Khoo Seok Wan – Poet, Scholar, Revolutionary, Romantic15
A few pieces of white rock accompany the green stone,
A little grave built but alas late one year
My dear I hope you can understand the reason,
I am late to build because of my poverty.
(Khoo Seok Wan (1874-1941) in memory of his wife, Lu Jie (陆结)
He was a Confucian scholar, a political activist in revolutionary China, a prominent community leader in Singapore and an early advocate for education for girls who helped set up the Singapore Chinese Girls School.
Born into a wealthy merchant family, Khoo’s fortunes waxed and waned because of his extravagant life style ( he was known to be a generous host) and the over extension of his funding activities to revolutionary causes. But embedded in his life is a love story which captured the heart of Bukit Brown resident tomb whisperer Raymond Goh; he was determined to find his grave.
When Khoo Seok Wan’s wife died in 1936 at the age of 44, his fortunes were on the wane and he was bankrupted. He could not afford a tombstone for his wife whom he buried in Bukit Brown. So he buried his own tooth with her and when he could afford it the next year also constructed his own tombstone in preparation to be reunited her one day. The poem was penned to mark the occasion.
Khoo was born in Fujian, China, and followed his mother to Macau before he joined his father in Singapore in 1881. His father, Khoo Cheng Tiong (邱正忠), was a successful rice merchant and prominent community leader in Singapore. Khoo was schooled in traditional Confucian education, and when he was 15 years old, he went back to his hometown to prepare for the Chinese imperial examinations. He passed the district and provincial examinations to attain the level of a juren (举人) that qualified him as a candidate for the central government imperial examinations in Beijing, but he failed in that attempt in 1895 and returned to Singapore.
Khoo suffered from leprosy and lived his last years on the generosity of his friends. He died in Singapore at the age of 68 on 1 December 1941.
He was buried in Bukit Brown cemetery beside his wife. Earlier this year, Raymond Goh finally tracked down the tombstone Khoo built for himself and his wife from records in the Burial Register lodged with the National Archives. Khoo Seok Wan’s tomb is in Blk 4 Section C, is in the path of new dual 4 lane road.
… How can the buried bones leap across the sword lake
Even if you beckon 3 times, I could no longer arise
That lay in Singapore enduring long thirst
Flying flowers realized their butterfly past life
Caressing the epigraph, thoughts stop and future generations
If you don’t believe just look at the tomb grass
88 old man Seok Wan
I stand before him, silent, in respect and awe.
His genes embedded in every cell of mine
We are bonded though the course of time.
A white stake declares a foreboding future
His eyeless sockets shedding copious tears
That eight lane highway: unspoken fears
“Could you not ask them to let us rest in peace”
His silenced tongue in eloquence loudly says
His bony hands grasp me in one last fond embrace.
by Lim Su Min 林蘇民 in tribute.
The prolific Khoo is responsible for composing epithets for luminaries buried at Bukit Brown. Among them the father of Khoo Teck Puat, Khoo Yang Thin. His epithet is an exhortation to the descendents through a list of things to do to live a good, honest and honorable life.
Another example is the epithet for Wee Teck Seng’s tomb (just below Gan Eng Seng):
Khoo Seok Wan was also responsible for popularizing the term Sin Chew which is a sobriquet for “Singapore” (translated) Khoo writes: Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea, and with vessels and boats large and small anchored around it; the glitter of artificial lights at night are like a crown of illuminated stars (“星”) when viewed from afar. “洲” (zhou, island) and “舟” (zhou, boat) are homonyms: while the boat lights are like stars, those on the island are like the Big Dipper to accentuate the constellation. This is why the term “Sin Chew” is widely known by folks here and afar.
Editor’s note: In the first posting of this article, Lim Su Min our tea master, believed Khoo Seok Wan to be his great great grandfather based on initial evidence. Further investigation has shown this trail to be false. But in the spirit of paying tribute to Khoo Seok Wan the poet, we are leaving in this post the poem composed by Su Min.