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 flood 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
Register for our annual NDP Celebrations for 2014
Date 9 August, Time: 4pm – 7pm
Meeting place : Gates of Lorong Halwa, where we will begin by taking a group photo.
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”.
There will be multiple guided walks, quizzes with prizes with a Peranakan theme, goody bags and a picnic of heritage snacks. More details to be announced soon, so watch this space but the location for observing the National Anthem and The Pledge will only be revealed on the day itself. Please help us prevent wastage in preparing for food and ensure we have goody bags for everyone by registering here early so we can capture numbers early. Register by 6 August by clicking “join” . You may also register friends or family who are not on FB by leaving a comment on how many will be coming in this blog post.
FB registration here
If you are not on FB, you can register here by leaving a comment with your name if you would like to attend with your name and number of people who are coming with you.
Bring a torch light, as light will fade to night over the course of the celebrations. Please remember bring umbrella or poncho protect yourself against the sun with sunscreen and avoid donating blood to the mozzie brigade with.mosquito repellent.
We will celebrate regardless of rain, sun or exhumations
Disclaimer: By agreeing to take walking tours of Bukit Brown Cemetery, I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so.To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward) Please read if you are attending our guided walks for the first time, useful info on safety : Getting There/游览信息 If you have a facebook account please register on the FB links provided unless otherwise stated
Previous NDP reports :
Join Fabian and Andrew for a walk and listen to stories of Brotherhood in Bukit Brown.
Disclaimer: By agreeing to take walking tours of Bukit Brown Cemetery, I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so.To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward) Please read if you are attending our guided walks for the first time, useful info on safety : Getting There/游览信息 If you have a facebook account please register on the FB links provided unless otherwise stated. There is also a walk by post museum in the after, please see details below for registration.
Meeting place for all Walks : At the Lor Halwa Main gates at Bukit Brown
Sun 20 July 9am – 11.30am : Brotherhood in Bukit Brown (click on the link to visit the facebook event page) ————————–
Please wear covered footwear.
Please bring mosquito repellent. Note that there will also be a private tour conducted as part of Singapore Heritage Festival on the same date and time, so check that you are in the correct group when the tour starts to avoid disappointment!
More on the Walk: A journey of brotherhood and sisterhood (of course) between strangers tied to each other by hardship and common dreams. Newly arrived immigrants unrelated by blood or kinship who vowed to look after one another’s families in a new island of opportunities. Idealists who join forces with the shared dream of a new China without feudalism and injustice. Coolies who just wanted to look out for each other’s livelihoods and safety. Celebrated sisters who moved heaven and earth to rescue their man. Woman who look after ladies deserted by fate or philanderers . And of course, there is the brotherhood of underground organizations e.g. Heaven & Earth Guild & Little Dagger Society. All these stories and more, lost in the mist of time and fog… Until now.
Sunday 20th July’14 : 4pm – 6.30pm : Outpost 76 Intro to Bukit Brown
In this walk, you’ll enjoy the lovely greenery and serene environment, see some of Singapore’s wildlife, visit some of our forefathers and learn more about the special heritage aspects of Bukit Brown.
RSVP is a must as we have only 15 spaces available. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with name, tel and number of spaces required and we’ll get back to you.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of Lim Bo Seng’s martyrdom (29 Jun 1944)
An excerpt from Singapore war hero Lim Bo Seng’s diary:
“My duty and honour will not permit me to look back. Every day, tens of thousands are dying for their countries. You must not grieve for me. On the other hand, you should take pride in my sacrifice and devote yourself to the upbringing of the children. Tell them what happened to me and direct them along my footsteps.”
Family members attended a remembrance ceremony organised by Changi Museum, at the Kranji War Cemetery this morning.
Read the Today report here
The walks are free but registration is needed via the Festival website only here
Registration opens 1 July, 2014. Spaces are limited so register early to avoid disappointment!
Bukit Brown in the City
Saturday July 19 & July 26, 4pm – 6.30pm
A number of pioneering settlers of 18th and 19th century colonial Singapore who were buried in the Chinese cemeteries of the Greater Bukit Brown Complex (including the first Chinese Municipal Cemetery) are today still remembered by streets and buildings bearing their name.
The activities and efforts of these movers and shakers – many of whom were members of leading Chinese families in other contemporary European colonies - contributed significantly to colonial Singapore’s transformation, from a regional entrepot port to a modern and globally significant trade and finance hub, the enterprise envisaged at its founding in 1819
“Bukit Brown in the City” , takes you on a guided walk that covers Raffles Place; Boat Quay; Chulia Street (formerly Kling Road); Phillip Street; Telok Ayer Street; Club Street and eventually ending at Bukit Pasoh Road. Experience what life was like and what has changed over the years in old downtown Singapore.
The City in Bukit Brown
Sunday July 20th & 27th, 9am – 11.30am
Between 1922 and the period of the Second World War, a majority of the Chinese residents of Singapore were buried in Bukit Brown cemetery. Some of those buried here, were well-known and distinguished pioneers like Tan Ean Kiam; Gan Eng Seng; Tan Chor Nam; Lim Chong Pang; Tan Kheam Hock; Ong Sam Leong; Tan Boo Liat; See Tiong Wah – and they were leading contributors to the economic, social as well as cultural life of Singapore.
With “City in Bukit Brown”, we invite you to join the “Brownies” who will introduce you to the tombs of these prominent pioneers who landmarked street names and places all over Singapore. Listen to accounts of their lives, their fascinating backgrounds and the endearing legacies they handed down to our generation today.”
About the Guides:
Alex Tan Tiong Hee, “Curator” and lead guide of “Bukit Brown in the City”
Alex, who studied law in England, was brought up on the lap of history. He was very close to his father, the late Tan Yeok Seong, who was a historian and scholar, as well as a publisher of educational textbooks for schools in Singapore. From his father was nurtured, an acute appreciation for the colonial history of Singapore vis-a-vis developments in China at that time Alex, lends to this heritage walk, his personal experience of historical places and the pioneers who are buried in Bukit Brown. Alex is an Executive Committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society.
The Brownies: The Brownies are the volunteers who have been spending their weekends conducting heritage walks at Bukit Brown since 2012. To date, over 11.000 people have visited Bukit Brown in organized walks. Inspired by positive responses from the public, the Brownies would like to spread and share the collective stories of the pioneers in Bukit Brown to the rest of the island. Chew Keng Kiat who is curating “The City in Bukit Brown” has conducted 120 guided walks at Bukit Brown.
More on the walks:
The Bukit Brown in the City and the City in Bukit Brown walks were specially curated for the Singapore Heritage Festival so as to storyboard a direct connection between two places – the City and the Cemetery. The former which stretches from the present Raffles Place to Club Street landmarks the commerce and business networks of our colonial past; the latter, the contributions of pioneers buried in Bukit Brown and our migrant history.
Many of the places within the city which served as offices for banks, shipping and trading houses no longer exist in their original physical form, but they are nonetheless still landmarked by the names of the pioneers who breathed life to them. The handful that still exist physically have been re-purposed to keep up with the times.
Consider “The Arcade” in Raffles Place and the connection with number 26 Boat Quay. The Arcade of yesterday was the offices of Guthrie; 26 Boat Quay – today “Penny Black” – was the business premises of Tan Kim Ching, eldest son of Tan Tock Seng. Both Guthrie and Tan Kim Ching were the builders of the Tanjong Pagar Dockyards – the precursor of what became the Port Authority of Singapore.
Some 10 doors away, 17 Boat Quay (present day OUB concourse) does not exist today, but back in the day it harbored a political fugitive from China. Kang You Wei was the architect of the failed movement to reform and stem the decline of the Imperial Qing from corruption and systemic abuse. The man who provided him refuge, Khoo Seok Wan, was an intellect and poet who inherited his father’s vast fortunes founded on rice trading of which number 17 was the office.
The City was more than just a place of commerce, it was a gathering of prevailing social, economic and political thought congregated at the Goh Loo Club, a gentlemen’s club, the last stop of the walk.
As such the walks are bespoke in nature, drawing on the personal as well as the broad strokes of the historical context of the life and times of the pioneers buried in Bukit Brown, and their web of connections as the elite of the day. But though elitist in make-up, it was their collective actions that had reflected their concerns for the larger populace and how to uplift their lot in life.
In contrast, with the City, the Cemetery has better withstood the test of time until plans were announced for an 8 lane highway which will slice it into half. As a burial ground for the Chinese from as far as back as the late 1800s, the Cemetery with 100,000 graves has been fertile ground for a group of volunteers called “Brownies”, who have been sharing what they have learned about the life stories of the pioneers in the City in their guided walks. The tomb of Tan Kim Ching is inscribed with Qing imperial titles as well as titles from Siam, Japan and Russia.
As a complementary to the City In Bukit Brown, the walk in the Cemetery is a gateway into another dimension of their life stories, the compelling inscriptions and the architecture of the graves.
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.
3rd June 2014
Tomb Measurement 2-Day Workshop with Dr. Lai Chee Kien
NB: There has been a change in starting time for Session one at NLB from 1 pm to 1.15pm.
Places available: :30
Session One : 1.15pm -4pm, Saturday 14 June 2014
Location: Imagination Room, 5th floor, National Library, Victoria Street
Session Two 3.30pm- 6.30pm, Saturday 21 June 2014,
Location: Bukit Brown Cemetery Gate (meeting point)
From 2011-2013, several architecture students supervised Dr Lai Chee Kien have measured tombs at the former Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery as an attempt to record the historical and unique types and hybrids found in the cemetery, now under threat of road development. This workshop aims to share the basics of measuring objects and buildings, but with a focus on the experiences of measuring tombs at Bukit Brown. It is hoped that design students and members of the public can learn the basics of tomb measurement, and in future volunteer to record other significant tombs, or those of deceased relatives. These will serve as archival records in the future for all.
14 June 2014 (Theory session)
(a) Introduction to measuring objects and buildings
(b) Methods, tools, and practices
(c) Tomb types and features
(d) Inhouse practice session
21 June 2014 (Practical session at Bukit Brown)
(e) Introduction to Bukit Brown
(f) Groupwork: measuring a small tomb
3. Things to bring (theory session)
(a) A4 clipboard
(b) Measuring tape (5m or more)
(c) Pen or pencil (paper will be provided)
[Items for practical will be discussed at theory session]
(a) Participants who have attended guided tours of Bukit Brown cemetery would be appreciated.
(b) Participants who have prior 3D drawing knowledge (architects, designers, architectural and design students) would have an advantage.
(c) Participants are required to attend both the theory and practical sessions.
Disclaimer: By agreeing to participate in the practical session held at Bukit Brown Cemetery, I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so. To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself.
To register, please email latest Wednesday 11 June’2014 to : email@example.com
with Subject; Registration for Tomb Measurement Workshop.Participants to indicate name, IC, contact number, email and relevant interest/experience as stated in 4 (a) and (b). Successful applicants will be informed by email.
About Dr. Lai Chee Kien:
Dr Lai is a registered architect, and graduated from the National University of Singapore with an M Arch. by research , and then a PhD in History of Architecture & Urban Design from the University of California, Berkeley . He researches on histories of art, architecture, settlements, urbanism and landscapes in Southeast Asia