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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  Bukit Brown
At one with Nature and history

Text and pictures by Liz McKenzie
Bird pictures by Raymond Poon

A "Jade Girl" in Qing Dynasty costume, Bukit Brown Cemetery
In Thomas Gray's famed ode "Elegy written in a County Churchyard" he contemplates the serenity and tranquillity of a cemetery in the English countryside. Singapore's older cemeteries are also places of contemplation and activity, and are popular with local residents and nature-lovers. In her 'elegy' to Bukit Brown, Liz McKenzie shares her enthusiasm for the bygone days of this pre-war Chinese cemetery and some of its "long-term residents".
I used to consider Bukit Brown, the old abandoned Chinese cemetery off Sime Road and Kheam Hock Road, as one of the best kept secrets in Singapore. However, over the past four years, I have shared this secret with so many friends, I can hardly call it a "secret" any longer! My daily walks in this wonderful, unspoiled jungle garden, have not only been peaceful and soothing, but I have also been inspired by my surroundings to learn something about the history, culture, beliefs and practices that were quite unfamiliar to me in my new home, Singapore.
Understanding breeds respect and here among the old "Arm Chair"- shaped tombs resting in the tangled undergrowth, I have learned so much about unfamiliar and unique traditions that I have been instilled with a great respect for the beliefs of others.

I think that it was President Roosevelt who said, "Historic buildings are the archives of a nation"

A tombstone decorated
with tiles and creepers
This cemetery has certainly become my outdoor "archive", and through my fascination with it, I have learned something about the early pioneers and their contributions to Singapore. I have a glimmering of understanding the practice of feng shui or geomancy and how this practice relates to the positioning of a burial site. I know a little about the importance of proper death and burial rituals and why the observation of filial piety remains of utmost importance, even after the death of a parent. I can finally recognise and name a selection of the gods and deities whose carved images grace the tombs and I have explored the history and wonderful myths and legends associated with them. I have learned about and have experienced the Ching Ming Festival and The Festival Of The Hungry Ghosts and have investigated the wealth of symbolism which can he found intricately carved onto the tombstones.
Chinese culture has a rich variety of symbols that are not only decorative but are also expressions of religious beliefs, of good wishes for luck, wealth and longevity. The cemetery is a wealth of symbols - from a tiny mouse and dainty butterfly to a powerful dragon and a soaring phoenix. From plum blossoms and peonies and the gentle Chi'lin, to tigers driving demons and splendid temple lions with their gargoyle-like smiles.

A temple lion holding off
the encroaching jungle
A Sikh guard
stands patiently, guarding the
property of
a prominent
who died in
the early 1900s
Standing forever at attention beside some of the more prominent pioneers of Singapore are proud Sikh Guards, with their cavalry turbans immaculately in place. Their uniforms would pass the most gruelling inspection. Loyal protectors who were once entrusted with business premises, now stand guard over valuable property in the afterlife. The old tombstones have so much to teach us if we take time to read them!
Not only do I enjoy the pursuits of understanding cultures that are new to me, but Bukit Brown has become my daily "nature ramble" as well. The roads and paths circle and loop around a large unspoilt open area of grassland and undulating dense areas of huge trees left free to spread and tower unchecked by the constraints of the city. Creepers run riot, tangling the undergrowth and strangling some of the old tombstones, while ferns of every variety thrive in this shaded refuge.

This leafy canopy affords an ideal habitat for so many species of birds, a habitat right within the city that is rapidly shrinking due to urbanisation. While I am still a beginner as far as identifying Singapore birds, I do go with my handbook and binoculars and I have identified so many common and the not-so-common species that have made their homes in Bukit Brown. I have also enjoyed meeting members of the Nature Society on my walks there, who know the area well and who spend many hours photographing the living inhabitants of this peaceful place!

Oriental Magpie-robin

Olive-backed Sunbird at nest
Long may the birds of Singapore be left to enjoy this natural environment and long may the ancestors of Singaporeans be left to rest in peace in the shade of Bukit Brown.

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