Thursday, February 26, 2009
THE last Teochew cemetery here is yielding up a treasure trove of secrets as its graves are being exhumed.
As the land on which the 150-year-old Kwong Hou Sua Teochew Cemetery sits is being prepared for redevelopment, researchers from here and abroad have descended on it to attempt a reconstruction of the lives of the early Teochews here
Among the artefacts unearthed and documented, with the permission of the families of the deceased, are jade bangles of the Qing Dynasty era, stacks of paper money and remnants of courtly robes that once draped the corpses.
Also found are jade beads with insignias seen on hats like those worn by Qing Dynasty officials.
Dr Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies explained that many of the Chinese elite here brought their official titles from the Qing government of the day and used these titles on their tombstones. So tombstones bearing such inscriptions were likely to have artefacts buried in the grave.
While Dr Hui has been documenting the gravestones' inscriptions, Dr Gan Su-Lin and a Republic Polytechnic (RP) team have been trying to piece together a social history of the Teochews here.
Among those buried in this cemetery are Singapore's first ambassador to Thailand Tan Siak Kew and a prominent rice merchant in the early 1900s, Mr Chen He Qu, who was the grandfather of famed Singapore-born artist Chen Ke Zhan, 50.
Mr Chen He Qu is of particular interest to another researcher on the site, Professor Choi Chi Cheung from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Prof Choi, whose interests are in business history and popular religion, has been tracing the Chen family's regional business network for nearly 20 years.
The graves have also drawn the Genealogical Society of Utah, which is working with Dr Hui to document the family histories of overseas Chinese going back more than a century.
They are looking to publish the collected data to add to knowledge on the genealogy of overseas Chinese.
The cemetery, sited along Woodlands Road, is being exhumed in two phases: The first phase last year cleared more than 1,900 graves to make way for the new Downtown Line MRT depot; the ongoing second phase will clear another 1,020 burial plots spread over a 70,000-sq m hilly area.
Burials in this second area, considered 'prime estate' because of the positive fengshui of the hill, began in 1929 and continued till the late 1970s.
Ms Diana Soh, who is on the RP team, said: 'The higher on the hill the grave was, the greater the wealth and status of the deceased.'
She noted that the graves on the upper parts of the hill were spaced farther apart and were bigger, often with space for the family clan, while the plots lower down sat 'cheek by jowl'.
When the Singapore Land Authority completes Phase 2 of the exhumation by June, all unclaimed remains will be put into storage for three years by the National Environment Agency, after which they will be scattered at sea.
About 55 per cent of the graves have been claimed by the descendants of the deceased, of which 47 per cent have opted for public exhumation, which begins today. In a public exhumation, the Government removes and cremates the remains and then lodges the ashes in a columbarium. The family is kept informed.
The families of Mr Tan Siak Kew and Mr Chen He Qu are among the 8 per cent who have opted for private exhumations. They do so to keep the grave away from the public eye and also to find out what their ancestors had buried with them. Private exhumations also enable the family to relocate the remains in accordance with the best fengshui timing.
For the researchers, the work is arduous, and progress, piecemeal. Their first stop is with the descendants of the deceased. But the fact that it was customary for Chinese gentlemen to use different names through their lives or one name in life and another at death complicates matters.
For example, Dr Gan found that Mr Chen is listed as Chen He Qu on his tombstone, but when he was alive, he called himself Chen You Tang (or Tan Yew Tng in the Teochew dialect) in correspondence. For business dealings, he was Chen Ken Gou or Tan Kheng Khor, which had been variously spelled as Tan Kheng Keoh, Tan Keng Kok, Tan Keng Khor, Tan Kheng Khoh, and Tan Khing Koh.
That this was a member of the Teochew elite is not in doubt: His grave sits on a high point on the hill, which is supposed to augur good luck for his descendants, said Dr Hui. The grave has a half-moon shaped pond in front of it and a mound to represent a hill at its rear, in accordance with good fengshui.
Before the flats of Woodlands housing estate rose, the grave would have had a clear view of the Johor Strait. This was, after all, the final resting place of a man who had a prominent regional import-export business in rice that survived for more than 150 years.
Hong Kong-based Danny Chin, who heads the Asia office of the Genealogical Society of Utah, said the aim is to document all the inscriptions in the cemetery's tombstones in digital photographs to form a source for future researchers.
He is getting help from more than 100 volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints here for the task.
Keepers of the graves and tradition
By Carolyn Quek
MADAM K. E. Chong, 59, squats in front of a grey tombstone, scrubbing at the smudged paint of its Chinese inscription.
A middle-aged couple wait beside her, hoping she will be able to give them the name of the village in Shantou, China, where the man's grandfather was born.
The couple also want to replicate the inscription at the place where their ancestor's remains will rest after his grave is exhumed.
Madam Chong comes through and gives them the information they need. She has helped many families in this way since the start of the exhumation of Kwong Hou Sua Teochew Cemetery.
'If you give me a name, I will know which grave you are looking for,' said the cemetery caretaker, who has been at this job since she was nine.
She is among the fewer than 10 caretakers who have tended to the 3,000 graves there. Some of them hold a second job, but all return during the Qing Ming Festival to help families paying their respects to their ancestors - such as by repainting tombstone inscriptions, cutting the grass or even helping the families to locate the graves.
For these caretakers, tending to the cemetery is more than just a job - it is about upholding a family tradition. Madam Chong, for instance, is a third-generation caretaker in her family.
Fellow caretaker Ng Choon Hai, 72, has been at the job for almost 60 years. His father did the same job, as did his brother, and now, his nephew.
Like most cemetary caretakers, his and Madam Chong's families lived on the site. They are called to duty even in the dead of night, which is when private exhumations take place.
They do not mind the hours, nor are they spooked. As Madam Chong said: 'What's there to be afraid of? I used to live next to these graves. The people buried here are like family to me.'
Mr Ng said the families used to pay him $3 to $4 to tend to the graves, 'very big money then'. Now the going rate is $30 to $40, but fewer families visit the graves now, so he moonlights as a taxi driver.
Madam Chong said she would rather tend to the graves than do her other job of selling handbags in air-conditioned department stores. She said of her outdoor 'office', laughing: 'I feel carefree here, there's no one to mind me. You know, I can be very unrefined. But I have to talk softly when I sell bags. I can't be myself.'
With the cemetery making room for development, her life-long job will soon be no more. She said: 'When this place is gone, I'll miss it.'
Besides the caretakers, officials from the Singapore Land Authority have also been on hand to ensure the exhumation goes smoothly for the families.
Three of the prominent names buried in the cemetery
Tan Siak Kew
TAN Siak Kew was born in 1903 in Guangdong province, China, and came to Singapore at the age of seven with his father and elder brother.
He later formed his own firm to trade in tropical produce and went on to become the chairman of the Sze Hai Tong Bank, or Four Seas Communication Bank, in 1962.
He was also a pioneer property developer whose projects included Sennett Estate near MacPherson Road.
He was a bilingual community leader, active in the Ngee Ann Kongsi, a Teochew charitable trust group, said historian Melanie Chew.
He contributed to various charitable causes and was also active in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
A staunch supporter of education, he became one of the founders of Nanyang University and was its chairman in the 1960s.
He became Singapore's first ambassador to Thailand in 1966 and died in 1977.
Lee Wee Nam
He was an eminent community leader and entrepreneur born in Guangdong province in China, in 1881.
He lost his mother at a young age and was raised by his father, a coffin-maker.
At 16, he came to Singapore. As he had little formal education, he worked as an apprentice in a firm for $2 a month.
He later became the chairman and managing director of the Sze Hai Tong Banking and Insurance Company, or the Four Seas Communication Bank, which is now part of OCBC Bank.
He also co-founded Singapore's first Chinese girls' school, the Ngee Ann Girls' School, in 1940.
He died in 1964, aged 83.
Wee Nam Road in the Newton area is named after him.
Seah Eu Chin
SEAH Eu Chin, born in 1805, came to Singapore from Swatow in 1823. He was a merchant who traded in pepper and gambier - a common ingredient used by Asians in chewing betel nut - and was an early member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce. He was also one of the first Chinese to become a naturalised British subject. He was a clerk on trading vessels before becoming a commission agent supplying junks plying between Singapore and Sumatra.
Believed to be a pioneer in gambier plantations, he bought land in River Valley Road, Bukit Timah and Thomson Road, and his empire stretched to Sembawang and Mandai.
He died in 1883. His body has already been exhumed.