kirsten says:

    I also wonder what else we will lose from the bulldozing of such historic sites. Sure, if we really need the land for progress and for space to live, it’s hard to argue with that, but I also feel that in a way – even if it’s not immediately apparent – we’re eroding a part of our identity, and our connection to this land.

    Sure, that sounds very spiritual or hippy or even mystically pagan and I can just imagine people going, “Hmph, ‘connection to land’, piffle, we’re Singapore not some Native American reservation.”

    But this is where I’m coming from:

    When I was in NZ and living in Hamilton, I met people who had lived there all their lives, and who were settling there and living in homes that had been built by their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. They would say things like, “Yeah, sure Hamilton can be a little bit small-town and not so exciting, but this is where I come from. My family has always been here, this is the house my great-granddad built and all my family is buried here, etc.” In a totally non-religious, non-hippy, non-“the mystics of Avalon” way you see how having a history and a connection with the area in which you are born can create such a close tie between a person and his/her home.

    This is not a concept we’re familiar with in Singapore. Unless you are ridiculously rich, most of us will probably not have “family homes”. Maybe, family HDB flats but it’s more likely that we would get “en bloc” or the 99-year lease would run out and then we’d have to move. So there’s already no fixed home for generations that would create such a sentimental, emotional bond. And with the removal of cemeteries and essential wiping out landmarks of our history we’re just severing more and more of these ties. At the end of the day, doesn’t that just make Singapore even easier to leave?

    When you can barely recognise your own story around you because it’s changed so much from year to year, it’s so easy to dissociate and be all like “Screw this, let’s move somewhere else!” Loyalty erodes as memories fade.

    • Crystal says:

      I think you make eloquent and solid points as always.

      I didn’t grow up with a family home, either, but I do have connections to my family’s history that would never exist in Singapore. A really great example is that the elementary school that my grandfather attended in the 1930’s has since been converted to senior housing…he now lives there (which must be surreal!). He has also pointed out the farm his family owned (or lived on…I’m unclear on that) when he was a boy, and where his brother accidentally burned their house down (a grass fire got out of hand). I don’t know that it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about Maine (which is way too rural for this city girl) , but I *do* like seeing the locations where the stories took place.

      When I lived in France for a short time, I was based out Aix-En-Provence and they have preserved part of the medieval city. It’s a bit jarring to walk into what was a monastary to shop at Sephora, but it’s also kind of cool.

      I guess what I’m saying (obviously not cemeteries, here) is that with careful planning, a lot of things can be preserved and re-purposed to both allow for progress AND preservation. There are some old shop houses where this is true in Singapore, but it feels like there’s very little history, which is frustrating.

      Perhaps a connected issue or a different one is that there isn’t really a “Singaporean” identity either. Without history or national identity, it seems like leaving would be easy.

      • kirsten says:

        Today at the MRT station I saw the poster that proclaimed that July 15 – 21 (or something like that) is Singapore Heritage Festival, and seeing that poster after reading about the gazetting of Bukit Brown and the closing down of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station it was kind of like, “OH, GREAT. OH GEE THANKS WHY DON’T YOU JUST SPIT IN MY FACE TOO.”

        It just felt like the real thing was being taken away and we’re just going to get copies instead.

        There was a vague sensation of “I WANT REAL ROAST BEEF A MICROWAVEABLE TV DINNER OF ROAST BEEF IS NOT ROAST BEEF” when I saw that poster.

      • Crystal says:

        Yeah, there’s a bitter irony in a “heritage festival”.

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