Bukit Brown Cemetery: My Family Connection

I never imagined that a Chinese graveyard would be at the heart of my family tree research. The unexpected exhumation of my great-grandfather in 2012 revealed my personal link to Bukit Brown Cemetery. This event sparked my interest in one of Singapore’s most unusual commemorative spaces and uncovered other connections to both my Hokkien, Peranakan and Eurasian heritage, and to other places in Singapore.

Rediscovering my Peranakan great-grandparent’s tomb

Rediscovering my Peranakan great-grandparent’s tomb

With the help from my extended family and ‘Brownie’ members of cemetery’s volunteer guide group, I’ve since uncovered the graves of four other relatives. These include my great-great-grandfather from southern China, my great grandmother (who is also first wife of my great grandfather!), and my Chinese Peranakan great-grandparents. It's taken me several years just to get these details straight!

Visiting my Hokkien great-great-greatfather’s tomb during the annual Ching Ming tomb cleaning ceremony

Visiting my Hokkien great-great-greatfather’s tomb during the annual Ching Ming tomb cleaning ceremony

My surname reveals my Hokkien ancestry, and I never gave it much thought till I stood in front of my great-great grandfather’s tomb. I suddenly saw myself as part of a long line of relatives descending from China, and it felt both strange and wonderful. Born in 1855, Lim Hong Eok braved the seas between southern China and Singapore in the 1880s with his two sons, Lim Nee Yam and Lim Nee Chip. He died in 1934, and his tomb records his life story along with the inscription of his many descendants. Whether he had plans to eventually return to his ‘motherland’, I’m not sure, but some say he unable to return due to trouble with neighbours in his home town.

The tomb of my great-grandmother, with lovely floor tiles.

The tomb of my great-grandmother, with lovely floor tiles.

You've heard about those stories of Chinese and their multiple wives? Yes, it certainly happened in my family too! Madam Yang Tang Ho had seven children and one of them was my grandfather, Lim Chong Lay. There were two other wives, who ended up having three other children between them. I'm really not sure how my great-grandfather Lim Nee Yam handled it all, but apparently, he was a very generous and easy-going personality.

My Chinese Peranakan great-grandmother Ong Leong Neo

My Chinese Peranakan great-grandmother Ong Leong Neo

My father’s Chinese Peranakan side has been of particular interest to me as it is a hybrid sub-cultural group in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. I was thrilled to discover my great-grandmother’s tomb in 2014, and re-discovered it recently after confusion caused by nearby construction of a highway. After several hours looking for it in the heat, I ended up asking a cemetery caretaker to find it. Sure enough, I had a happy text message the next day informing me about its whereabouts!

A very popular peacock tile imported from Japan on the tomb of Ong Leong Neo, my Peranakan great-grandmother.

A very popular peacock tile imported from Japan on the tomb of Ong Leong Neo, my Peranakan great-grandmother.

My father has always strongly identified as a Peranakan, and I was interested to see my great-grandmother dressed in a Kebaya blouse with a Sanggol hairpin to keep her tell-tale bun in place. I was also amazed to find decorative tiles featuring peacocks, flowers and landscapes on her tomb, as well as on that of her husband next door, Tan Teck Yam (1874-1936). Until then, I’d only thought that people decorated their shophouses with these imported tiles, and was surprised to find quite a few beautiful and unsual tiles at the cemetery.

A landscape tile panel on my the tomb of Tan Teck Yam, my Peranakan great-grandfather

A landscape tile panel on my the tomb of Tan Teck Yam, my Peranakan great-grandfather

The twin tomb of my Peranakan great-grandparents is inscribed with both Chinese and English lettering, which usually means that the deceased or descendants felt an affinity with English, or were schooled in English. I have recently come across Chinese tombs that have only English inscriptions. My own father was educated in English, although he did attempt several weeks at a Chinese primary school before he ran away screaming…or so I’ve been told!

My great grandmother Ong Leong Neo. My mother reckons I look like her...what do you think?!

My great grandmother Ong Leong Neo. My mother reckons I look like her...what do you think?!

If you’ve just started looking into your family history, you’ll know the great feeling you get when you start to ‘join the dots’. Particularly as a person from a ‘mixed marriage’, it’s nice to uncover my heritage even if I don’t exactly look like my ancestors (local kids still try to ‘wipe’ off my freckles). For the sake of my kids and my invalid father, I’m glad I’ve been able to find out more about my past. I hope you get the chance to know more with your own roots too.

The next generation admiring tiles!

The next generation admiring tiles!

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Bukit Brown Cemetery - Tiles on Tour

A jungle in the middle of the island is the best place to understand Singapore - at least I think so. Learn more by joining a tour by a 'Brownie' - volunteer guides with a wealth of knowledge. I recently joined a tour on a public holiday, which had great turn-out with locals and visitors alike.

Learning amid the heat and mosquitoes can be interesting...seriously - these guides know their stuff and a classroom out in the open is better than any textbook! 

Decorative tiles can be found here and there in the cemetery - particularly on Peranakan graves. Excuse the large number of photos taken - there are so many beautiful and rare tiles that I have yet to see in other parts of Singapore. 

These flower tiles are of Japanese origin. The surrounding border tiles are also beautiful and probably from the UK. If you're equally fanatical about these gorgeous ceramic objects of art - check out my Instagram account for more shots and sharing! 

Lee Choo Neo was the first female doctor in Singapore and a brave champion of women's rights.

In Peranakan Chinese culture, the peacock is often a substitute for the phoenix - a symbol of the Chinese empress! And they also look very elegant. The tiles are from probably from Japan but earlier (and more expensive!) ones were from the UK. 

This grave is very mysterious and until this day, no-one knows what the suspended disk means. Some say that it might represent a mirror. Any thoughts? 

A beautifully manicured garden created by caretakers of the cemetery. 

These floor tiles are from the grave of my aunty who passed away in the 1920’s. Some might think it superstitious to photograph her grave, but I hope she doesn't mind and instead enjoys my visits from time to time!  


Interested to learn more? Free tours are run by the Bukit Brown 'Brownies' and more details can be found on the Peatix page and through the Facebook Group Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown.