Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A freeway over a traditional Bukit Brown cemetery in Singapore

I´m sharing some paragraphs from the article by Mimi Kirk, this incredible story of unrespectful developments:

 Bukit Brown, the largest Chinese burial ground outside of China with an estimated 100,000 graves, became a municipal cemetery in 1922. It serves as the resting place for some of Singapore’s most illustrious families as well as thousands of long-forgotten middle and lower-class citizens. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first and longtime prime minister, has a grandfather buried here (next to a descendant of Confucius, no less), as does Tony Tan, Singapore’s current president. Baked goods magnate Chew Boon Lay (1852-1933) also lies here.
 Despite this Singaporean ethos, Bukit Brown is a distinctly un-Singaporean space. Abandoned since 1973, overgrown tombs and large swathes of lush and unkempt land play host to groups of macaque monkeys, colorful African tulip trees, close to 100 bird species (some endangered), and other mammals, including the Large Flying Fox, a rare and enormous bat that was likely the inspiration for vampire movies. Nearby residents use Bukit Brown for jogging and dog walking, and others from all over the island still come to give offerings and perform rituals to honor their ancestors. A far cry from the tidy roads, malls, and condos of Singapore proper, Bukit Brown is touted as one of the country’s last wild spaces.

Last September, the Singaporean government announced plans to build an eight-lane highway through Bukit Brown, with housing developments (mostly public and subsidized) to follow in the next 15 to 20 years. Concerned citizens formed groups to protest the project, asking for at least more time to document all the graves and ascertain the historical as well as environmental value of the land. They had little success in swaying the government. Late last month, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that the highway project will begin in early 2013, though as a concession a section of the road will consist of a bridge allowing wildlife access to creeks below. Regardless, seven groups issued a joint statement conveying their “dismay and disappointment” at not only the outcome, but that the government was “inadequate…at genuine engagement and discussing alternatives.” 
 The fight has come as a surprise to some. Heritage has generally not been a front burner issue in the globalized and ultra-modern city-state, and protesting government policies has never been a hallmark of Singaporean culture. “Singaporeans have trusted the government to do the right thing,” says Jennifer Teo, a founder of the group SOS Bukit Brown. “But at the same time they are resigned to the fact that the government takes a ‘we know best’ attitude and does what it deems fit, regardless of their opinions.” Teo says she and her group felt that it was important to make a stand. “We believe the cemetery is an integral part of our country.” On a steamy Sunday afternoon, Teo leads a two-hour tour through the cemetery. Insects and birds drone and chirp, and a pair of corgi dogs rush back and forth between two enormous acacia trees, barking excitedly at several irritated monkeys. The smell of rotting fruit from grave offerings occasionally wafts by. Teo stops the group in front of a tomb to explain the shape of traditional Chinese graves. A circular mound fans out behind the gravestone, symbolizing the womb from which we come and to which we return. Ideally, a grave is set up on a hill so that rainwater flows down around it in concrete gutters. Such a spot helps ensure the good fortune of the deceased’s descendants. Teo points out one grave that has already been disinterred; the stone ledge in front of the mound has been broken. "This tells the spirit not to return," she explains. 
 Cemeteries like Bukit Brown are no longer active in Singapore. Chinese Singaporeans are on the whole cremated now, the ashes placed in urns and stored in columbariums. The approximately 3,700 graves that will be affected by the highway (not to mention the thousands more if housing development plans ultimately go through) will go this route. The LTA has begun to publish the names of affected graves so that descendants can claim the remains, with a deadline of December 31, 2012. Those remains not claimed by the deadline will be cremated and the ashes held for three years, at which time they will be scattered at sea. The government has empowered Dr. Hui, the anthropologist, to head up extensive documentation of the affected graves. Hui has done this kind of work before at now-defunct cemeteries, but notes that he was previously an unpaid volunteer.

Read the article in full:

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