Friday, December 30, 2011

Hidden Gem of Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery

Hidden Peacock by Taking5
Hidden Peacock, a photo by Taking5 on Flickr.
In my last post, I told the story of a nameless ancestor who may or may not be buried in Bukit Brown cemetery and promised an update on my visit to BB cemetery itself.

Anyway, Bukit Brown cemetery is a Chinese cemetery in Singapore, which was in active use from 1922 to 1973. "Bukit" means "hill" in Malay, and "Brown" is after an earlier owner of the land, George Henry Brown, a ship-owner who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. A name reflecting indeed the melting pot of cultures, peoples, that Singapore was then.

The cemetery is the burial place for many pioneers of the Singapore Chinese community. Others have written about the cemetery (see this nice post by oceanskies), and of the controversy surrounding it - this quiet peaceful place has to make way for an expressway in the near future. So, I will not go into it here but instead reflect on my own visit.

It was indeed a place of contrasts. Some graves were well kept, some even with fresh paint ensuring that the names and words on the gravestones remained legible. Others were overgrown - the gravestones falling over and the grass growing halfway up the stones.
Some graves were decorated with beautiful peranakan tiles, reflecting the culture and tradition of the times, or with charming little scenes carved on the stones. One was guarded by a pair of Sikh guards, assisted by their own little guard dogs.  Others were simple solitary stones.

Some plots were large (although we were unable to find the huge plot which was apparently 10 3-room HDB flats in size, surely a difficult grave to overlook?). One near the entrance, for example, had a large area demarcated in front for mourners to gather, with two stone benches on each side for the weary to rest a while. In one corner, we saw what must have been the paupers' graves - a series of small gravestones clustered tightly together.

We did not go out of our way to look for "famous" graves. But there were little direction signs indicating where these graves are and when we came across them, we did take the opportunity to look at them. So we saw the grave of Tan Seah Imm (Seah Imm Street fame), Tan Ean Kiam (Ean Kiam Place, in Katong!), the grave of Lee Kuan Yew's grandfather, the grave of a descendent of Confucius,and so on.  But there are many other graves, of less famous people, but each one a part of the Singapore story.   This useful and educational site captures their stories.

Needless to say, I was unable to find the grave of my ancestor during my visit to BB. I had asked my aunts and father if they had any clues which would help me find the grave. But, "we walked a long way in" and "there was this big round circle" are not useful tips (see adjoining photo; many graves are demarcated by "big round circles").  They did tell me that the descendents' names were written in English on the graves, so we would have been able to identify the correct grave once we found it (if we found it, that is). 

 I did have a prime suspect as to the name of my ancestor. We managed to locate the relevant sector but alas, the sector itself was somewhat large and overgrown. It was not feasible to search it for a single grave. Instead, we spent our time just absorbing the peace and tranquility of the cemetery.  It was a morning well spent. 

How do I feel about the prospect of a road going through the cemetery, destroying my great-great-grandfather's grave?  Well, I did not know of the grave in the first place so it is hard for me to feel very much about it.  I do feel sorry that this serene place has to make way for further development, but hope that some part of it can be conserved in some way.  Also, whilst the cemetery is not in active use (as in welcoming new inhabitants, that is), it is quite clear that many still come here to pay their respects to their ancestors.

If you are planning a visit to Bukit Brown cemetery, the API website provides interesting links, including a useful map (which for some reason I discovered only after my visit). 

For more photos, do check out my Flickr set.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Mysterious Ancestor

It all started when I mentioned casually at dinner one evening, that I wanted to go visit Bukit Brown (BB) cemetery.  My father remarked, that in his childhood he remembered visiting the grave of his grandfather's father, every year at Cheng Beng (the day the Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to remember them), in a "cemetery off Lornie Road".  Since BB is off Lornie Road, he thought this could be the same cemetery. 

I thought that the first person to come down from China was my father's grandfather!  Where did this mysterious ancestor come from?!!!  And could I be sure that my father's recollections were correct?  What was the name of this gentleman anyway?  My father only recalled the surname, which of course is not a big feat of memory since it is our family name anyway.  And so the investigations began.  My father checked with his sisters, all of whom remembered visiting the said cemetery but none of whom could remember the full name of the said ancestor.  They checked with their aunt (my grandaunt), who being one generation before them might actually know a little more detail.  Unfortunately, they drew a blank - he had died before she was born, she said.  But, after thinking about it, she vaguely recalled that one of his names was "Huat" - or something like it. 

So there I had two clues - the name "Huat" (or something like it), and a possible date of death, likely somewhere in the 1920s since that was when BB was opened and that was around when grandaunt was born.(Of course, that was before I found out that there were graves in other parts of Singapore which were exhumed and the bodies re-located to BB.)  Anyway, I found the BB Burial Register on-line, courtesy of the National Archives, and trawled through the first two documents before scrolling down and finding the index of names further down.  Ah, well, at least it still saved me quite a lot of work. Fortunately, my family surname is relatively uncommon, so the number of entries was not overly daunting.  And it was quite easy to knock out the females and those who died too young.  However, I could not find a "Huat", but found something which looked like "Huan" (the careful cursive script of the day was not always easy to read).  Alas, the full name still did not ring any bells with my grandaunt.

She did, however, reveal more about our family history.  My father's grandfather (my great-grandfather), came down to Penang at the age of 15 years old, to seek his fortune.  I have written elsewhere about how he met and married his second wife, my greatgrandmother - who just happened to be his boss' daughter.  So obviously, he had done reasonably well, well enough to bring down his family members - his first wife, father and brother, here to Singapore.  My grandaunt says that this was the time of the Boxer Rebellion, so considering my grandfather died in 1969 at the age of around 80+ years, it seems that he himself came down just before or during the Boxer Rebellion (around 1900-01) and brought the rest of his family over soon after.  His first wife together with her family, and his brother, settled in Johore where they ran a rubber estate and of course my relatives are still living there. 

So, sadly, I am not any nearer finding the name of my mysterious ancestor.  But at least now I know a little more about my family than I did one month ago.

Watch out for my next post on BB Cemetery!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Traditional Christmas Goodies

I've not put anything up for some time ... it really has been a busy time for me and I do wish I had more time to maintain this blog.

Anyway, the last week has been a veritable whirlwind of baking my Christmas goodies - my "staples" of pineapple tarts and shortbread, and my first batch ever of mince pies!  Three "traditional" Christmas delicacies, one from England, one for the Eurasian community, and one distinctly my family's own.

I really don't know why people express surprise when I tell them I make pineapple tarts for Christmas.  I tell them that this is a Eurasian tradition.  I also tell them (and am met with some polite scepticism) that there is reasonably strong grounds to suspect that the Eurasians came up with the golden treat in the first place, as mentioned in my earlier post

Since then, a kind reader gave  me some useful information - that the pineapple plant we all know and love came from the same place that the rubber tree did - South America.  The popular story appears to be that Columbus discovered it in 1493 and brought it back with him to Europe.  From there, it is likely that the European explorers /colonisers/missionaries brought it with them to South East Asia.  (One suspects the Portuguese, but my informant figured the French).  Whoever it was, the fruit came via Europe, the cooking techniques are more western than oriental, the very traditional Eurasian practice of eating this at Christmas together with the sugee cake...  ... whatever it is, I have enough jam left over to make a fresh batch for Chinese New Year, thus satisfying both traditions :-)

The shortbread, however, is no Eurasian tradition but my family's own favourite recipe.  I wrote about it in a previous post too, so I won't go into it any further here.

So that leaves me with my mince pies.  Now, these are indeed traditional English Christmas treats.  And, as a child I also recall my mother buying mincemeat to make these gorgeous apple pies - apple lining the bottom of the pastry base, with the mince layering the top, followed by strips of criss-crossing pastry on top.  Ah, those were indeed absolutely delicious childhood memories.

This time round, however, I decided to go with Nigella Lawson's Frangipane Mince Pies which come with a little layer of mince at the bottom of the tart and then covered with the eggy/buttery/almond-y topping and baked till beautiful and golden on top.  Ah, the divine Ms Lawson indeed deserves her Domestic Goddess status as these beautiful little pies really were quite delectable.  Alas, could only sample one piece (baker's privilege) as the rest are destined for my extended family's Christmas Eve dinner tonight, where I hope they will disappear like the hot cakes they are. 

But I still have half a bottle of mincemeat left, so maybe there is a mincemeat and apple pie in my not too distant future...

Rising international awareness of Peranakan Food!

It's a big thing to get your little restaurant featured in the Wall Street Journal (or more accurately one of the WSJ blogs).  It's a really big thing when yours is just a small little restaurant in a little red dot of an island, featuring a cuisine that is associated with only a minority of the people on said little red dot. So here's the blog link.

Candlenut Kitchen can be found at 25 Neil Road, in the Duxton area.  I've been there before - the food is indeed tasty and flavourful.  Don't think I tried the sous-vide beef buah keluak though (even the name of this dish is truly a fusion of three languages!).  Reason enough for another visit?  :-)


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