by Sally T.
One recent Saturday, some friends and I had the pleasure of being guided around Bukit Brown Cemetery on a special tour led by three descendants of notable people buried there. The Descendants Tour was presented in partnership with the National Library of Singapore – a great community initiative on the part of the library. A few seasoned guides helped lead the group, which really helped to add insight and context along the way.
Each of the three descendants had fascinating stories to share and we were treated to what I would describe as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hearing them so passionately and proudly tell familial histories and sing songs in honour of their ancestors, many of whom were pioneers of early modern Singapore, will be something I look back on as a highlight of my time living here. We visited the resting places of enterprising business people, diplomats and philanthropists – the type who have streets named in their honour.
In recent years I had heard a lot about Bukit Brown, a national treasure that had been rediscovered by a caring community and was being hard fought for. Despite my curiosity I’d never visited, perhaps not wanting to feel inappropriate or as an invasive foreigner, but a conversation with a friend who is a passionate historian prompted me to look up the next tour available. The fact that three descendants were taking the tour alongside a few experienced Brownies seemed like a unique opportunity and one not to be missed. I was right.
Our meeting point was just near the LTA temporary set-up, which we figured was the site headquarters for the current exhumation works taking place in certain sections of Bukit Brown. There’s no denying that it’s a confronting reality. While I’ve known for a while that exhumation is fairly common here, I learned that it has a relatively long history in Singapore and happened under British rule too, as one of the graves we visited had actually been moved there from somewhere else in the 1930s or 40s. The current works were well underway when we visited, with high fences erected throughout. From the main road, you would easily have mistaken it for any construction site.
Once the large group of about 30 was assembled, we walked a short distance to the tomb of Chia Hood Theam, who was a respected businessman with a lovely black and white home called Rosedale at the corner of Devonshire and Killiney Roads. Chia’s maternal great-great granddaughter Noreen Chan, along with some other family members present, shared a series of beautifully preserved photographs and stories that had been passed down through the generations. Noreen described how as well as being a ‘comprador’ – the business relationship managers of the old banking regime – her Peranakan grandfather was an early champion of women’s education in Singapore. The tomb was well preserved and had beautiful tiling work.
Next stop was the tomb of one of Dr Lim Su Min’s several ancestors buried at Bukit Brown. On this mother’s side, Dr Lim’s lineage can be traced back to Tan Tock Seng, a prominent merchant and philanthropist who of course the hospital is named after. We visited the tomb of a relation of Tan Tock Seng. An impressive tomb turned a rusty orange from the lichen, the resting place was a little way up a small hill. After sharing his fascinating family history, Dr Lim treated us to an intimate and special moment as he sang a song he had written in his ancestors’ honour. Standing there with only jungle noises to compete with the ukulele, we knew we were witnessing something heartfelt.
The third tomb we visited was tucked much further into the jungle, and on the way we passed some extraordinary tombs, all with different style and character. Clearly, grieving family members had gone to a great deal of trouble to put their loved ones to rest in a place of beauty. The third descendant to share with the group, Serene Tan, went on a mission to find her family’s cluster of tombs after being visited by a man in Mandarin robes in her dreams who encouraged her to visit. After a long search and some coincidences that could only have been fate, one of the Brownies came across the tomb of Serene Tan’s ancestors, including Tan Quee Lan, which were in somewhat of a rundown state. Together with family members, the Tans have done an magnificent job of restoring the tombs with an impressive marble structure.
Dr Lim Su Min once again led us to the last tomb of the tour, which belongs to the eldest son of Tan Tock Seng called Tan Kim Ching, who was successful in further expanding the family’s business empire with rice mills and tin-mining in Siam. The size and stature of the tomb was very impressive and Tan Kim Ching was clearly an important man. After gaining the trust and respect of the King of Siam, Tan Kim Ching was appointed a Singapore-based diplomatic representative of the court of Siam. We learned that he also represented Japan and Russia in diplomatic relations in Singapore. One of the most intriguing things I learned was that Tan Kim Ching was responsible for the posting of British governess Ann Leonowens to Siam to famously teach the children of the King.
I found Bukit Brown majestic in both the grandeur of the tombs and the beauty of nature which has enclosed or almost seemingly protected the site in its forgotten years. When one of my friends who came along mentioned that he was visiting Bukit Brown to some Singaporean business associates, he was met with wide eyes and trepidation! While I wouldn’t want to go there at night, it wasn’t as eerie as I suspected so I would strongly encourage those with an interest in Singapore’s history and culture, and strong sense of family values, to visit this special place. My friends and I will pass the word on about the tour to our friends – foreigners and locals alike – in the hope that more people will come and experience Bukit Brown. Who knows whether they will find an ancestor of their own.
The Descendants’ Stories – A Guided Walk at Bukit Brown (English)
Saturday, 8 November 2014, 4 pm – 6.30pm.
All Things Bukit Brown* is pleased to curate a guided walk in conjunction with the roving exhibition “Bukit Brown: Documenting New Horizons of Knowledge”
Registration is required and all queries is through the NLB website here , spaces are limited to 28.
About the Walk:
News that a highway was to be built across Bukit Brown in 2011 led some descendants who had lost touch with their ancestral tombs to embark on a quest to find them. Some of those who were successful shared their stories of reconnecting with their ancestors and family oral history with the volunteers on the ground, called Brownies.
For this special walk, 3 descendants of prominent figures in business, philanthropy and diplomacy in the 19th and 20th centuries will be sharing their stories first-hand at the tombs of their ancestors.
- Dr. Lim Su Min’s maternal lineage can be traced back to Tan Tock Seng, whose eldest son Tan Kim Ching grew the family’s fortunes, expanding into Siam with rice mills and tin-mining. He became a confidante of the King of Siam, and was appointed a diplomatic representative of the court of Siam. (He held similar positions representing Japan and Russia.) Among the stories Dr. Lim will share at Tan Kim Ching’s tomb is his introduction of a young English widow, Anna Leonowens to the Siamese King, a story which became immortalized in an Oscar winning musical.
- For Serene Tan, the journey of discovering her family’s cluster of tombs at Bukit Brown started the night a man in traditional Mandarin robes came into her dream and passed her a note that simply said “Why no one visit?”. Serene will share how she was finally able to find the tombs of Tan Quee Lan of whom she is a direct descendant on her paternal side after a few years and in the process connected with a long lost cousin. Both then went on to restore and refurbish the family cluster of tombs at Bukit Brown, which had for so long been forgotten.
- Noreen Chan comes from a long line of influential and wealthy “compradors” – the business relationship managers of the old banking regime. At the tomb of Chia Hood Theam, Noreen will recount stories of her maternal great-great grandfather’s frugality and contributions to women’s education from family oral traditions and historical records
Please read if you are attending our guided walks for the first time, useful info on safety : Getting There/游览信息
*All Things Bukit Brown is the banner for a community of volunteers called “Brownies” who conduct regular weekend guided walks and do independent research on the heritage, habitat and history of Bukit Brown. They have guided over 13,000 people since they started their guided walks at the beginning of 2012.
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.
Preamble : Hungry Ghost Festival
Saturday, 26th July was the eve of what is popularly known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, and less well known by its traditional name of Zhongyuan Jie, which in essence is also about honouring ancestors. It takes place at the start of the Chinese 7th lunar month, and it is when the gates of hell open and the spirits of dead are free to wander among the living for a month. To appease them, offerings and entertainment is laid out by descendants at their homes, but also by temples, business and clan associations. This year, the prediction was that hell’s gates will open at 11pm on the eve of the festival.
The Salvation Rituals
At Bukit Brown, devotees from the Taoist temple Xuan Jiang Dian (Heng Kang Tian ) conducted a “chao du” or “salvation rituals” - considered an act of compassion – specifically for the forgotten and lost spirits there.
This is the 3rd year in a row, Xuan Jiang Dian have done this, ever since in fact news of the building of the highway across Bukit Brown in 2011 was announced. Exhumations of the some 4.153 graves which are in the way of the highway are drawing to a close. So there was added interest in this year’s ritual which was covered by our national newspapers. The National Heritage Board (NHB) shared that a specially commissioned video on rites and rituals at Bukit Brown will be uploaded soon to you tube.
A First Hand Account of “chao du”
The ” chao du” ceremony which was witnessed also by Brownies and other well wishers, started at around 8.3opm . It consisted of the setting up of an altar table with offerings at the major junction of the 4 roads in Bukit Brown which leads to Blocks 1, 5, 4 and 3.
The Taoist priests from China, resplendent in their robes, chanted and walked several ceremonial rounds in the area calling upon lost spirits. There was something soothing in their chanting and the air was redolent with the scent of what must have been a hundred lighted joss sticks. Each participant carried 3 sticks each throughout the 40 minute long chanting.
There was a stillness in the air and the smoke and swish of the robes carried the movement of the night. It ended with the burning of paper offerings and just as quickly as it was set up, the devotees packed up and left, with the the candles planted still burning and the last vestiges of the paper offerings smouldering down to embers.
Photo Gallery :
Report on Lianhe Zaobao on a ritual conducted last night at Bt. Brown which marked the opening of the 7th month: A group from Heng Kang Tian including 8 Taoist priests conducted the ritual to invite spirits to a salvation ceremony conducted today in front of Bukit Merah View Block 123. The group has been going to Bt. Brown for the past two years to invite spirits from tombs which are not tended to by descendants. The event was attended by Brownies and participants of tours at the cemetery. It was also recorded by the Bt Brown Documentation Team. NHB is currently preparing a 10-15 min documentary on the rituals carried out at Bt Brown cemetery. This will be uploaded to the NHB channel on youtube, “yesterdaysg”, around end next month. (summary by Ang Yik Han) Full report in Chinese:
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
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
In a report, published on Sunday, 22 June, 2014, Bukit Brown emerged as among the top 3 sacred sites in Singapore, voted by readers in a Straits Times poll.
On learning of the news, Claire Leow, co founder of All Things Bukit Brown reflects:
“To see the Singapore Heritage Society recognised is most apt, for they sparked the civil society response back in November 2011.
To see the Brownies identified as a group is itself moving, as this disparate group of volunteers, heritage enthusiasts and selfless sharers of knowledge and skills has been utterly inspiring. You don’t get more organic than this community, active on site, offsite, beyond keyboards and in cyberspace. Hats off to sifu Raymond Goh and Charles Goh for their inspiration.
And to see others rally behind the Brownies, to cheer us on, to lift us up when we are down, to join us when we utter the rallying cry to stand up and be counted, to share sunny weekends and stormy ones at Bukit Brown, and just patiently adding to the knowledge we are just uncovering day by day, gently correcting our mistakes, boldly stepping in with expertise, shaping the very history of this campaign. Amazing. Very moved……”
Bukit Brown – one of the three sites Singaporeans voted as a sacred place.
The overgrown graves stretching for 200ha bang amid the city bustle make for a restful, peaceful spot rare in urban Singapore.
But when Bukit Brown Cemetery was slated for redevelopment for roads and residential buildings, it was more than its lush beauty that resulted in that rarity in Singapore – vocal protests to preserve it.
The site tugged at Singaporeans’ heartstrings, being the resting place of many forefathers of the country, a living repository of the Chinese diaspora’s tomb culture and design, and where descendants today visit for traditional rituals such as tomb sweeping.
Two civil societies – the Singapore Heritage Society and heritage enthusiasts who dub themselves “the Brownies” – organised petitions and embarked on efforts to document tombs.
No substantial concessions were made by the Government, however, to save the site from an eight-lane road running across it. It is also slated for residential development beginning with its southern portion.
Yet, it’s among the top three sites that Singaporeans deemed as “sacred” places in a recent Straits Times poll.
The poll itself followed a call by academic Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, for a list of sacred spaces and places to foster a love for Singapore, to help it fully become a true city.
Singapore already has essential aspects such as “busyness” and being “safe”, he said in a commentary in The Straits Times, citing American urban geographer Joel Kotkin. However, it lacks the sacred, he said, which Kotkin defines as any unique institution or spot “that (makes) one feel an irrational commitment to a place”.
Certainly, pockets of the population saw the Bukit Brown protests as verging on irrational, given the need for more roads in congested Singapore.
Still, Professor Kishore’s commentary comes amid increasing efforts to make more of Singapore’s heritage, such as the conservation bid by Pearl Bank Apartments’ owners in April.
And it puts the spotlight on the approach to heritage preservation. Insight looks at the challenges and what more might need to be done.
Blunders of the past
In 2004, Singapore’s red-brick National Library building was unceremoniously razed to the ground to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel.
Built in 1959, it was considered by some as architecturally undignified compared with its grander neighbour, the National Museum of Singapore.
Despite extensive efforts by the community to save the space – with a normally passive public penning angry forum letters in the media, and architects such as Mr Tay Kheng Soon proposing alternatives, including re-routing the tunnel – the dissent was swept under the carpet.
Experts say this marked a turning point as it sparked a rise in civic activism and was when Singapore’s conservation movement took root.
It crystallised the idea that heritage conservation and preservation goes beyond protecting splendid colonial buildings to encompass our social and cultural soul.
Retired shipping manager Yeo Hock Yew, 65, says the library had been part of his life since he was a schoolboy studying at nearby St Joseph’s Institution.
“In my university years, I headed there to do research and, as a father, I brought my children there every Saturday morning.
“It was part of the whole landscape of bookshops from the Bras Basah row and the MPH building in Stamford Road. If you couldn’t afford buying from these places, you headed to the library.”
During Singapore’s early years as a new nation in the 1960s and 1970s, swathes of the country fell victim to the wrecking ball. The Government’s main priority, understandably, was to improve living conditions and build up the economy.
Still, awareness of the need to save heritage sites began to emerge. In 1971, the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), which last year became the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), was set up to provide legal protection for national monuments. The division now falls under the wing of the National Heritage Board (NHB) and its role includes offering monument owners guidance and regulatory support.
The board itself is the big daddy of Singapore’s heritage custodianship, promoting heritage appreciation through managing its national museums, documentation and outreach efforts.
Then there is the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), established in 1974 and charged with studying old buildings for possible conservation as part of land use planning.
On the private scene,the Singapore Heritage Society, a non-governmental organisation, was established in 1987.
Academics note that people are talking more avidly about heritage than they did 10 to 15 years ago. “People have grown more expressive about protecting their heritage. It has become part of public discourse,” says Professor Johannes Widodo.
This has also given rise to the recognition that there are new categories of heritage which deserve protection……Read on 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.
The Brownies will be conducting 2 special walks as part of the urban community movement called Jane’s walk. There are other walks at various parts of the city as well and you will need to sign up at the website for the Jane’s walk of your interest.
Here is the link to all the Jane’s walks that will be conducted in the weekend of Fri 2 May’14 till Sun 4 May’14.
To sign up follow the link on the Jane’s walk page or go there directly here.
An Evening Stroll into the Past (Sat 3rd May’14 @7.00pm)
Andrew & Beng will throw a light on the lives and times of the Pioneers at the turn of 20th century Singapore in this special dusk to dark stroll from Bukit Brown Cemetery to McRitchie carpark. Listen to stories of the pioneers that helped build Singapore, while looking out for night birds such as night jars and owls during a leisurely stroll through the cemetery. Please note, to bring your own torch lights for this guided walk.
We will end the walk at the McRitchie carpark.
…. read more
Heritage Walk Botanic Gardens to Bukit Brown (Sun 4th May’14 @8.00am)
Useful info here: Getting There/游览信息