Bukit Brown: Spaces for the Living

Last Friday (5 October) I finally got round to having a look at an exhibition of work I’d seen advertised. It was only on display for one week so I counted myself lucky I got round to it. Housed in The Arts House at The Old Parliament the exhibition was that of Bukit Brown: Spaces for the Living. Bukit Brown is a famous, old and now somewhat fabled cemetery in Singapore. It was established in 1922 and was a burial ground for the local Chinese inhabitants. Along with local prominent businessmen and pioneers, thousands of ordinary Chinese migrants are also buried. The cemetery hasn’t been in active use for many years but ritual ceremonies are still held there as well as the more regular visits by friends and relatives of the deceased. Of course such is the heritage of the place that when the government put forward proposals that some of it would be demolished to make way for a new expressway, feelings started to run high. For those that don’t know Singapore, there is a constant running battle between those who want to keep the heritage of the country for future generations to see and experience and those who want to progress with the ‘new’ Singapore. Due to the size constrictions here (to put it in to perspective the UK has a person/sq. km of 256. Singapore is 7363 people/sq. km), this kind of thing happens to a greater or lesser extent every time new developments are deemed necessary. So Bukit (Malay for hill) Brown has become (before and especially since) a favourite haunt of the photographer. The exhibition was organised by a collective of seven local Singaporeans with diverse backgrounds.  They set out to ‘highlight the intertwining three themes of nature, heritage and spiritualism that reside at the core of Bukit Brown through the visual medium of photography’.

Huat Ah! By Shawn Danker

A small (around forty photographs), yet enjoyable exhibition, I found myself drawn to two of the photographers in particular. The first was Shawn Danker who took this photo ‘Huat Ah!’. I noticed that he was using natural light for his photographs, even when some of the photographs were taken at night. In particular I enjoyed the images taken by open fires where money and other material offerings were being burnt for the hungry ghost. I found them very evokative and enjoyable. It really captures the atmosphere of the occasion. The money and ash floating in the air, thrown up by the heat of the flaming braziers and then lying scattered on the floor. The candles burning at the base of the braziers. The general hubbub of people moving around all trying to get a view and make their own personal offerings. I can almost smell and hear the commotion. It is worth noting that should the expressway get built through this cemetery then these practises would end and so with them generations of rituals and heritage. I find that quite sad. Especially as Singapore struggles with it’s heritage at the best of times, it would be nice to think that this is something that could be left untouched. But those that know Singapore also know that not much gets in the way of ‘progress’ although I think the tide might be turning just a little in recent years.

‘Sanctuary’ by James Wong (pictured)

The other photo that took my attention was by James Wong, entitled ‘Sanctuary’. In amongst the many inevitable images of headstones and shrines, this one caught my imagination the most. It gives the very clear idea that these are personal shrines, all with their own story to tell and very much still tended to and watched over by the families of the deceased. They are a peaceful corner of a busy world where you can come to talk to your relatives about your day-to-day happenings, your troubles, your joys. I like the slightly worn-out, overused nature of the photograph. Incense sticks and melted candle wax mixed with the offerings and ceremonies of years gone by. I wonder to myself what the spirits presiding over this shrine have seen in the many years of comings and goings, rituals, deaths and burials and indeed how many more years they will see in the future.


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