Meet the weekend tomb explorers


The Sunday Times
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Jul 17, 2011

Meet the weekend tomb explorers
Brothers Raymond and Charles Goh visit cemeteries to unearth history
By Huang Lijie

Older brother Raymond checking out the tombstone of Madam Tan Eng Neo – after whom Eng Neo Avenue is named – at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Weekends spent among dead people may seem a spooky pursuit, but brothers Raymond and Charles Goh have found historical gemstones among tombstones.

The duo are neither mediums nor ghostbusters, but passionate tomb explorers who enjoy unearthing Singapore’s history through graves.

One recent case after a three-year search was their discovery of the tomb, in Bukit Brown Cemetery, of Madam Tan Eng Neo, whom Eng Neo Avenue is named after.

For the siblings, finding where the wife of wealthy Chinese businessman Gaw Boon Chan was buried was fulfilling, and not just because it marked the end of their longest quest for a tomb.

Raymond, 47, the older brother, said: ‘We want people to know that Bukit Brown Cemetery is where many Singapore pioneers have been buried and to appreciate it, not bulldoze it.’

The 86ha graveyard off Lornie Road was in the news recently after heritage activists petitioned for a rethink of the redevelopment of one of Singapore’s oldest remaining burial grounds to meet housing needs.

To keep alive the memory of famous pioneers buried at the cemetery, the brothers conduct regular guided tours of the area. Those who have signed up include students, young professionals and retirees.

The duo also provide a free map which includes the locations of the tombs of more than 30 famous pioneers such as businessman Chew Boon Lay, who has an MRT station, school and housing estate named after him.

The map is on the website of the Asia Paranormal Investigators – www.api.sg – founded in 2005 by Charles to research unexplained phenomena.

The brothers’ interest in tombs began in 2006 after Raymond, the regional director of a health-care company, accompanied his father to his grandfather’s grave at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.

‘It was my first visit and I had a shock when I saw my name on the tombstone.

‘It came to me, out of the blue, that I’m related to this grave,’ said the father of three children, aged 10 to 17.

His interest piqued, he began pouring over books on tomb culture and visiting cemeteries at the weekend, walking stick in hand to fend off spiders and even snakes to look for unusual tombstones.

Raymond’s tomb fever got to Charles, who had some knowledge of the subject through his research on urban myths of haunted graves.

Charles, 43, a construction company safety manager who is married without children, said: ‘When Raymond finds an interesting tombstone, he is so excited he cleans it with his towel, then forgets and wipes his face with the cloth.’

They dig into the past of the tombs they find using information engraved on the tombstones, as well as newspaper and land deed archives.

They sometimes spend a few hundred dollars on archive material when researching a tomb but Raymond says their passion ‘cannot be measured in money terms’.

They say their families are supportive of their unusual pursuit.

‘Only our mother, who is superstitious, urges us not to visit the cemeteries at night or during the Hungry Ghost Festival,’ said Raymond. But not being superstitious, the siblings have not heeded her advice.

When historical records that they chance upon reveal the burial of a famous person in a particular cemetery, their search becomes tougher. The hunt for Madam Tan’s tomb, for example, was the proverbial needle in a haystack, with 80,000 tombstones at Bukit Brown.

Families eager to trace their roots or find the resting places of their ancestors have approached the brothers for help, and the duo gladly offer to reunite the living and the dead for free.

Those they have helped include the descendents of businessman Ang Seah Im, after whom Seah Im Road, near VivoCity, is named. The pioneer’s tomb is located in Bukit Brown.

Raymond said: ‘I feel sad and pained when I see tombs that are not taken care of by descendants. The dead should not be abandoned.’