The Story Behind Peg 2906
by Norman Cho
How many of us believe in the unexplained? There are reasons why certain things happen unexpectedly. But are we receptive enough to take the cue from such signs? One recent account was of tomb 481 which was pegged 2906 at Bukit Brown Cemetery, slated for exhumation to make way for the 8 lane highway due to slice the cemetery in half by 2017/
A post about the Ee Hoe Hean Club in the Facebook page of Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery, spurred me to do a search on my granduncle, Mr Tan Kay Tiang (ie) the husband of my paternal grandmother’s second sister, Mdm Yeo Say Neo. Grandmother had once told me that he worked for an exclusive millionaires’ club called the Ee Hoe Hean Club. No details of the position which he held or the period where he was under their employment were given.
Out of curiosity, I did a Google search over the internet and found to my astonishment that he was buried in Bukit Brown Cemetery and that his tomb was marked for exhumation with the peg number 2906.
I made a few enquiries and discovered that the tomb had yet to be claimed and that it was due for exhumation in only three weeks! I tried to contact the deceased’s three grandchildren unsuccessfully to make a claim. They are in their fifties and sixties and I sensed their reluctance. They probably have their reasons to decide not to do anything about it.
Looking back, I realised that discovering his tomb just three weeks before the exhumation was no mere coincidence! Possibly, he was trying to reach out to someone to handle his exhumation and to relocate him during the desperate final few weeks. I felt very uncomfortable if I did nothing about it and so I decided to claim the tomb on behalf of the family. To make sure that I had identified the correct tomb, I verified the name of his only child on the headstone – 月娘which corresponded with the name of my late aunt, Guek (Guat) Neo. I found a newspaper article in the online digital archive (Newspapersg) which confirmed the identity of the tomb.
Family accounts has it that he died due to septic wound on his foot caused by a nail which he accidentally stepped on. He had concealed nails on the ground along the exterior wall of his house at Neil Road to deter thieves. The irony was not lost on me that these nails were what caused his death, A newspaper report in The Straits Times, 19 June 1938, “Nail Causes Man’s Death” returned a verdict of misadventure. The date of death on the tomb was 10 June 1938.
Tan Kay Tiang married my grandaunt, Yeo Say Neo, in 1923 at his family home in Neil Road. He was 39 and she was 27. During those days when people commonly married in their teens, they were considered an old couple. The couple stayed together with Kay Tiang’s widowed elder sister and his mother.
My grandmother recalled visiting the 3-storey townhouse and was intrigued by the many carpets that she saw on each floor. The couple had their first and only child, a daughter, Guek Neo, in 1925. He was a doting father who was known to piggy-back his daughter till she was nine or ten. The maid would take over after he was tired. As a child, my aunt was thoroughly spoilt and there was an account where the maid was made to walk the dark alley to buy her favorite char siew pau for her supper.
After her father’s death when she was twelve, Guek Neo’s life took a drastic change. She had become a sensible young lady. The house was sold several years later and Guek Neo was arranged to be married to a Baba named Robert Chia, the son of a well-known nyonya medium in the 1920s and 30s who was known by the name “Ah Lian Potong Lemo” She could predict fortunes by reading the sliced limes.
Mrs Tan Kay Tiang (Yeo Say Neo) was the ideal wife and homemaker. She excelled in cooking and sewing. She was soft-spoken and mild-tempered. She did not gamble and hardly stepped out of the house. The maid would run all the family errands and do the marketing. To supplement her living expenses after the death of her husband, she made nyonya kueh which her maid would take to the coffee shop at Joo Chiat Road to sell. She eventually had to let her maid go as she could no longer afford to keep her but the maid was reluctant to leave her and stayed on for a few more years.
Every tomb is a repository of personal stories of the family that was left behind
Moving forward 76 years later, I had made a claim for the tomb to be exhumed on 14 July 2014 and the remains to be re interred at Block E0116-202 in Choa Chu Kang Columbarium. It would be easier for me to visit since most of my relatives are placed there. He was buried in the traditional Chinese coffin which was relatively intact and had several funeral artifacts which included miniature clay kitchen utensils and two pieces of circular glass which I suspect could be reading glasses – one concave and the other bi-convex.
About Norman Cho:
Norman Cho is a regular contributor to atBB and guest blogs about his search for his roots and Penanakan material culture. He is the founder of the facebook group Peranakan Material Culture
Singapore is 49 and Bukit Brown is 92! The invitation went out weeks before on the blog, on Facebook, the event of the year at Bukit Brown, celebrating the nation’s birthday. Thank you to all who came, regulars, first timers, old and young, singers and well wishers. The official NDP’14 theme was a good fit :
NDP ’14 (Nations Deceased Pioneers) @ Bukit Brown this year honours the “can do” and caring spirit of our pioneers who helped to forge bonds which built the foundations for SG 50. It is the story of how “Our People” in Bukit Brown made Singapore, “Our Home”.
We promised 3 guided walks, goody bags, eats and music. But the highlight as always is the singing of the National Anthem – this year led by Brownie Mil Phuah, the reciting of the Pledge – this being Raymond Goh’s first ever NDP@Bukit Brown (previous years he was away on business trips) it fell on his shoulders, followed by a minutes silence to remember especially the 4,153 pioneers who have had to make way for the highway. Our resident videographer James Tann captured an NDP on the celebratory Hill 1 festooned by flags large and small, and the pride of over 50 voices.
It has been a momentous past year for Bukit Brown from being on the World Monuments Fund watchlist to be being voted by Singaporeans as their top 3 sacred sites . The good news continued as Claire Leow, co founder of All Things Bukit Brown, shared some more developments .
“We are humbled and honoured to announce that thanks to the nomination by the Singapore Heritage Society, all things Bukit Brown has been shortlisted for the inaugural Singapore Advocacy Awards 2014, under the category of Civil Society Advocate Organisation of the Year.
The winner will be announced Aug 30, but let us say now for the record, just being nominated has been a real honour as a recognition of all that this community has achieved since early 2012.
To date, the Brownies have guided more than 12,000 people, staged two exhibitions, and tried to connect descendents, academics, students and teachers, docents, heritage bodies and communities. We don’t always succeed but we surely give everything a passionate shot! Your unstinting support as a community has sustained us. We have guided rain or shine or exhumations. Behind the scenes, many work hard to raise awareness of the intrinsic value of this historic site, and a few have worked patiently with the authorities for a better outcome.
We thank all of you for your support in our endeavour. It is an understatement to say it has not been an easy mission. But driven by conviction, we have carried the heart of this community. We have become good friends, and made good friends. Inspired by the early groundwork laid by Raymond Goh and Charles Goh, the Brownies have built on a solid foundation to spread the word: this is our heritage, habitat and history – and we appeal to you to join us, and honour our pioneers and save this sacred site.
On this, the 49th birthday of Singapore, we say, Majullah!” Claire Leow, Co Founder, All Things Bukit Brown.
Bukit Brown was also highlighted in the national daily Today August 9th Special issue Preserving Memories of a Changing Nation
“In 2012, the two women created a blog, all things Bukit Brown, to provide a platform for people to share memories of the area as well as to raise awareness of the walks they were planning there. Since then, the blog has garnered more than 550,000 views and more than 4,000 members on its Facebook page.
With the help of 40 volunteers called Brownies, the two women have also guided more than 11,000 (now 12,oo0)people on their Bukit Brown heritage trails.
“This shows we made the right move and have won the hearts and minds of the public,” said Ms Lim, now a freelancer in broadcast media. She attributed the positive response to the blog and heritage trails to more than just nostalgia. “It’s a much deeper meaning — a yearning, post- sickness, when old places have to move for new ones.”
Since 2012, all things Bukit Brown has also added a unique twist to the National Day celebrations: While others get ready for the National Day Parade, its members have their own National Deceased Parade. This year, they plan to go on a heritage trail in Bukit Brown to commemorate Singapore’s pioneers for their resilience, contributions to and sacrifices for the country.”
Here are highlights from the different heritage trails, behind the scenes set up and the camaraderie and conviviality that took the celebrations from dusk to moonlit night. Thank you to all who came, regulars, first timers, old and young, singers, photographers and well wishers. the Brownies are grateful for your support. Here are your memories:
The Guided Walks by Claire, Bianca, Fabian, Simone and Walter
Behind the Scenes, A Team of Brownies Setting the Stage for Celebration
National Anthem as recorded by Albert Ong
Not Just Singapore’s birthday but 3 Brownie Birthdays in August!
” Deeply reflective and moving National Day observance at Bukit Brown today, with graves already exhumed and half the site sectioned off for the road. There are some things that money can’t buy. A big thank you to Catherine Lim, Claire Leow and others!” Philip Holden.
A big shout out to those behind the scenes and catering:Brownies Victor Lim, Sugen, Mil Jonathan, Raymond, Ee Hoon, Peter, Steven, Mitch, Andrew and tombkeeper Lim Ah Chye. To Lee Kok of Asia Pac Publishers for contributing goodies to goody bags, National Heritage Board for the bags and National Library Board for commemorative books on Khoo Seok Wan.
National Day Celebrations@ Esplanade is here again with an exhibition :”Our Brick Estate” and a series of talks on Sunday 10th August’14
Venue: library@esplanade (Open Stage)
Sunday 10th August’14: Talks
3pm – 3.45 pm
Our Brick Estate by Lai Chee Kien (赖启健)
Our island-city’s early foundations were laid at a time when the building material industry flourished. Join architectural and urban historian Lai Chee Kien as he traces the history of our local brick industry, from the early colonial period when they were handmade, to their industrial production and extensive use during our early days of nation-building.
This talk will be accompanied by an exhibition of the same title for the month of August.
Grandfathers’Roads : Legacy of Our Pioneers by Raymond Goh
Raymond Goh has been studying the legacies behind famous roads that have been named after the revolutionaries, war heroes, and builders of Singapore. Join him as he shares interesting stories behind some of them. Raymond is a specialised heritage tour guide who conducts tours for schools, community clubs and societies.
6pm – 6.45pm
Once Upon a Yesterday by Alex Tan Tiong Hee
Share your comments and sentiments with Alex Tan as he navigates the nation’s past in Once Upon A Yesterday, an interactive story tracing some of the historical events significant to Singapore’s socio-political environment in the 1950s, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Alex graduated in law and is a trustee of the Settlement of Dr Lim Boon Keng (1921) and a committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society.
A postscript : Saturday 2 nd August, descendants are brought to visit the cluster of tombs belonging to Chua Kim Teng, Seow Geok Luan and Chua Eng Cheong by Raymond Goh
“Touching and joyous moments as descendants of Chua Kim Teng’s family pay respects to their ancestors for the first time. Even the ground was pulsating with energy as my compass luopan went haywire” Raymond Goh.
Today’s Chinese newspaper Zaobao, reported on a significant find of Lee Kuan Yew’s maternal ancestry in the depths of the forest of Bukit Brown. It is the find of the year (2014) for Bukit Brown researchers and bloggers Raymond Goh and Walter Lim.
Please click on image to enlarge
“The 4 related tombs ranging from 70 to 127 years in Bukit Brown and Greater Bukit Brown (Lao Sua) has been rediscovered by local historical researchers and are valuable resources for the study of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s maternal grandfather, Chua Kim Teng family history “
The find was discovered on 1 st July. From photos sent to Raymond by a tomb keeper in the area, Raymond subsequently on the same day, verified it on site as belonging to Lee Kuan Yew’s family. The find was kept under wraps to allow Zaobao correspondent Chia Yen Yen, time to conduct further research with family members of Lee Kuan Yew, specifically his brother, Dr Lee Suan Yew contributed this family photo to the article.
The 4 tombs were identified as belonging to Chua Kim Teng and his two wives Seow Geok Luan and Leong Ah Soon, and Lee Kuan Yew’s maternal great grandfather Chua Eng Cheong. They are from Lee Kuan Yew’s mother side ie Mrs Lee Chin Koon nee Chua Jim Neo. Leong Ah Soon’s grave is situated in Bukit Brown Cemetery, the other three are situated close together in a family cluster in Lao Sua Hokkien Cemetery which is located in the hill known as Bukit Brown in old maps. Lau Sua Hokkien Cemetery is adjacent to Bukit Brown Cemetery.
This extended family portrait was taken at 92 Kg Java Rd bungalow where Lee Kuan Yew was born.
Additional info on the house: The Cheng Kee Hean Association celebrated its silver jubilee in June 1918 with the taking of group photograph and a thanksgiving ceremony at the house of Mr Chua Kim Teng (vice-president) in Kampong Java Road.
The link to the FB posting by Raymond Goh when he first identified the tombs here (only accessible if you have a facebook account)
“The inscriptions also attest to the rich burial Chinese culture and customs being practiced in Bukit Brown cemetery. As the dragon dance and flag beats, the gates of Heaven are opened (Chua Eng Cheong’s tomb inscriptions)” Raymond Goh
Translation of Zaobao Article
The tombs of Chua Ying Chiang and son Chua Kim Teng were rediscovered by local history researchers, Raymond Goh and Walter Lim. Although they have seen the tombs before, it left no earlier impression on them until a news report about the rickshaw puller who saved Lee Kuan Yew’s life emerged recently. Raymond then remembered, Lee Kuan Yew had mentioned his maternal grandfather Chua Kim Teng and grandmother Leong Ah Soon in his memoirs. Coincidently at the same time, Soh Ah Beng, a tomb keeper had used his mobile phone to take a photo of the tombstone and forwarded it to Raymond who later confirmed that the tombs belong to the ancestors of the Chua family.
Zaobao correspondent, Chia Yen Yen together with Raymond Goh and Walther Lim specially made a trip to the deep forested area of Bukit Brown known as “Lau San”, meaning old hill to substantiate the find. They also discovered the tomb of Chua Kim Teng’s second wife, Seow Geok Luan next to Chua Ying Chiang (Chua KimTeng’s father). However, the tomb of Lee Kuan Yew’s maternal grandmother, Leong Ah Soon was missing. On conducting further research and the Bukit Brown’s burial register, they finally located the tomb of Leong Ah Soon.
Two descendants of the Chua family, retired accountants, Seet Keong Fatt and Seet Keong Hoe, told Zaobao, that every year during “Ching Ming”, they would visit their maternal grandmother, Leong Ah Soon’s grave to pay their respects. However, they were no longer aware of the whereabouts of their maternal grandfather and great grandfathers’ graves. The mother of the two Seet brothers, Chua Swee Neo is the the youngest daughter of Chua Kim Teng and Leong Ah Soon. Chua Swee Neo is also the younger sister of Chua Jim Neo (Lee Kuan Yew’s mother). She had married Seet Cheng Kang in a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony in 1937 and their wedding was reported in the press.
Based on the “Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew”, for a married daughter’s family to live with the in-laws (as was the case for Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo living with the Chuas) was not accepted in a traditional Chinese family. But to a Chinese Peranakan family from Malacca it was common.
Although Chua Kim Teng was born in Singapore, his father Chua Ying Chiang came from a typical Peranakan family in Malacca. Chua Ying Chiang’s tomb at the 127 year old “Lau San” of Bukit Brown is very large, estimated to be 40 feet in length and 24 feet in width, reflecting on his illustrious life. However, it is a pity that what information about his life that can be found today is limited.
Chua Kim Teng’s second wife, Seow Geok Luan’s tomb is next to Chua Ying Chiang, and much smaller.
According to the old map, the 3 tombs are at the “Lau San” of Bukit Brown.
The inscription on Chua Ying Chiang’s tombstone recorded his death date as April 1887. On the tombstone are carvings of dragons, unicorns, cranes and deer. This reveals the beliefs and importance placed on the “dragons’ veins” and “fengshui” meaning posterity and prosperity.
The other couplets are “龙挺旗鼓天门开、虎拒艮宫地户闭and “排衙之砂真有情、癸向艮流富贵龙” which translates to : “As the dragon dance, and the flags beat, the gates of heaven are open. The surrounding terrain gives support, and prosperous and illustrious the dragon becomes”
The names of Chua Ying Chiang’s son, Chua Kim Teng and daughters: Beow Neo, Tam Neo and Cheng Neo are inscribed on the tombstone. However, based on family tree records, the names of the other two sons, Kim Tiong and Kim Tye are missing from the tombstone.
Chua Kim Teng (1865-1944) outlived his 3 wives. On his tombstone are names of 6 sons and 8 daughters. However, the name of his adopted son, Keng Seng (adopted by wife Leong Ah Soon) was omitted. His other 2 daughters, namely Sim Neo and Siew Neo were also omitted. There is a possibility that that the names of his descendants were copied from the tombstone of his second wife, Seow Geok Luan which explains why the 2 youngest daughters’ names were omitted.
According to Dr Lee Suan Yew, both his paternal grandfather, Lee Yun Long and his maternal grandfather, Chua Kim Teng died during the Japanese Occupation. He was 11 years old when his maternal grandfather passed away and he still remembers his mother Chua Jim Neo making arrangements for his grandfather’s funeral and burial.
Chua Kim Teng was born in 1865 and died in 1944 . As recorded on his tombstone, his ancestors are from Fujian, Zhangzhou, Haicheng, Zhen village (福建漳州海澄陈莊).
Dr Lee Suan Yew has the impression that his maternal grandfather was wealthy, lived in a big house, was generous and often gave his grandchildren money to buy preserved olives, sour plums and other snacks. He said that his brother Lee Kuan Yew was born in his maternal grandfather’s 2-storey bungalow at No. 92 Kampong Java. He has an old photo of the family, including his mother, maternal grandfather and grandmother, aunties and uncles, taken in front of the big bungalow.
The Chua family later moved to another big house at Lorong L, Telok Kurau. Based on a “For Rent” advertisement in the Straits Times dated 28 July 1928, the bungalow at Kampong Java had water and gas supply, telephones lines, a garage and a tennis court. It was a magnificent bungalow.
Dr Lee said that his maternal grandfather had three wives. First wife, Seow Chue Luan and second wife, Seow Geok Luan are sisters. His maternal grandfather had one son and 3 daughters with his first wife and 2 sons and 3 daughters with his second wife. He had 3 sons and 4 daughters with his third wife.
Based on records in the “Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew”, Leong Ah Soon was a Hakka woman from Indonesia. She was a young widow with 2 young children. Lee Kuan Yew’s mother, Chua Jim Neo is the eldest daughter of Chua Kim Teng and Leong Ah Soon.
According to Dr Lee, besides the Kampong Java and Telok Kurau bungalows, his maternal grandfather owns several properties at Claymore Road. The properties were subsequently sold due to the Great Depression.
Based on old newspaper records, Chua KimTeng was the owner of a market at East Coast. Lee Kuan Yew in his memoirs mentioned that his maternal grandfather owned a large rubber plantation and the family sometimes took the bullock cart to the plantation for vacations.
Although Chua Kim Teng was a successful businessman, he was only actively involved in the mutual aid organisation Cheng Kee Hean Association which was founded in 1893. In November 1921, on the 25th anniversary of the association, a celebration dinner was held at the Kampong Java bungalow. Chua was then the Vice President of the association.
The tombstone of Lee Kuan Yew’s maternal grandmother, Leong Ah Soon is on a hillside of the Bukit Brown cemetery. Although the tombstone is not considered big, neither can it be considered small and is well kept. According to records in “Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew”, Leong Ah Soon had 9 children. However, on her tombstone inscribed were the names of 7 sons and 10 daughters, a total of 17 children. There were also names of 7 grandsons and 6 granddaughters.
According to Dr Lee Suan Yew, the name of Leong Ah Soon’s adopted son, Chua Keng Seng (formerly Tan Keng Seng – son of sworn sister) was also inscribed on the tombstone. Leong Ah Soon’s daughter, Watt Neo is from her previous marriage. The names of Leong Ah Soon’s sons and daughters which were inscribed on her tombstone include the children of Chua Kim Teng’s first and second wives.
It is interesting to note that the couplet “源前皆赤子，益上是青天” on the tombstone has been amended and it differs from the original couplet “眼前皆赤子、头上是青天” which refers to court officials who are impartial. Does it imply that she treated all her children equally? Another couplet reads“自得山中趣，谁论世上名”. It literally translates to “when you know the pleasures of the hills , who cares about fame in one’s lifetime”.
Not only did Leong Ah Soon marry her daughter, Chua Jim Neo to Lee Kuan Yew’s father, Lee Chin Koon, she also took Lee Chin Koon’s sister, Lee Kim Neo as the bride for her eldest son Chua Keng Hoe.
Lee Kuan Yew, in his memoirs, said that his maternal grandmother had a different view on his education. His maternal grandmother had insisted on sending the young Lee Kuan Yew who was barely 6 years old to a private class in an attap house to learn and recite the Chinese Classics. When he complained to his mother about the difficulties he had learning Chinese, his mother pleaded with his maternal grandmother on his behalf to let him discontinue Chinese lessons. However, his maternal grandmother insisted that he learned some Chinese and transferred him to a private school in Joo Chiat. The school was impressive with 10 classrooms and had between 35 to 40 students per class. The young Lee Kuan Yew still had difficulties learning Chinese. Three months later, Lee Kuan Yew’s mother again pleaded with his maternal grandmother who finally agreed to let him transfer to an English school.
Based on records on Leong Ah Soon’s tombstone, she died on October 9, 1934. She was born in 1881 and was 16 years younger than her husband, Chua Kim Teng.
Based on archival records, Leong Ah Soon had on the eve of World War I, in 1916, with the joint effort of women in Malaya purchased fighter jets as gifts for the British government. She had donated ten dollars.
(Thanks to Elaine Tan for the translation with inputs from Raymond Goh)
蔡金鼎虽是成功商人，但从旧档案看，他只活跃于1893年创立的互助组织正气轩（Cheng Kee Hean Association）。1921年11月，这个组织庆祝25周年时，曾在蔡金鼎上述甘榜爪哇别墅举行盛大庆祝会，他当时任正气轩副会长。
Romancing Taiping (Part 1)
A photo essay by Simone Lee
“I was a little apprehensive at the beginning. Even as a Malaysian, I’ve never heard of anyone raving about a visit to Taiping. But while we were there, I fell in love…………” Simone Lee (Brownie*)
Taiping History (in brief)
Plagued by fierce feuds ( The Larut Wars) between 2 prominent Chinese secret societies(Ghee Hin and Hai San, this once flourishing town in Perak, which prospered from tin mining was said to have been named Taiping – 太 (tai – ‘great’) and 平 (ping – ‘peace’) – after a truce was brokered in the Pangkor Treaty. The treaty was the result of a politically motivated call for British intervention aided by a friend from Singapore, Tan Kim Ching (son of Tan Tock Seng).
Day 1: Taiping Town and Kuala Sepetang
At the sleepy town, we met our guide, Ah Kew (Lee Eng Kew), a freelance writer and field historian. Our first stop: The Old House Museum. One of the earliest 3-storey shophouses built in Taiping, the museum/antique shop retains much of its original architecture.
(please click on images for full size photos and captions)
The next stop surprised everyone. As we drove into the compound of a charcoal factory, the scene took our breath away. The smoke from the kilns filters the sun rays, reminding me of movies with scenes of a dreamy, foggy mornings by the lake, embraced by mountains.
Here, Ah Kew explained the charcoal making process which typically takes several weeks before it is ready to be marketed. In the process, a by-product “‘charcoal water” is distilled from the baking wood. It is bottled and sold as a beauty product – slightly acidic but gentle enough to be used on the skin. I tried some on my face and arms, and instantly my skin felt supple, toned and smooth! Feeling vain, I wanted to order a bottle, which was selling at just RM5, the retail outlet was closed.
At the mangrove forest, Ah Kew regaled us with stories of 2 notorious pirates with fearsome reputations in the post war era.
Tan Lian Lay once hid bags of rice in a mangrove forest but they were destroyed when the tide rose. After his death, he was immortalised as a deity because his spirit was giving out winning numbers in repentance for his sins. It has been said Tan Lian Lay was also a trouble maker in Singapore. When he was killed in Bagan Api in Riau, Sumatra, a well- wisher from Singapore sent gifts as a reward for slaying Tan Lian Lay’s reign of terror.
Tan Hua Siea aka Raja Laut (King of the Sea) monopolized the shellfish farms and was on Perak’s most wanted criminal list. Despite that, he eluded capture, sheltered by the locals. Even though he was always dangerously armed, he never terrorised the villagers and was revered as the Robin Hood of the coast. What happened to him remains a mystery to this day.
Look out for Romancing Taiping Part II next week
*The Brownies’ yearning to connect to history and thirst for adventure, brings them to various locations within and beyond Singapore. The objectives of these retreats are, to study the historical and cultural links to Singapore, and to strengthen kinship amongst the brownies.
(Brownies are the volunteers who conduct regular weekend guided walks and independent research on heritage, habitat and history of Bukit Brown Cemetery.)
Bukit Brown : Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge
Location: NLB 9th floor from now until 10 October’14 and thereafter it will travel to other regional libraries.
The exhibition was officially opened on Saturday 19 July,2014 by MOS (Ministry of National Development) Desmond Lee.
It represents almost one and half years of research and working the ground documenting some 4,153 tombstones which are affected by the building of a new highway across Bukit Brown, by a team under the leadership of Dr. Hui Yew-Foong, an anthropologist with ISEAS.
We have observed the team hard at work over these years, joined some of them during Qing Ming and exhumations as observers and friends of the family of descendants, and the exhibition is a comprehensive and compact expression of what they have uncovered, shared with the public with insight and interesting artefacts , enhanced by new technology. We recommend it as a “must see” and “ground breaking” for insights shared of customary practices and traditions of burial customs and respect for ancestors.
An extract from the media release:
Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge” assembles a diverse range of documents,maps, photographs and objects to demonstrate how a cemetery can open a window to Singapore’s historical past and cultural present. Through a multi-disciplinary approach employing cutting-edge methods, techniques and technology, the exhibition will bring to the fore new horizons of knowledge unveiled through the documentation of Bukit Brown.
The exhibition opens with the origins of the cemetery, as a project of the Municipal Commissioners in early 20th in 1973, will be illustrated through maps and aerial photographs. Next, through explication of tomb inscriptions, tomb typology and the material culture of the cemetery, the exhibition will demonstrate Singapore’s connectivity to the region, China and the world.
While the cemetery is a burial space for the dead, it is also a space for the living at different points of Singapore’s history and ritual calendar. This will be illustrated through the life of kampongs that used to be situated in the vicinity of the cemetery and the life of the cemetery during Qing Ming and the Seventh Month Hungry Ghost Festival.
As data for the graves was collected and organised within a Geographic Information System (GIS) framework, the exhibition will present a Centrepiece where visitors will be able to access data related to specific graves through a map-based database on a touch screen monitor.
Finally, visitors will get a glimpse behind the scenes of documentation work, to get a sense of the different methods, techniques and technologies that were employed in the course of documentation. These range from balloon photography to 3D scanning, from interviewing to filming, and from the work of architects to the work of archaeologists.
Highlights of the Exhibition Opening
This urn was used to re-inter bones exhumed from an older cemetery. It was from the grave of Madam Khoo Siok Hui, who died in 1836. Her grave was the oldest among those documented at Bukit Brown. Madam Khoo and her son Chee Yam Chuan were among the early settlers of Singapore. Mr Chee later returned to Malacca and made his fortune in tin mining in Selangor. Today, the Chee Yam Chuan Temple Trust continues to flourish in Malacca and Madam Khoo’s ancestral tablet can be found in the temple. The story behind this family shows the close links between Malacca and Singapore in the early years. It was Raymond Goh who first deciphered the inscription and unraveled the connection.
A video at the exhibition features Serene Tan and her family observing the first Qing Ming at Bukit Brown in 2012 after Raymond Goh discovered the cluster of Tan Quee Lan tombs, and shows how the cluster underwent a renovation makeover by Serene and her cousin LT Tan who met at Bukit Brown itself. Serene’s story can be read here
The cluster is not affected by highway.
“….to everyone who came and supported the launch, and most importantly, supported us and helped us generously with our research over the last 33 months. One of the purposes of the exhibition is to acknowledge all your contributions and I hope it accomplished that.” Dr Hui Yew- Foong, Curator of Exhibition on a FB posting.
Look out for 2 specially curated walks by the Brownies in conjunction with the exhibition in August (English) and September (Mandarin).
Photos taken of the exhibition courtesy of Brownie Ang Hock Chuan on Facebook here
Read more about the exhibition by the Rojak Librarian here
Today marks the 70th anniversary of Lim Bo Seng’s martyrdom (29 Jun 1944)
An excerpt from Singapore war hero Lim Bo Seng’s diary:
“My duty and honour will not permit me to look back. Every day, tens of thousands are dying for their countries. You must not grieve for me. On the other hand, you should take pride in my sacrifice and devote yourself to the upbringing of the children. Tell them what happened to me and direct them along my footsteps.”
Family members attended a remembrance ceremony organised by Changi Museum, at the Kranji War Cemetery this morning.
Read the Today report here
by Norman Cho
In 2011, I discovered the grave of my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong at Bukit Brown Cemetery. Since then, I have been trying to locate the tomb of his father, Cho Boon Poo (Cho Poo), who was laid to rest in Malacca. I had absolutely no clue as to which cemetery he was buried. Bukit Cina and Jelutong cemeteries came to mind but these are huge cemeteries with more than a hundred thousand graves each. They are maintained by the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple but pre-war records are unavailable. It seemed that I had hit a dead-end!
However, miracles do happen. To me, these are little blessings from above. Perhaps, the old man had wanted his descendants to visit him and had influenced how things turned out. It must have been decades since the last time any descendants paid their respects at his tomb. He must have known my sincerity and had helped me along without my knowledge. The breakthrough came in April 2014. A relative whom I had never known, contacted me via Facebook to introduce himself as the maternal great-grandson of Cho Poo, after he had discovered that we have matching ancestors from an online Family Tree software on the internet. 70 year old Vincent Lee was descended from Cho Poo’s eldest son, Cho Kim Choon, while my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong, was the third son. He resides in Australia and was planning a trip down to Singapore in April 2014. He requested my assistance to put him in touch with the relatives in Singapore.
It turned out to be a blessing for me! I talked to my eldest aunt, Rose Cho (88 years old), to ask for the contacts of other relatives from the Cho clan. That was how I found aunt Elizabeth Cho (62 years old), who was the only child from the fifth son, Cho Kim Hock, a famed state badminton player for Malacca in the 1930s. We organised a dinner for our overseas relative and his wife. During dinner, I had a nice chat with Elizabeth – whom the family affectionately calls Bert – about Cho Poo. She told me that her only visit to his grave was when she was a child of 9 years old. That was more than 50 years ago! Her father who was the only surviving son at that time dreamt of his father asking him why he had not visited him in such a long time. Heeding the call, he brought his wife and daughter to pay their respects to his father. Since then, he had visited the grave alone every year till several years before his death in 1990.
Aunt Elizabeth, had the memory of an elephant! She vividly recalled that the cemetery was about a 40-minutes-drive from the Malacca Town, but had no inkling about the name of the cemetery. She further described that the cemetery was sliced into two by the main road, there was a cemetery on the left and another on the right, and Cho Poo’s was on the right. The tomb was relatively large and on a gentle-sloping plain. It faced a vast and beautiful paddy field. She added that the cemetery was on the land which once belonged to Cho Poo and was probably the private burial ground of the Cho family. Later, when the family was not doing well financially, it was sold to the Malacca’s Eng Choon Hway Kwan and it became a cemetery for the Eng Choon community. She thinks that the tomb should still be there, given the leisurely pace of development in Malaysia. She asked if I would be able to find the tomb. I told her that I could try. All her clues were useful, except for the paddy field. I told her that I doubt the paddy field in her memory still exists. Nevertheless, I took whatever clues that I could use and converted them into intelligent information.
Firstly, I eliminated Bukit Cina as it was near Malacca Town and therefore could not be a 40-minutes-drive. Next, I looked at the map of Jelutong cemetery but it was not sliced into two by any road. I asked a few Malaccan friends of other lesser-known cemeteries and searched the Google Map for them. Finally, I found a relatively small cemetery, probably no larger than 20 acres, which was dissected by a main road. It was away from the Malacca Town and would probably take about 30 minutes to get there by car. This was the Krubong Cemetery. To be certain that I had located the correct cemetery, I contacted a Malaccan friend who verified that this cemetery is indeed managed and owned by the Eng Choon Hway Kwan. He helped me to obtain the mobile contact of the tomb-keeper to locate the grave. With modern technology, I communicated with the tomb-keeper via Whatsapp to economize on the phone bill. Amazingly, he found the tomb the very next day. The search was completed successfully in less than a week since I started piecing the information together!
I informed aunt Elizabeth who was extremely excited and delighted with the news. We decided to go on a trip to Malacca to pay our respects to our common ancestor, Cho Boon Poo. He was the first ancestor who came to this part of the world to carve a better life for himself and his family. By braving the elements to come to the land across the Southern Seas, he had changed his destiny and that of all his descendants. It was through sheer grit and hard work that he built a successful business and owned vast plantations in Malacca and Seremban dealing in palm leaves, gambier, tapioca and rubber. We all had to be grateful to him for being able to lead good lives in Malaya and Singapore for six generations and counting. He married nyonya wives and that was how my Peranakan roots came about. Being a strict father, all his children were well-brought up and a few of his descendants took on key positions in the civil service.
I was told how strict he was about punctuality. The family would have dinner at 7pm sharp and everyone was expected at the table. Nobody could join in once dinner was served. If you missed dinner, it meant that there would be no dinner for you. During one occasion, his fourth son, Kim Tian came home late but the kind servant saved some food for him. When found out, the servant was sacked. He had a strong character and was on the board of the executive committee of the Eng Choon Hway Kwan.
We arrived at his grave on the morning of 23 June 2014 and I noticed that his tomb was the largest amongst the 50-odd tombs in the vicinity.
What captivated me were the Peranakan tiles (Majolica tiles) which adorned his tomb. No other tombs in the surrounding area had this feature. I was told that having Peranakan tiles on the tombs was not widely popular with the Malaccans. Unlike in Singapore, figurines of the Golden Boy and Jade Maiden were conspicuously absent in Malaccan tombs of even the very wealthy. The tomb used to face water-filled paddy fields which are supposed to be auspicious – water and rice. Unfortunately the paddy fields had since given way to modern development. Cho Poo’s tomb seems to be steep in Fengshui elements : the front courtyard of the tomb forms part of a hexagon instead of the normal rectangle or semi-circle. Along the perimeter of the front courtyard lies a water catchment channel which would collect water when it rains. This had since been covered with soil. The tomb shoulders are angular but eventually taper to form convoluting arms that seem to embrace the courtyard. Likely, it symbolizes a firm hold on wealth.Through the tomb inscriptions, I found the names of one of his wives (Lee Hong Neo) and that of the male descendants – sons, grandsons and even great-grandsons! He died at the age of sixty-nine in 1930. My aunt offered joss-sticks and joss-paper as a form of respect to our ancestor.
This trip has been very fruitful not only about finding out more about Cho Poo and paying our respects to him, but it has built a closer bond between aunt Elizabeth, her husband and I, even though we had known each other only recently.
More on Norman Cho’s journey of discovery, here
The Story behind the Painting
by Alvin Ong
The story of 3 affected graves at Bukit Brown not too long ago inspired a revival of family interest; Tan Yong Chuan (Blk 4, Div C), Tan Tiam Tee (Blk 3, Div B), Wee Geok Eng Neo (Blk 4, Div 6) were exhumed in May 2014. Old photos were unearthed from family albums, and heirloom objects from another era suddenly came to light. For the first time in decades, stories and narratives unlocked themselves from these objects and brought new layers of meaning to the notions of home and identity.
Tan Tiam Tee was the son of the magnate Tan Hoon Chiang (buried in Bukit China, Malacca), one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Co. His wife, Wee Geok Eng Neo, and his son, Tan Yong Chuan were all affected by the proposed highway.
(click on images for a bigger view)
Funeral of Tan Yong Chuan, died age 29, 26 November 1937, Neil Road. (photo courtesy of Alvin Ong)
Miniature cooking pots were interred in Mrs Tan Tiam Tee’s tomb, presumably for her to cook in the afterlife, along with a pearl sanggul, and bracelets. According to my relatives, a set of gold teeth with an engraved heart shape was also found in Tan Yong Chuan’s tomb.
Tan Yong Chuan (son of Mr and Mrs Tan Tian Tee) was finally reunited with his wife for the first time in Holy Family Columbarium after 77 years. The columbarium has an unusual regulation that all photos of the deceased must be in color.
No color photographs of the deceased had existed at that time, so with the help of numerous correspondences, scans were digitally emailed, and the photos doctored and hand-painted.
Studying overseas has allowed the artist the space, physically and emotionally, to explore ideas of home and identity. These graves were only re-discovered shortly after the redevelopment plans were announced. The sight of the many abandoned tombs on the artist’s first visit to Bukit Brown had sparked questions about what happened to the descendants of the people who were interred there, which in turn, prompted the artist to explore if there were indeed any family connections to the cemetery at all. Beyond the historical and material significance of the place, it also felt like a site where mystery, the past, and present all came together. Reuniting with the tombs for the first time in many years became an emotional moment for some, and it also made us feel as though we have touched history, an experience that is becoming exceptionally rare in Singapore.
These were ideas that all came together in the painting, which were almost auto-biographical in that they featured vignettes of the artist’s experience with the discovery of the pioneers of Singapore and his roots. One random memory was a trek with Raymond Goh to Seah Eu Chin’s grave; One of the Teochew stone lions guarding the perimeter of the tomb eventually found its way into the picture. Raymond was featured in the early stages of the work, but in the end, this idea of displacement, loss and discovery surfaced in the final version titled, “Moving House”.
This is not the end of the road. There is yet another tomb whose story remains waiting to be told, my maternal great grandfather, Peck Mah Hoe, pictured here. The artist will be heading to the Peck clan temple in attempt to uncover more. And hopefully, there will be more paintings to come.
About the writer who is an artist :
Alvin Ong is reading fine art in Oxford, and did architecture at the National University of Singapore. In 2004, he was the youngest winner of the UOB painting of the year award at the age of 16. He had his first solo exhibition at 17, in the presence of His Excellency President S R Nathan.
by Ang Yik Han
Born in Kulangsu Island off Amoy, Chua Chwee Oh came to Singapore at the age of 14. He studied till 17 or 18, after which he went into business. Beginning with trading between Singapore and Medan, he founded the firm Hock Heng in 1920 which had branches in Rangoon, Annam and other cities. It dealt mainly in local produce like dried fish and provisions. The biggest segment of his business was in French-controlled Annam, followed by British Malaya and the Dutch Indies. He was the second chairman of the Amoy Association (1940-1941) after its founding, and also a chairman of the Goh Loo Club.
Active in the China Relief Fund’s efforts in raising funds to support the Chinese forces against the Japanese, he was known for donating $100,000 single-handedly under his firm’s name. He also encouraged others to contribute by setting an example when the need arose. It must have been a bitter blow for him during the Japanese Occupation when he was forced to join the Hokkien section of the Overseas Chinese Association (OCA), the umbrella body set up by the Japanese to force the Chinese community to pay war reparations.
Chua Chwee Oh died in 1960 at the age of 64. His first wife Mdm Tan passed away at the young age of 32 and is buried together with him. His second wife was Mdm Ng. The place of origin inscribed on his tombstone is “Si Ming” (思明), another name for Amoy coined by Koxinga when the island was his base of operations against the encroaching Qing forces. This name evokes Koxinga’s longing for the glory days of the Han Chinese Emperors in the Ming Dynasty. Barred from use after the Qing Dynasty consolidated its control over all of China, this place name was revived after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown.
The tomb is at Hill 3, about 10m behind and to the left (facing uphill) of Tan Boo Liat’s tomb.