When I was younger, I always looked at the black and white photos that my parents kept and wondered about the grand houses, the elaborately dressed females and the distinguished gentlemen in them. I knew one of them was my grandfather, Tan Tek Joon, and that he was buried in Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery. Every year my father and his brothers would faithfully visit his grave during the Qing Ming festival, the “clear and bright” day when many Chinese pay their respects to their ancestors by sweeping their tombs. My brothers would go along as my father felt that it was important for the male descendants to pay their respects to their ancestors and hopefully to continue doing so when he was gone.
On special prayer days, my grandfather’s photograph would be placed in front of rows of carefully and lovingly prepared sumptuous food that would be symbolically offered to him. My grandfather would be “invited” to eat. Communication with him was through “pak puay”, a pair of half-moon shaped wooden divination tools. Only when he was “happy” and had “finished” the food before him were we allowed to enjoy the spread which usually included yellow glutinous rice, chicken curry, roast pork and many other dishes.
By 2013, my father had already passed on when we heard that the Land Transport Authority would exhume some graves to make way for a new road. The sense of urgency crept in and I told my brothers I would like to “meet” my grandfather before he was taken away. So one year before the exhumation, I visited his grave for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the area around Bukit Brown was so peaceful and serene. I really felt sad that he had to be taken out. He died in 1929 but his tombstone was incorrectly marked 1939 although the Chinese dates were accurate. I wanted to know more about him and if he had come from China or if his family had been in Singapore for a long time. Over the last two years or so I have been slowly but earnestly trying to find out more about him and his ancestors. What I have found has filled me with a sense of admiration and respect for my forefathers, for they too shaped us and our country into what it is today.
Through the repository of materials available in our archives at the Singapore National Library and some like-minded people also keen to trace their roots, I have found out much more about my ancestors than I had ever thought I would. It has been an interesting journey and an addictive one as now, more than ever, I want to find out as much as I possibly can. Each name lead has led me from one interesting discovery to another. The history of the Straits Chinese families in Southeast Asia or Peranakans, as they are also known, are so intertwined. We can all probably claim relationship to one another, in one way or another, either through blood or through marriage, however distant. In the census of the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were only several thousand Straits Chinese in Malacca and Singapore so the study of kinship will inevitably result in multiple cross references to the same families.
The Straits Chinese were called the King’s Chinese and later the Queen’s Chinese. Having been in the region for a few centuries, the descendants of the original migrants were well educated and many were conversant in English. They pledged their loyalty to the British Empire and some like my maternal grandfather, Tay Kim Yong, even took on much of the mannerisms and practices of the English such as playing tennis and wearing bowler hats and bow ties. But at home, they loved their sambal blachan and only spoke to each other in the vernacular Baba Patois, an ungrammatical mix of mostly corrupted Malay and some Hokkien.
In an effort to cater to their own kind, various publications in Romanized Malay started to appear. To keep their Chinese heritage alive, Chinese classics such as The Water Margin and The Three Kingdoms were amongst many that were translated and published. Newspapers such as The Straits Chinese Herald and the Kabar Slalu written in a mixture of English and the Baba Patois must have been eagerly lapped up by the community.
It was in a 1926 issue of the Kabar Slalu that I found the starting point of my family history in this part of the world. A gentleman called Siow Choon Leng had recorded the genealogy of some members of the Cheng Hoon Teng temple in Malacca. Over two months and many issues, he painstakingly recorded the genealogy of 22 members of the Cheng Hoon Teng temple in Jalan Tokong, Malacca.
Through this newspaper, I found the roots of my family in Singapore. It all started with Tan Hay, a junk trader who came from Nanjing, Zhangzhou around 1770 and first settled in Malacca. He married a local lady and in time, some of his descendants ventured to Singapore and started businesses. Naturally they had families and settled here.
These businessmen were the fairly influential mercantile elite and if you look into the history of Singapore in the 18 and early 1900s, you will find they were associated with the socio-economic development of many areas in Singapore. Aside from traditional areas associated with the Peranakans such as Katong and Emerald Hill, the area around Malacca Street, Telok Ayer Street and Philip Street was also well known to these men. I can just imagine the bustling trade that went on, the deals they made, the fortunes and the failures that were inevitable. As I make my way to work in our busy metropolitan Central Business District in the mornings, I usually pass these roads and how I wish the walls could speak and tell me what went on then.
As these men did their trading, shady or otherwise, some of their deals would have included arranged marriages for their children. It was not uncommon that many old Peranakan families are connected by such match-making. The Straits Chinese community was not large so there are lots of inter-marriages between the families that settled in Malacca and in Singapore. Families who did not have children often adopted children from other families so blood ties among the Straits born Chinese were thick.
My grandfather Tan Teck Joon was the eldest son of Tan Chin Seng and See Geok Hoe. From archival records, I found out that they were scions of individuals who had made their wealth in Nanyang, as Singapore and Malaya was known. They owned businesses and properties both in Singapore and Malacca. As immigrants, they formed clans to socialize and built temples so that they could meet and pray together.
Chin Seng’s father, Tan Koon Swee, was a founder member (later ousted) of the Keng Teck Whay, a private society established in 1831. The members had all originated from the district of Zhangzhou in Fujian Province and the exclusive membership of this society was passed from father to son, reserved for the eldest male descendants of the 36 founders.
On the maternal side, his mother Geok Hoe was the granddaughter of See Hood Kee (1793-1847). Malacca-born, he was apparently one of the wealthiest Hokkiens in Singapore at that time. His involvement in the historic Thian Hock Kheng temple, a national monument in Singapore and one of the oldest temples in Singapore dedicated to the goddess Mazu, protector of all seafarers, is well recorded. He had, together with Tan Tock Seng, built the temple in 1839 along Telok Ayer Street and it was completed three years later. This was not the only temple that Hood Kee had a hand in; he had also earlier contributed to another temple known as the Heng San Teng, built in 1828 for the deity, Tua Pek Kong. Unfortunately it was razed by fire in May 1992. This temple was at the foot of the Eternal Hill where the Singapore General Hospital is today and stood watch over the cemetery at Tiong Lama nearby. He was also a much respected leader and an office bearer for the Cheng Hoon Teng temple.
Geok Hoe’s father was See Moh Guan, the fourth son of Hood Kee. His name and his elder brother’s name, Eng Watt, are street names in the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood today. They owned a company together called Eng Watt, Moh Guan and Brothers. Their junks plied to and traded with merchants in Fujian, China. I can just imagine they would be tickled to know that there are streets named after them in a hipster district today teeming with fancy cafes and shops, where once a cemetery stood. I was born in a maternity clinic on Eng Watt Street so these streets are special to me as I can cheekily call it my grandfather’s road! Okay, my great, great, great, great grandfather and my great, great, great, great granduncle.
Grandfather Tek Joon was first married to a Malacca lady, Ong Loon Yam. She was the daughter of Ong Poh Guat, a tapioca planter. Her cousin was Ong Kim Wee, a man who in present day Melaka lent his name to the road at the end of Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, formerly known as Hereen Street in the area of Kampong Belanda.
Tek Joon and Loon Yam had three daughters – Eng Neo, Yan Neo and Poh Neo and a son, Yew Lay. My grandfather managed the United Malacca Rubber Estates, one of the rubber companies founded by his relative, Tan Cheng Lock. In The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser of 3 August 1917, it was reported that he had ceased to manage the company from 1917. Mr Goh Leng Inn, the father of our former Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Dr. Goh Keng Swee, succeeded him.
That same year, his wife passed away and it appears that Tek Joon moved back to Singapore where his father, Chin Seng, lived in Tanjong Katong Road. It is not yet known exactly what he did here (I’m still searching) but he married another lady, Chan Choon Choo. Their children - my father, Yew Ghi and his brother, Yew Seng were born here. His eldest daughter from Loon Yam, Eng Neo, had also earlier on moved to Singapore when she married Seet Hong Kee, the great grandson of See Hood Kee. Hong Kee had a business, Chop Sin Watt Hin San with a prominent Straits Chinese man, Chan Kang Swi and in October 1916, Tek Joon had taken over the business.
Unfortunately, my father was orphaned at a young age and only shared a little of his childhood with me. He only told me that he lived in Katong and his best friend, Sonny, lived in Onan Road. One funny story that stuck with me was how he was tasked by his eldest sister, Eng Neo, to pluck the roots of the bean sprouts whenever she made her famous popiah. She cooked large pots of the filling and would get him to help her. She lived in a house over water and being a naughty boy who did not want to do so much work, he would ever so often toss a handful of beansprouts out of the window. He hoped the fish below would eat the beansprouts and he would have less to pluck! When he was caught he would get a severe scolding from her. She was well known for her grumbling and her nicknames were Mak Sorak which meant “Shouting Mother” and to us kids she was “Mak Koh Radio” – the eldest aunt with a voice that blared like a radio!
My father grew up in Singapore and lived through the Japanese occupation here. After the war was over, his other sisters, Yan Neo and Poh Neo, who had married and remained in Malacca after their mother died, were concerned that he was still not married. As was the practice then, they looked around at families they knew and arranged for a sweet Nonya from a good family to be betrothed to him. Chin Seng and his son Tek Joon had in 1906 entered into an indenture of conveyance over a property in Third Cross Street, Malacca with Tay Boo Siew and his son Kim Yong. The sweet Nonya was my mother Cherry Tay Siok Yan and she was the grand-daughter of Boo Siew and the daughter of Kim Yong and Seow Geok Bee.
They consulted the almanac or “tengok pek ji” to determine the compatibility of the couple and select an auspicious date. They had a grand wedding at Kim Yong’s house in Batang Tiga, near Tanjong in Malacca. The Anglophile that he was, my grandfather called his house “Summer Breeze” as it was by the sea. A large tent was set up at the side of the house to accommodate the many guests in Malacca and from Singapore and the festivities went on for a few days. It was already 1949, so while they observed the traditional Peranakan wedding rituals, my mother also wore a beautiful English lace gown complete with all the bejeweled finery so loved by the Straits Chinese.
My eldest brother Thomas was born in Hereen Street, Malacca but a few years later, my father decided that he would move his wife and young son back to Singapore and raise his family here. My second brother Stephen and I were born here but it never ceases to amaze me how a man from 5,000 miles away nearly 250 years ago changed the course of our family history and endeared himself to his many descendants. My search for Tan Tek Joon’s story has led me this far but I know the story is far from over. I hope I can unravel the many more mysteries of our past so that in time the future will know where from and from whom they have come and become.