“When the day is finished”

Kirsten Han /

As a little girl (and even now), I loved listening to my grandfather’s stories of his childhood and old Singapore. In the telling of these stories, he would often mention his parents – how close he was to his mother and how the children were all intimidated by his father.

I don’t know why, but it never actually occurred to me to ask where my great-grandparents were buried. I only found out last week, when I called my grandfather to ask if he knew anyone with relatives buried at Bukit Brown, which has been gazetted for development by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

“Of course I know someone,” he said. “Me.”

Not only are my grandfather’s parents buried in Bukit Brown, but also his maternal grandparents’. However, no one in our family can remember where my great-great-grandparents’ graves are anymore.

L - R: My mother, my grandfather and my cousin

Last Sunday my mother, my grandfather, our cousin and I took a trip to Bukit Brown. It was the first time in a long time that my grandfather had been to visit his parents’ graves. My mother had been once as a child, and I never at all. Our cousin would visit once or twice a year, and came to show us the way.

We drove deep into Bukit Brown, to the end of the road. Then we got out and had to walk up the hill. My grandfather was determined not to be left out but, at 86 years of age, he was panting and worn out halfway up. If he went up any further, it would be difficult for him to come back down, so my mother put her foot down and said that she would take him back to the car.

In Loving Memory

“Mrs Neo Pee Wan, died 26th April 1939, aged 47. Mr Neo Pee Wan, died 14th February 1958, aged 70.”

I stood staring at the gravestone, not quite knowing how to feel. These were my relatives, my family. Without them, I would not have my grandfather. I myself would not be alive. It was a little difficult to feel a connection, because I couldn’t picture them at all. I had never seen any photographs of my great-grandparents.

But I remember the stories my grandfather told me about them. About how his mother was an extremely musical woman with a “substantive lap” that he “rolled around on” as a child, and how his dad safeguarded his company’s money from the Japanese during the war (the amount of money involved increases with every retelling).

I also know how they died: my great-grandfather had a heart attack while combing his grandson’s hair. My grandfather went into the room after hearing the boy’s screaming, carried him to the sofa and was holding him when he died.

My great-grandmother died young. The doctor said it was hemorrhagic fever. “We stood around the bed and she was giving us a talk about family bonding,” my grandfather recalled. “Her parting words were, ‘When the day is finished, then I’ll go.’ She passed away almost exactly at midnight.”

“They may go somewhere else”

My grandfather has never been a particularly sentimental person. Speaking to him later, I was not very surprised to find that he was not upset about the prospect of Bukit Brown being developed.

“To be honest, I feel, putting aside all sentiments, even the living has to give way sometimes to make space, what more the dead,” he told me. “Some of the graves are really uncared for. So many are unattended.”

“I don’t think it’s very sad that they are going to dig up my parents’ resting place,” he continued. “What’s the difference between cremating and scattering the ashes? Spiritually they may go somewhere else, we do not know.”

The price we pay

To me, the stories my grandfather tells of his childhood days in Singapore are almost like fairytales. I can barely identify with them, because I cannot picture the open spaces of the kampungs, the images of children swinging from tree to tree like little Tarzans.

Listening to these stories, I often wish that I had the chance to see the Singapore he spoke of, feeling a nostalgia for a piece of Singapore’s history I never experienced, and never will.

“When you look around at Singapore, see how it’s changed, don’t you feel sad?” I asked him. “Don’t you feel sad to see the places you know disappear?”

“It can’t be helped, I suppose, unless you want to put the clock back,” he replied. “You can’t. That’s the price we pay for progress.”

Progress. It’s hard to argue with that. Everyone wants to move forward, everyone wants to develop and get better and better. I, too, feel that if we as a small country desperately need land for progress, then we don’t have much of a choice.

But then I think about the remnants of old Singapore that are disappearing one by one to make way for shiny glass-and-steel structures. I think about the lost backdrops to my grandfather’s childhood, and wonder if Progress will one day take the scenery of my childhood away too.

I think about my great-grandparents’ graves. Although my grandfather doesn’t mind their graves being exhumed to make way for development, I can’t help feeling a small sense of loss for a piece of family history, history that I was a little too late in discovering.

Is this really the price we need to pay for progress? Do I feel okay with paying this price? I cannot quite find the answer. To find the answer, more questions would have to be asked: What does the URA want to do with Bukit Brown? What do they want to build? Is there really no other land we could use?

My great-grandmother said, “When the day is finished, then I’ll go.” But I’m not quite sure that I want the day to be finished, or for yet another piece of our nation’s history to disappear, just yet.