Forget the museums - literally touching the past is what Singapore's Bukit Brown Cemetery offers! I was recently able to learn more about the decorative heritage tiles adorning many gravestones at this cemetery, which is the largest Chinese one outside China. Many important founding figures of Singapore are buried at this leafy and secluded part of Singapore.
Also known as Kopi Sua or Coffee Hill (coffee might have been an easier colour for non-English speaking locals to remember than 'brown' in the old days), the cemetery is only a 15-minute drive from the city centre. It was originally a plantation bought by George Henry Brown, who was a ship owner from Calcutta in the 1840's. He purchased the area and named it Mount Pleasant before selling it to Hokkien businessmen in 1872 as a burial and farming ground for the Ong clan. In 1922, it was reopened by the authorities as a municipal cemetery for the Chinese communities in Singapore.
Upon arrival, you are greeted by the road construction hoardings instead of the stately iron gates that once flanked the entrance. Unfortunately, a highway is being built through the middle of the cemetery and almost 4000 graves have had to be exhumed. Details of the graves were recorded in a documentation project sponsored by the government. In fact, my family had to exhume the graves of my great grandfather and his brother several years ago due to the construction.
I'm a big buff of Peranakan tiles, and on this recent tour I learnt that 70% of the tiles at Bukit Brown were made in Japan, 10% from the UK, 10% from Belgium and 10% 'other'. I just love thinking about the history behind the manufacturing, marketing and enjoyment of these tiles around the former British Straits.
The connections that these tiles have to history and their owners interests me greatly. I can't wait to go and visit the cemetery again to say hello to my other relatives still resting peacefully there. I hope they know how much this cemetery means to me, and are pleased by the growing interest in this special 'museum' of Singapore. Many thanks to Jonathan Siew and resident tile expert Victor Lim for organising this tour.
These tiles have been inspiration for my latest series Singapore Heritage Tile Art Collection