Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Crazy Morning at Bukit Brown Cemetery

Coming off a late Saturday night dinner at Ku De Ta, Jason and I were looking forward to crossing one more thing off the "bucket list" and meandering around some of the 200,000 graves of Bukit Brown Cemetery in central Singapore.  Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China and takes up 213 lush acres and is a haven for nature lovers. Apparently, for stray dogs as well...

The path
Jason and I arrived by taxi and began to search for our friends, the Wihmans, who were meeting us there with our children (sleepover the night before!).  Having no idea where we were going, Jason and I headed down a path, thinking it would take us into the heart of the cemetery where we would eventually find our friends and family.  Well, we certainly were WRONG.  As we passed scores of graves, we thought we were headed in the right direction, until we passed a caretaker's abode and saw a pack of stray dogs ahead.  Jason rightly became wary and we decided to turn around.  Well wouldn't you know it, one of the dogs ran up and bit Jason on the back of his leg!  It broke the skin, drew blood and all I can say is thank God that rabies does not exist in Singapore.

A minute or so later, all six dogs chased and surrounded us. I have NEVER been scared of a dog in my life, and I admittedly was terrified.  The dogs were different breeds and sizes (med-large and relatively stocky) but all shared the same vicious attitude.  While they growled and barked incessantly, we just kept yelling at them and trying to back away.  Eventually, they decided to back down and we hesitantly started back down the path.  But the ringleader decided he wasn't done with us and ran right back for round two!  At this point I had a huge stick in my hand and I was ready to use it.  Once he realized that it was a losing situation, he finally retreated and we went on our way, bleeding and anxiety-ridden.

"Just a flesh wound"
As a huge dog-lover, it was extremely upsetting.  And I hope I never have to feel that way again.  But I have to admit, Jason went into full-on protector mode.  Funny what adrenaline does to you - he was my hero!  And thank goodness our kids were not there.  Those dogs wouldn't have stood a chance with either of us.

So eventually we found everyone and embarked on our walk around the dog-free main path of the cemetery.  Opened in 1922 and closed in the 1970's, it is named for its first owner, George Henry Brown (Bukit means "hill" in Malay).  It was passed into municipal hands in 1919 to be designated as a Chinese cemetery and by 1929 accounted for nearly 40% of all registered Chinese burials within municipal limits (thanks Wikipedia).

The Chinese burial practices are very interesting.  They believe that the next world (called the "Yang" world) is a continuation of this one (the "Yin world"), and try to provide their dead with things they will need.  Ancient burials would include tangible items, but now offerings are made in the form of paper.  Loved ones will burn paper money, cars, even paper mansions, believing they will be received on the other side.  My friend, Liisa, took me to a store on Joo Chiat Road that makes and sells these paper offerings - you wouldn't believe the size of some of these items - dead people demand luxury!
A paper mansion!

Most Chinese graves are in the shape of an armchair, as it is thought to symbolize wealth, comfort and dignity.  As would be expected, they come in various levels of opulence.  As you can see in the pictures, some are rather plain, others have beautiful tiles and even Indian guards!  (sadly, I guess they also believe their "servants" will be serving them in the Yang world as well...).

Overall, it was a really interesting experience and I would love to go back by myself and just wander around looking at the details of the graves and the pictures and wonder who all these people were.  Graveyards always bring a sense of mystery and wonder to me, and this one brought that feeling to a new level. 

Unfortunately, Singapore has limited space and the need to alleviate some traffic problems has prompted the government to put a huge highway through the cemetery.  On the positive side, they are making the highway a "flyover" meaning it will be built above the ground, like a bridge.  They made that decision in the wake of protests about disturbing the plant and animal nature of the vast land.  Apparently, disturbing the graves is less important than disturbing the animals.  About 4,000 graves must be exhumed and relocated.  The families had a time period to schedule a private exhumation or to register for the mass exhumation.

Graves marked for exhumation
Unclaimed graves will be exhumed, the contents cremated and if unclaimed after three years, will be disposed of at sea.  There is a movement to prevent this from happening, but considering the exhumations have begun and the government historically does what they want - I don't believe it can be stopped.  Cooper was very moved by this situation and appalled that this could be done to the families.  For an 8 year-old, he has such a strong sense of humanity and right and wrong, and it is a joy to behold.  Sometimes issues seem to weigh very heavily on his mind, but I still believe it is a very healthy attitude to have.

Love the decorative Peranakan tiles

The Indian guards have cute little dogs at their feet!
Lastly, on our walk around the grounds, we encountered a fire!  Singapore hasn't seen rain in over a MONTH and conditions are dry, dry, dry.  It is a perfect storm for a large-scale fire, and this particular fire did not look to be contained.  So Pete did his civic duty and called emergency services (995 here!) and we saw the police come then later heard what we think were (as Pete referred to them) the fire brigade.  For some reason, Jason envisions show tunes and fancy costumes when he hears "fire brigade".  I picture Joe Manganiello in Magic Mike (look it up, people).


Jason's idea of a fire brigade

My idea of a fire brigade

If you'd like more information, read Liisa's blog post on Bukit Brown!

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