My Great Grandfather, C.K. Lim0
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
Social histories of Bukit Brown Cemetery
The story of C.K Lim, labourer at Hiap Hoe Coffee shop
When I was young, the thought of death scared me. It did not help that Bukit Brown had a foreboding presence with its overgrown trees, roots. Qing Ming visits were done during daybreak, which meant that we had to climb the hill to my great-grandfather’s grave in the dark. I dreaded those visits as I did not like to wake up at 6am in the morning and wear long-sleeved clothes in this humid weather! I also did not understand the significance of this event either—why my grandparents would bother to prepare food, place colour paper over his grave? Personally, I thought it was troublesome to do spring-cleaning for this grave, especially since it was going to be dirty again in a year! 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. Being the insolent child I once was, I actually wondered whether Ah Zhou (Great-grandfather) could understand what I am saying since he doesn’t speak English or Mandarin! Nonetheless, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate Qing Ming 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, I was concerned that this would remove another aspect of our collective memory.
I subsequently joined the Facebook group in July 2011, “Heritage Singapore- Bukit Brown Cemetery”. I was inspired by stories from fellow contributors who embarked on a genealogical research to learn more about their ancestors. Although I only visited 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 Ah Gong (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.
I then posted an image of Ah Zhou’s grave on Facebook, and I was amazed by the immense response from my fellow contributors. Ah Gong subsequently shared more historical titbits 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).
Here is the link to a historical image of Prinsep Street at Albert Street taken by Lee Kip Lin in 1982:
Looking at the image, the signboard of the coffee shop corresponds with Ah Gong’s recollection.
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 was impressed by the strong sense of solidarity shared by clan members then—since it was the clan that assisted my young widowed great-grandmother with funeral costs.
My great-grandfather’s story is hard to construct as there are not many written historical records available on him – the only tangible 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 the information that my grandfather shared with me.
C.K Lim 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.
I 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?
Now, I am trying research more about my ancestral village in Minhou County, Fujian and figure out the circumstances which led to C.K Lim’s migration to Singapore. I find myself randomly searching up “Minhou County” on Tripadvisor to find out more about the place that is located in the northwest of Fuzhou City. Today, it takes about 4 hours of flight time to fly directly to Fuzhou via Xiamen Airlines. I wonder how long it took for my great-grandfather to make the journey to Singapore 80 years ago…
Writing this reflective piece has made me aware that they are many questions that have yet to be explored about C.K Lim’s life…
Nonetheless, my great-grandfather’s narrative shows that 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, C.K Lim, is one of many stories of immigrants who played a role in the development of early Singapore.
They were the ones who were brave ones who took the leap of faith 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)
For more personal stories of Qing Ming: