A meander through the annals of time that leaves us wanting more.
Because of the controversial plan to exhume its graves to make way for more land, Bukit Brown is probably Singapore’s most well-known cemetery, and whose significance is both historical in value and as an integral example of our country’s almost uncaring approach towards preservation when it comes to progress.
In Sun Jung’s novel of the same name, the cemetery becomes a magical, mysterious space, one that Hong-jo investigates after being called to Singapore to uncover the truth behind her friend Ji-won’s suicide. Discovering records and documents by Ji-won, Hong-jo begins to read about how Ji-won uses a grave to literally time travel to nineteenth century British Malaya, across both Penang and Singapore. Over the course of her travels, Ji-won realises she herself is an integral part of history, forging a relationship with a Korean potter from the past, and encountering Chinese secret societies, the lavish Peranakans, and tragic lives of migrants.
Bukit Brown is a novel that’s rife with interesting ideas, whether it’s imbuing the cemetery with its time-travelling capabilities, or the mysterious circumstances surrounding Ji-won’s death. But as a whole, the novel’s framing devices are weak and almost forced in an attempt to make a historical novel more ‘thrilling’, and require a large degree of commitment to suspending one’s disbelief to fully indulge in. While Hong-jo reacts to Ji-won’s records with awe, unfortunately, she is unable to convey those same emotions to us as readers.
Ji-won is also unfortunately, not a particularly compelling protagonist. With her actions adhering to the flow of history rather than attempting to drastically change affairs, Ji-won comes off as having little agency or say, in part also due to Sun Jung’s passive language that lacks energy and forward movement. If anything, Ji-won feels less like a time-traveller and more of a tourist in an immersive historical experience.
While the pacing does drag, it is evident that plenty of research has gone into this novel, with realistically described scenes of home life and street scenes of the past, and Sun Jung succeeds in at least unveiling these facets of history to readers in a more literary form. The people Ji-won meet are far more interesting than her, and the book might have benefitted from doing away with the time travel and mystery elements altogether and focused on simply being a straight historical novel.
By the end of the book, it’s evident that the narrative is committed to Bukit Brown only as far as the title and plot device goes, and instead intended to focus on the history of the region as opposed to the significance of the site. Don’t come here expecting a ghost story or impassioned argument for land preservation, but if you wish, stay for a dramatic account of Koreans and other minorities in Malaya the history textbooks won’t tell you.
Recommended for: Readers interested in finding out a little more about the history of Malaya you won’t find in your social studies textbooks.
Bukit Brown is published by Penguin Random House SEA and available at all major bookstores, or as an e-book.