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.
In Bukit Brown, one can find various forms of art, structure and inscriptions, auspiciously incorporated within individual tombs to enhance the happiness and prosperity of the deceased’s family.
Tomb whisperer, Raymond Goh translates a poem found on the couplets from a tomb in Bukit Brown:
The Golden Sheep leads the eternal dance
The Earthen Ox draws the rising tide
The earth presents the elegant vigor
The hill offers the heroic spirit
On a different tomb, Raymond translates the poem engraved on its couplets, with the help of Alex Loh and Tan Kim Hong, members of the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook group:
The green dragon forms the mountain in front of the tomb
The white tiger meets with a good water formation
The spiritual mountain concentrate the earth veins
The elegant water produces academic descendants
Do join the discussions in the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook group page, a platform for all members to learn, as well as contribute and share their knowledge in all things related to heritage, habitat and history.
by Perry Tan
Standard Chartered Bank
In April 2014, in collaboration with All Things Bukit Brown, we conceptualised a guided walk with a Clean-Up at Bukit Brown, where a team of 35 volunteers from Standard Chartered were taken on a guided tour, before spending up to 4 hours cleaning tombs. The organising committee were initially ambivalent about volunteer response and feedback, since such an unique CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) event at a cemetery was previously unheard of. Our ambivalence proved to be unfounded, as we were pleasantly surprised and heartened by the very positive volunteer feedback. This prompted us to plan 2 additional sessions for the year.
So on a cloudy but dry Saturday morning (13 Sept’2014) , we found ourselves back at Bukit Brown five months after our inaugural CSR event at the heritage cemetery. Read Perry’s report on Standard Chartered Bank’s first CSR @ Bukit Brown here.
The programme was similar – starting with an hour-long tour the tombs of prominent pioneers guided by Claire Leow, co- founder of All Things Bukit Brown (bukitbrown.com) , followed by a clean-up of tombs* in various stages of clean up needed, hand-picked by brownie Khoo Ee Hoon. A few of the volunteers were repeat volunteers, who found the initial session April so enriching that they came back for more. Although we used the same programme, the beauty of Bukit Brown is that it is so rich in history that our guide easily customised our tour to be different from the first one by simply taking a new route and stopping by the tombs of different pioneers.
The presence of repeat volunteers meant that we had a cleaning crew that was semi-experienced. We identified 3 cleaning clusters, two of which were heavily covered with undergrowth and trees. Volunteers were split into 3 teams, with those who were stronger and more experienced assigned to the more challenging clusters. The result was excellent – we were faster, more efficient and managed make quick work of heavy vegetation in our way. We even sawed down and uprooted quite a number of small trees that some of us could now moonlight as lumberjacks!
The day ended up with a light hike up to Ong Sam Leong’s magnificent tomb, where we were treated to a King of the Hill view of Bukit Brown, ornate designs of the tomb and stories of the Ong clan.
We went home sweaty and slightly filthy, but fulfilled by the meaningful work we did. Once again, a few volunteers enjoyed the experience so much that they indicated their interest to join us again in the next round – this certainly is starting to look like a sustainable CSR initiative that brings a very progressive heritage ring to tthe Bank’s “Here for Good” brand promise!
Here’s what some volunteers had to say about their experience…
“It was a very nice experience, learning about the history of Singapore, and the people who built Singapore and gave opportunities to many others who follow. It is a very historical area – good place to visit for the people who want to know more about the history and preserve it.” Hari Natarajan
“I am very glad to be part of the team and it was a wonderful experience. I learnt a lot about Singapore’s history and enjoyed the physical exercise as well. Although the event dealt with graves, there was no taboo, but actually fun. And I think this heritage and history theme goes well with our slogan of “Here for Good”. We remember history, we are here for good.” Ye Yang
*Tombs selected for cleaning are those which - for reasons unclear - have been forgotten and have not been visited for a number of years. One reason shared with us by descendants who have been recently reunited with their ancestors, is the main caregivers had themselves passed on. In respect for the tomb keepers whose livelihoods for generations are dependent on the services provided to descendants, All Things Bukit Brown, to the best of its abilities, ensures that no tomb selected for volunteer cleaning is not under the care of tomb keepers. Our hope is that a tomb once cleared will reveal information that will trigger a memory which will lead to a reunion. We believe in Serendipity because it has happened.
We are heartened and encouraged by the experience of Standard Chartered Bank and thank them for initiating this project. If you are corporation or a community group and are interested in sharing their experience, please drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Subject Title: ” CSR @ Bukit Brown Programme”
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
All Things Bukit Brown is pleased to announce that it is the first recipient of the Civil Society Advocate Organisation of the Year Award in the inaugural Singapore Advocacy Awards. This is our acceptance speech at the ceremony on August 30, 2014.
“We are honoured and humbled to have been deemed deserving to receive this award by a dedicated and diverse panel of activists, many of whom have worked tirelessly and for a much longer time on a variety of causes such as foreign worker abuse, AIDS awareness and education, the protection of women’s rights and the championing of the local arts scene.
While we are very much the “new kids on the block” among causes highlighted today, we have stalwarts before us who championed the cause of heritage preservation and protection. We look upon this award as encouragement and affirmation, that what we do in promoting awareness of the Habitat, Heritage and History of the iconic Bukit Brown Cemetery is contributing to the growing voices of concern about how rapid development has resulted in the loss of our old places and a growing sense of alienation of what is home.
Our encounters on the ground talking to and documenting stories from tomb keepers to descendants have been enriching, and our wider Bukit Brown experience has led us to places we have never been, to temples and other areas of cultural and ethnic significance, and in observing the customary rites and rituals which are being practiced today, and further afield to maritime port cities linked to our past. By celebrating the rich diversity of a shared past which is being kept alive by sheer dint of devotion and effort, we find ourselves sharing in a larger collective act of preservation of our culture and identity. We are far from alone.
In receiving the honour of this award, we pledge to continue to engage in conversation and in concert with all stakeholders to make heritage a part of the development paradigm, and to re-imagine spaces which will reinforce memory and identity from one generation to another generation.
We would like to thank especially Raymond and Charles Goh, for leading the way and sharing with us so generously and so passionately all your research from when both of you started exploring Bukit Brown eight years ago. Our abiding gratitude goes to the community especially on Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Facebook group which have encouraged and supported us, and which enlivens Bukit Brown daily with the members’ sharing of interesting articles and stories, anecdotes and sometimes grave discussions. It is your enthusiasm that led us all on this journey; unlike most online communities, we are glad to have met many of you face-to-face in on- and off- site events.
We thank the Singapore Heritage Society for nominating us and finally we thank the SAA for this honour, which we will endeavor to live up to. We have much to live up to.
We acknowledge and congratulate all the other nominees. For us, it was enough to have been nominated.
This initiative by SAA makes all of us nominees winners because it celebrates the acts and sacrifices made by volunteers across different communities. Volunteers are the heart of many communities, raising awareness, lifting spirits, affirming shared values, shaping aspirations, and connecting the different threads of society into a fabric that is stronger for weaving its constituents together. Volunteerism is often driven more by passion and purpose than resources, and demands us to be creative, persevering and collaborative. It is often, especially in the nascent stages, lonely and intimidating, confusing and almost crippling in the face of lofty expectations of what a few individuals can and should achieve.
We acknowledge and endorse the efforts of the SAA to bring voices to the communities that need encouraging, causes that need acknowledgement and affirmation, and issues that benefit from airing in public discourse. We do ourselves a service by taking ownership of issues and responsibility for making dreams a reality. This is our contribution to our society. It is humbling to be acknowledged.
Next year, we as a country will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Singapore as a republic, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Singapore from occupation during WWII. We salute all the communities and civil society activists before us who have taken our country to where it is today.”
Claire Leow & Catherine Lim, Co-Founders, All Things Bukit Brown
- T. Sasitharan (Panel Chair) – Arts educator and Cultural Medallion winner
- Cherian George - Academic
- Richard Ho - Architect
- Faizah Jamal – NMP & Environmental Activist
- Sharon Siddique – Consultant
- Constance Singam - Civil Society Activist and Writer
- Wong Ting Hway – Medical Doctor
- Geoffrey Yu – Arts Supporter and Former Diplomat
“Activism and advocacy are the cornerstones of an active and vital civil society movement and the need to establish and protect free space for civil society has never been more urgent than it is now,” said Mr Sasitharan. “A strong civil society will lead to healthy, functioning democracies. Conversely, healthy, well-functioning democracies must allow strong civil societies to exist.”
“If civil society in Singapore is to grow and mature, then it is crucial that good advocacy work that makes an impact on society, that is engaged with the community and that empowers people, should be properly recognised, acknowledged and applauded.” (Source: TOC article here)
The Honours List:
ACRES * All Things Bukit Brown * Braema Mathi * Chan Li Shan * Damien Chng * Eugene Tay * Jeremy Boo and Lee Xianjie * Louis Ng * M Ravi * Pink Dot
Advocate of the Year: Braema Mathi (President of Maruah, a human rights advocacy group)
Advocate of the Year: Louis Ng (ACRES - Animal Concerns Research and Education Society)
Advocacy Organisation of the Year – All Things Bukit Brown
Most Promising Advocate – Chan Li Shan (mental health advocate, author of A Philosopher’s Madness)
Most Promising Advocate – Damien Chng (We Believe in Second Chances)
Postscript: It is worth mentioning that we acknowledged fellow nominee Eugene Tay, who supported us from the early days, and blogger Jerome Lim of The Long and Winding Road fame, for bringing us together. They inspired us in their railway walks, a precursor to the Green Corridor campaign.
We received the award from William Lim, one of the greatest honours we have experienced.
Lim Su Min, a Brownie and a descendent of Tan Tock Seng and Lim Boon Keng, sketched the historic inaugural awards:
Bukit Brown named World Monuments Watch site
“Ullambana” Festival by Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong @ Tangling Halt.
by Sugen Raniah
The Ullambana Festival is observed and celebrated by the Buddhists during the Seventh Lunar Month. The Sanskrit term, ‘Ullambana’, refers to the compassion for all beings suffering in the realms of misery. The observance of this festival is based on a discourse by the Buddha – where Maudgalyayana, a disciple of the Buddha, discovers that his mother, Lady Niladhi, had been reborn into the realms of misery. The troubled Maudgalyayana then seeks the Buddha for help. The Buddha advises him to make offerings to the Sangha, as the merit of doing so would help relieve the suffering of his Mother, and that of other beings in the same state.
Here in Singapore, it is a common sight for Teochew sian t’ngs (temples) to perform these rituals during the seventh lunar month. I observed and documented the Ullamabana Festival at Tanglin Halt Market and Hawker Centre by the members of Bukit Timah Seu Teck Sean Tong.
There are three temporary ceremonial altars set up in the tentage – the main altar of the three Buddhas, the altar for the Patron Deity, Du Di Gong and the last for Da Shi Ye (King of Ghosts). Offerings of dried goods and drinks, vegetables, a variety of meat and paper offerings are assembled in the centre of the tentage. Here associate members of the market and members of public are invited to offer joss sticks to the wandering spirits. There are also smaller areas around designated for the spirits for ‘lodging’, ‘washroom’ and ‘leisure’ purposes.
Unlike the elaborate Taoist salvation rituals by Xuan Jian Dian, the Buddhists embrace the recital of Ulka Mukha Sutra. Men, draped in red vestments, are represented as the Sangha (the community of disciples). The Sutra recited is an amalgamation of the mind, body and mouth. Mind in absolute contemplation, with hand gestures of the mystical Mudras and together with the recitation of esoteric words of the Sutras- they invite the wandering spirits to listen to the teachings of Buddha and liberate them from all sufferings. These men sing the Sutra in Teochew and the lyrics are accompanied by beautiful Teochew styled music. It is meant to work like a beautiful charm that draws the spirits to listen and attain liberation.
The day ritual comes to a close with the tossing of longevity buns. The food offerings are then packed and distributed to contributors and friends. Members of the temple take a break before preparing for the dance of the auspicious lanterns later in the evening.
Sugen Ramiah a teacher by training, has been observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples for the past one and half years.
Some elements in the drawing are all too familiar landmarks in the cemetery, while others suggest hidden secrets, or things that,as of the present moment, has disappeared due to the roadworks. The drawing straddles between what is real and what is imagined, what is there and what is not there, or ‘not there’ because we can’t see it (yet) like other intangible (forces or) values of Bukit Brown.
(please click to view and appreciate full image)
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:
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。