Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Bukit Brown Cemetery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

I read with interest the Strait Times, April 1 headlines, "The could be Singapore's first World Heritage Site" that Singapore is making a pitch to list Botanic Gardens as its first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1859, the Botanic Gardens is 154 years old and seen deserving of this status not only for its botanic significance but also its pioneering and economic impact (rubber was brought to Singapore and some of these seeds were cultivated and planted in Botanic Gardens -the rest is of course is history) that made this region a rich powerhouse during the early years.

Call to include Bukit Brown Cemetery into the list 

There is already an existing and growing voice of non-government organisations (NGO's) and individuals that are calling on the Government of Singapore to consider and include Bukit Brown Cemetery into Singapore's list of sites that would be part of the UNESCO World Heritage site and equally important to that, put on hold the building the 8 lane highway that would have destroyed a site, that for the last 70 years, (since it was first established in 1922 by the British Colonial Government and prominent Chinese community leaders, See Tiong Wah and Tan Kheam Hock as the first public chinese cemetery for all Chinese irrespective of dialect and class status until its eventual closure in 1973), Bukit Brown public cemetery has since managed to remained intact and untouched despite the fast pace development of Singapore.
Taking shelter from the rain at Bukit Brown  in 1925
Taking shelter from the rain at Bukit Brown  in 1925
There are some graves in Bukit Brown that pre-dates 1922, with some of these pioneers re-interred in Bukit Brown during the years of Singapore development when many private and public cemeteries were reclaimed by government and redeveloped as housing estates. Examples of these include the tombs of Tan Kheam Hock, Tan Kim Ching, Cheang Hong Lim and many other graves that dates back to the late or mid 1800's (by the death date listed on the tombs).

When compared against the criteria for assessment of Outstanding Universal Value-Bukit Brown Cemetery, from my amateur perspective is able to meet a number of criteria's listed, for example criteria(s) iii, iv, v and x. I do apologise in advance if some of the examples may not fully match the real meaning of the criteria, but  i will still try to make an attempt at it. Some of this examples have been beautiful cited in Raymond Goh's article, "The forgotten heritage at our backyard" which also made references to Singapore Heritage Society's Position Paper on Bukit Brown, dated January 2012 and Nature Society (Singapore)'s Position on Bukit Brown and various articles on Bukit Brown.com. So i don't think there is a need to repeat all of them in this article, but i will attempt to come up with some examples that might meet the criteria list stated in UNESCO World Heritage site criteria of assessment.

Criteria (iii) - bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared

The Qing Ming practices that are still currently being observed in Bukit Brown could one day possibly die off with current land use for grave practices limiting to only columbariums or niches. Traditional observations have been simplified due to space constrains and also for the fact that families (from different family trees) will not have the luxury to gather together and do mass ceremonies due to space constraints. All this could lead to a cultural tradition practice dying off one day.
Qing Ming practices in Bukit Brown
Qing Ming practices 
Families in Bukit Brown during Qing Ming
Families in Bukit Brown during Qing Ming 

Families in Bukit Brown during Qing Ming
Families in Bukit Brown during Qing Ming 

Criteria (iv) - be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history

Bukit Brown bears many examples of these with tomb architecture's that are distinctly unique and rarely seen out of Singapore. Example are the peranakan tiles that grace the tombs, the 20 plus sikh guards, the unique chinese sculptures that depict their heritage and its evolution in later years, where the settled chinese community over the years, through interaction, socialisation, marriage with different racial or geographical groups have adopted different cultures features and western influences and Christianity, thus forming its own distinct flavour somewhat different, from their ancestral home in China. (e.g. the Peranakan community and possibility the beginnings of the Singapore identity)

Madam Oon Chin Noo (single largest tomb in Seh Ong)
Madam Oon Chin Noo (single largest tomb )

Art deco tomb of Lee Kim Soo
Art deco tomb of Lee Kim Soo 

Majolica tiles (also known as Peranakan Tiles) 

Western mythical angels seen at tomb of Teo Chin Chay

Sikh guards (a pair of an estimated over 20 odd) 

Lions that look more distinctly "British" like 

Criteria (v) - be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change

With the threat of the eight-lane highway, Bukit Brown Cemetery will lose it's character not to mention displace or destroy a number of pioneers grave along its way and the natural habitat that co-exist with its heritage. Although some say only over 3,500 graves (of the 100,000 graves are affected, but the highway will strategically cut through the best of Bukit Brown, right through Hills 1 , 2 , 3 and 4 slicing it almost right in the middle, changing its landscape forever. A simple percentage does no justice to the real damage that will be caused by the highway's destruction.
Tombs with pegs, indicating their eventual destruction by the highway

Criteria (vi) - be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria)

The epitaph that graced a number of tombs are unique in the messages or advice from the pioneers who have passed on. Some of the messages are simple messages or even carvings of filial piety, while others tell the story and deed of the ones who have already passed on. Others advice the future generation to contribute and be loyal to their adopted country that has made them prosperous.

Iconic tomb of Ong Sam Leong

An epitaph written by Khoo Seok Wan, a poet is also
buried in Bukit Brown
An Epitaph written by Khoo Seok Wan, a poet who is also
buried in Bukit Brown at tomb of Wee Teck Seng 

The cemetery also contains many works by stone masons and artisans of that period that are of outstanding work that are a rarity nowadays as tomb makers artisan's are a declining breed in Singapore due to the popularity of cremation.

A sculpture depicting 1 of the Immortals 

Iconic human height sikh guards 
Finally of course is the pioneers buried in Bukit Brown who played an important role in shaping the history of Singapore, Malaysia and even China. Nanyang Chinese or Oversea's Chinese from Malaya and Singapore contributed money to the Revolutionary Movement in the overthrow or reform (depending on the Party they belonged too) the Qing Dynasty and help Dr Sun Yat Sen in the creation of the Republic of China, 1911. Many of these pioneers are buried in Bukit Brown including Tan Lian Chye (better known as Tan Chor Lam), Khoo Kay Hian, See Tiong Wah, Leow Chia Heng, Khoo Seok Wan, Chio York Chiang and Lim Keng Chiew to name just a few.

Criteria (x) - contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of Outstanding Universal Value from the point of view of science or conservation.

Nature Society in their position paper, did a great job to cover this aspect. Do read their paper and you just might agree with me that its more than just a cemetery, Bukit Brown is a heritage park or dare i say a heritage and nature reserve. Bukit Brown heritage park or Bukit Brown Heritage and Nature reserves sounds way cooler.

Chestnut bellied Malkoha on a Giant Mahang tree

Fresh water stream and Bukit Brown's green lung

Fig Tree and fungi

Comparision with Skogskyrkogârden (The Woodland Cemetery) in Sweden

Skogskyrkogârden was inscribed into the World Heritage list in 1994. The design of the Cemetery by architects, Asplund and Lewerentz stood out for its intense romantic naturalism that kept the Nordic forest as the dominant experience, it incorporated the cemetery into the forest landscape. The buildings and surrounding landscape are thoughtfully conceived as an integral whole and this cemetery design is seen as first of its kind in terms of form. (criterias ii and iv)

In its inception to the World Heritage list, Skogskyrkogàrden was coined as an outstandingly successful example of a designed cultural landscape which blends landform and natural vegetation with architectural features to create a landscape that is ideally suited to its purpose as a cemetery. The creation by architects, Asplund and Lewerentz at Skogskyrkogàrden established a new form of cemetery that has exerted a profound influence on cemetery design throughout the world.

Bukit Brown Cemetery which has remain largely intact since its inception in 1922 and after its closure in 1973,  bears some similarity with Skogskyrkogàrden, but its evolution is different  in the sense that for Bukit Brown, the forest is slowly making its way back and claiming the cemetery and evolving it into a forest cum Cemetery ! Below are some pictures of Skogskyrkogàrden which i visited when i was in Sweden in 2012.
Skogskyrkogàrden visit in 2012

Skogskyrkogàrden visit in 2012

Conclusion

There are strong merits that Bukit Brown is able to achieve this Heritage status. What is also important is Bukit Brown’s role in the Singapore identity, keeping a nation grounded to its roots and keeping alive many cultural practices under threat of disappearing. As a space, Bukit Brown provides a place for serendipitous discovery of not only one’s roots but also one’s heritage, culture and identity.  And i haven’t even touch on the nature and biodiversity benefits yet ! Will the Government stand up and listen and put pause to irreversible damage of the 8 lane highway ? Will the Government form a team of heritage "brains" to consider the merits of Bukit Brown as Singapore 2nd Unesco World Heritage Site ? I sincerely hope so.



References

This could be Singapore's first World Heritage Site. (2013, April 1). The Straits Times, page 1
The forgotten heritage in our backyard. [website]. Bukit Brown Heritage Park.
Position on Bukit Brown. [website]. Singapore Heritage Society
Nature Society(Singapore)'s Position on Bukit Brown. [website] Nature Society, Singapore
The criteria for selection. [website] World Heritage Centre, UNESCO.
Skogskyrkogârden.[website] World Heritage Centre, UNESCO
Tong Meng Hui Tour.[website]. All Things Bukit Brown
What we have really lost -Joshua Chiang.[website].All things Bukit Brown
1913年中国国民党新加坡交通部正式职员表. [website]. 咖啡山墓碑
Sikh Guards at Bukit Brown. [website]. Rojak Librarian
Teo Chin Chay. [website]. Rojak Librarian
Wee Teck Seng.[website]. Rojak Librarian
Ong Sam Leong. [website]. Rojak Librarian





Criteria for the assessment of Outstanding Universal Value
The World Heritage Committee considers a property as having Outstanding Universal Value (see paragraphs 49-53) if the property meets one or more of the following criteria. Nominated properties shall therefore :

(i) represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;

(ii) exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

(iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;

(iv) be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;

(v) be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;

(vi) be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria) ;

(vii) contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;

(viii) be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;

(ix) be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

(x) contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of Outstanding Universal Value from the point of view of science or conservation.

1 comment:

Ivan Chew said...

Nice round-up. I thought you made very sensible arguments on what may qualify BB as a heritage site. I feel that even if it does not qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (e.g. "masterpiece", "human genius" are all relative terms) there is a case for Singapore to retain this. Thanks to your post, I think I might just mull over this and blog some thoughts. Cheers.