Friday, July 8, 2011

Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery

In one week, two of my friends highly recommended visiting Bukit Brown. At first I wasn't sure why my pals were so adamant that I should visit a creepy old cemetery, but then Andrea mentioned monkeys and Flora (who did her own blog post on B. Brown) mentioned abandoned stuff and I was sold. Bryan and I went on Saturday, the next available opportunity.

After a particularly harrowing cab ride that ended up taking about three times as long as expected due to three separate accidents on the PIE (I swear everyone on the road that day was drinking liquor, smoking a cigarette, eating a sandwich, and texting simultaneously), we arrived at an imposing old gate with an old man quietly dozing next to it. We walked through and into Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery.

I was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the cemetery. In Singapore, it is very rare to see wide open spaces, but the cemetery was very spacious. The whole area was lush and green, peppered with overgrown gravestones.
Lookin' a little dilapidated
So green!

There were small placards around, with information on where to go to see notable gravestones, such as the oldest known Chinese grave in Singapore, which dates from 1833 (it was originally somewhere else, and was relocated to B. Brown in 1941). The placards were placed by the Asia Paranormal Investigators, as part of the Saving Bukit Brown Project. A new MRT station was recently built near Bukit Brown (but it isn't open yet), and the cemetery is slated for redevelopment as a housing estate. API hopes to see the historical site spared, and so do I. It's such a peaceful place, and it seems so disrespectful to disturb all the gravesites. Not to mention the fact that I wouldn't want to live in a house built over an old cemetery! I mean, that seriously did not end well for those people in Poltergeist...
Oldest Chinese grave in S'pore

Gravestones were everywhere, and each one was unique. Some had small photos of the deceased, others were very plain, some were adorned with fancy gold writing, and many had small statues flanking them.
An intimidating defender.
Jungly guardian lion
Detailed embellishments
Mossy guardian

In terms of gravesite decorations, I was particularly fond of the tiles that adorned some of them. They reminded me of something my grandmother would have had in her bathroom, but somehow they still looked really pretty!

The graves were is various states of decline- some were so long abandoned that they were crumbling and being overrun by vines and trees. Many more just looked a little unkempt, and a few looked new and well-tended. The really abandoned ones were kind of sad, having been left to rot. But there was also something kind of poetic about them, the same thing that I find strangely beautiful about all manmade things left to be overtaken by nature. It always reminds me that life is fleeting.
Nature takes over
A more modern gravestone, amid all the ones falling apart

As we walked along the road, we saw loads and loads of birds: kingfishers, pigeons, spotted doves, black-naped orioles, and more. They were everywhere, especially the kingfishers. I don't think I've ever seen so many kingfishers in one place!
Collared kingfisher

The birdlife wasn't the only thing flourishing at Bukit Brown. There were flowers blooming all over, and as usual most of them were unfamiliar to me. I need to brush up on my botany!
These look like cabbage!
And these look like plastic!

As I scouted the trees for more birds, I noticed some bigger movement. Monkeys! I had heard that there were monkeys living in the cemetery, but we hadn't really expected to see them. We took a seat on the side of the road and watched them playing in the trees and romping over the tombstones. It was really neat to see them in a slightly different habitat.
This mom had a wiggly, rambunctious baby!
An interesting perch
Tough guy
Monkey shenanigans

Right up the path from the monkeys was an elaborate offering of oranges. I was astonished that the monkeys were refraining from raiding the offering- they love oranges! But the whole time we were there, we only saw one female timidly sidle up to the plate, grab a fruit, then scurry off. All the others left them alone.
One brave soul

The oranges weren't the only offering we saw. Others included cakes, paper money (for spending in the afterlife, of course), incense, and mysteriously, a pretty sweet action figure.
Obviously the best offering in the place.
Sweet incense burner

Down the path from the monkeys and action figures was the best abandoned thing in the whole cemetery. It was a gate that looked like it might have been attached to a fence long ago. The fence had long since disintegrated, leaving the gate looking rather pointless on its own, smack in the middle of a sea of graves. It was in the process of rusting into oblivion. I loved it.
The year on the stone says 1942, but it looks much older
One of the more crowded sections of the graveyard

In this area, Bryan also got lucky and spotted a cute juvenile monitor lizard clinging to the base of a tree. Bukit Brown seems to be quite the wildlife hideaway!
Awwww he's peeking!

Some of headstones had a strange, bright orange moss (or lichen?) growing on them. Another unusual thing about the graves was that most people seemed to be buried behind the tombstones rather than in front of them like I'm used to seeing in the US. Also, most of the graves had a circle of bricks or stones to denote where people were buried. I liked that because it made it easier to avoid walking over someone's grave, which always feels a bit inconsiderate.
Strange orange stuff
Grave with borders, probably for a family.

We'd been in the graveyard for over two hours at that point, and we decided we should start heading out so that we could give ourselves plenty of time to exit before the gates closed at 5:30. Of course we thought we knew where we were, but naturally we were wrong. We spent some quality time following promising leads that led into brick walls or dead-ends. We were starting to laugh nervously and joke about spending the night in a rather creepy location when we encountered some people on horseback. We asked them the way out, and they set us in the direction of an exit. It wasn't the way we came in, and it dumped us off by an equestrian club, but it was nice to get out before it got dark. Plus we saw some more cool birds on the way out, including some white-crested laughingthrushes and a greater flameback. Unfortunately we only managed blurry pictures before they flitted off.
Greater flameback

Bukit Brown is a really cool place, and I sincerely hope that the advocates of preserving it are successful. Singapore has so few historical places, and such little wild space left that it would be a shame to lose a spot like Bukit Brown, which is both historical and nature-y. I recommend visiting while you still can!

By the way, voting for the Singapore Blog Awards closed on July 3rd. We find out the results at the awards ceremony on July 23rd. I'll keep you posted! Thanks so much to everyone who voted!!


  1. Thanks Crystal!

    I spent the morning looking at the S'pore map trying to find a park or nature destination that we have not seen yet since we were at loss what to do. Then I checked your blog. Bukit Brown it was!

    That was some great place. Except for two horseback riders and the guy at the gate, we didn't see a single human being in our two to three hours there (GPS helps to find the way :). We didn't see any monkeys either in the cemetery, but quite a few climbing over the estate near the entrance. We saw a lot of birds, though, and a monitor.

    BTW, have you taken the railroad walk yet?

  2. Thanks for doing up such a detailed blog entry on the Bukit Brown Cemetery! Been wanting to head there since the news about its impending exhumation hit headlines a mth ago. Your blog will definitely come in handy because it will give me an idea of what to expect and also what to look out for when im there.

    Looking forward to seeing you on 23rd July! :)

  3. Tei, I'm glad you checked it out! We were really surprised by it. It was really nice to go somewhere and be in nature and also away from people. That doesn't often happen at the nature reserves, especially on the weekends.

    We keep thinking we're going to do the railroad walk but then we end up doing something else. We were at Bukit Timah on Saturday and we could see people walking along the tracks and we were shocked at how BUSY it was- there were SO MANY people going by! I think we might try to go to a less crowded part of the tracks, or hold off until some of the novelty wears off. But we definitely want to check it out.

  4. Crystal, great post! I want to go back to Bukit Brown to take more photos.

  5. Please hurry, since the tracks are fully open only until July 17, then they start to close sections to remove the rails --- they've already removed some near Woodlands. We walked it yesterday, and it was pretty crowded from Alexandra to Bukit Timah, but after The Rail Mall, there was practically no one!

  6. Woah! I didn't realize they were going to close them so soon. No wonder it's been so crowded! We'll have to try to go as soon as possible. Thanks Tei!

    And thanks Flora :)

  7. btw, an interesting thing happened: when going to Bukit Brown, the taxi driver refused to take us all the way to the gate, but insisted that he leaves us farther away at the intersection and we walk rest of the way. He kept repeating this until we assured him it is perfectly ok. When we got out of his vehicle, he speeded away.