Khoo Seok Wan – Poet, Scholar, Revolutionary, Romantic



Khoo Seok Wan 邱菽园 1874-1941  ( photo: archives)






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.

Khoo Seok Wan “live” tomb, inscribed on the altar is his  epithet which he penned himself  (photo:Raymond Goh)

Khoo Seok Wan’s self written epitaph (photo Raymond Goh)



There is no space in the seas and hills to build my abode
… 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
prepare the chariot
If you don’t believe just look at the tomb grass
Yearly they come back with new greenness
88 old man Seok Wan

Khoo’s wife tomb among the Group 9 cluster on map



Ode to Khoo Seok Wan
My Great Great Grand Father’s Tomb!
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.
My Great Great Grand Father’s Tomb!
A white stake declares a foreboding future
His eyeless sockets shedding copious tears
That eight lane highway: unspoken fears
My Great Great Grand Father’s Tomb!
“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.

Discernible beneath the grime there is true grit Khoo Yang Thin’s grave can be found in group 12 on the map (photo Perry Tan)


Another example is the epithet for Wee Teck Seng’s tomb (just below Gan Eng Seng):


(Photo: Raymond Goh)

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.