Experiences of war at Singapore’s largest cemetery detailed in new book WWII @ Bukit Brown

WWII @ Bukit Brown features a multitude of stories, essays and poems on a vital part of Singapore’s history, with individual and familial points of view on the Japanese Occupation in the Second World War with a focus on those who were interred at Bukit Brown Cemetery. The book was launched on 9 April at an event with its contributors present.

Supported by the non-government organisation Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and published by Ethos Books, WWII @ Bukit Brown contains short stories essays written by members of All Things Bukit Brown, a loose community of volunteers.

Bukit Brown Cemetery was the largest cemetery in operation in Singapore in the 1940s. It operated between 1922 and 1973 as a municipal cemetery. It is located opposite the MacRitchie Reservoir, framed by Lornie Road to the north, Sime Road and Kheam Hock Road to the southwest, and Caldecott Hill to the east. It was until 2012 one of the last few WWII battlefield sites that had remained unchanged.

When WWII struck, it became the site of a battle and the resting place of those who perished in the run-up to the invasion and subsequent occupation by the Japanese forces.

The book covers pre-war conditions, when the resident Chinese were involved in fund-raising in aid of waging an armed conflict with the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War. It also details the consequences of these actions when Singapore fell under enemy forces. Family archives and oral interviews reveal the circumstances of life under occupation, and struggles in recovery thereafter.

Minister of State, Desmond Lee along with the team behind the book
Minister of State, Desmond Lee along with the team behind the book (Photo by Lawrence Chong)

Senior Minister of State for National Development and Home Affairs, Mr Desmond Lee attended the launch event at The URA Centre in Maxwell Road.

“This book is a fine example of how the community can come together to celebrate our history and our heritage as well as pay tribute to our pioneers,” the Minister said.

The launch event opened with war archeologist and curator, Jon Cooper, speaking about his work in bringing the battlefields of WWII to life through research and guided tours.

Left to Right – Dr Chua Ai Lin, Kok Heng Leun, Jon Cooper and Claire Leow (Photo by Lawrence Chong)

President of SHS, Dr Chua Ai Lin, and Artistic Director of Drama Box and recently appointed Nominated Member of Parliament, Kok Heng Leun, also presented at the event. Dr Chua touched on the modernisation of Singapore into the city state that it is today and how this was coupled with the loss of heritage. She cites WWII @ Bukit Brown as important in the movement to uphold Bukit Brown as a site of national significance.

Claire Leow of WWII @ Bukit Brown’s editorial team emphasised the importance of the telling of the book’s stories before the war generation passes on. 2016 marks the 74th year since the fall of Singapore in 1942.

The editorial team of WWII @ Bukit Brown also extend their thanks to the book’s contributors, SHS, Ethos Books and URA. “We are hoping this publication is also a call to action, for others to step up and tell their stories, and for the relevant authorities to consider adding Bukit Brown to war heritage tours and put in place permanent war markers,” the team said in a statement on 5 April.

Partial destruction of Bukit Brown despite effort of volunteers

In 2011, the Land Transport Authority announced that it will be constructing a new dual-four lane road in Bukit Brown cutting across the existing cemetery to alleviate the congestion currently experienced along Lornie Road and the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) during peak hours and to cater to expected growth in future traffic demand.

This came to a shock to academics and nature lovers, spurring the formation of the gathering of the community of volunteers of diverse backgrounds and different beliefs, known as All Things Bukit Brown who conduct guided walks and independent research to raise awareness of the heritage, habitat and history of Bukit Brown.

Since its formation, the group has conducted tours for more than 16,000 people, organised two exhibitions, presented talks to schools and museums, and collaborated in a play by Drama Box.

In October 2013, All Things Bukit Brown successfully nominated Bukit Brown to the World Monuments Fund Watch List for 2014-2016. In August 2014, All Things Bukit Brown became the first recipient of the Advocate Organisation of the Year Award in the inaugural Singapore Advocacy Awards, presented by civil society champions to recognise and encourage civil activism. Claire Leow and Catherine Lim, co-founders of the blog, bukitbrown.com, edited the book, aided by a volunteer editorial team from within the community.

However, despite all efforts to engage the authorities on alternative plans, LTA still proceeded with its plan to construct the 8 way carriage way, exhumed close 4000 graves and destroying the forest.