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History or heritage: The Belitung Shipwreck and Bukit Brown

April 23, 2012

Public Forum:  The Cost and Value of Heritage in Singapore—The Belitung Shipwreck and Bukit Brown. Organized by the Singapore Heritage Society (14 April 2012)

The Heritage Society’s pairing of Belitung and Bukit Brown in the public forum at first sight may seem incongruous. However, minimyna emerged from the energetic three-hour public forum struck by how they are in fact aspects of a common problematic: that of heritage.

It brought to mind what the venerable British geographer (who also reminded us that ‘the past is a foreign country’) had to say about heritage: that it is fabricated, and therein lies its value.

Heritage uses historical traces and tells historical tales…..It is not erudition but catechism—not checkable fact but credulous allegiance, and essential to fealty. (David Lowenthal, ‘Fabricating Heritage’, History and Memory, vol 10 No. I, Spring 1998)

Pre-fab heritage

The forum started with Michael Flecker, chief archaeologist of the Belitung shipwreck, clarifying that the Belitung finds is not heritage of Singapore or Singapore heritage, but heritage in Singapore.  He was speaking as an academic, though the distinction begged the question of whose heritage is it then, for heritage, that which is inherited, has to have an owner, and an heir. The Belitung finds could well be world heritage, Asian heritage, Southeast Asian heritage, which then makes it churlish for Singapore to be excluded.

But historians and academics are scrupulous with facts. Kwa Chong Guan in his presentation mentioned Rachel Leow’s review of ‘Shipwrecked’, the exhibition at the ArtScience Museum (February-July 2010), curated by the Asian Civilisations Museum here, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The show was expected to travel to museums around the world over the next five to six years, including the Smithsonian itself. (The travel plans did not come to pass, but that’s another story.) In Kwa’s words, Leow’s critical observation was that Singapore was appropriating the shipwreck and the Belitung finds to embellish the Singapore Story.

Leow had observed for instance that the exhibition kept repeating that the dhow sunk ‘400 miles south of Singapore’, rather than, say, a few miles off the coast of an island in Indonesia. In fact the country which owns the territorial waters where the wreck was found was hardly mentioned.

The ‘Singapore link’ with Belitung was made more insistent by the ‘Jewel of Muscat’, the main exhibit in the Maritime and Experiential Museum and Aquarium on Sentosa island, which was opened by the Sultan of Oman. The dhow was built in Oman to the design of the Belitung shipwreck using the technology and materials of the day, and was sailed to Singapore in a re-enactment of the ‘maritime silk route’.

Like Flecker and Leow, Kwa also pointed out that in fact the ninth-century dhow in question was nowhere near Singapore, whose existence at the time was at best ‘tenuous’. Those were the days of the great empires of Srivijaya and Sailendra, and the shipping route from China to the Middle East went through the Straits of Melaka along the coast of Sumatra, completely bypassing the little-red-dot–to-be.

While Leow saw the exhibition as affording the Singapore Story a specious genealogy, Kwa gives a more positive role for the Belitung finds: They remind Singapore that there have been other centres of greatness in the region preceding the island that have risen and fallen.

If that’s what the heritage of the Belitung wreck is made out to be, then the $32- million that went into buying it is worth every cent. Nevertheless it is tricky role that has been thus assigned to the artifacts. Where should they be featured then? In the Asian Civilisations Museum, where it would be part of the region’s maritime history without necessarily featuring Singapore, and thus without instant ‘heritage’ recognition? Or in the Singapore History gallery of the National Museum of Singapore, in an exhibition room before Sang Nila Utama and the Singapore Stone, its presence reminding us of ‘our’ absence?

The ‘use’ of the Belitung wreck for ‘heritage’ value is not a new idea. It was only in 2005 that Singapore celebrated the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s maiden voyage with a grand exhibition of the Ming admiral’s travels, with the glamour of the event lent by its association with Gavin Menzies, author of the controversial best-seller 1421: the Year China discovered America (2002). There is no evidence at all that the mighty Chinese fleets passed by Singapore, but this did not stop the Tourism Board from planting a 6-meter high rock off Labrador Park and presenting it as the replica of the Dragon’s Tooth which Zheng He’s fleet was ‘believed to have sailed through’ though it confessed that ‘whether he landed in Singapore is uncertain’.

The Belitung shipwreck as well as the Zheng He celebrations, and the Bukit Brown cemetery are heritage-related, but in opposite ways. The first two are state-sponsored (via the Singapore Tourism Board), instant, prefabricated, blockbuster displays with a foreign partner to lend prestige, involved substantial financial outlay,– and have got nowhere as ‘heritage’ and in winning ‘fealty’. Belitung has enormous value as historical record which Singapore has made available and accessible to scholars by purchasing the whole collection and keeping it intact, but cannot claim exclusivity to its meaning.

As Singaporeans we do not seem to feel the impulse to tell stories about ourselves through it.

Becoming a living cemetery

Bukit Brown on the other hand has the potential to yield more stories than the 100,000 or so graves that comprise it. It is of course a historical site, but its power lies in that history becoming heritage.

Grave of Oon Chin New (photograph courtesy of Dr Hui Yew-Foong)

At the public forum, anthropologist Hui Yew-Foong, the academic officially in charge of documenting the site presented slides of the graves that he and his volunteers have cleared—the largest single burial site was that of the daughter-in -law of Ong Sam Leong (whose family plot is the largest), Oon Chim Neo (died 12 March 1917, aged 31) a top student of Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. Hui also pointed out the geomancy and cultural aspects of the tombstones, and ‘before’ and ‘after pictures showing how splendid it looked after being cleared of mud and overgrowth. He also brought to our notice the difference in styles between Hokkien and Teochew graves, but also highlighted those with mixed features, in the instance of the grave of a Cantonese; Peranakans would also have ‘hybrid’ graves. He commented that the hybridity made one wonder how the deceased and his/her family saw themselves culturally. Aside from members of leading local families, Hui also mentioned the graves of Chinese merchants from the Dutch East Indies, and the mass burial trenches of Japanese Occupation sook ching victims.

That Bukit Brown Cemetery contains such historical information and relics is however in itself insufficient to justify its preservation.

The state has taken care of this by funding the documentation project to preserve historical, genealogical, cultural and architectural information, using information technology including mapping and GIS systems. The historical data will be stored in the virtual world, more easily accessible to researchers, and perhaps making it possible for descendants overseas to perform their Qing Ming rituals online if they wish, though this last ‘advantage’ has not been raised.

Hui was indeed asked by the discerning Koh Tai Ann playing the devil’s advocate on the need to preserve the cemetery given the thoroughness of the documentation.

His reply was not an unexpected one, but not less revealing for being so.

It was that anyone standing at the grave of Oon for instance would know that it was not the same.

Unlike Koh, who was being provocative, the question she raised was one that had been bothering minimyna no end.

Hui’s reply brought this scatter-brain’s mind to a conversation she had about Bukit Brown with a Singaporean in her twenties who did her secondary schooling in Melbourne. She said that her secondary one class had gone on a trip to the Melbourne General Cemetery. One of the things that struck the class was the number of graves there were of young children.

They had learnt in history class that infant mortality was very high in 19th century Melbourne, but seeing the tombstones made that ‘real’ in a deeper way. Since then, when she is in a certain frame of mind, she would actually register the fact that she was passing by the Cemetery in the course of commuting.

Indeed preserving a cemetery is unlike conserving buildings—there is no ‘re-adaptive use’ that will make it pay for itself; no one can put a single, prescribed story to it, as is routinely done with ‘heritage’ sites which ‘showcase’. Bukit Brown Cemetery is the last of its kind on the island, and signs of life are emerging from it.

It is one place that allows Singaporeans to slip into the past, if they are so inclined.

Organic fabrications

When a speaker from the floor raised the question of a cost-benefit analysis on Bukit Brown, another leapt to her feet to say that it should be what the government puts into National Education. And she could have added, perhaps more effectively.

And therein lies the irony of the Bukit Brown controversy. Detractors have called its advocates a ‘vocal minority’, implying that they are unreasonable, pushing for a sectarian interest rather than national good, or even just ‘anti-PAP.’

In fact, the well thought out, heartfelt letters and essays by Bukit Brown advocates should be compiled into a reader for National Education classes, and its authors lauded for their sense of nationhood and belonging. The seriousness with which they are dedicated to discovering Bukit Brown: clearing of grave by grave, meticulous research work and reports, weekend guiding, writing on websites and the press should well form half of such a book. Even just as a soundbite, it qualifies as exemplary of the current buzzword, ‘giving back to society’.

Here’s an example:

Calling it ‘authentic heritage’, Z’ming saw the Cemetery as ‘a special form of “cultural landscape” exemplifying the idea of culture and nature being in harmony; a balance against Western monumental architecture of the British colonial period which dominates Singapore’s historic urban districts, as reflecting the spread of the Chinese diaspora in this region in terms of cultural and aesthetic significance, and from a historical perspective as representing the blood, sweat and tears of the local community and local personalities that helped to build Singapore, not to mention it being a site of spiritual values.

Bukit Brown can be ‘authentic heritage’ not only because it is a ‘real’ and pristine historical site, but that these Singaporeans have come to regard the cemetery as a meaningful site of exploration into defining themselves and their environment in relation to their past.

The ‘Save Bukit Brown’ cry is a spontaneous, organic one.

And perhaps that’s where the problem lies, for such features make for open-ended possibilities and the hazard of transgressions.

Those who value the cemetery do not see it as the site of Big history, but of many possible stories that they can tell: biographies, short stories, fiction, plays, family histories, artwork, guides for national education tours to the cemetery—in other words, to fabricate a meaningful heritage that would manifest their fealty.

Their declarations of Bukit Brown as their heritage however mark only a promising beginning. The delineations of what this mean will be part of the evolving cultural and historical development of Singapore.

This will come to pass when the dust settles after the necessary hype and publicity campaign activities to Save Bukit Brown is over and if somehow, it is saved. For a cemetery can only be a place of commemoration, remembrance and contemplation. Despite the grandeur of Ong Sam Leong’s family plot, it is the spectral presence of his body that in the end connects us to him when we visit Bukit Brown. It is a different relationship say, if we visited his mansion, had that had been preserved and turned into a heritage site. It would be different too, if Ong had been buried in a small, private cemetery. The age and size of Bukit Brown bring the deceased individuals into a relationship with one another, and with its visitors. They are all bound by time and by place.

Minimyna is relieved that she finally is able to say something about Bukit Brown. Yes, it did take a long time for her to get over the fetish for ‘checkable fact’— and to get a bird’s eye view of the emerging contours of ‘credulous allegiance’.


From → heritage, history

One Comment
  1. Join the thousands in the campaign to Save Bukit Brown 100%.

    Get as many people to make some noise by doing so:

    1) Like the SOS Bukit Brown page,

    2) Put your name/ic/ID number/email down for the open letter. Email to
    read open letter

    These 2 numbers reflect the ground sentiments,translate into the concerns and strong interest about Bukit Brown and why it is a popular and pragmatic to save our environment.

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