Memories of great-grandfather Hoo Ah Kay
An interview with Hoo Miew Oon, great-granddaughter of Hoo Ah Kay
By: Mo Meiyan
Private homes dot the land opposite the Botanic Gardens. In an unassuming old bungalow, memories of and sentiments for Hoo Ah Kay fill Hoo Miew Oon.
Hoo Ah Kay (1816-1880) was a prominent local Chinese in the 19th century. He was born in Huangpu (Whampoa), within close proximity to Guangzhou in China, and was referred to as Mr Whampoa. At the age of 15, he came south from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China, and helped his father manage a provision shop supplying beef, bread vegetables and other food supplies to ships and local residents, becoming a wealthy businessman in the process. He was appointed a member of the Legislative Council by the British colonial government as well as an extraordinary member of the Executive Council. He also served as Counsul of China, Japan and Russia, and had close relations with the British colonial government.
Hoo Ah Kay was also a philanthropist and donated to Fuk Tak Chi Temple, Pun Yue Association and Peck San Theng; he also served as honorary treasurer of Tan Tock Seng Hospital and director of Raffles Institution, among others.
Hoo Miew Oon (82 years of age) is the great-granddaughter of Hoo Ah Kay and the granddaughter of Hoo Keng Tuck, Hoo Ah Kay’s third son, who was a lawyer. He built a mansion with six circular arches at Club Street - Nam Sang Mansion - or Damenlou (Big Gate Building, or Tua Man Lai, inside the big gate), hence Club Street is also known as “Tua Man Lai”. Hoo Miew Oon is also the maternal great-granddaughter of the late builder, developer and entrepreneur Wong Ah Fook (1837-1918).
Hoo Miew Oon has preserved a number of objects belonging to her great-grandfather. These include furnishings and bonsais from Nam Sang Fa Un as well as tableware for entertaining guests. These objects bind Hoo Miew Oon intimately to her great-grandfather, and are constant reminders of the contributions he had made to country, society and family. That’s why they are extremely precious to her.
Nam Sang Fa Un, also known as Whampoa’s Garden, was a famous historical building in Singapore. After Hoo Ah Kay became prosperous, he acquired a large tract of land at Serangoon road, and built a bungalow there. He developed the surrounding land into a large beautiful garden. Hoo Ah Kay, whose courtesy name was Xuanze , was also known as Nam Sang, hence the garden was named Nam Sang Fa Un. Hoo Miew Oon said that according to her grandmother, “Nam Sang” also meant “coming south (nam) to earn a living (sang)”.
Nam Sang Fa Un comprised a fake mountain, an artificial lake, an orchard, an aquarium, rare birds, flowers, trees and plants. Historian Kua Bak Lim surmised that Nam Sang Fa Un was originally located at the site of Block 34 Whampoa Road East. It changed ownership seven years after Hoo Ah Kay passed away, and was renamed Bendemeer House after being purchased by Chinese merchant Seah Liang Seah. After Seah Liang Seah passed away, Nam Sang Fa Un fell into disrepair owing to neglect and was finally demolished.
As a diplomat, Hoo Ah Kay often entertained at Nam Sang Fa Un when the lotuses were in full bloom. British nobility, high ranking officials and politicians who passed through Singapore were all his guests. As such, Hoo Ah Kay even specially ordered a set of custom made western tableware to entertain them. Some of the tableware are made of silver and gold, and some have exquisite patterns; they carry the letters “HAK”, the acronym for Hoo Ah Kay in English.
Hoo Miew Oon said,”To be able to entertain senior officials at home was a thing of great honour. One can imagine how grand and magnificent those occasions would have been. These tableware are proof of these historical events.”
The furnishings of Nam Sang Fa Un also include porcelain pieces of more than a century old. These porcelain pieces, made by Chinese craftsmen, have unique glaze and colouring, and have certain historical and artistic value. After Hoo Ah Kay passed away, most of these porcelain pieces were kept at Club Street. During the Japanese Occupation, more than 30 crates were smashed by the Japanese army when searches were conducted.
In recent years, Hoo Miew Oon had donated some of her great-grandfather’s artefacts. For instance, in 2014, she donated an enormous narwhal tusk to Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum when it was scheduled to open the following year. The tusk was given to Hoo Ah Kay by the Russian government when he served as Consul of the country in 1870s. Earlier (2013), she donated five garnet red small cactus pots and two large porcelain pieces to the Singapore Botanic Gardens Heritage Museum.
“History written in words is dead. One’s impression of history can be enhanced with objects as proof. They can also trigger interest in history among youths.” Hoo Miew Oon said that it was for this purpose that she had donated Hoo Ah Kay’s artefacts. She said that she would continue to donate if the opportunity arose.
She also has a wish. She hopes that the relevant authorities can open an exhibition hall to collect the artefacts left behind by Singapore’s pioneers because these have great historical value.
Hoo Miew Oon was born and bred at Club Street. The other children of her grandfather Hoo Keng Tuck also called this place home. A total of 40 people comprising the owner’s household and domestic helpers lived there. The owners and helpers as well as the in-laws and cousins all lived together harmoniously. Hoo Keng Tuck treated everyone equally. At every Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival and other festivals, he would ask tailors and shoemakers to Club Street to tailor make new clothes and shoes, and to select and purchase gold ornaments for the people at home. Everyone at home, from adults to children as well as domestic helpers would get their fair share.
Hoo Miew Oon was born more than half a century after Hoo Ah Kay passed away. The two had never met. “We, the younger generation, grew up in this happy and harmonious house listening to the stories of great-grandfather recounted by grandfather and grandmother.” Hoo Miew Oon said, “My impression of great-grandfather was pieced together from these fragments and they were all good memories.”
To Hoo Miew Oon, her great-grandfather had an extraordinary life. He was once a poor boy and worked very hard to become a successful merchant. He was even involved in politics, becoming the first Chinese extraordinary member of the Executive Council. He also donated money to and put effort into philanthropic activities such as education and the community. “He is the model for us, his descendants. We are all so proud of him. His deeds also continue to spur us on to strive to do good deeds and to improve. I hope that our descendants would act likewise.”
Hoo Miew Oon said that she and the clan are most proud of two deeds performed by Hoo Ah Kay, namely, opening Nam Sang Fa Un to the public for recreation and advancing the setting up of the Botanic Gardens.
Nam Sang Fa Un had been in a state of disrepair for years when Hoo Miew Oon was born. Although she never had the chance to visit the Garden, Hoo Miew Oon has a special affinity with it.
During her childhood, she would often hear her grandparents reminiscence about Nam Sang Fa Un and the lively scenes there when guests were entertained. Hoo Miew Oon felt that Nam Sang Fa Un was like a palace. “How I wish Nam Sang Fa Un still existed. Then I can go there to search for the various deeds of my great-grandfather.”
This Garden also led to the marriage of Hoo Miew Oon’s grandparents. It turned out that to provide a companion for her great-grandmother, a girl from the same home town came to live in this big Garden. The girl and Hoo Miew Oon’s grandfather were constantly in each other’s company and the two developed feelings for one another. When they grew up, they finally became a couple and were married.
In addition to taking care of the welfare of fellow villagers, Hoo Ah Kay also took into consideration the needs of labourers of various nationalities and ethnic groups who had come to Singapore to work. He would open Nam Sang Fa Un, his private garden, every Lunar New Year to the hard-working masses for entertainment and recreation.
According to One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore, Nam Sang Fa Un was extraordinarily lively during the Lunar New Year period. People would visit the Garden with their family to enjoy the fresh air, and to admire the graceful natural scenery and exquisite artistic creations. There were hawker stands, merry-go-rounds, performances and small-scale exhibitions in the Garden, just like that of a village fair. It was evident that Nam Sang Fa Un was very popular. It was a pity that some non-civic-minded people failed to cherish the flora and fauna in the Garden during their visit; Nam Sang Fa Un was subsequently no longer open to the public.
On 4 July 2015, amid eager anticipation of Singaporeans, Singapore Botanic Gardens finally succeeded in becoming the first in the nation to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens was established by the Agri-Horticultural Society of which Hoo Ah Kay was a key member. He was one of the advocates behind the scenes that helped bring the Botanic Gardens to birth.
According to Lianhe Zaobao, Hoo Ah Kay played an instrumental role in obtaining approval from the British colonial government to allow the Agri-Horticultural Society acquire 22.4 hectares of land to develop the Botanic Gardens in 1859. The National Library Board website revealed that most of the land on which the Botanic Gardens now stands belonged to Hoo Ah Kay originally. He exchanged this plot for land along the banks of the Singapore River with the British colonial government.
Hoo Miew Oon said however that her grandfather often said back then that the vast plot of land where the Botanic Gardens is situated was donated by her great-grandfather to the British colonial government for development. It gradually expanded and has now become the world famous Botanic Gardens.
Hoo Miew Oon believes that her great-grandfather did this because he hoped to build a public garden to replace Nam Sang Fa Un that was open free of charge to the public for recreation and healthy entertainment, far away from bad addictions and habits.
She said, “Great-grandfather was open-minded. He not only thought of his own children and descendants but also took others into consideration. This is why he is admirable. If great-grandfather knew that the Botanic Gardens has become a World Heritage Site, he would be so happy.”
Hoo Miew Oon said that perhaps she, her grandfather and father inherited her great-grandfather’s genes. They all loved gardening and the Botanic Gardens was a place she frequented. She feels great affection for the Botanic Gardens every time she visits. When she thinks of how in the past, the hard-working masses could have such a large garden to relax and enjoy themselves, she is filled with pride.
To Hoo Miew Oon, the Botanic Gardens not only has an intimate relationship with her family history, this beautiful park also brings back a lot of good memories for her. For instance, when she sees the Tembusu in the Gardens, she would recall the scene of a picture taken with her father carrying her and sitting on this ancient tree when she was five, and this tree still exists!
Moreover, the Botanic Gardens was also the place where Hoo Miew Oon and her husband Yap Boh Lee used to go on dates when they were young. The two are senior citizens now but would still often go for walks and exercise there.
Hoo Miew Oon said that Singapore is a small island state, and needs more green space. She is delighted to see the Botanic Gardens’ size and achievements today. She hopes that it can continue to grow but will not have too many commercial activities. She believes that this is not merely her personal wish but that of many Singaporeans.
Hoo Ah Kay passed away in 1880 and was buried on an island opposite Guangzhou. Hoo Miew Oon has visited relatives in Guangzhou more than once but has never gone to his grave site to pay her respects. Hoo Miew Oon has learned that her great-grandfather’s grave was damaged during the Cultural Revolution. Fortunately, Hoo Ah Kay’s ancestral home is still well preserved, and she has visited it twice.
Hoo Ah Kay’s ancestral home, situated close to Huangpu Military Academy, is a two-storey building with a loft. Hoo Ah Kay’s wedding chamber back then was in the loft and the wedding bed is still intact. In front of the ancestral home is a big lake filled with lotuses. The ancestral hall is situated opposite the lake. The ancestral home is still owned by the Hoo family. The living room downstairs has been leased to the local government and turned into a tea house to receive visitors free of charge.
Based on the size of the ancestral home, Hoo Miew Oon believes that it was built when her great-grandfather returned to his home town after he made his fortune.
Close to 200 years have passed and the descendants of the Hoo Ah Kay clan have multiplied, reaching its eighth generation. They are scattered across the globe; most live in the original home town in China, followed by Singapore. There are also many descendants living in Canada, the US, Hong Kong and the Netherlands. Many have received higher education and are bilingual in Chinese and English. The clan also boasts numerous successful and outstanding individuals. They are active in different fields and continue to pass on their clan’s tradition of serving society.
(The author is a special correspondent of this journal for SFCCA. The article is contributed to the Singapore Bicentennial.)