Oon Tuan Cheng: A Life of Loss1
Since we started tours, we would often pass these Tok tombs and point out the extraordinary size and the unusual portraits as well as the large benches. The tomb shore also featured lovely tiles. All we know from the inscriptions was how Oon Tuan Cheng outlived her husband Tok Cheng Tuan for 24 years after he passed away at age 38. Little else was known – until the descendants contacted us and over several hours one night, told us the extraordinary story of their grandparents. We were scribbling on paper napkins, used envelopes, anything we could get our hands on. We forgot to order drinks or dinner and the waiter had to remind us to order something. Both storytellers and listeners were all so entranced by the re-telling of two lives. We are very moved to read this memoir and share them with you. What we gleaned was the longer and tragic life of the wife, Oon Tuan Cheng.
TOK CHENG TUAN & OON TUAN CHENG
(as remembered by their granddaughter, A. Tok)
I was born in California. My parents were born in Singapore. My mother’s parents were Tok Cheng Tuan and Oon Tuan Cheng. They are buried at Bukit Brown Cemetery, Blk. II, Div. D. Tok died at age 38 on May 6, 1927 while his wife Oon outlived him and grieved for him for 24 years, before passing away on Sept. 28, 1951 at age 61.
I never met my grandparents. But when I visit Singapore with my husband and daughter, we go to Bukit Brown Cemetery to pay our respects. Since my parents are no longer living, what little I know of my mother’s parents is from what my mother told me about them and what some other relatives told me…memories.
I can tell my mother (Tok Kim Lian) was sad to never know her father, who died when she was less than six months old. As best to my recollection, she would often say to me and other close friends, “I was only six months old when my father died”. He worked for the Anglo-French Trading Co. as a storekeeper, but died aged just 38. His widow had to raise a family of 2 sons and 4 daughters. But that was not the end of her sorrows…
War Losses… and my parents’ marriage
My mother’s sadness was deepened because of World War II during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942-1945. Her two older brothers Kim Choon and Kim Seng were taken by the Japanese, never to return home. She would often tell anyone, about her two brothers’ fate. During the war, the Japanese targeted Chinese men in the Sook Ching massacre though it was never known if the brothers suffered that fate.
(I found these old photos and can only guess these are grandma Oon’s sons as the photos take pride of place on the first page of one of her albums. The photo on the right, features the wedding of the elder son, Kim Choon, with his bride Nona. The photo on the left shows the younger son, Kim Seng, who was engaged to be married to Peggy. But he was taken by the Japanese before they got married. My mother Kim Lian was the youngest child.)
Nonetheless, this tragic turn had an unexpected outcome. My father was good friends with the two brothers before they were taken away. He had long considered grandma Oon as his “mother” having lost his own mother at a young age. He went to America twice before WWII. The second time was in the 1930′s. When America entered WWII, he volunteered (even though he was a Singapore citizen) to fight for America from 1942-1945! After WWII ended, grandma Oon asked him to come home from America to marry my mother, Tok Kim Lian. As a result, today, I am able to retell this extraordinary story of those 2 generations.
The war had also taken its toll on grandmother as you can tell from the 1947 photo below. She is in the middle and my mother Kim Lian is on grandma Oon’s right. (The little girl is her niece, daughter of her sister-in-law, seated on grandma’s left.)
When grandfather Tok died, he left grandmother Oon, according to my mother, with many houses in Singapore. In Katong, there was a house on Ceylon Road, another one in Opera Estate, another one was on the beach where the sea wall surrounded it in Marine Parade…My mother remembered seeing two horseshoe crabs mating in the water.
Yet Another Loss…
After her father,Tok Cheng Tuan, died, and when my mother was old enough, one of her domestic responsibilities was to make sure she toasted the bread for her mother, Oon Tuan Cheng, over charcoal to a nice color on both sides. Before dinner, the windows facing the water in the house near the sea needed to be closed. This house had three staircases. The men had their dinner first, and then the women and children. My mother also helped take care of her relatives. Her responsibilities swelled when her oldest sister, Kim Luan, passed away sometime after the last of her seven children were born. In short, grandma Oon had lost another child, her oldest daughter.
My mother would play and sing to the brood of children. Another responsibility of my mother was to roll a piece of opium into a nice round shape to put in the opium pipe for my grandmother. Memories…
Grandmother Oon took care of her family as best she could. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, she had to sell some of her jewelry to buy one chicken on the “lobang”, namely on the black market. When people borrowed money from her, though, for instance, to try to make toothpaste, she didn’t know how to ask for it back. She was excellent at crocheting beautiful and delicate looking tablecloths. She would sit in a big chair for hours and crochet.
Even though I never met my grandparents, I do love them and wish that I could have met and lived with them. That is why I visit them at Bukit Brown Cemetery when I come to Singapore.
Below is what the tombs look like today in this wide-angled shot showing the two large benches out of range in the older photo above. The large portraits are weather-worn, and are from the photographs at the top of this post.
Singapore, please preserve and protect Bukit Brown Cemetery forever! Thank you! - (A. Tok)
Editor’s note: Of note on the tombs are the 4 tomb panels of the Four Loves.
This story has a bittersweet ending. The Peranakan Museum has accepted the donation of the tombs and benches as Tok and his wife’s remains are to be exhumed for the proposed highway. As reluctant as the family is to exhume, they are even more reluctant for this last, visceral remains of their memory to be destroyed. The family approached all things Bukit Brown to help save the tombs, honour their memory, and has kindly planned to build a path to these tombs for the last few months of tours that more may know of the extraordinary lives of two individuals last century. Look out for tours incorporating these tombs on our Group 2 walks .
The loss of the two brothers remind us of the cruelty of war, and though we would never know their fate, we remember those taken by the Sook Ching massacre. Lest we forget. Those who helped finance the Chinese against the invading Japanese army were on Japan’s Most Wanted list, including Tay Koh Yat and Wong Chin Yoke, both interred at Bukit Brown. Grandma Oon’s “adoption” of the sons’ good friend and request for marriage with her daughter led to the birth of the author, A. Tok. Those were the realities of a post-war era, a time of loss and healing.
The tombs of Tok Cheng Tuan and Oon Tuan Cheng are pegged 1947 and 1948, meaning these are the exhumation markers. You can find them using this map. They can be found using the Group 2 DIY guide. Or join our public tours.
The author’s cousin Tony helped me to check some facts and added, “We look forward to your blog telling the story of grandma and grandpa with the aim of moving people to saving Bukit Brown. That the people buried there were real people who built our SIngapore and their decendants are still around.”
We have since learnt that grandma Oon’s parents may be buried behind them, and here another tale begins, as a third descendent has stepped forward to continue the research to tie up loose ends. And so, the roots grow, and the tree continues to bear fruit.
(Edited and compiled by Claire Leow)
Related Posts on descendants searching their family tree:
A Grandson Remembers - Norman Cho recounts tracing his roots
Serendipity – Serene Tan recounts tracing her roots
Teo Hoo Lye: Woven Threads – two descendants’ paths converge in their search for their forefather
* Do you have a story to chase? Are you looking for your ancestors at Bukit Brown? Let us know your story so more may be aware of the value of this historical archive.