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Singapore

By August, a new outdoor display will be open at Bukit Brown Cemetery

Image Credits: UnsplashImage Credits: Unsplash
  • Sounds Of The Earth is an outdoor installation at Bukit Brown Cemetery featuring gravestones exhumed for the Lornie Highway construction.
  • The project is part of Voices Of Bukit Brown, aiming to honor the cemetery's heritage and prompt reflection on development impacts.
  • The installation, designed by visual artist Chen Sai Hua Kuan, will amplify surrounding sounds and visitors' voices, symbolizing the living's responsibility to the ecosystem.

Bukit Brown Cemetery, a historical site in Singapore, is set to unveil a new outdoor display by August. This installation, named Sounds Of The Earth, will feature gravestones that were exhumed to make way for the construction of Lornie Highway. The project aims to honor the heritage of Bukit Brown Cemetery and the legacy of those interred there, while also encouraging visitors to reflect on the impact of urban development in Singapore.

The installation is part of a broader initiative called Voices Of Bukit Brown, spearheaded by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the community group All Things Bukit Brown (ATBB). This two-phase project, supported by the National Heritage Board (NHB), includes the outdoor memorial in its first phase and plans for more educational opportunities and advocacy work in the second phase.

A Milestone in Heritage Advocacy

SHS vice-president Natalie Pang described the installation as a significant milestone in the ongoing advocacy efforts for Bukit Brown Cemetery. The cemetery, which was officially opened in 1922 and closed in 1973, originally held about 100,000 graves. It has been recognized as a social and cultural repository of early Singapore, particularly for the Chinese immigrant community.

In 2011, the Land Transport Authority announced plans to redevelop parts of the cemetery, a decision that faced public opposition from groups like SHS and ATBB. Despite the completion of the highway in 2019, which resulted in the exhumation of 4,153 graves, advocacy work has persisted. ATBB, for instance, has conducted public tours to raise awareness about the cemetery's historical significance.

The Creation of Sounds Of The Earth

The idea for the outdoor installation emerged from three participatory design workshops. These sessions brought together relatives of those interred at Bukit Brown, former residents of a nearby kampung, recreational users, heritage and nature enthusiasts, and experts. The unanimous decision from these workshops was to create something meaningful from the unclaimed artefacts, which include about 80 gravestones.

Visual artist Chen Sai Hua Kuan was commissioned to design the installation, which measures 14 meters by 11.5 meters. The ellipse-shaped structure will use the gravestones to reflect sounds from the surrounding area, including the highway and the cemetery's greenery. Visitors' voices will also be amplified when they stand in the center of the installation, giving the artefacts "a life of their own," as noted by former SHS executive committee member Kok Heng Leun.

Honoring the Past and Educating the Future

The installation will be located on Hill 4 of Bukit Brown Cemetery, which is the final resting place of several prominent personalities, including Tan Kim Ching, the eldest son of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, and World War II hero Wong Chin Yoke. Catherine Lim, co-founder of ATBB, mentioned that the installation will be the final stop on ATBB's guided walks, allowing participants to reflect on the contributions of Singapore's pioneers.

The project has received initial funding from the NHB, but the team is now facing increased construction costs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To address this, they will be launching an online fundraising campaign to support the installation's maintenance and future research and education efforts.

NHB director of heritage policy and research Melissa Tan highlighted that Voices Of Bukit Brown exemplifies how NHB is supporting ground-up heritage initiatives. "We hope that more community groups will be inspired to take ownership of showcasing Singapore’s heritage and contribute to a more vibrant local heritage scene," she said.

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