It’s hard not to be moved by the passion of the tomb whisperer! On Vesak, he conducted a special tour despite the heavy rain. Co-guides: Fabian and Victor.
An Open Letter by Tay Koh Yat’s great grand-daughter
(as received by email to the blog)
A flurry of communications were sent across the Pacific last week as news excitedly spread from the furthest extensions of my family tree that a documentary on Bukit Brown was being aired on Singapore TV and that Tay Koh Yat had been featured. After a few minutes of perusing articles written on this man, I came across a piece written by my own sister, and I was inspired to do the same. My name is Kristie. Jaimie is my sister, and Tay Koh Yat is my great-grandfather.
I had seen his photo hung proudly in my grandparents’ house, but I didn’t know very much about this man – not even his name. The shape of my eyes and the shape of one of my cousin’s eyes are so exactly the same (yet so unlike anyone else’s in our immediate families’) – tapered at the ends like falling teardrops – that people often thought we were siblings. It wasn’t until I looked more closely at that photo in my grandparents’ house that I realised that we had inherited our eyes from him.
I knew that my great-grandfather was an entrepreneur. An extremely successful one at that. As my sister says in her article, my mother vividly remembers being recognised regularly as his descendant, but she always assumed it was due to that entrepreneurial success. It wasn’t until March 2012, when the articles that my sister cites (“The Fall of Singapore – 15th February 1942” and “Even when your soul descends into hell, still it is not enough to atone for your sins”) were referred to us across the Pacific, that we came to know more about this man – and if he was truly everything those articles described, how I wish I had been alive to meet him.
My teenage years were fraught with ‘typical’ angst, a lot of rebellion and an absolute, unwavering, passionate belief that every battle in life must be fought purely to achieve what is right and just – a belief that often used to, and still does, get me into trouble. In later years, reflecting on the fact that such forceful passion also made me extremely stubborn, I wrote to my late grandfather, son of Tay Koh Yat, asking whether, to his knowledge, there was any other family member who had outspoken personality traits like mine. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away some months later, and my question went unanswered. After many a detour, I went on to become a lawyer – an achievement that I had never deliberately set out to do, but one that I was surprised to find suited me extremely well. It wasn’t until I read the above articles that I felt I had finally found an explanation. My own great-grandfather is denoted as being feisty, patriotic, daring and, by all accounts – in leading a civilian army of 20,000 people, organising a rescue team for the injured, seeking compensation for the widows and children of fallen soldiers, forming the Singapore Chinese Appeal Committee, and then, at age 70, daring to single-handedly confront arsonists amidst the 1950s riots – a man who truly believed in standing up for what is right throughout his life. Perhaps more importantly then, I had also found very real inspiration in the evidence that stubborn determination to ensure what is just, a belief that regularly made me unpopular, could be applied to achieve truly incredible feats of justice and humanity.
It is with very real sadness that I read that the proposal to construct the highway through the cemetery will proceed. Since I do not pretend to know the intimate nature or complexities of Singapore’s growing population, increasing congestion and increasingly short supply of land, my sentiments are not at all political but, instead, emotional.
All around the world, countries mark the World Wars with memorials, remembrance sites, and museums. Here in Australia, we have not only a national day, ANZAC Day, but dozens of monuments, memorials and a long-standing museum in our nation’s capital dedicated to our war heroes. China, Japan and Hawaii are some of the places I have visited that have similarly erected museums and preserved key war sites with great pride, solemnity and reverence. Places like Vietnam, Cambodia and provinces throughout China even maintain museums, prisons and other sites to record and inform the public of their domestic conflicts. Just as importantly, these sites serve to educate – not only on the historical facts, but as a lesson to future generations of the atrocities and consequences of war. I recently asked my cousins whether there is a dedicated war museum in Singapore. There is not. Whatever the political position on the excavation of Bukit Brown, it is my fervent hope that every historical tombstone and artefact, particularly those of the pioneers and war heroes, would be carefully preserved for the discovery and education of the many generations to come – not just in Singapore, but the world over. If an economic incentive is needed, consider for a moment that that tourism is an increasing contributor to Singapore’s GDP and that many people around the world, particularly those in my parents’ generation, may be just as compelled to visit Bukit Brown (or a related museum) as they are to visit Sentosa or the Jurong Bird Park. I certainly would be.
I understand from comments made on my sister’s article that, at this stage, the proposal does not include my great-grandfather’s tomb – and for that, we are very grateful. However, it occurs to me that our happy family story would not coincide with the families of those whose ancestral graves are at risk of being exhumed (without regard to the preservation of any artefacts, as far as I am aware) in the course of such a construction project. As such, I am deeply saddened by the idea that other families, whose branches may similarly extend around the world, may never come to learn of the incredible heroes or pioneers that lie at the base of their own tree.
In Australia, on ANZAC Day, the Ode of Remembrance is traditionally read. Although I am Australian, and very proudly so, it is perhaps not until my discovery of Bukit Brown and my great-grandfather’s tremendous contribution to freedom and justice during and after the war that the words held such resonance with me. And as Bukit Brown was in fact a battlefield, it feels extremely apt to recite it in closing:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.
Kristie lives in Sydney, Australia. She is the great-grandaughter of war hero and pioneer Tay Koh Yat
By Vinita Ramani Mohan
I continue to read with dismay, the ongoing plans to develop the Cross Island Line (CIL), which will cause serious habitat damage in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
As someone interested in regional development issues, I have travelled widely in ASEAN. Citizens I’ve met from large, densely populated cities like Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta seem somewhat resigned to the pollution, traffic and poor urban planning that characterises their cities. But they are proud of their country and its vast hinterlands – the beaches, hill country, forest reserves and ancient monuments or temples nestled in jungles. Friends from smaller cities like Dili and Phnom Penh, or from the rapidly developing Yangon are determined to ensure their cities are green and that their governments are mindful of conservation values and proper urban planning. But they too have hinterland to be proud of. They tell me to get out, to venture into provinces beyond the capital or main city.
And here lies the critical difference between Singapore and almost every other country in the region: we have no real hinterland to speak of.
We would tell the visitor to head to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, to Bukit Brown, the rail corridor or the farms in Lim Chu Kang. There are pockets, but they are few and far between. These are the places we are proud of, since we have nothing by way of vast countryside, mountains, ancient temples or other heritage sites.
Each time I go away and return to Singapore, I long for our nature reserves. I feel a proud sense of stewardship. I am not a botanist or zoologist, but I marvel at what exists on such a tiny island. I see people withdraw from the crowds in the urban areas and visibly relax in an environment that alleviates stress. I take foreign visitors to these places. I always emphasize this to them: what we lack in size, we more than make up for in the sheer diversity of species that our natural environment, the primeval and old secondary growth forests support.
There is also a strong spiritual and cultural value attached to these places. I daily see Singaporeans meditating, doing tai ch’i and stilling their minds in the forest reserves. I see families teaching their children about the natural environment. People behave differently here. The older Singaporeans I see seem to mimic the practices of what they probably remember from Singapore’s kampung days: they are less fussy, they get mucky and dirty, they sing, they wash up at the outdoor taps at the reserve entrances, they banter and they laugh.
The Cross Island Line and other urban development plans being proposed by the LTA are worrying because they send the message that we need not care about stewardship and responsibility. It also sends the message that these spaces which enable us to slow down, to feel some sense of humility before the wonders of the natural world, are dispensable.
Unlike the Burmese, Cambodians, Timorese or others in the region, we have little else to point to as our heritage and our legacy. The forests are our heritage and are a vital relic of old Singapore. They existed long before immigrants arrived in Singapore and they survived colonial rule and wars. It would be a pity to see them irrepairably damaged by hasty transportation developments to accommodate a vast increase in population that poses serious threats to environmental sustainability in this tiny island.
In a word, it would be tragic to see the ecological wonders hidden away in this remarkable little island destroyed by the very Singaporeans who have a sacred responsibility to protect their own land.
BIO: VINITA RAMANI MOHAN is a writer and contributing editor of Kyoto Journal. Starting out as a musician, she was a singer-songwriter under the moniker Self-Portrait, and was later the bassist of Singapore bands etc. and “V”. She has worked as a film and music critic and as a journalist. She was also the founding editor of the National Museum of Singapore’s Cinematheque Quarterly. She has worked for the Singapore International Film Festival (2002, 2004 and 2005) and Toronto International Film Festival (2004) as a writer and publicist. Her blog is here.
Did you miss the documentary on Bukit Brown, History from the Hills?
Episode One introduces George Henry Brown, after which Bukit Brown got its name and how Bukit Brown became the first Municipal Cemetery for Chinese.
Repeats start from Thursday May 16 at 9 p.m. on Channel 5. For the listing guide, click here.
If you heard Brownie Claire Leow at her recent TEDx talk on Bukit Brown’s Heritage.Habitat.History, you would have heard her mention these Malay sisters who grew up in Kampung Kheam Hock on the grounds of the cemetery.
Take a walk down Memory Lane with Claire and a special guest, Phye Ahmad, born and raised on the grounds of Bukit Brown Cemetery. This Kampung Tour is a wonderful ramble in the lush surrounds as pictured above, and Phye and our guides help identify edible plants grown by the villages, as we walk among “supertrees” of the natural variety. We visited a tomb house, so called as a tombkeeper has made a home out of the tomb he has been looking after for decades. We walked through the kampung back into the cemetery to look for the tomb of a Muslim woman from Djambi (part of Indonesia today) who married a Chinese man and was buried under a Chinese name:
Bukit Brown. More than a cemetery. More than a Chinese cemetery.
Click here for a photo essay by Joyce Le Mesurier on the tour.
Click here for a photo essay by Bianca Polak.
The Wayang in the Tombs (2)
by Ang Yik Han
The Wayang in the Tombs 1 continues, as Yik Han unravels more iconic scenes from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other popular stories.
“Temple of Sweet Dew” (Gan Lu Si – 甘露寺)
Zhou Yu, Sun Quan’s viceroy, wanted to lure Liu Bei over to the kingdom of Wu and then incarcerate him, on the pretext of marrying Sun Quan’s younger sister to him. Liu Bei’s advisor, Zhuge Liang, saw through this and ordered Zhao Yun, one of Liu Bei’s generals, to accompany him for protection. At the same time, he sent word to Sun Quan’s father-in-law to get Sun Quan’s mother along so that she can view her prospective son-in-law at the Temple of Sweet Dew. With the old lady around, Zhou Yu’s mischief came to naught and Liu Bei and his lady successfully got hitched.
Bowing man on left is Liu Bei, seated lady in the centre is Sun Quan’s mother, man on the right is probably Sun Quan’s father-in-law.
Editors note: An insight on how Yik Han deciphered this panel.
“The costumes especially the head dress are clues. If you look at what the man on the left is wearing, you can tell he is not just another official. For some tine I thought the figure in the middle is a male till I looked more closely at her headdress which is what you will expect a more senior lady of high social status to wear. Put these two together and you have a high ranking older male, probably some lord, paying respects to an old woman also of high social status. All the other identified panels from this tomb are based on the Three Kingdoms, and there is one famous part of the novel which has this setting, so that’s how I identified the scene. If you area Chinese opera fan, you may also recognise it easily.”
Here’s an animated excerpt from the opera
Lui Bei’s Farewell to Xu Shu
Compared to his warlord contemporaries, Liu Bei was handicapped by the lack of an able advisor. Fortunately for him, a brilliant strategist named Xu Shu joined him and helped him achieve some small victories. Just when things seemed to be going well for Liu Bei, his rival Cao Cao found out about this and he managed to get someone to send a forged letter to Xu Shu, purportedly from Xu Shu’s mother. The letter claimed she was in Cao Cao’s custody and her life was in danger unless Xu Shu abandon Liu Bei and join Cao Cao’s camp. The filial Xu Shu had no choice but to obey and the inevitable farewell came. On the day Xu Shu left, Liu Bei saw him off with his retainers and followed behind him for part of his journey. Upon reaching a forest, Liu Bei exclaimed “I want this forest to be cut down!” When his retainers asked him why, Liu Bei replied that this was because the trees blocked his view of the departing Xu Shu.
Here’s an opera you can view on the sending off.
The panels are from the tombs of the Teo Family located in Hill 2
The Third Madam teaches her son (三娘教子)
During the Ming Dynasty, there was a businessman by the name of Xue Guang who had a wife Mdm Zhang and two concubines, Mdm Liu (who bore him his only son Xue Yi) and Mdm Wang. Xue Guang conducted his business far from home. One day, he asked a man from his hometown to deliver five hundred taels of silver to his family. Instead of doing so, the man took the silver for himself and told the Xue family that Xue Guang had died. As they believed the report to be true and there were no news from Xue Guang, Mdm Zhang and Mdm Liu remarried after some time due to the family’s slide into poverty.
Only Mdm Wang chose to remain and take care of Xue Yi even though he was not her flesh and blood, together with an old servant Xue Bao. She weaved cloth to support Xue Yi through school. Xue Yi was however mocked by other children in school as the boy without a mother. Losing his temper, he took it out on Mdm Wang when he got home, saying that she had no right to punish him as she was not his mother. In fury, she slashed the cloth on her loom into two, signifying the serverance of their relationship, shocking Xue Yi and Xue Bao who hurriedly interceded on his young master’s behalf. Xue Yi came to his senses and promised to apply himself to his studies diligently, and even offered the cane to Mdm Wang to punish himself. In years to come, Xue Yi gained honours in the imperial examinations.
A movie based on the opera can be found here
inspired by the impending exhumations, someone penned a poem which was published in the chinese papers today, rough translation by Yik Han follows:
the forgotten hills the family’s glories
coffins press down on the passing years
altars imprison the murmurs of the nether world
the shadow of the steel arm gradually closes with the setting sun
the leaves and trees are all whispering
peace is made out to be alarming talk
in the future it will not be the blue sky which covers us
but the undercarriages of cars
neighbours, arise all of you
since the living do not cherish
why should the dead stubbornly remain?
you who have come to offer your respects, i know not which family’s descendant you are
can you place a joss stick for me as well
after all i am your ancestor’s neighbour, laying together for tens of years
can you recognise on the tablet
the “fu” (fortune) character painted over by chicken blood
do you remember during the burial
the sutras recited by the monk …
“guan gui yi huo, fu mu wei tu” (lines from the 64 hexagrams, not translated)
“guan gui yi huo, zi sun wei tu”
mr ong from the east end
mrs teo from the west end
it is indeed time to arise
with furious scribbles in front of the king of hades
record in the annals of the unfortunate the history which the living does not comprehend
the spirits return and wander
the tombstones have fallen into disrepair for long
the hoe’s hurried movements pick at bones
but the claimants of the tomb do not come
a voice loudly proclaims
three years later!
all will bade farewell to the soil!
only in the sea!
will there be peace!
The Cho Family Re-Discovered
by Norman Cho
The search for my family tree has been an exhilarating adventure for me…
It all began with the discovery of my late paternal grandfather’s (Cho Kim Leong) grave at Bukit Brown in Nov 2011 after a long and arduous search for it. The construction of his tomb began soon after this discovery. This was followed by more discoveries about the man (Kim Leong) himself, through family documents, interviews with those who remember him and through the artefacts that he left behind. My exciting journey in the search for my ancestors was chronologically recounted in the All Things Bukit Brown blog as more and more interesting events unfolded.
It has indeed been a blessing for me, when the spouse of a newly-discovered cousin, Richard Brockett, unexpectedly contacted me in Facebook. It was a bolt out of the blue! They were from Australia and were the descendants of my granduncle, Cho Kim Choon. Incidentally, he was reading the blogs that were posted in the All Things Bukit Brown blog. Recognising the names mentioned in the blog and touched by the accounts that I had recounted, he decided to contact me. He had just finished working on his family tree and is now working on his wife’s family tree. We were perfect in seeking each other’s help to piece together the “Cho Family Jig-Zaw Puzzle”! Somehow, I believe in grandfather’s divine intervention in making this happen.
Their family had kept a treasured family portrait of my great-grandfather, Cho Poo, with his wives and 5 sons, taken at their family home in Hereen Street, Malacca, circa 1920s. He kindly emailed me a copy of this cherished family portrait with the only known image of Cho Poo and of his wives. Finally, I was able to see my paternal great-grandparents for the very first time. The feeling was indescribable.
Great-grandfather looked stern. My great-grandmother (wife #3), Kong Moey Yean, who was dressed in a dark baju-panjang seated on the left of the picture, looked pretty much the regal matriarch. All the sons are dressed in western suit and positioned in chronological order of seniority from left to right – Kim Choon, Keow Teng, Kim Leong (my Grandfather), Kim Tian and the little boy Kim Hock who is standing beside wife #2. Like many affluent families in the Straits Settlement whose sons received an English education, they wore western suits. Although, thought to be English-educated, Cho Poo still remained a traditionalist by wearing Chinese attire in this photo. A fairly wealthy man, Cho Poo reportedly sold 5,000 acres of land in Seremban in 1895. He was a pioneer in tapioca, gambier and rubber planting who died in 1932. Little else was known about the man. Hopefully, more will be revealed as I track down more relatives from his 5 sons…
I had never thought that I would come this far… but with faith and perseverance, I know that more good things will come my way.
Editors Note: We are gratified that Norman was able to connect with a long lost cousin all the way from Australia through our blog. We salute Norman for his faith and perseverance.
Read more tips from on how to trace your ancestry from Norman here
Norman has also contributed posts on Peranakan customs and culture. Here’s a list you can click on
Dateline: Sunday 17th March, 2013 – 2pm-4pm
Project: A Community Service by Pack 3017 of the Cub Scouts of America (age 7-11 years) to “spring clean” the tombs on Hill 1, supported by the Brownies.
The project began with showers of blessings, that came and went. Undaunted, about 30 cub scouts accompanied by their parents cleaned up some 40 tombs on Hill 1.
Their timing was perfect, 2 weeks before the annual Qing Ming festival when descendants spruce up tombs to honour the memory and contributions of their ancestors.
Thank you Cub Scouts of America for honouring the pioneers of Singapore at rest in Bukit Brown A meaningful job well done.
Finally, the cleaning begins with much vigour and diligence!
And indeed, the whole pack did a brilliant job in the final reveal
When this photo was posted on the Bukit Brown Facebook Group, Madelene Seow said “Please send my appreciation & thanks to the cub scouts.” She is the great great granddaughter of Siow Cheng Watt.
From left to right: Peter , Yik Han, Danny ,Hang Chong, Zen , , Anna ,Ai Loon, Catherine, Ee Hoon and last but not least Victor Lim who organised logistics and materials needed. Not in photo Sugen and Su-Lin (who was behind the camera).
Here are 4 videos by Khoo Ee Hoon on cubs with parents ar work.
The preparations behind the scene: