Bukit Brown Cemetery – Peranakan Trail

We have visited Bukit Brown Cemetery more than a dozen times, but on todays trail, we visit some of the notable Peranakan graves. Many thanks to Raymond Goh for leading the tour and providing explanations about each grave and person.

Bukit Brown was named after its owner, George Henry Brown, a ship-owner who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. The area was later bought over by Ong Kew Ho (d.1889), Ong Ewe Hai (1830-1889) and Ong Chong Chew, and turned into a cemetery around the 1870s for Chinese of the Ong clan surname.

In 1918-1919, a large portion of the Ong burial site was purchased by compulsory acquisition by the Municipality for the purpose of establishing a municipal cemetery for the Chinese community as a result of active lobbying by Municipal Commissioner, Tan Kheam Hock (1862-1922). As such, when the Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery opened in 1922, the new road leading to the cemetery was named in honour of him.

The tombstone of Ang Seah Im (died 1927), husband of Cheong Chwee Sim. Ang Seah Im owned properties in Malaysia and Singapore especially along Telok Blangah Road. He was a Chinese community leader and have business in mining, rice, rubber and trading. He gave his name to a place in Singapore called Seah Im (now HarbourFront), where Seah Im Road is still located. The road is off Telok Blangah Road, and is next to HarbourFront Bus Interchange.

The name Cheong Koon Seng is associated with The auction company he founded in pre-war Singapore, The Anglo-Chinese School which has a ‘house’ carrying his name, and Koon Seng Road in the heart of Peranakan Katong.

Tan Eng Neo (1859-1941), was the wife of Gaw Boon Chan, business partner of Chew Boon Lay. Gaw Boon Chan Tjhan bought over land (now Eng Neo Avenue) in 1900 when he came over to Singapore. After his unfortunate murder in 1911, his wife became the administrator of his estate which covers a total of the 21 lots. In a 1938 map Federation of Malay States Survey showed the plot of land that Tan Eng Neo owned, but there was no Eng Neo avenue yet on the map. There is only a crown reserve road linking Dunearn Road to the land owned by Tan Eng Neo. In a land deed dated 2nd Aug 1939, the Bukit Timah Rubber Estate Ltd agreed to construct a road not less than 18 ft around the land owned by Eng Neo. It became a public road only in 1976.

Chew Boon Lay (1852-1933) founded Ho Ho Biscuit Factory in Chin Swee Road. Owned large piece of land in Jurong, now Boon Lay Housing Estate and MRT named after him. He is buried with his wife Ong Cheng Neo, and some of his sons are also buried in Bukit Brown.

Chia Ah Thia, who happens to be my maternal great-grandfather, was a rich Chinese businessman who came from China at a young age. Around 1912- 1914, he owned rubber plantations and carp-rearing ponds in the Bukit Panjang / Mandai area. He later acquired many landed properties in the area off 10 milestone Bukit Panjang Road, so much so that the road was named Lorong Ah Thia, after him.

My aunt explaining the history of my great-grandfather Chia Ah Thia.

Chia Hood Theam (1863-1938), was a third generation peranakan, one of the first board members of the Singapore Chinese Girl’s School, and Comprador of the Mercantile Bank for many years, a position that he passed on to his sons Keng Tye and Keng Chin. In 1915 he bought “Rosedale”, a bungalow along Killiney Rd, and moved in with his growing family. Family photo by ccchia.com.

Lee Choo Neo (1895 – 1947) is the first daughter of Lee Hoon Leong, and aunt of Lee Kuan Yew. She is the first Chinese woman doctor in Singpaore. Her parents and father-in-law graves are also located in Bukit Brown.

Ong Sam Leong (1857-1918), was a Peranakan business tycoon. In 1899, his company Ong Sam Leong and Company became the key supplier of labourers to the Christmas Island Phosphate Company Limited. The company arranged for labourers from the coolie houses along Pagoda Street in Singapore to work in the phosphate mines on Christmas Island. Ong also owned a sundry shop on Christmas Island, which provided provisions to the workers there. Today, the road named after him, Sam Leong Road, is the local hangout for migrant workers from the Indian continent.

Lim Teck Kim is one of the sons-in-law of Ong Sam Leong, who is uncle to Lim Yew Hock, Chief Minister of Singapore from 1956-1959. Ong’s two sons, Boon Tat and Peng Hock, were co-owners of New World Amusement Park and were also well-known figures in the business community. One of his grandsons is Ong Tiang Wee, a partner of law firm Laycock & Ong and president of the Peranakan Association from 1948 to 1992.

See Teong Wah, the eldest son of See Ewe Boon, was born in 1886 and educated at St. Joseph’s Institution, Singapore. He joined the Hong Kong Bank as his father’s assistant in 1901 and succeeded his father as compradore in 1909. He took a keen interest in and devotes a great deal of his time to public affairs, and is a J .P. and a Municipal Commissioner as well as a member of Committee of the Straits Settlements Association. He was elected in 1916 a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and was president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Hokien Huaykuan in 1919.

All-in-all, we enjoyed the fantastic morning walk around the cemetery and was amazed by history of the place, mesmerised by the beautiful peranakan tiles on some of the tombs. these ceramic tiles are usually found on the exterior of the Straits Eclectic style Peranakan shophouses in Malacca. The tiles were once imported by the Dutch traders. You may see my tile collage below appear in print one day perhaps!

If you’re interested to find lost ancestors burried at Bukit Brown Cemetery or want to read more about the graves there, visit www.bukitbrown.org.

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