Serendipity by Serene


By Serene Tan

“Why nobody visit?”

These were the exact 3 words that appeared in my dream sometime between 1998 and 1999. In this dream, I was standing in front of a long rectangular table that separated me and a group of  shadowy figures .  One of the figures stepped forward and sat down on the table facing me. I caught a quick glimpse of him and could roughly make out his physique and features although he was in the shadows:  sturdily-built, in his  50s, wearing a fedora hat and dressed in a “changshan” (male costume  equivalent to the cheongsam).

I felt some kind of connection to this person but was just not sure what. I gestured to him I did not understand why he was asking me that question. So he pointed to the message again quite impatiently “Why Nobody Visit?“ That was when  I woke up,  before I could question him further.

I had a hunch that the man in my dream was a relation because I have had dreams before where my loved ones who have just passed on would visit me in sleep either to say goodbye or to ask for something.

I did not think much about the dream again until sometime later when visiting my paternal aunt (my father’s only sister) during Chinese New Year.  As usual, the ever inquisitive part of me who always enjoyed the stories she and my parents shared with my siblings and I about their younger days was stirred by this family visit.

I then asked her if she had any old pictures of our ancestors.  She brought out a book, “100 Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore” by Song Ong Siang which her daughter had given her. She turned to a page with a photo she had tagged and immediately I recognized one of the men in the photo as the one I saw in my dream!  I pointed to the man and she told me that’s my great grandfather, Tan Chew Kim.

Tan Chew Kin in chongshan ( seated on chair, second to right of table (Photo from 100 Years History of the Chinese in Singapore, by Song Ong Siang)

When I was younger, probably not more than 10 years old, I remember my dad bringing the family to his  ancestors’ grave somewhere along Lornie Road.

Serene's father

My siblings and I had no idea whose grave it was; we just tagged along as we were told. Even if my dad had explained the relationships to us then, we could not recall anything in detail.  I decided to try and find the graves again.  But, all I had now was a small photo of my dad  at the grave and a memory that it was  somewhere in Bukit Brown


Serene’s father Tan Seng Guan at Bukit Brown graves (undated)My father at great grandparents at Blk 3 Division A

With no other leads, I gathered my sister and my 2 young children, Alexander & Elizabeth to look for his grave at Bukit Brown.  When we arrived at Bukit Brown, we were shocked by  the number of graves there and how messy the whole place was.  How and where are we supposed to start?  Most of the graves were overgrown with or completely covered by trees and branches. For almost an hour, we drove around, climbed up and down slopes, battled with “commando-trained” mosquitoes, compared graves with the photo but the grave was still nowhere to be found.  We were about to give up when a caretaker named Soh asked if we needed help and whose grave  were we looking for.

He took one look at the photo and said he knew where it was because he is the caretaker in charge of that grave We were  few metres away from the grave!  When I read the names on the graves, I realized they  belonged to my great grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. Tan Chew Kim. That was so unbelievable – it’s like after the dream, my great grandparents were leading us right to the caretaker of his grave!

Soh then told us that one of our relatives used to come yearly to pay respects at the grave but the visits stopped about a few years ago and the grave had been left unattended, and that was roughly when I had the dream in 1998/99. I realize then why my great grandfather had asked me that question “Why nobody visit?” It was a plaintive cry from beyond the grave.

From the photo, it’s easy to see how the graves could be easily overlooked and so difficult to locate – all covered up by trees and overgrown grass and roots.

The "hidden" graves of Great-grandparents-Mr & Mrs Tan Chew Kim (1988/89)

Serene and her son, Alexander with sister Medina leaving Bukit Brown after finding Tan Kim Chew and his wife

I have not dreamed  about my great grandfather again since then but we make it a point to visit their graves regularly. Whenever we visit them during Qing Ming, we would set up an additional place setting in between the 2 gravestones for my grandfather, Tan Jim Seng

Serene's Grandpa Tan Jim Seng who died before her father was born (photo: Family Archive)

I remember Mom told me my grandfather died a few months before my dad was born, so my dad only had his father’s photos to remember him by – he did not even know where he was buried and all his life  my dad has been trying to locate his father’s grave.  As such whenever my dad went to my great grandparents’ graves, he would have an extra share of everything there for my grandfather, a tradition which we have observed every Qing Ming.

Even though dad passed away in 1995, I continued the search for my grandfather’s grave in the hope that one day I can reunite father and son.  It’s very sad whenever I think of how my dad never got to see his father and was left in the care of a nanny from a young age by his mother, my grandmother  who had remarried. But that is another story.

Thanks to Raymond Goh from Asia Paranormal Investigators (API), everything was about about to change, after the discovery of my great great grandmother, Mrs. Tan Quee Lan’s grave

My late father never stopped reminding us that we had an ancestor named Tan Quee Lan and that a street in Singapore was named after him. With so much media coverage on development plans for Bukit Brown recently, I chanced upon this website http://bukitbrown.org in December 2011 while surfing the net. The website had an article about Mrs. Tan Quee Lan’s lone grave in Bukit Timah, off Binjai Park.  Out of curiosity, I left a message on the blog asking if they knew where Tan Quee Lan himself was buried and at the same time, took a trip down to Sian Tuan Avenue to “meet”  Mrs. Tan Quee Lan.  I”spoke” to my great great grandmother for the first time and asked her for help in my quest.

The stand alone grave of Mrs Tan Quee Lan in district 10 surrounded by private housing after Qing Ming this year.

I could not believe it when 2 weeks after the visit, Raymond Goh emailed me on 18 December 2011 saying that he had managed to find the graves of not only Tan Quee Lan but also my grandfather Tan Jim Seng, Tan Quee Lan’s parents and TQL’s  brothers’ graves!  My great great grandmother heard my plea. My dad’s wish was to be finally granted – his father’s grave has been found!

Soon after, I arranged with Raymond Goh to show me the cluster of graves at Bukit Brown. After recovering from the joy of finding a whole cluster of my ancestors and standing among the graves,  I thought of the dream my sister had after we found my great grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. Tan Chew Kim’s graves many years earlier. In her dream she was also standing facing a group of shadowy figures with a female figure all alone at their side calling out to my sister for help.  One of the shadowy figures put up his hand and used his open palm to show my sister the number “5”.  Not knowing what they were trying to say, both my sister and me did not pay too much attention to the dream back then.

I went back again to my great great grandmother, Mrs. Tan Quee Lan to share my news and ask her for advice on what to do next. About a week later, a Catherine Lim from the Bukit Brown Facebook group contacted me, saying that someone related to Tan Quee Lan was looking for the cluster and if I could meet up with this person and show him the graves.

After some inquiries, I realised he was my cousin (my granduncle’s grandson), L.T.  L.T.’s late father was the one mentioned earlier by  tomb keeper Soh who had been visiting and paying for the upkeep of my great grandparents’ graves, Tan Chew Kim.  My uncle  had passed away many years ago and no one had visited the graves since.

Coincidentally, L.T. said he was also drawn back to his roots after reading the same article about Mrs. Tan Quee Lan in the Bukit Brown blog.  He shared that somehow after reading the article, he felt compelled to find his great grandfather’s  graves to continue his late father’s tradition of visiting and upkeep. I had worried about the finance needed to clean up and restore the cluster of 5 graves. L.T. offered to finance the restoration and contributed to the initial clearing which was already a major task.

L.T. and Tomb Whisperer Raymond Goh met for the first time at Bukit Brown on 18 March


Qing Ming 2012 has been  special in so many ways.  Finding the cluster of 5 graves which reached back some 4 generations (great great great grandparents) for me and for my children and my nephews and nieces, an opportunity to introduce them to their roots on terra firma;  meeting L.T. a long lost cousin. But for me, the ability to fulfill my father’s life long quest to find his father was the most meaningful.

Serene's first Qing Ming here reuniting with her grandfather (photo Catherine Lim)


Serene introducing her children, Alexander and Elizabeth to one of their 5 rediscovered ancestors (photo Catherine Lim)

As we went about our family’s Qing Ming observances which took us from Bukit Brown to Mandai Crematorium where my father’s ashes are interred to the solitary grave of Mrs. Tan Quee Lan, I am still not at my journey’s end. My search for my past continues to unravel with every photograph, with every lead.  Tombstones are touch stones for memory that takes us back and forwards in unexpected ways.  The past calls us, ignore it and it will continue to haunt us. There is a Chinese saying, “remember the source of water” And so I continue to remember and hope.

How I wish I could have visited and seen for myself all the graves of my ancestors before they were exhumed from the original cemetery at Tiong Bahru, instead of just seeing what’s left of their gravestones now.  If anyone comes across photos of the old cemetery at Tiong Bahru where I hope I can locate my ancestors’ graves or come across articles of interest leave a comment on this post. I wish to further document  the colourful lives they once lived.”

When we were younger – (from left) Serene’s mother, Serene’s older sister Medina, Serene & younger brother Shintaro

Family photo at Mrs. Tan Quee Lan’s grave(from left): Tristan, Tan Joo Lee, Shintaro Tan, Natalie & Phoebe(front), Medina Tan, Alexander, Serene Tan & Elizabeth(6th April 2012)


Group photo at Mrs Tan Quee Lan’s grave(from left): Teck( film crew), Catherine Lim(a.t..BB ) Jasmine (in white top, film crew director) with Family

And this is me, Serene Tan

 Many thanks and heartfelt gratitude to:

1. My children Alexander & Elizabeth(for contributing the title for this article, proofreading & typesetting )

2. My siblings, Medina and Shintaro and their families

3. Cousin LT(for making frequent trips from JB to Singapore)

4. Raymond Goh & Catherine Lim from Bukit Brown Heritage Group for the discoveries and connections

5. Dr Hui Yew Foong and his film crew members Jasmine Ng, Terence & Teck  for the documentation

6. 100 years History of the Chinese in Singapore, by Song Ong Siang for my great grandfather’s photos

Editors’ Note: We ask ourselves was it  also “serendipity” when we found ourselves at Bukit Brown one weekday afternoon chasing a connection when a lone  white car appears in front of us.  L.T. –  Serene’s cousin –  leapt out  and we asked him, who he was looking for?  We don’t know but everyday connections are being made off and on Bukit Brown, because of Bukit Brown. If you have a story to share with us of “connecting” write to us at a.t.bukitbrown@gmail.com

Serene Tan will continue to share her families’ story as she unravels her connections. Look out for her next post on her father.  And Serene, we hope you will also share with us the mystery of why your great great grandmother “rests” on her own.