My Great Grandfather, Lim Chu Guee0
Editor’s note: Here is a family who came to pay respects to what would have been the 100th birthday of their forebear. Contrary to some popular misconceptions, Bukit Brown is not just the resting place of the rich and famous of days past. The cemetery, being a municipal burial ground, was the final resting of many Chinese of all walks of life between 1922 and 1973. We like to share their stories. Sharon Lim lives in Vancouver, Canada and shared this story of her search for her roots, and the accompanying album of the visit to Bukit Brown by her father and grandparents on May 1, 2012. She is looking forward to her visit when she comes home soon.
By Sharon Lim Wen Qi
Social histories of Bukit Brown Cemetery
The story of Lim Chu Guee, labourer at Hiap Hoe Coffee shop
Before I went overseas to pursue my tertiary education visiting Bukit Brown Cemetery was a yearly affair during the Qing Ming festival. When I was young, the thought of death scared me and it didn’t help Bukit Brown had a foreboding presence with its overgrown trees, roots, and visits were done during daybreak which meant that we had to climb the hill to my great-grandfather’s grave in the dark. I did not care much about the significance of the event, and I did not understand why my grandmother had to prepare food for him (which I secretly ate because I was so hungry in the morning, while hiding behind another grave), why colour papers had to be strewn over his grave, and why my grandparents would bother to make an effort to do some spring-cleaning on the grave, when it’s going to get dirty again in a year?. As a Christian, I could not participate in ancestral worship offerings, and my primary role during Qing Ming was to bow three times to my ancestor’s grave, while Ah Ma (Grandmother) would introduce me to him in Hokkien, “This is Wen Qi, Eng Chuan’s daughter”. Being the insolent child I once was, I actually wondered out loud if, “Ah Zhou (great-grandfather) doesn’t even speak English or Mandarin! Can he even understand what I am saying when I visit?” Nonetheless, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate this annual event as a form of filial piety, and I am aware that my great-grandfather’s grave acts as the bridge between my South China (Fujian) heritage and the future in Singapore.
Moving forward in time to June 2011, when news of Bukit Brown’s redevelopment came, a sense of loss hit me. Some family members of mine took a progressive stance towards this issue, with comments like: ‘Singapore is a small country, and it can only move forward, not backwards’ or ‘The highway is needed more than the cemetery.”. While I am aware about the potential economic benefits that Singaporeans can attain from redeveloping Bukit Brown Cemetery, deep down, I felt that this will remove another aspect of our collective memory, which makes Singapore feel like ‘home’ for Singaporeans.
I subsequently joined the Facebook group in July 2011, “Heritage Singapore- Bukit Brown Cemetery”, and I was inspired by stories from fellow contributors who embarked on a search to learn more about their ancestors. Although I made regular visits to Bukit Brown cemetery during Qing Ming, I realized that I did not know much about the man to whom I was paying respects. I was afraid that his grave would be exhumed even before I could learn more him, and it would be all lost to history. All I knew about him from my grandfather was Ah Zhou died when he was very young boy, but I inferred that Ah Zhou was involved in labour jobs as my grandfather was a ‘Kopi-boy’ in his younger days before he became a businessman.
I then posted an image of Ah Zhou’s grave on Facebook, and I was amazed by the immense response from my fellow contributors. I shared their responses with my grandfather, and he shared more stories with me, allowing me to construct a historical narrative about Ah Zhou. Ah Zhou was a first-generation immigrant from Fuzhou, and he married my great-grandmother in Nanyang. He was involved in the coffee trade, which is common for most immigrants from his Fuzhou village. In Singapore, he worked in a coffee shop called “Hiap Hoe” at the junction of Prinsep Street and Albert Street (Current location of Sim Lim Square). Unfortunately, he died from tuberculosis, an infectious disease rampant during that time. As my grandfather’s family was poor, the Hokkien clan helped my great-grandmother find a plot of land and cover the entire funeral costs.
When I visited Bukit Brown cemetery, I often wondered why my great-grandfather’s grave was so simple and ‘out-of-place’, as compared to the beautiful fancy graves that we would drive by when trying to locate his grave. Although my great-grandfather was buried in the pauper’s grave, I am grateful that the dialect clan assisted my young widowed great-grandmother with funeral costs, and it impressed me to learn about the strong sense of solidarity shared by clan members then.
My great-grandfather’s story is hard to construct as there are not many written historical records available on him – the only record we currently have is from the Bukit Brown burial registrar and most information on him is transmitted orally via my grandfather. The burial registrar record was useful as it confirmed most of the stories that my grandfather shared with me, and provided more detailed information on my great-grandfather. I learnt that Ah Zhou is buried in Blk 3, Division10, 929A (Pauper’s Section), and he died at the age of 28 (birth: 1912), and his date of death is 11 April 1940.
According to Raymond Goh, this date did not correspond to the dates painted on the graves. I also found it strange that Ah Zhou’s tombstone stated that he was from Hockchew Village, when the government-issued birth certificates of all my Lim family members explicitly state that we belong to the Hokkien group? I now want to do more research to find out when Lim Chu Guee migrated to Singapore, and the nature of his work at ‘Hiap Hoe Coffee shop’. There are many questions that have yet to be explored about Lim Chu Guee’s life, and it is a small example to demonstrate why it is important to keep Bukit Brown in its entirety… as without these historical places of memory, we, Singaporeans will suffer from Cultural Alzheimer’s because we will not know who we are, and how to relate to other people.
It is important to remember the contributions of recognize the contributions of ordinary first-generation immigrants, and many of them are interred at Bukit Brown Cemetery. The story of my great-grandfather Lim Chu Guee is one of many stories of immigrants who played a role in the development of early Singapore. They were the ones who were brave enough to leave China, survived the tough voyage via the South China Sea to seek their fortunes in Nanyang (Singapore), but never made it back to the motherland.
This year would have been the 100th birthday of Lim Chu Guee. The family visits:
My grandparents (Ah Gong and Ah Ma). Ah Gong’s name is Tchen NAN because he is born in Nanyang, the name given to overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. (Nanyang literally means Southern Seas)
The one buried there is my Ah Gong’s father… he lost his father when he was only 4/5 years old. Other family members (L to R): Dad, Ah Ma, Ah Gong, Second Uncle, Ah Jie – Second Uncle’s son, Ah De – Third Uncle’s son, Ah Liang – Second Uncle’s son
Left to right: Ah Jie (Cousin – 4th Generation), Dad (3rd Generation), Ah Liang (Cousin – 4th Generation) My family members having a late Qing Ming!
(photo credit: Sharon’s family album)
For more personal stories of Qing Ming: