Bukit Brown...work in progress
I visited Dr Hui Yew-Foong and his team at Bukit Brown Cemetery this morning. Yew-Foong is leading the effort to document the graves there that could potentially be affected by the new road. While we have discussed the documentation work at length at meetings, nothing beats walking the ground to try and understand what goes into all the effort. I also wanted to meet with some of the volunteers helping Yew-Foong and to recognise their contributions.
Annabella Leung briefed me on the tools and process before I went off tramping. Met a lovely couple, Wendy Tan and Chua Seng Huat who showed me their work on site. (Take photos. Clear vegetation. Chalk the inscription to help it stand out. Document inscription and details on form. Place ruler for scale. Take photos of details and at least 8 angles around the tomb). Tried my hand at chalking. Feels magical when the words 'popped' out! As it turned out, both Wendy and Seng Huat are regulars at my Kg Ubi CC! They also reminded me of the creepy crawlies they encountered there. Large spiders and cobras had been sighted...in particular a 2m long cobra!
Mr Seow Kit Chua, a retiree, is the champion documenter. His record was 41 graves in a half day sitting! Here he is explaining to me an inscription.
I also met two young ladies, Zhen Ru and Qiao Lin who were going to graduate from architecture in a few months time. They were helping to precisely map out some of the more interesting graves with their architectural devices. They certainly didn't expect to be doing this when embarking on architecture but I am glad that they are stepping forward to help.
Oh, and there was Rebecca Tan who came in later. It was her birthday... Happy Birthday!
I’m very glad that the documentation work is progressing well – almost all of 5,000 potentially affected graves have already been documented. It is no easy feat and I am so glad that Yew-Foong and his volunteers are giving us this support. Thank you all!
The rich heritage of Bukit Brown Cemetery is well recognised. Our decisions are not taken lightly. I do feel that there is more that we can do on this front. For a start, our Government is funding Dr Hui’s documentation effort, so that we can meaningfully capture the history of these graves. LTA will also use the findings from the documentation exercise to fine-tune the road alignment so as to reduce the impact on the graves. Some adjustments are already being made.
I guess as we move towards the future, tensions over development and environment-history-heritage will become more acute. To give us a sense of what could be developed in the Bukit Brown area - it can house 15,000 homes for around 50,000 residents; roughly 40% the number of homes in Toa Payoh town. These are homes for many many Singaporeans. This is not meant to trivialise the heritage value of Bukit Brown Cemetery, which I truly appreciate, but to put on the table the choices we have to make. Other plots of land around the island continue to be developed for homes. We will take back land for some uses, more land will be reclaimed, and we will continually explore how to innovatively create space. And yes, we will also seek to preserve our environment as well as our heritage.
As I have shared with the committee, while I know that there are points of disagreements about Bukit Brown Cemetery's development I am keen to focus on the common ground and chart out what we can do. The documentation effort is a great start and should yield us lessons as to how best to proceed on the next phase. We have more time for subsequent documentation efforts. We should also work with with LTA on the road alignment to minimise the number of graves affected. That’s important.
For the rest of the cemetery where 95% of the graves are, we are happy to look into how the area can be enjoyed in the interim. I have stated that we can and should bring in more Singaporeans to appreciate the heritage, culture and biodiversity of Bukit Brown. This, in fact, is the value of iconic issues like Bukit Brown and Our Rail Corridor. They are gateways through which we can bring in more Singaporeans to better understand and value our broader history and heritage.
Let's see how we can develop Bukit Brown in the interim, to make it more accessible to visitors, even as we maintain its rustic charm. There are also many ideas surfaced about the activities we can hold to bring this experience to life. I have chatted with Shawn Danker from Publichouse about the possibility of a photographic exhibition. Belinda Tan who is one of the enthusiast from the Bukit Brown FB group shared reams of ideas...I'm still ploughing through them!
Over the next few months, we should explore more ideas on how to make things happen. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, do let me know.
Cheers Yew-Foong and gang! Good solid professional work capturing not just the physical representation, but the story and history...much of which would fade in the not too distant future if we didn't do anything about it now.