Saturday, December 7, 2013

R2R (ride to respect) our Pioneers @ Bukit Brown

Pic KC

Pic Cecilia Chung

So honoured Sulaiman of Rebound Centre came... in his World Tour ready Surly LHT.

Cemeteries used to give me the creeps but I see them differently now as they serve as peaceful reminders of people who once worked, played and loved on this land that we now live on.  One cemetery that everyone has been talking about recently in Singapore is the 200 year old Bukit Brown Cemetery off Sime Road. Ever since the news 2 years ago that a highway is going to be built through it, there has been great interest coming from different groups in Singapore.

Pic URA website

All Things Bukit Brown is one such group that has been documenting, promoting and lobbying for BBC to be preserved and for good reasons. Their members are nicknamed Brownies and are truly a lovely bunch of people.

It has recently been given World Monument Watch status, which means it is one step towards getting the prized UNESCO World Heritage award. A group of 21 of us from Love Cycling Singapore Group came together to discover why this is just not a piece of useless, unproductive land for the dead, standing stubbornly in the way of "progress & development" for the living in Singapore.

Pic ChuaSL

Arriving at the century old iconic gates of BBC, we were immediately transported into an oasis of lush greenery, rich nature and fresh morning air. It was great to see many familiar and friendly faces on small wheels. I had with me Claire Leow, co-founder of All Things Bukit Brown, who kindly volunteered her precious time to take us through this living museum.

Pic KC

Claire gave us an insightful overview of the history and heritage of Bukit Brown. We learned that it is the biggest overseas Chinese cemetery outside of China occupying 173 acres and has over 100,000 tombs of ordinary citizens to founding pioneers of early Singapore during the Straits Settlement days. Many of the who's who today have ancestors buried here including former PM Lee Kuan Yew, his late wife, President Tony Tan etc.

Pic Straits Times

Though it is a "Chinese" cemetery, it reflected the multi-culturalness of colonial Singapore in so many ways. Truly, BBC is the bedrock of our Singaporean identity. Elaborate Chinese tombs with hints of Western influences and even inscriptions in English for tombs in the early 1900s, point to a time where "God save the Queen" was our National Anthem. Fierce looking Sikh guards at some tombs were evidence of the sterling reputation of these trusted warriors, whose descendants were my classmates in primary school.

We cycled to our first stop - Tay Koh Yat's tomb. He was a very successful businessman who ran a bus company among many other businesses. He also loved his country and was a war hero who mobilized the 10,000 strong Chinese Civil Defence Force when the Japanese arrived on bicycles during WW2. Many of his men were killed in the Sook Ching massacre.

As we stood for a minute's silence as a sign of respect for those tombs that will soon have to make way for the new highway, Uncle Roland remarked how beautiful and clear were the sounds of birds singing away happily. Perhaps they did not know what is to become of their green sanctuary, which is an important base for their migratory path. 13 nationally endangered bird species live here and are put at risk once "development" begins. The words of Mahatma Gandhi are worth reflecting on...

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” 

Our merry group continued cycling on along the quiet shaded road in absolute bliss, connecting strongly with the fullness of nature. Claire stopped briefly to point out a tombstone with a small golden cross - where the grandmother of the present President rested. Our 3rd stop was interesting as it had the most elaborate of tomb design. What fascinates with Teo Chin Chay's tomb is the hybrid mix of Chinese lions, Western angels (naked) & Sikh guards and intricate carvings on the tomb mount.

Pic Straits Times

But for me, it was the best of co-incidences that my Great Grand Uncle Chia Keng Beng's tomb laid nearby. He was the eldest son of Chia Ann Siang, a wealthy land owner in Chinatown who hailed from Malacca and is buried in his own private land at Malcolm Road. The discovery of Chia Ann Siang's forgotten tomb last year by the Brownies brought immense joy to my family.

Pic KT

As we made our way serendipitously further around the beautiful grounds, we chanced upon 3 riders on horses looking so distinguished. Here was the rare meeting of 2 pollution free forms of transportation, that were much used at the time of our forefathers. It happened that one of the riders had a physique that look like a Superhero, and that got some of the ladies very excited.

Perhaps the most photographed tomb in BBC must be Chew Geok Leong's, the one with the 2 standing Sikh guards with cute puppies. He was a Chinese Physician in Geylang, who designed his own tomb while still alive. Claire pointed out that this is called a "live" tomb and I admire him for his forward planning. No wonder he was such an accomplished person.

It once again was co-incidental that the late grandparents of one of the more prominent LCSG member and bicycle guru, Chris Wee, laid just nearby! That discovery was also very recent.

Pic KC

We ended our tour with a group photo at this renown tomb, flanked by the famous Sikh guards with mixed feelings. Happy that it was an enriching morning where we connected with our past. Sad because of its bleak future. Our ride to respect all these pioneers who built Singapore could very well be our last as construction work has begun despite all the objections and considerations that have been offered by the public.

Pic KC

As someone put it very bluntly - how can the destruction of such a priceless Singaporean heirloom, so that the few privilege rich of Singapore can drive to their destination quicker, make any sense? I cannot concur more. The main issue seems to be too many cars on our roads. Instead of feeding this bottomless demand for more and more roads, why not get more people to ride bicycles instead of drive? Crazy as it sounds but they have done it in Holland and many countries are following suit. Doing so, Bukit Brown could very well still be around for all of us to enjoy, and yes, even for our generations to come.

We owe that much to our pioneers who have laid the cornerstone for our country's progress and development with their blood and toil.


May I encourage you to give your feedback on the future of Bukit Brown Cemetery here.  Every voice counts!

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