A Grandson Remembers


 Norman Cho Pays Tribute to Cho Kim Leong


A Grandson Remembers

– Norman Cho, 40 year-old Technical Officer (IT). A fifth generation Baba from my father’s paternal family and seventh from his maternal side. Presently, attempting to piece together my family genealogy.

“Ever since I was young, I have been curious about my paternal grandfather’s grave. We visited the graves of my materal (grandfather, great grandparents and great great grandparents). However, the family could not remember my paternal grandfather’s grave even though it is not that far back in time as my mother’s ancestors’ graves. I had never dreamed that I could finally find his grave if not for the Bukit Brown Cemetery Project. All that I knew was that he was buried in Bukit Brown. Finally, I can place a name to the grave that is my grandfather’s and be a dutiful grandson.”

Cho Kim Leong - an unmarked grave

The grave of my paternal grandfather, Cho Kim Leong, stood unmarked and forgotten for 6 and a half decades at Blk 4 Div A P584, Bukit Brown Cemetery. He died on 16 Dec 1945 at the age of 43 years and was buried on 18 Dec 1945. Cho Kim Leong, born in Malacca, was the son of Cho Poo, a Malaccan Peranakan pioneer of gambier, tapioca and rubber plantations in the late 1800s.

Grandfather was the only son of the third wife, Kong Moy Yean and grew up in the privileged millionaire’s row of Heeren Street, Malacca, unit no. 151. The family was known to have another unit which was at no, 84. I can imagine that the family was fairly well-off. He was the manager for his father’s rubber estate in Johore. (Click here for images of Heeren Street.)

His marriage to my grandmother Yeo Koon Neo in 1934 was his second, after the death of his first wife. When his mother died in 1935, grandfather inherited over 76 acres of the rubber estate.  Then came World War II, the family fortune was ravaged and grandfather was forced to sell off his rubber estate just months before the war ended. He was consumed by depression over the loss of his property for worthless Japanese “banana money” and died soon after on 16 Dec 1945.

What money looked like under Japanese Occupation


By then my grandmother, a widow with young sons in tow, aged 10 and 8, was too poor to afford to construct a proper tomb for him as bread-and-butter issues were of greater concern. Wealth and status is transient and change is the only constant both in life and in death.

Courtship and Marriage of Cho Kim Leong and Yeo Koon Neo

The marriage between my grandfather, Cho Kim Leong, and my grandmother, Yeo Koon Neo in 1934, was not strictly an arranged one. They were allowed to go on dates. Koon Neo’s mother and her cherki-kaki ( a favourite Peranankan card game with Nonynas) who were good friends, decided to find husbands for their daughters when they came of age. Both their daughters were of the same age and naturally became best of friends. So the 2 elders left word in the cherki-playing circles in Singapore that they were “cari kia-sai” (looking for a son-in-law). Grandmother’s only request to her mother was that she wanted a Peranakan husband who was educated and could take care of her as she was illiterate. (Editor’s note: To learn about Peranakan culture, click here.)

Cho Kim Leong was introduced to grandmother’s friend and a certain Lee Yong Teck was introduced to my grandmother. However, in a twist of fate, it was discovered that both Kim Leong and his new-found date shared the same surname “Cho”. The witty elders decided on a quick-fix solution … why not they swap partners, as both men were equally eligible. Little did they know that the two Cho families had different ancestry – my grandfather was Hokkien while his new-found date was Cantonese. Therefore, even though the spelling in English was identical, their Chinese character was different.

While the present-day couples would go on dates privately, my grandparents dated each other with their couple friends in tow. They went for trishaw-rides, watched movies, strolled along the Esplanade and chatted over meals. The closest physical contact that my grandfather had with grandmother was holding her hand. Even then, she was bashful initially and retracted her hand.

Esplanade in the 1930's When Cho Kim Leong Dated Yeo Koon Neo (Source: National Archives)


Hanging Out in the 1930's at Esplanade. (Source: http://www.singaporephotographs.com/2011_04_01_archive.html)


They were married less than a year after their first date. Grandfather immediately whisked her off to Malacca where they settled for 2 years, before grandmother convinced him to relocate in Singapore at 421 Joo Chiat Road. They had 2 sons. My father was the elder. By this era, most Peranakan couples had opted for a Western-style wedding. It was less elaborate and less costly. However, the fashion in Singapore lagged behind those of the West by almost a decade. You would notice that in the wedding portrait that the gown and veil were those popular in Europe in the 1920s. A marriage certificate was not compulsory then. My grandparents solemnized their marriage at the ancestral altar, witnessed by family members. The colonial government recognized such marriages as legal and binding.

Cho Kim Leong and His Bashful Bride, 1934 (Source: Family album)


The Marital Home of Mr & Mrs Cho Kim Leng. (Source: family album)


Family Portrait of Mr & Mrs Cho Kim Leong. (Source: Cho family album)

Thanks to a twist of fate, this was the result. The picture of the Cho family shows Norman’s grandfather Cho Kim Leong, carrying his  toddler son (Norman’s father) in the centre of the picture. His wife, Norman’s grandmother, is in the white kebaya seated in front of him) and includes the Tay family (from Norman’s fourth grand-aunt, who was his grandmother’s sister). This extended family portrait was taken in the front compound of the house at Joo Chiat Road. The row of shop houses in the background  still stands today.

Norman’s blog post has more.
(First published on Feb 8, 2012 in the inaugural issue of all things Bukit Brown.)
March 11 postscript:
Cho Kim Leong no longer rests in an unmarked grave:

Cho Kim Leong's grave in 2012 (photo: Raymond Goh)

“I have always felt that the tomb was long overdued and that I should make things right as the eldest grandson to honour him with a proper tomb. It is better late than never. Afterall, he still has living decendants and had taken good care of his family while he was alive. He truely deserves a proper tomb, no matter how simple it may be. Seeing the tomb moved me: a vast difference from the unmarked grave – unknown and uncared for over 6 decades.” (Norman Cho)
This article is adapted and expanded by Norman from
” an article first published in The Peranakan, Issue 3, 2011, pp. 3. Reproduced courtesy of The Peranakan Association, Singapore”
Part II of Norman’s story will be posted soon, as he prepares to mark Qing Ming, the festival for the dead. Join us on this personal and touching journey of a grandson’s search for his roots.