At one with Nature and history
Text and pictures by Liz McKenzie
Bird pictures by Raymond Poon
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.
A "Jade Girl" in Qing Dynasty costume, Bukit Brown Cemetery
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".
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.
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
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
A temple lion holding off
the encroaching jungle
A Sikh guard
stands patiently, guarding the
who died in
the early 1900s
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!
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.
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
Olive-backed Sunbird at nest
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