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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  Twilight for Bidadari

Text and pictures by Goh Si Guim
Bird pictures by Ong Kiem Sian

In the early days after the founding of Singapore, its
small population was confined within the city environs in the south of the island. The only Christian cemetery at that time was situated on Fort Canning Hill. It was soon deemed that cemeteries should be sited far away from the more populated areas. New cemeteries were created, first at Bukit Timah, and later, at Bidadari. Soon after, the burgeoning population began to spread throughout Singapore. Many plantations and the associated residential enclaves sprouted. In recent decades, the rapid pace of redevelopment have seen many old and disused cemeteries transformed into public housing estates and commercial developments.

Progress has committed its latest coup, encroaching upon Bidadari Cemetery. Like many cemeteries before, it, too, has to give way to the need for living space.
"Under the 1998 Master Plan, the Bidadari Cemetery sites along Upper Serangoon Road will be developed into high-density housing and is projected to yield about 12,000 public-housing dwelling units. There will be modem amenities and facilities to complement the housing, including a park and other open spaces."
Excerpt from HDB's e-mail reply
Having lived nearby for more than 20 years, since the mid-1970s, I travelled regularly along this scenic stretch of Upper Serangoon Road. I remembered being mesmerised by glimpses of the cemeteries while on the bus. The greenery was certainly a welcome relief after passing long stretches of built-up areas and congested city roads. The countless tombstones would be all aglow in the evening sun.

Bidadari Christian Cemetery

Bidadari Christian Cemetery
But, there was never the inclination of stepping into the cemeteries; perhaps the idea seemed strange then.

My first venture into Bidadari's Christian Cemetery took place only in the early '90s. Having seen people using it regularly for exercise, I, too, overcame the "fear" of cemeteries.

I found the undulating roads suitable training ground in my preparation for my Army Reserve in-camp training. As I jogged along the winding roads, I marvelled at the elegantly carved tombstones. Calls of birds and the occasional butterflies were constant pleasant accompaniments.
As my interest in Nature grew, I began to wonder if this picturesque wooded landscape could be a haven for wildlife. Many visits were made to uncover its natural richness. These trips were rewarding, revealing that there was a wealth of wildlife in this peaceful oasis. The grounds are covered with ornamental shrubs and grasses grown wild. Together, they create an "island of greenery" in Bidadari, providing many suitable niches for wildlife to flourish. Not surprisingly, this relatively undisturbed verdant realm sustains a remarkable diversity of wildlife.
More than 50 species of birds have been recorded here. Woodpeckers, starlings, bulbuls, kingfishers and orioles are a common sight, Migrant species were not lacking either. The rare resident Spotted Wood-owl was a very recent discovery. Other animals include Changeable Lizards, Monitor Lizards, Black Spitting Cobra and countless insects. With numerous tall and magnificent old-growth trees, this place is like a small open forest.

Viewed from a tall flat in Potong Pasir, the lush greenery covering this part of Upper Serangoon Road is evident. Chief among the mature trees are Tembusu, Sea Apple, Albizia, a variety of fig trees, Pong-pong and Acacia. Other important trees include the Jacaranda, Golden Shower, Mexican Lilac and Frangipani.

There was one early visit which left me with deep impressions that this place was tranquil for more than the obvious reasons.

Spotted Wood-owls,
Bidadari Cemetery

Indian Cuckoo
I had started my walk in the late afternoon from the Christian Cemetery to the Muslim Cemetery. As I came to rest on a small stone bridge over a drain, the sun was gradually setting over the horizon. The sky slowly turned intense orange and then started to darken.

Slaty-breasted rail
At this twilight hour, the Slaty-breasted Rails become active, emerging from under the thick cover of grasses to forage. This bird is very shy and secretive and will only appear in the open when there is little disturbance. It is absent for most of the day, preferring to rest hidden in tall grass or thick undergrowth.
I have also encountered them several times feeding amongst the tombstones. Ever alert, they are easily startled, often giving out a rapid series of "clack" calls while dashing for cover.

A family of White-breasted Waterhens also emerged under the cover of darkness. The chicks were being led into the drain for a bath. The adults got into the drain effortlessly with a few flaps of their wings. Their black chicks, however, tumbled awkwardly into the water. The ripples they created scattered the suds golden rays with dazzling effects. In this relatively safe abode, the family had a delightful bath amid shimmering lights.

Sadly, the building of the North-east MRT Line will bring about extensive development along its corridor. Bidadari will have to go, replaced by a concrete jungle. The proposed Woodleigh Station would sit astride the Christian and Muslim Cemeteries, but this would not be so until a critical traffic volume justifies its operation.

In a study by Yuen (1998/1999)* on this cemetery, several insights were made regarding land utilisation in Singapore. This transformation of burial ground to other usage represents the government's pragmatic approach of devoting a smaller quantity of land for the dead and dedicating a larger proportion for the living. Usage of land for burial is controlled, so that sufficient land is kept to meet essential economic development such as industries and housing. Over the years, cremation was widely promoted and has gradually gained popularity.

From surveys conducted of people living near and further away from the cemetery, it was deduced that, if given a choice, the majority would like to see the Bidadari Cemetery developed into a heritage or recreational park rather than having it exhumed for other developments. In fact those who live nearby do not feel that they are cemeteries but recreational parks. They use these places for recreational activities such as strolling, jogging, cycling, enjoying fresh air, relaxation and nature appreciation.

Hopefully, when the new housing estate stands on these grounds, the original landscape is not totally obliterated. Some relies of the old place should he incorporated into a park that would serve to inform the new occupants of its history. The concept is similar to what was done at Fort Canning. New residents could become familiar with the background of the place where they would make their homes. Indeed, the housing authority plans to devote some space for a park within the new housing estate.

In the Bidadari Christian Cemetery are graves of some prominent people. One of these is that of the late Dr Lim Boon Keng, who played a key role in the early days of colonial Singapore. Boon Keng Road was named in his honour. Some other roads in Singapore were named after the people who were buried here. There is also a row of graves of the victims of the 1954 airplane crash at the old Kallang Airport.

At the back of the Muslim Cemetery is a sector allocated to the Hindus. Here lies the tomb of a venerable Hindu "Priestess". It sits magnificently under the shade of an old, sturdy and over-arching strangling fig tree. Tied around this sacred tree is a red sash. The inscription beneath the statue states that the 85-year-old woman had attained Vaikundam, Sanskrit for "enlightenment". This and other significant features should not be lost in the development as they serve as valuable recreation and educational resources.

The Tomb of the Priestess,
Bidadari Cemetery

Bidadari Muslim Cemetery
Whenever I think of Bidadari, I will always have fond memories of the waterhen chicks silhouetted against a backdrop of scintillating light. And the loud haunting calls at dusk of the wood-owls. Writing this is to put on permanent record the existence of this charming and rustic place. Such are places that are becoming increasingly scarce.
It is a pity that my close association with this place has only been a little more than a decade. I am glad that at least we know a bit more about this cemetery than those earlier ones, on which we are clueless. Had we had a chance to explore them, we would have probably discovered they were rich in Nature and history too. A resting place for all
The Bidadari Cemeteries were opened in 1907. "Bidadari" was derived from the Sanskrit word "widyadari"; meaning a nymph or fairy. These cemeteries are multi-ethnic and religious burial grounds where Protestants, Catholics, Singhalese, Hindus and Muslims were buried. The cemeteries were officially closed in 1972. In the Christian side, near the beautiful ornate gate at the central entrance, there once stood a small chapel where services were held. It was torn down in the 1980s.
*With permission: Interpreting Landscape of Death.. The Bidadari Cemetery in Singapore —Yuen Kah Wai, Academic Exercise submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for Degree of B A (Hons) Department of Geography, NUS, 1998/1999

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