Thursday, May 7, 2009

kopi sua or bukit brown cemetery

the bukit brown cemetery was named after a british ship owner called george henry brown. he bought the area and called it mt pleasant. subsequently, the land was bought over by ong kew ho and the hokkien huay kuan. the government took over most of the land in 1919 and opened it as a public burial ground in 1922.

to the chinese, it is known as kopi sua (coffee hill). it must have been difficult for the locals to call it brown. in chinese, the colour brown is coffee. that was how it came to be called kopi sua.

on monday, we went to explore the bukit brown cemetery, one of the oldest chinese cemeteries in singapore. as it rained a bit while we were there, we did not get to move around very much. with one indian and two chinese, whose knowledge of mandarin can be best be described as 'half past six', it was a mission half lost because we could not read most of the inscriptions on the tombstones.

nevertheless, with some guesswork and by asking the cemetery workers, we did learn a thing or two. although it was considered a hokkien cemetery, there were chinese belonging to other dialect groups like cantonese and teochew, buried at the brown cemetery.

the year of death given in chinese does not correspond to the gregorian calendar. for example, if the year of death is stated as '32', it will translate to the year 1943 in the gregorian calendar. you add 11 to '32' to get 43, so 1943.

a number of graves were adorned with statues of two foo dogs, a male and a female. the male on the right holds down a ball. the ball symbolizes man's authority over the affair of his family. the female on the left holds down a kitten. the kitten symbolizes the woman's raising of children and household management. together these symbols mean that this relationship remain after death.

quite a number of the mounds were actually two-in-one: graves of husband and wife. there was one where the wife was buried in 1938 and the husband, thirty years later, in 1968. according to my friend jason, gold letterings on the tombstone indicated a man's grave and letterings (or rather chinese characters) in red meant it was a woman's grave.

traditionally, chinese tombstones were often made, and deployed, before the person was dead. the custom of using red lettering to let people know that the person named on the tombstone was actually still alive does not apply anymore. in the past, once the person died, the red letters would be repainted white.

at bukit brown cemetery, quite a number of the letterings on the tombstones were in red. does it mean that the person named is still around? no, it just means that the present generation and even the generation before are not aware of this tradition. red is just a common colour.

there was one grave which use is similar to those in the philippines: somebody appeared to have converted it into some living quarters. there were a number of dogs around and three singapore registered motorcycles were parked nearby but no one came out although the dogs were barking at us.

i just realised that where my father was buried - the cemetery along kheam hock road - it was part of the brown cemetery. all these years, i have been under the impression that my father's grave was located in the seh ong kongsi's cemetery.

photo taken during this year's qing ming festival

there have been talks of exhumation but up to now we have not received any notification of it.


peter said...

When I was a child, I love those colorful papers which were used for burning (like u illustrated in your photo). Can u explain the purporse of different colours?

When it was time to learn L driving, we went to Kheam Hock Road to the Bukit Brown Cemetery to do parking using the poles.

yg said...

peter, i don't really know but it seems there is a story behind this practice. you can read about it here

PChew said...

I am not too sure that red lettering on the tombstone means the person is still alive. My great grand-father died in 1926 and the lettering was painted red. His wife tombstone next to his was in gold lettering but she was not buried there.

Anonymous said...

I think these are not dogs but mythical animals called 麒麟, a combination of some features of deer,cow, horse and fish scales. I googled and found this description: 古代传说中的一种动物。形状像鹿,头上有角,全身有鳞甲,尾像牛尾。古人以为仁兽﹑瑞兽拿它象征祥瑞。2、比喻才能杰出的人。It symbolises that the dead buried is an outstanding person. This animal was a means of transport for God( for him to ride on).It is found in this website :

yg said...

mr chew, this was a custom in the past; it is no longer practised. we also used red paint for my father's tombstone. at most chinese cemeteries, i see a lot of rad lettering. it cannot be that all these people are still alive.

yg said...

hi anonymous, thks for the link. i tried but could not get to the website you gave. i read somewhere that these are called foo dogs and if you google (images)for 'foo dogs', you will see similar pictures.

Icemoon said...

Is that a coincidence? The one on the tomb could be a Ong. Eh, not your ancestor or relative bah?

Aren't Foo Dogs the ubiquitous Chinese stone lions?

yg said...

icemoon, that's the tombstone on my father's grave. did feel nice going around taking pics of tombstones of other people.

yes, i read that the foo dogs resulted from the descriptions of the lion the chinese missionaries saw on their way to india.

alternative-mom said...

Thanks yg, you are such a wealth of information! Thanks for sharing them. I'm learning so much more about the history of our past and the sights and nature around us through many of your posts!

Keep up the information and the sharing spirit! :)

Chelle said...

Hi i am part of a group from Catholic Junior College who is aiming to conserve Bukit Brown Cemetery for our Project Work A'Level. I have also been researching on the cultural siggnificance of BBC and so perhaps you could support us? Please check out our facebook group "Conserving Our Roots, The Bukit Brown Cemetery"
or contact our email at

Thank you! =)

yg said...

hi chelle, i will do that when i return to s'pore. at the moment, i have limited access to the internet.