It's a hill, a home and soon, a highway. The hillocks of Bukit Brown and their glorious dead, entombed in the shade of sprawling figs, will soon give up the ghost to a more unforgiving spirit, one that has consumed worlds of memory for more than half-a-century and shows little sign of satiety. The same relentless appetite for suburban progress has devoured burial grounds in the commercial heart of an island that very quickly ran out of space for the dead and sought instead to carve out eternal homesteads on rural fringes inhabited by forgotten souls.
Jewish memorials once occupied the strip of a mall, but were twice evicted by the demands of planners who probably could not imagine how old stones could add value to a city that cannot stop shop. Tiong Bahru, Bishan, Ngee Ann City, Velocity Novena and a number of Balestier Road's side lanes were the erstwhile resting places of migrants from China's coastal provinces who plotted for their bodies the peace denied their mortal years. Few today mourn the conversion of these cemeteries into flats and fine new towns, though some still begrudge the loss of a lovelier green lung that provided a haven for migratory birds and bold mariners who inspired tales of scandal on the high seas.
The end of the road is also drawing near for the great and the good who lie in Bukit Brown, whose remains are guarded by turbaned sentries and dogged by celestial beasts. The grounds saw life as an enclave for a Hokkien clan, but were later appropriated to serve as a municipal solution to land constraints. It was a compromise that plagued the best minds of the colony and pleased few of its intended beneficiaries, for the cemetery's sense of space catered more to the sensibilities of British administrators than the demands of geomantical prescriptions. Only when by-laws were amended to permit upgrades in post-mortem housing dimensions did Bukit Brown enjoy the patronage of the city's Chinese dignitaries.
Be it the soil or other sources of nourishment, the trees that line the paved lanes of the hill display a rare exuberance in the span of their canopies and the general unruliness of their boughs, which threaten to engulf smaller paths with no end in sight save the barks of graveyard hounds. Vales of unmown grass and overgrown shrubbery form gaps that tantalise those who seek the shine of undoemesticated eyes. Gaudy cultivars more often stunted in pots attain here the heights of their ancestors and harbour on their arms small bats, shy owls and sleeping birds. Other, landlocked, creatures from the forest across the road have also encroached into this necropolis, and add a wilder dimension to this dead neck of the woods.
Our visit was perhaps a little too early, for neither paw nor hoof were apparent in the shadows behind the tombs by the track. The evening was also punctured by the occasional din of vehicles that had rolled through the gates to investigate the mysteries of a paranatural territory. Nightjars, too, flocked to the barren warmth of the narrow road, where they held their ground until one breaches their comfort zone and the bird wings it to higher haunts. Others perched, eyes agleam in the glare of harsh torches, on the markers that declare the fecundity of the deceased or depict parables of displaced piety. Countless dots of reflected light, the ocelli of omnipresent spiders, beamed from the vegetation that surrounds each grave and from the bark of unkempt trees, suggesting to the urban ecologist the presence of a substantial population of arthropod prey in these neglected parts. Katydids and crickets sang from the safety of broad leaves, while a pair of moths danced above a solitary crypt, their wings squeaking with sexual excitement.
On the ground amid the damp grass bordering the road were anurans of disturbed habitats, each occupying the nook of its species. Banded bullfrogs, chubby microhylids with pretty stripes, supped from columns of sleepless ants. Four-lined tree frogs clung to thin blades as they awaited passing prey. Asian toads and field frogs foraged under the cover of creepers, the latter leaping into rank invisibility when alarmed while the former creep off with the confidence of paratoidal defences. There were signs of other, tinier, amphibians, but these peepers threw their voices into an air of disarray and discouraged the invasion of slopes with little to distinguish between ground and grave.
Serendipity beckoned from a denser portion of the hill, where a colugo was spotted in the act of reclaiming the upper layers of a woodland deemed too precious to waste on native wildlife. Sap and succulent shoots sustain these gliders which have conquered a near-unassailable niche in Sundaic tree-tops only to swing to a halt on towers that bite at the edges of unbuffered jungles.
At the base of another tree, we found a rainbow serpent. A sinuous spectrum of shifting colours, the snake appeared to be hunting under a patch of broken boards. Interrupted, it wormed its way out of my hands and into a hole obscured by extinguished sticks of joss. A small skink also emerged from the fray, the probable quarry of the larger reptile, which is said to be not uncommon but seldom seen due to its fossorial habits. By then, the evening had faded and a new day was brewing in a corner of the city that has so far, but not for much longer, eluded attempts to shatter its tranquility and exhume what remains of the bonds that tie these tombs to those who fear for a future without a past.