Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Great Peranakans: Learning about the Grandfathers behind the roads

There is a odd little phrase we use in Singapore, typically directed at people who are taking their own sweet time to cross the road - "your grandfather's road is it"? For some people, the answer could be .... ... Yes!

Tan Tock Seng
Today, I visited the Peranakan Museum's exhibition on Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives, featuring babas and nonyas who had contributed to Singapore's early economicdevelopment and nation-building, also to its cultural and social development.  Some are well-known, like Mr Tan Tock Seng, who endowed the Chinese Paupers' Hospital, which subsequently was named after him, but still following in his tradition of caring for all who enter its doors.  Or Lim Boon Keng, Tan Cheng Lock, etc, who at least I have heard of within more "modern" times!

Others are less well-known - maybe  remembered best for the roads named after them, such as Seah  Liang Seah of Liang Seah street,  Tan Kim Tian (Kim Tian Road in Tiong Bahru) or Tan Keong Saik of Keong Saik street.(I'm sure he's glad that his street is now a row of nice eateries rather than a row of brothels....).  And who knew that Koon Seng road (the one with pretty pastel houses, see my earlier post here - although I didn't mention the street's name) was known for the development of Malay theatre in Singapore?And of course, Mr Chew Joo Chiat, who owned the land on both sides of the road which bears his name today.

The majority of those mentioned are men, but I was glad to see a few ladies' names subsequently appear.
Painting of Mandalay Villa
Ladiies like Dr Lee Choo Neo, Singapore's first female physician (and Lee Kuan Yew's aunt), her good friend Mrs Tay Lian Teck (yes, there is another road named after her husband - he died during WWII), and Mrs Lee Choon Guan (Mdm Tan Teck Neo, daughter of Tan Keong Saik).  Mrs Lee was a well known socialite and famous hostess, who threw big parties at her mansion, Mandalay Villa on Amber Road (of course it has been long since torn down). It was at one of these parties that a certain Mr LKY asked a young Miss KGC to wait for him, till he came back from his studies in the UK. Back then, I suppose the Peranakan community was small and relatively close.

The other fascinating thread that runs through it - families.  Tan Tock Seng's oldest son Tan Kim Ching (apparently rumoured to be the head of some secret societies) but also a good friend of the Thai Royal family, due to his trading connections; Kim Ching's grandson, Tan Boo Liat; Tan Tock Seng's grandson by his third son, Tan Chay Yan (who started a rubber plantation here in Malaya), and Maggie Lim (nee Tan), a seventh generation descendent of Tan Tock Seng who started family planning in Singapore.

On the left, Kwa GC's wig and on the right, Lee KY's
The political leaders who contributed to modern Singapore are profiled too - Lim Yew Hock, the second Chief Minister of Singapore, and from the PAP - Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Lim Kim San, and of course Lee Kuan Yew are featured too. I did not know that Mr Lee never referred to himself as a Peranakan or a Baba, but of course if his mother is the author of one of the best known Nonya cookbooks it is a dead giveaway (to take just one small example).  Mrs Lee is also featured in the exhibition and hers and Mr Lee's lawyers' wigs share a prime spot.

In short, this exhibition, held as it is in Singapore's SG50 Jubilee year, is indeed timely for younger Singaporeans to remember and celebrate the roles and contributions the Peranakan community has played in the development of Singapore.  And find out what it takes to get a road named after you......

P.S. In case you can't make it down, there is an app!  The coolest thing.  Features some of the Peranakans profiled (not all), with a short profile, little audio recordings, etc.  Just search for "Great Peranakans" on your phone and check it out. There is also a book, "Great Peranakans: Fifty  Remarkable Lives" based on the exhibition and available at the National Library.  As at this moment of writing, it is sitting on the table beside me.

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