Nov 17, 2011

A Private Burial Ground at Bukit Timah

Sian Tuan Ave

Thanks to Raymond Goh who blogged about it, who in turn knew its existence from his tour participants, we now know of a surviving private burial ground in Bukit Timah. Unlike the one at Fifth Avenue which I just blogged, this one at Sian Tuan Ave actually has the tomb still intact!

I visited the tomb on the same day as the (missing) one at Fifth Ave. It was a whirlwind tour; it had to be in order to take advantage of the distance-based fares. After the fare structure was revised last year, commuters are now not penalized for making transfers. So while I paid a hefty $2.07 for the train to Botanic Gardens, the bus to Sian Tuan Ave set me back by only $0.03, another bus to Fifth Ave only $0.01, and the bus back to Botanic Gardens $0.03. In other words, you pay only $0.07 more to tour the two cemetery sites, compared to if you just wander around the Botanic Gardens. By the way I did both, to squeeze maximum value out of my transport fares (remember I still have to buy a ticket to go home). I bet this is not something you can find in any Circle Line sightseeing itinerary.

How I took advantage of distance-based fares. Remember the two rules: take different bus services for trip 2, 3 and 4; from alighting to boarding the next bus spend not more than 45 minutes.

It is possible to explore the cemetery and board the next bus before your 45 minutes is up. You may even have time to take a sip (takeaway of course) from this coffee shop at the start of Sian Tuan Ave.

Between Sian Tuan and Binjai Park
Between the Sian Tuan Ave and Binjai Walk houses is a strip of state land. The tomb is concealed on one of the terrace and invisible unless you make an effort to climb the slope. Don't do this at night.

Tucked in-between the two rows of houses at Sian Tuan Ave and Binjai Walk is a narrow strip of land - a  green corridor - that contains one of the greatest secrets in the neighborhood. Well-concealed by the terraced slopes, the tomb is invisible until you make your way up to the terrace it sits on. It must be quite traumatic for the innocent passerby, who stumbles on it while trespassing in this green corridor. The sloping terrain and undisturbed environment is a godsend; since it was erected, it must have enjoyed good fengshui like the one at Fifth Ave and in peaceful tranquility.

The view from the tomb
The fengshui enjoyed by the tomb. Without trees and houses blocking, the view would have been more spectacular.

Since the strip of land is state-owned today (by SLA), it is possible that the agency has been maintaining it, which explains the manicured back-garden look than wilderness associated with old and abandoned cemeteries. From what is known in Raymond's blog, the tomb was erected in 1890 by Tan Quee Lan (incidentally I blogged about him here) and ownership of the land it sits changed hands in 1938 from a descendant of the deceased to a buyer with the peculiar condition that the grave shall not be entered upon or interfered with. This could explain why the tomb is still un-exhumed despite the extinction of private burial grounds in Singapore. Do prove me wrong by another example of an untouched tomb like this.

I'm curious why the burial ground is in such secluded spot between two rows of houses so I turn to my pet topic 'historical geography' for answers. I'm not aware of the landscape in 1900 but by the late 1930s Binjai Walk had been laid out and the surrounding land subdivided into plots, presumably for housing. This is a little surprising as the houses at Binjai Walk do not look pre-war from Google Map, perhaps the original had been demolished. Nevertheless this suggests that the tomb once adjoined empty land, probably a plantation, before Sian Tuan Ave was laid out. By the 1960s Sian Tuan Ave and the Hong Kong Park houses had appeared on the map, the green corridor formed, with the neighborhood's best-kept secret on it.

Sian Tuan Ave
The strip of land in late 1930s and 1950s. The tomb would be located at the top of the narrow strip of land. When the Hong Kong Park houses were built along Sian Tuan Ave, the land strip was isolated leading to today's green corridor.

Raymond wrote a well-researched article and it was reported on Wanbao. However when you compare what was blogged and what was reported, it seems that the tabloid did not do a good job. There are discrepancies on the year Tan Quee Lan, the man who erected the tomb, died (was it 1904 or 1907?); the identity of the man who sold the land; and the property developer who bought the land. These questions just beget other questions. For example, did Sian Tuan Properties Pte Ltd buy the land in 1982? Why would it buy the land but build nothing on it, and has this company anything to do with the road of the same name? Intriguing!

Forgotten tomb at Bukit Timah
The grand tomb of Tan Quee Lan's wife Madam Gan. The inscriptions are so clear, the tombstone so clean that I suspect somebody must be maintaining it. It does not look like an abandoned tomb to me.

The tomb of Mrs Tan Quee Lan
Up close with the tombstone. The center carving (中榜) reads: 清显妣谥贞勤陈门甘氏孺人之佳城


Lam Chun See said...

"Do prove me wrong by another example of an untouched tomb like this. "

My neighbour told me he saw a tomb while searching for durian trees in the patch of jungle between Ming Teck Park and Laurel Wood Ave, off Sixth Ave. We tried to look for it once by bashing through the thick vegetation, emerging at (old) Holland Rd on the other side. Did not find the tomb but saw huge shed snake skin.

Icemoon said...

Wow, that could be the old Hakka cemetery. Sometimes I confused that with Lorong Panchar, as in where is the dividing line.

There are a few other wild tombs in Singapore; used to be one at Stevens Road reputed to be tomb of Raffles' mistress. Too bad it has been removed.

Lam Chun See said...

I mentioned this before when I blogged about Sixth Ave. When I first moved to Sixth Ave in 1986, my wife and I used to go to this nursery called Evershine Nursery. It was located on the grass patch bordered by Sixth Ave and Laurel Wood Ave. I remember seeing graves around that area.

Even at that time, Lor Panchar was no more. But today you can still see the 'entrance and exit' at Sixth Ave and (Old) Holland Rd. In fact I have photos as I walk here quite often.

RemSG said...

I have been trying to find out more about Tan Quee Lan too (including his year of birth and death)...

It has a street named after him at Rochor, called Tan Quee Lan Street

Icemoon said...

Chun See, I have seen the entrance from Sixth Ave but not exit at Old Holland Road.

RemSG, thanks for reading. It seems that the street was named while he was alive or just one or two years after he died.

Lam Chun See said...

You can use Google Streetview. The entrance is somewhere along Holland Rd; (not the Ulu Pandan Road stretch, but the winding stretch) bet Holland Green and the big canal.

Lam Chun See said...

You shd see a few yellow colour metal stumps on the road side.