Reading the Chinese years

Chinese years (Photo: Chee Hiang Chua)

Chinese years (Photo: Chua Chee Hiang)


For those of us Brownies stumped when asked by participants on the tours for the years of birth and death in an ancient counting system, one CHUA Chee Hiang  has kindly stepped forward with this handy guide. Thank you, Chee Hiang!

He says, “Most of the dates on the tombstones follow the lunar calendar format – the 年(lunar) (followed by xx月, 初xx) vs. the 岁(solar). The Chinese calendar is lunisolar as the lunar calendar is constantly being updated with the solar calendar to keep the festival dates in tune with the climate.”


And for the Imperial calendars, this is the guide, with the Emperor’s regnal year being Year Zero. So 13th year of the reign of Dao Guang (1821-1850) on Fang Shan’s tomb = 1833.


Regnal table (Photo: Chee Hiang Chua)

Regnal table (Photo: Chua Chee Hiang)


Fang Shan at Qing Ming (photo: Claire Leow)

Fang Shan at Qing Ming (photo: Claire Leow)

Happy deciphering!

For further reading:

The Chinese Calendar 


Bio: Chua Chee Hiang is a geomancer, or feng shui practitioner. He writes a fengshui blog and a personal blog.


Group 13: Chew Joo Chiat

Chew Joo Chiat 



A picture of Chew Joo Chiat taken from “Joo Chiat – A Living Legacy” by Lily Kong & T.C Chang.


You can find his tomb on the DIY map under Group 13.

Chew Joo Chiat’s tomb (Photo: Andrew)


Read how Raymond and Charles God helped the great grandson find this tomb in this blog post, which features more photos.

The great grandson, Philip, writes on his blog:

“Chew Joo Chiat was born in 1857 at a place called He Shan (禾山) in Fujian Province, China. His father was a peasant and he married very young. At age 20 he already had 2 sons Chew Cheng Lian 周请廉 Chew Cheng Swee 周请水 and 2 daughters Chew Xian Neo 周羡娘 Chew Su Lan 周素蘭. In those days,  farmer’s children married young in order to have many children so that they could help out in the farm later. In fact, all the farm works were done manually from seedling to harvesting. At that time the Qing Dynasty government was corrupted and the people faced great hardship. A large number of them from the coastal provinces of south China risked themselves and left for South East Asia countries now known  as ASEAN. Many crossed over the borders to Thailand and Myamar. Others sailed overseas to Philippines, Indonesia and Malaya (now Singapore and Malaysia).

In 1877 at the age of 20 years, Chew Joo Chiat left his family in China and sailed to Singapore which took about 10 days by sailing boat. The boat was overcrowded and the people was badly treated. He landed in Singapore as a young man penniless. He experienced poverty and aimed to make a fortune for himself and also to better the lives of his family back home. He worked very hard to achieve his dream. Starting from a small business and  endowed with resourcefulness and business acumen he became a successful businessman.

He married a Peranakan girl Tan Quan Neo 陈颧娘 in 1890 and a daughter Chew Quee Neo 周桂娘 was born in 1891.”

To read more on the life of Chew Joo Chiat, click on his posts here and here.

P/S On your way to Chew Joo Chiat’s grave, you will pass by a cluster of graves for 8 nuns, in two rows of four graves. These Buddhist nuns are believed to have been killed during the World War II and the tiles before them feature flower-like symbols.



Tour Guide: Group 1

A war hero who received a grand send-off when he died. A coolie honoured by his clan association when he was re-interred at Bukit Brown when it opened as a municapital cemetery. The paternal grandmother of the sitting Singapore president.

Group 1 on Block 5 near the cemetery gates is a good introduction to what lies within the vast grounds of Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery, which closed as a municipal cemetery in 1973.

This DIY guide is to help you find your own way using this map.


Tay Koh Yat (1880-1957)


Tay Koh Yat’s grave


He was a pioneer in Singapore’s public transportation, but also a feisty patriot who started and led his own self defence force of 20,000 during the onset of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War 2. In 1938,  Tay noticed that local transportation was inadequate and started the Tay Koh Yat Bus Company. He built up his fleet to 120 buses and became the largest bus operator among the 10 other bus companies.Tay Koh Yat’s grave comes with a generous forecourt and benches.


Fang Shan (__-1833)

Fang Shan’s tomb (photo: Claire Leow)


This is the oldest dated tomb in Bukit Brown, and is a reburial, as Fang Shan died in 1833 and Bukit Brown became a municipal cemetery only in 1933.
He was probably an early immigrant that came from South China and worked as a manual labourer as many of the immigrants did. He died 14 years after Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore. He was survived by a son, Li Eng, and was buried at a cemetery somewhere along Tortoise hill in Bukit Merah. There he would lie for more than 100 years, until the government then decided to develop the land.

At that time there was a small Fang Clan group of labourers (from Lieyu, little Kinmen)  calling itself Boon San Association. This Boon San Association was established for the welfare of coolies working around the Singapore River at that time whereby most of them have surname Fang. It is now known as Boon San Lian Ngee Association

Fang Shee is the clan association for the Fang Surname (different from Boon San Association). According to the Fang Shee Association archives, they mentioned that the current chairman of Fang Shee Association Fang Sui Kim once interviewed a senior committee member, Mr Fang Ma Teng (deceased), of Boon San Lian Ngee Association in 1983.

At that time, Mr Fang Ma Teng informed that in 1941, when he was around 30 years old, he remembered hearing about the history of this Fang pioneer from his seniors and the relocation of the grave. Apparently the group of coolies saw the the tomb of Fang Shang, and seeing the date of the tomb as 1833 and his surname Fang, recognized him as an early pioneer of their clan who came to Singapore.

The tomb was in a dilapidated condition due to so many years of abandonment, but the Fang Clan decided to relocate the tomb to Bukit Brown cemetery for two reasons:

1) To leave behind a legacy for the Fang Clan to remember their pioneer

2) To leave behind for the Singapore Chinese Community an important historical artifact.
Also note the reference to Singapore as Sin Chew  星 洲 on the headstone (read right to left):
“Sin Chew” is a sobriquet for “Singapore” coined by Nanyang literatus Khoo Seok Wan. Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea, and with vessels and boats large and small anchored around it; the glitter of artificial lights at night are like a crown of illuminated stars (“星”) when viewed from afar. “洲” (zhou, island) and “舟” (zhou, boat) are homonyms: while the boat lights are like stars, those on the island are like the Big Dipper to accentuate the constellation. This is why the term “Sin Chew” is widely known by folks here and afar. (Liang Shao Wen, “Nanyang Travels”, p. 62, circa 1920s, translated by Lai Chee Kien)
Raymond has a blog post here on life in Singapore then.
Fang Shan continues to get visitors, 179 years after he died:

Fang Shan at Qing Ming, April 2012 (photo: Claire Leow)

Fang Shan’s tomb is a reminder that Bukit Brown is home to the ordinary people who came and built early Singapore. We should not forget their toil. (Khoo Seok Wan’s tomb can be found in Group 9.)

Mrs Tan Cheng Siong (d. 1965)

Mrs Tan Cheng Siong (photo: Claire Leow)


Mrs Tan Cheng Siong, nee Lee Guay Eng, is mother of Tan Chin Guan, which makes her the paternal grandmother of Singapore’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

Hers is a Christian tomb, using more secular design features such as the lotus seed. The tomb also features both English and Mandarin script. It uses the Ming Guo (Ming Republic) calendar, based on the 1911 Revolution as year zero. The revolution marked the end of the Chinese imperial dynasties and led to the establishment of the Republic of China.

(Members of Sun Yat Sen’s Tongmenhui (United League), part of the Chinese diaspora who helped in the cause of the revolution, are buried in Bukit Brown.)

Tan Chin Guan’s name is inscribed on her tomb.

(Raymond Goh, amateur historian, has also found the grave of Tan Cheng Siong, the grandfather of the president on Block 5. See his letter to the president here. )




Tour Guide: Group 2

A Municipal Comissioner who helped make Bukit Brown Cemetery a reality. A beautifully restored Teochew tomb. A well-known banker. A cluster of 1830s graves. Intricate carvings, Sikh guards, even a set of naked angels.

These are among the tombs of pioneers you will find in Group 2 on Block 2 behind the Heritage Roundabout within the vast grounds of Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery, which closed as a municipal cemetery in 1973. Hill 2 is a quiet hill with gentle slopes, nice for a stroll. It is in the path of the proposed highway, with affected graves marked as 7 and 8 in the LTA map.

This DIY guide is to help you find your own way around Bukit Brown Heritage Park using this map, which is a division map according to the burial register We show some tombs, with links for more reading, and other interesting features.


Cheong Koon Seng

Cheong Koon Seng and his wife’s tombs (photo: Claire Leow)

A well-known alumni of Anglo-Chinese School. Tomb whisperer Raymond Goh blogs about him here.

Cheong Koon Seng is associated with:

– The auction company he founded in pre-war Singapore;

– The Chinese Swimming Club, where he held the position of president for several terms;

– The Anglo-Chinese School, which has a ‘house’ carrying his name; and

– Koon Seng Road in the heart of Peranakan Katong.

His father Cheong Ann Bee knew no English, but became a well known businessman. His sons Koon Seng and Koon Hong established the famous Theatre Royal and the Star Opera Co at North Bridge Road.  It performed plays from Shakespeare’s Hamlet
to  Arabian Nights to Chinese classics like Sam Pek Eng Tai etc.


Wee Chim Yean (1885-1926) 

Wee Chim Yean is the Capitan China or Kapitan China of Bengkalis. Bengkalis is a place is the Riau archipelago off east coast Sumatra Islands. Read more from Rojak Librarian’s blog.

Wee Chim Yean, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)


His tomb has beautifully intricate carvings:


Fu Lu Shou, Wee Chim Yean, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)



See Tiong Wah

See was  a Justice of Peace and the Municipal Commissioner who together with Kheam Hock was in charge of Bukit Brown. Raymond found his grave and pays tribute here.

March 25 tour: introducing See Tiong Wah (photo: Claire Leow)


Fu Lu Shou, See Tiong Wah (photo: Claire Leow)


See Tiong Wah (photo: Claire Leow)


See Tiong Wah (photo: Claire Leow)


For an explanation of his tomb panels, see this post on the love of flowers.


See Tiong Wah (photo: Claire Leow)


Part of the cluster

(photo: Claire Leow)


Lim Kim Seng

Lim Kim Seng cluster (Photo: Raymond Goh)


This blog post by Rojak Librarian will tell you more about Lim Kim Seng. Don’t miss these beautiful tombs.

Born in 1884, Lim Kim Seng is buried with his two wives and mother. They make for an exquisite Teochew tomb cluster. His tomb indicates he is both a Member of the British Empire and a Justice of Peace, signifying his standing as a Teochew community leader. In 1940, he helped found Ngee Ann Girls School (which in 1967 accepted boys and became Ngee Ann Primary School).

He sat on the board of directors of the Overseas Assurance Corp. with other Bukit Brown “residents”, Tan Ean Khiam, Ong Boon Tat and Lim Nee Soon (chairman of the board).

Stakes are attached beside their tombs indicating they are slated for exhumation. Lim Kim Seng – no. 1930; Teo Nghee Cheng (first wife) – no. 1914; Sng Chew Lan (second wife) – no. 1926; Sng Sye Chen (mother of Lim Kim Seng) – no. 1931. His tomb was just above See Teong Wah, who has a family cluster of more than 10 tombs.


Tan Lian Boh

Tan Lian Boh, brother of Tan Chor Lam, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)


Tan Chor Lam, alias Tan Lian Chye, was his famous brother. Tan Chor Lam was the president of the Tongmenhui and a leading revolutionary who supported the formation of the Republic of China. Read more here by Rojak Librarian.

(The Tongmenhui is a group of men who were part of a resistance front also known as the Chinese United League, United League, Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, Chinese Alliance and United Allegiance Society. It was formed by Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren in Japan on 20 August 1905 when merging many Chinese revolutionary groups objecting to foreign rule.In 1906, a branch was formed in Singapore, following Sun’s visit there. Tan Chor Lam was among the first 3 members. Read more on Tongmenhui pioneers here)


Khoo Kay Hian (1878-1966)

At the turn of the last century, he established Kay Hian & Co (Pte) to deal in commodities and securities. The company beca,e one of the founder members of the Singapore Stockbrokers Association  which was subsequently re-constituted under the name of the Stock Exchange of Malaysia and Singapore. (UOB Kay Hian Holdings (UOBKH) was formed in 2000 from the merger of Kay Hian Holdings and UOB Securities, the stockbroking arm of banking giant United Overseas Bank. ) His name lives on. 

Khoo Kay Hian (photo: Claire Leow)


Khoo Kay Hian (photo: Claire Leow)


Khoo Kay Hian, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)



Tan Yong Thian

The tomb, recently restored by his grand daughter Rosalind Tan, is an example of a Teochew tomb, which has a different tomb design from the predominantly Hokkien tombs at Bukit Brown. She enlisted tomb keeper Lim took months to restore this tomb, which will narrowly miss the proposed highway, although there is uncertainty as to whether workers may encroach on this space for their needs.

Tan Yong Thian, Teochew tomb (photo: Claire Leow)


Tan Yong Thian, Teochew tomb, peacock tile (photo: Claire Leow)

From “Biographies of Prominent Chinese” (Biographical Publishing Co. Inc., Shanghai, 1925):

“Mr Tan Yong-Thian, better known as Tan Ah-Tian, a native of the district of Chaoyang, Swatow, in the province of Kwangtung, was born in 1855, of very humble parents. At the age of 27, Mr. Tan went to Singhapore, where he started life as a building contractor. After many years of hard labour, he had erected many buildings in the colony, and had succeeded in accumulating comfortable means. In 1895, he gave up his work as a building contractor with the intention of living in retirement.

Realising the great importance of the produce industry in the Straits, he made profitable investmnets in various plantations, such as gambier, pepper, citronella, cocoa-nut, and rbber. Feeling that he was too young and energetic to retire, he became actively engaged in the development of these plantations. They proved very profitable.

Mr. Tan decided to increase his earnings by establishing plants to distil and refine the raw spices from his plantations. He was particularly interested in patchouli oil distillation, an industry which had long since ceased to exist in the Settlements, for various reasons. He had put into operation an essential oil plant for the distilling of citronella on a small scale but he was not satisfied with this effort, and was the first Chinese to take up the distillation of patchouli oil.

Although the business was, for the first few years, confined to local trade, he devoted the greater part of his time to this business; and he succeeded in increasing the output to such an extent that foreign markets had to be found. Thus, eventually, the product was shipped to all of the principal commercial centers of the world. The oil is of the highest grade that it is possible to obtain, and is of the standard equal to the nest European production. The firm, Chau Seng Heng & Co. has become of the largest producers of essential oils in the Straits Settlements.

Mr. Tan is the eldest son of a large family residing in Singapore. He is married, and is the father of five sos and two daughters, Two of his sons, Tan Khim-chua and Tan Guan-chua, are joint partners in business with his eldest son-in-law.

Patience and perseverance have won for Mr. Tan the success he indeed deserves. A straightforward and courteous man, he is well liked by all who come into contact with him; but being of a reticent nature, and preferring to lead a quiet life, he is little known outside of a limited circle of friends.”


(New find!!)

Lee Kim Soo (1887-1933)

Here lies a man who was behind matchsticks!

Lee Kim Soo (photo: Claire Leow)

He was a municipal commissioner, and owner of Elkayes matchbox company. He was prominent in the Teochew community and had five wives. Read more here. Sample of an Elkayers matchbox here.



Elkayes matchbox (courtesy of Raymond Goh)


(postscript of tomb find: tombkeeper Lim aka Ah Tiong aka Ah Chye helped tomb whisperer Raymond Goh clear this grave at no expense. He joins the community of Bukit Brown brownies which serves the public and helps uncover tomb finds and clears the way for visitors to share what knowledge we uncover.)


His neighbour is also interesting: a tomb with fusion features

March 25 tour: voila! the fruits of bush-bashing (photo: Claire Leow)


1830s cluster

There is a cluster of headstones depicting different reign years from Chinese emperors. These are re-burials. With only the headstones and no shoulders, etc, this looks more like a memorial garden. The stakes indicate they will make way for the proposed highway. What will become of these historical artifacts?

1830s tomb cluster, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)




Hill 2 is a small but beautifully lush hill, with many stakes. We encourage you to enjoy the vistas and explore the many exquisitely carved tombs while you still have access to them. We feature some highlights here.


staked, hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)

staked, hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)


Here’s a letter from descendants appealing for the highway project to be stopped.

Hill 2 has many intricately carved tombs.

intricate carvings, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)


tomb with retaining wall, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)


large tomb with bench, Hill 2, female (photo: Claire Leow)


large tomb with bench, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)

large tomb with bench, male side (photo: Claire Leow)


hill 2 tomb with Sikh guards (photo: Claire Leow)


Close up of Sikh guard, Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)


Near the 1830’s tomb cluster, find a path off the road and look for an unusual tomb with Sikh guards and cherubic angels.

Sikh guard at  angel’s tomb (photo: Claire Leow)


Sikh guard at naked angel’s tomb (photo: Claire Leow)


Sikh guard at naked angel’s tomb (photo: Claire Leow)


Vista at Hill 2 (photo: Claire Leow)


While not all of Hill 2 will make way for the highway, access in the future may be affected. Enjoy these vistas, the serenity and bird life before the character of Bukit Brown changes.







December 2017
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