Nothing Spared: A Look at Grassroot Conservation Efforts in Singapore

By Soon Kai Hong

Everywhere around campus there are signs of the future – electric buses, Smart Campus, sustainable solutions. Curious then is the structure that reminds us of yesterday – the Chinese Heritage Centre (CHC). Built in the 1950s, this imposing building with its red roof and grand doors used to function as the Administration Building of the former Nanyang University, the first Chinese university established outside of China. Most aptly, then, that the site was selected to house the CHC in 1995, which today works to preserve and promote ethnic Chinese culture. It was gazetted as a National Monument on 18 December 1998.  

Such buildings and sites never only represent the bricks and mortar that they were constructed from. More often than not, the lived history they tangibly display forms an inseparable part of our identity – just walking through them is enough to foster a sense of attachment (think of the recent North Spine-NIE Bridge closure). Rarely is the demolition of a building met with apathy. Today, cross-cultural events are held regularly in our cosmopolitan NTU community, but buildings can uniquely demonstrate the constancy of our heritage and serve as a silent witness to all that happens there.  

That is precisely why I strove to explore Singapore more thoroughly during the pandemic, being acutely aware of the implications that our land constraints have on the conservation of historical sites. I came across volunteer-guided tours, hosted free of charge by individuals who choose to spend their weekend mornings raising awareness of the places that hold meaning to them. These included tours of Bukit Brown Cemetery by All Things Bukit Brown, a loose but long-standing group united by an interest in their namesake, and of Dover Forest by Chua Chin Tat, an environmental activist. What I have seen and come to greatly respect is the passion with which these citizens engage in grassroots conservation efforts, in order to preserve our heritage.  

The weather is never kind when I participate in volunteer tours. My first foray to Bukit Brown, a municipal Chinese cemetery established in 1922, was met with overcast skies and the unsettling possibility of rain. Subsequent trips were afflicted by stifling humidity and heat. It rained for the entirety of my Dover Forest walk. Yet every one of these tours inevitably proceeds. In fact, All Things Bukit Brown declares on their website that “We guide rain or shine”. As tenacious as these guides are the participants who gamely accept their fate whenever it starts raining, who decline the offer to leave for the comfort of shelter. Certainly the locations are not the most accessible, and the tickets not easy to get; tours are capped at approximately 20 persons and can be fully booked in as short as two hours. But perhaps there are some things that the rain cannot dampen – not the enthusiasm of the guides to share their stories, nor the enthusiasm of the participants to explore someplace new, someplace likely impermanent. 

Bukit Brown Cemetery is quite unlike any place in Singapore. The sprawling, hilly compound sits next to the very busy Lornie Highway, but turn into the side road to its entrance and it feels like you’ve been transported. The road looks unnaturally wide since it is devoid of markings. Flanked by a row of trees on the side of the highway and a heavily forested hill on the other, there is the illusion of being immersed in nature. It is enough to insulate and drown out most of the ambient noise, save for the familiar chirping of birds and the sight of some macaques. I tread warily down the long and winding road. Soon I come across the main gate, which looks like something out of a horror flick washed out columns and black metal grating, complete with a rusted yellow sign that warns “LOCKED DAILY AT 5.30 PM”.

Into the forest. Credit: Soon Kai Hong

My introduction to Dover Forest was no less intriguing. From the outside, it didn’t look different from any other concentration of greenery. The only difference, this time around, was that I was heading in. Once under the foliage of the trees, one becomes aware of how small in this world we really are.  

And into the forest. Credit: Soon Kai Hong

The guides are well-rehearsed and recount their script with ease. Bukit Brown Cemetery is home to a vast array of graves, including those of many pioneers who remain obscure. Oftentimes these pioneers were also war heroes, who contributed valiantly to resistance efforts during the Second World War. There is rich biodiversity in Dover Forest, a half-century old secondary (read: naturally regrown) forest where several locally endangered species can be found. As impressive as their knowledge of the subject matter is their knowledge of the ground. Mr Chua, our guide for the Dover Forest tour, instructs us where precisely to step as we attempt to cross a stream. It’s not difficult but it is raining, so we have to be careful. At the end of the walk, he furnishes a water bucket that he has earlier hidden in a bush for us to wash our shoes. It’s clear from how smooth sailing everything is that this is a walk that he has done many times. 

Brownies, as members of All Things Bukit Brown are endearingly known, always carry with them a pack of wet wipes as they walk the grounds. Upon coming across a grave soiled by the earth, they take it upon themselves to clean it. In some cases, they reveal splendid tiles that have not lost the vibrancy of the colour since the day that they were made, all thanks to a manufacturing method that has since been outlawed due to its toxicity. 

Grave of Mr Tay Koh Yatbusinessman, Chinese community leader, and war hero. Credit: Soon Kai Hong

Unfortunately, these excellent tours invariably end on an ambivalent, bittersweet note. The guides share a common goal to raise awareness of these historically and environmentally meaningful sites. In these places they have seen something worth preserving, something that resonates with them, something that might be the last of its kind in Singapore. Victor Lim, my guide for a speciality tour of the decorative Peranakan tiles found in Bukit Brown, runs a business that works to preserve and restore these tiles. However, these volunteers are also highly sensitive to the government and the primacy it has over land use. It says so much more when they have nevertheless chosen to undertake such a cause.

To give credit where it is due, the official conservation effort has been nothing short of impressive, with 75 National Monuments recognised in our land-scare country., introduced by National Heritage Board (NHB) in 2016, is a fantastic one-stop portal for historical information about Singapore.

The “Central Park” of Singapore. How much of Dover Forest will be here to stay? Credit: Soon Kai Hong

At the end of the day, as one of my guides, Darren Koh, reflects, it’s okay if the state and her citizens decide against the conservation of these sites – but they should know what they stand to lose out on first.

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