#Flashback: 10 October 2012
by Catherine Lim
I was working on a production of History from the Hills – an 8 episode docu series which traces the history of Singapore from the perspective of Chinese pioneers who made significant contributions to society and the region in the late 1800s to the 1900s (post-war) and who are buried in Bukit Brown.
We were to shoot a sequence with Ong Chwee Imm – whose great great grandfather Ong Chong Chew was one of the three Ong “founders” of Seh Ong land – with Raymond Goh. A few weeks before, Chwee Imm had come across a document from among her father’s papers which recorded the graves of Ong Chong Chew together with 2 other family members exhumed from the Telok Blangah family burial ground, had been re-interred to Seh Ong Cemetery.
Seh Ong cemetery also sliced into two parts because of the Lornie Road expressway straddled the expressway; alongside Sime Road adjoining the Bukit Brown Cemetery side and across where the golf course is. There was no indication which side the re-interred exhumed graves may have been relocated. However because extended family including that of Ong Chong Chew’s son Ong Kee Soon’s grave was located on the golf course side, the speculation was that the re-interred remains might be located there. It was a long shot which received an extra boost, when the night before the shoot, Chwee Imm’s brother mentioned that as a child he had accompanied their mother to visit some graves before the expressway was built, and so the mood on the morning of the shoot was palpable and brimming with anticipation.
Chwee Imm had long wanted to find the grave of her illustrious ancestor ever since she had written and published ” The Journey from White Rock” (2006) tracing Ong Chong Chew’s life story and his legacy from his hometown in “White Rock” China to Singapore. It would be the final piece missing from her story.
The search was undertaken around the area where Ong Kee Soon’s grave was located. It was “bush bashing” terrain and after an hour into shoot when Chwee Imm fell into a depression in the ground, it was decided that the search would be abandoned for safety reasons.
Fast forward, Saturday 17 September, 2016. Raymond Goh on his usual solitary weekend explorations and research in the vicinity of what remains of Seh Ong bordering Bukit Brown, suddenly decided to look down and this was what he saw:
Here are some notes from Raymond’s post on the FB Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown :
“Rediscovery of Ong Chong Chew, his eldest son Ong Kim Cheow and Kim Cheow’s wife in Seh Ong cemetery. Chong Chew’s tomb was a remake when he was re-interred from his family burial ground in Telok Blangah to Seh Ong. Date on tomb -1888. All his children inscribed on tomb matched the records. Kim Cheow was a founding member of Straits Chinese Recreation club and died in 1909, hence his tomb still indicated Qing era, his daughter married Tan Hay Leng, son of Tan Kim Ching”
(The original document from Chwee Imm’s papers had indicated 3 family members including Ong Chong Chew)
Ong Chong Chew also contributed to Chong Wen Ge, Heng San Teng and Sian Cho Keong 仙祖宮(Amoy St)
At the time of the rediscovery of Ong Chong Chew’s tomb, Chwee Imm was abroad and relatives on FB helped to contact her to inform her.
We look forward to hearing more from her when she has had a chance to visit. But there is no doubt, that given the dedication which was written to her august ancestor in her book, the finding of the tomb marks another important milestone in her journey to White Rock.
For those who are interested in the first episode of History from the Hills which featured the history of Seh Ong land and the initial search for Ong Chong Chew :
More on the founders of Seh Ong here
On 14 August, Samira Hassan joined Brownie Peter Pak for a Ramble thru’ Bukit Brown to Kopi Sua Cemetery .
It was Samira’s first visit and she penned these reflections to share.
“I doubt there are textbooks or academic sources that would be able to do justice to the arcane yet insightful details the places in Bukit Brown had revealed about our past – and these pieces of our tangible history are truly irreplaceable.”
by Samira Hassan
Dateline: Bukit Brown (14th August 2016)
We started the trail off the sidewalk on Lornie Road near a clearing just pass the turn in to Caldecott Hill. It would have been all too easy to miss it whilst walking – overgrown creepers had landscaped the steep steps that led us down the path to the trail. The steps themselves were uneven and rickety, an omnipresent feature in Bukit Brown’s landscape.
The cemetery is sprawled over 5 hills (blocks) as high ground was thought to represent the back of a dragon, an auspicious symbol in Chinese culture.
We first made our way to the tomb of Lim Kee Tong and his wife.
Their tombstone was largely inspired by post-modernist designs of colonial times with Chinese lions. A mound behind the tombstone is where they are buried, enclosed in a horseshoe shape defined by a brick border. Each feature on the tombstone it seems had its own specific meaning; for example, the vines of grapes at the border of the headstones, because of its seeds, signified the wish for many more generations to follow.
The horseshoe shape is also reminiscent of a womb, alluding to the circle of life. The design of the grave incorporates a drainage system which would direct rain water to flow to the bottom, an important component in fengshui. Water is “chi” or energy and also represents wealth. Diverting water away from the mound helps to stay the course of decomposition, although it is inevitable.
Inscriptions on the tombstones included names of the deceased, dates of death and place of origin. It was explained that sometimes posthumous auspicious names were given as mark of respect by the children. Names of children are also included in the inscriptions so it seems like each grave is family monument in itself. Features and inscriptions on each grave can reveal some aspect about the person’s life and hopes for the family.
And in Bukit Brown, every grave has a story to tell – even the grave of paupers. Moving into the pauper area of Bukit Brown, we learned of the rickshaw puller Low Nong Nong who died in clashes with police when rickshaw pullers went on strike and demonstrated against the increment of rickshaw rentals.
The other rickshaw coolies then pooled together enough money to buy Nong Nong a tombstone and a funeral to acknowledge his sacrifice. In the midst of the other *pauper tombstones where there was barely enough money to erect a simple headstone, Nong Nong’s tombstone was comparable in size to the tombs in the paid plots and also because the mound itself had been cemented over, perhaps because his comrades realised that since he died without kith and kin, there would be no one to help maintain his grave should they themselves pass on or manage to make enough money to return home to China
*Under the colonial administration, free plots in Bukit Brown were set aside for those who died destitute
The fact that even paupers like this rickshaw puller had a story, had a voice, was something that I really appreciated in Bukit Brown: there was no particular class, or group of people, that were entitled to the plot of land, that all of these seemingly disparate narratives had managed to tell a bigger story of Singapore’s history. Such heterogeneity transcended into Ong Sam Leong’s tomb as well, the biggest one in Bukit Brown.
The most fascinating thing about his grave were the statues of the Punjabi guards stationed at each side. Around Malaya at that point in time, the British had recruited Punjabi soldiers and policemen from India. Given their positions of authority, they were almost seen as the “guardians of the state” They became also personal body guards of rich towkays such as Ong Sam Leong at a time where lawlessness was more prevalent. For me it demonstrated a deep level of trust between diverse communities and reflected a nascent multicultural society Singapore in the 1900s.
Bukit Brown has grown to be more than a resting place for the deceased – it has become a physical emblem of a society that was present in early 20th-century Singapore. From the most minute details in the tombs to the way the entire cemetery is organized – all of these provide important snippets to what civil society used to be like back then, I think this really goes to show that there is sometimes no alternative for trails and fieldwork such as this one.
I doubt there are textbooks or academic sources that would be able to do justice to the arcane yet insightful details the places in Bukit Brown had revealed about our past – and these pieces of our tangible history are truly irreplaceable.
Samira is a year 5 student with Raffles Institution, who is currently serving an internship with Singapore Heritage Society to better understand the challenges of conservation and heritage development
Information on public guided walks when and where and how to register can be found by following Bukit Brown Events on Peatix
The tomb of Wee Theam Tew is yet another significant discovery made by tomb whisperer, Raymond Goh in the Greater Bukit Brown. Wee Theam Tew was a lawyer and died at the age of 52 due to his failing health. His tomb has inscriptions in both English and Chinese, and a set of poetic couplets, which is believed to enhance the livelihood of the deceased’s family. This one reads:
This is how one member of the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook community, James Koh translated the couplets to English and added his interpretation of the significance of the words :
The mountain sits with honorable aura
The river flows with abundance
The hills add charm to the landscape
The earth becomes pleasing to the eye with accumulated lustre
He adds that the couplets “represent the things which Mr. Wee wish to bestow on his descendants — reputable status, decent lineage and legacy, strong prospects, and a happy home.
What makes these couplets interesting is, in each sentence, there is supposed to be a stop after the first two words. For e.g., 坐山 ¶ 脈正派. But the second and third words actually form a noun which is related to Mother Nature — 山脈, 水源, 秀山, 華地. This, in turn, displays Mr. Wee’s brilliance in Chinese literature.”
We are assuming these were either written by Wee or chosen by Wee.
Do join the discussions in the Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook group page, a platform for all members like James Koh, to learn, as well as contribute and share their knowledge in all things related to heritage, habitat and history.
When the country is broken and families are upturned, fame and fortune mean nothing.
Although I am forced to wander, I am not yet lamenting that our cause is hopeless.
My eyes may be luckier than that of Lu You, for I may (live to) see the day when the righteous army sweeps north and pacifies the central plains
[i.e., when we have driven out the Japanese].
Mdm Chng of the Pang Family – A Mother of Journalists, Educationists and Revolutionaries
by Ang Yik Han
Located at Hill 4 in Bukit Brown, the Teochew style tomb of Mdm Chng of the Pang family (方母莊太夫人) is simple and nondescript. A sharp-eyed observer will notice however that the calligraphy on the tombstone came from the hand of Lin Sen (林森), Chairman, of the ruling pre war Nationalist government in China.
Another sign of her family’s close connection to the Kuomintang was the fact in her obituary in the Nanyang Siang Pau, she was described as the mother of a martyr. This was in reference to her second son, Pang Nam Gang (方南岡), whose story was recorded in Feng Ziyou’s “Anecdotal History of the Revolution《革命逸史》” published in 1948.
Although two of Mdm Chng’s sons passed away before her, the names of all her sons were inscribed on her grave: Siao Cheok少石 (deceased), Nam Gang 南岡 (matyred), Chee Dong 之 棟, Huai Nam 懷南, Chee Cheng 之楨. Also present were the names of two daughters, though her obituary only mentioned one surviving daughter.
Pang Nam Gang had a good grounding in classical Chinese education. However, he spurned the traditional path of becoming a mandarin and chose to pursue his studies in Japan. There, he joined the Tongmenghui. Deeply committed to overthrowing Manchu rule, he devoted his time outside of studies to learning how to make bombs.
In 1905, Pang and eleven of his compatriots in Japan were ordered by Sun Yat-Sen to return to China to assist in the Huang Gang uprising in the Teochew region. Injured while preparing bombs, he was brought to Hong Kong and hospitalised, hence missed out on the action. When the uprising petered out, Pang decided to join his uncle who was a local governor in Gansu, with the intention of seeking opportunities to incite the local Hui people to rise against the Qing. His uncle was initially pleased to see his nephew, but flew into a rage when word reached him that Pang was a revolutionary. Locked up by his uncle, Pang escaped with the help of other relatives, stealing two horses and riding to Hankou, where he sold the horses and boarded ship for Japan to continue his studies. Eventually, he made his way to Penang where he became the editor of the Kwang Wah Yit Poh newspaper which was linked to the Tongmenghui.
The young revolutionary could not sit still for long. When news of the successful 1911 uprising in Wuhan reached the Nanyang, Pang rushed back to China where he raised a fighting force in his home county of Pho Leng. When Yuan Shikai was elected the first President of the nascent Chinese Republic, Pang felt that Yuan could not be trusted as he had too many links with the old regime. Disgruntled, he returned to Penang where he took up his old job at the newspaper.
Pang’s worst fears came true in 1915 when Yuan Shikai assumed the title of Emperor. This time, he could no longer abide the situation and returned to China again to fan the flames of revolution. Unfortunately, he was captured in Macau by Yuan Shikai’s agents and smuggled across the border and imprisoned. At first, he assumed a false identity and did not divulge any information even under torture. However, his fervent preaching of revolutionary ideas to his fellow prisoners gave him away and he was summarily executed. So perished a martyr of the Chinese Revolution at the age of 29.
Mdm Chng’s obituary also mentioned that her three surviving sons were active in the areas of journalism, education and social works. Her youngest son, Pang Chee Cheng (方之楨), was in the limelight as well for his involvement in politics. A journalist, he was a KMT cadre who actively canvassed support for the party as one of the main committee members of the Nanyang branch headquarters.
In 1930, Sir Cecil Clementi became the Governor of the Straits Settlements. He had a dislike of the KMT due to its instigations of strikes during his previous posting in Hong Kong. On the day that he arrived and assumed office in Singapore, it was unfortunate that the KMT Nanyang branch headquarters chose to hold its general meeting at the same time.
One of the first acts of the Governor was to summon the KMT representatives to his office where he told them in no uncertain terms that the KMT was not allowed to operate local branches in the Straits Settlements and Malaya. A few months later, the Governor upped the ante by issuing orders to deport Pang Chee Cheng and another KMT stalwart; well aware of the situation, they left on their own for China first.
Quiet diplomacy between the British and Chinese governments behind the scenes eventually led to the deportation orders being rescinded. In later years, Pang Chee Cheng was based largely in China where he was active in the Overseas Community Affairs Council (僑務委員會) set up by the Nationalist government.
Pang Chee Cheng often met with renowned personalities of the day. So it was that when the Indian poet Tagore visited in 1927, Chee Cheng arranged for him to travel to Muar and visit Zhonghua School (中華學校, a forerunner to today’s 中化), where Tagore was received by his brother Pang Chee Dong (方之棟) who was the principal then. A graduate of a university in Beijing, Chee Dong was successively principals of Chinese medium schools in Kajang, Muar and Batu Pahat. In 1933, he may have worked as editor of a Chinese newspaper in Rangoon as well.
After the Japanese invaded, he perished during Sook Ching in Singapore, leaving behind his widow and 2 sons.
The fourth son Pang Huai Nam (方懷南) was the first editor of Nanyang Siang Pau (南洋商報) established by Tan Kah Kee in 1923. Slightly less than a month into its publication, he left the newspaper as the Straits Settlements authorities found his writing too political for their liking. He was also a committee member of the Poit Ip Huay Kuan and principal of Choon Guan School. It was mentioned in Phua Chay Leong’s “The Teochews in Malaya” that he shared the same sad fate as his elder brother Chee Dong during Sook Ching.
Mentioned as well in Mdm Chng’s obituary was one of her grandsons, Pang Say Hua (方思法). Born in Singapore to her eldest son, he was “fostered” to his uncle Pang Nam Gang; his father was convinced that his second brother would come to no good end with his revolutionary ways and hence it was better that he had a son to his name. Pang Say Hua went back to China to study and subsequently became a signaler in the Nationalist Army. He was one of the many caught up in the tumult of the times. Due to his background, he suffered after the Communists took over, being imprisoned for over ten years. After his release, he worked at various jobs and retired in 1980. His story became known when a civic organisation in the Teochew region which sought to recognize veterans of the Sino-Japanese War found him and publicised his story.
Single for life, he attended church regularly and spent his last days in a Christian old folks’ home where his favourite pastime was to watch Teochew opera. He died in Jan 2015, a month after he celebrated his 104th birthday.
He was an old trustee of the Soon Thian Keing (Temple) who together with his wife is buried at Bukit Brown. Through his personal memories, Ho Siew Tien (1864-1960) helped shed light on the temple’s history.
This story by Ang Yik Han begins with the origins of one of the oldest temples in Singapore.
In the 1980s, a debate took place in the local newspapers over the age of an old Chinese temple dedicated to the earth deity Tua Pek Kong in Malabar Street. Historians argued over an ambiguous phrase in one of the temple’s old stelae, which stated that the temple, the Soon Thian Keing (順天宮), was established during the years of the reigns of Jiaqing and Daoguang (“嘉道之際”). As the Jiaqing Emperor ruled from 1796 to 1820 and Daoguang from 1821 to 1850, proponents of an earlier dating for the temple argued that its establishment may have predated the founding of Singapore in 1819. However, there was no direct evidence to support this claim. No artefacts survived from the temple’s earliest days and the stele in question was erected only in 1902 when the temple was reconstructed.
One the earliest known accounts of the Soon Thian Keing before its reconstruction was an interview given by one of its trustees, Ho Siew Tian (何秀填), in 1949. He recalled that when he first arrived in Singapore in 1882 at the age of 18, the temple was only a small shrine located next to a tree which housed the Tua Pek Kong statue. The shrine was refurbished by two merchants in 1888. It was only in 1902 (28th year of Guangxu’s reign) that some merchants based in the Sio Po area (the colloquial Chinese term for the part of town north of the Singapore River) came together to construct a proper building for the temple.
Other than getting a new building, the turn of the 20th century was significant for the temple for another reason. Some Hokkien merchants started a school in 1903 and then turned to the temple committee for funding to sustain the school. Thus began the decades long association between the temple and the Chung Cheng School (崇正学校) [not to be confused with Chung Cheng High (中正學校) which was managed by the Hokkien Association].
Every year, the temple provided for the school’s upkeep from the money paid by the resident monk who was contracted to run the temple. In 1916, a school for girls, the Chong Pun Girls School (崇本女校) was started and likewise funded by the temple. Committee members of the Soon Thian Keing sat on the boards of both schools. Prominent alumni members of the Chung Cheng School over the years included Lee Kong Chian and President Ong Teng Cheong.
As the number of students increased, the need for new premises for both schools was keenly felt. In 1938, the construction of a new school building at Aliwal Street was completed. This housed both the Chung Cheng School as well as the Chong Pun Girls School under one roof. It was recorded that Ho Siew Tian was a prime driver in the construction of the new school building along with the then temple chairman. A trustee of the Soon Thian Keing since 1933, he was concurrently the treasurer of the temple and the two schools, a position he held till after the war.
Hailed as one of the most modern Chinese school buildings of its day, the building has been preserved and is today the Aliwal Arts Centre.
As Aw Boon Haw donated substantial funds towards the building’s construction, the school hall was named after his company, Haw Par.
Old photos dating from 1950 which showed girls of Chong Pun exercising in the school field, today a carpark. Sultan Mosque can be seen in the background.
Ho Siew Tian ran a thriving hardware and building materials business under the chop Ho Hock Ann (何福安) at Beach Road. He also owned a number of twakows for transporting goods. As his wealth grew, he made substantial investments in properties. In 1948, he incorporated his firm as a limited company and handed over its running to his sons, who subsequently expanded the business to firearms.
It was urban redevelopment which spelled the end for the temple and the schools. In 1980s, the temple was acquired by the government for building the MRT. It moved successively to various temporary sites before its present building at Lorong 29 Geylang was completed. With the resettlement of the urban residents in the area, dwindling student enrolment led to the closure of Chung Cheng School in the 1980s as well. Its name was transferred to a primary school in Tampines.
Soon Thian Keing today in Lor 29 Geylang (photo Yik Han)
Ho Siew Tian is buried at Hill 4 together with his wife who died 12 years before him. According to obituaries in the Straits Times and the Singapore Free Press, he was one of the oldest men in Singapore at the point of his death at the age of 96. He was survived by 5 sons (2 other sons died before him), 3 daughters, 2 sons-in-law, 7 daughters-in-law, 81 grandchildren, 8 grand sons-in-law, 4 granddaughters-in-law and 37 great grandchildren.
Ang Kok Kian – A Pioneer of the Soap industry
by Ang Yik Han
It is not clear if Ang Kok Kian (洪轂堅) grew up in Penang or he travelled there from his ancestral village in Nan’an county, Fujian province. During the 1910s, he moved to Taiping with his family but left after two years for Singapore, where he felt there were better prospects.
Of the businesses he established in Singapore, the most successful was the See Sen Soap Factory (時鮮肥皂廠), one of the local firms which rose to challenge the dominance of the market by Western manufacturers then. Although sales trailed behind another local firm Ho Hong Soap Factory, its distinctive “Dog’s Head” (狗頭標) brand soap was popular in Singapore, Malaya, Borneo and Hong Kong, both before and after the war.
Ang Kok Kian passed away in 1939, leaving behind 4 sons. By then, his eldest son Ang Hai Sun (洪海山) was actively involved in the family business. Not content with expanding the soap factory, he went into oil milling to ensure a stable supply of raw materials for the factory.
Although “Dog’s Head” soap has disappeared from the market for decades, the mark of this locally produced soap can still be seen today adorning the house which Ang Hai Sun built, where his descendants still reside.
More information on his descendants here
Double tomb of Ang Kok Kian and his wife at Bukit Brown Hill 4
Researched by Ang Yik Han
Died in the year of the Horse, 19 July 1942 and survived by one son named Kah Bo (嘉謀), Hou Xiu Xi ( 侯秀西 )located at Hill 1 was said to be a good orator and a staunch supporter of the China Relief Fund led by Tan Kah Kee.
He spoke at public rallies and occasions such as temple celebrations to exhort the local Chinese to support the anti-Japanese cause. According to an account, he was beaten to death during the Japanese Occupation for refusing to cooperate with the Japanese authorities.
Remembering Yeo Bian Chuan
by Simone Lee
Qingming or Tomb-Sweeping Day is a traditional festival on the Chinese calendar in remembrance and respect of ancestors. Families visit their ancestors’ ‘home’ – the grave, for a ‘spring clean’ and replenish their needs by leaving ‘worldly’ offerings. This year, the festival fell on the 5th of April and 10 days before and 10 days after is the period where rituals are conducted.
Bukit Brown is busiest at this time of the year. Jams are not uncommon. Throngs of people drive around the historic cemetery to look for their ancestors’ tomb. They carry with them bags of offerings and cleaning tools. Yet, for another year, Yeo Bian Chuan’s grave laid forgotten.
In February 1915, during the Indian Mutiny in Singapore, Yeo Bian Chuan saved 17 Europeans’ lives by hiding them in their home from a bloody massacre. For this he was awarded a commemorative gold medal but died before receiving it.
Today, Yeo Bian Chuan’s tomb is in a state of neglect, not what a hero deserves. We can only hope that soon a descendant would identify him and restore the glory of his ‘home’, one which he deserves.
Read more on Yeo Bian Chuan’s story at Peter Pak’s blog here.
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.