Seeing my great grandfather's name inscribed on a plaque in Singapore has been a magical experience. I recently visited a clan temple on Cantonment Road to find out about my great grandfather Lim Nee Yam. An operator of small lighter boats on the Singapore River, Nee Yam was born in Fujian, China in 1887. After trying to do some research about him online, I was approached a volunteer history buff who found out that Nee Yam had donated a considerable sum to help build the clan's ancestral hall in 1928.
Operated by the Singapore Lim See Tai Chong Soo Kiu Liong Tong, or Lim Clan Nine Dragon Hall Mutual Help Association, this clan house is devoted to the deceased carrying the surname of ‘Lim’ or 林 (Lim can also be pronounced as Lin, Lam, Lum, Liem and Ling!). The Nine Dragon Hall refers to the nine sons (dragons often symbolise men) of influential clan member, Lin Gao, during the Zhao dynasty. I was a little amused to see references to so many people with my surname. Back in Australia, people often struggle with my three-letter last name!
It was an amazing feeling to see my great-grandfather’s name on the stone plaque at the building entrance. If your name was close to the right side of the plaque, it meant that you had made the largest donation. I first learned about clans at the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Singapore and how they supported newcomers by connecting them with fellow settlers. Members would help one another get jobs, find accommodation and generally looked out for each other. Judging from the displays at the Centre, life in the old days was tough, so I imagine that these clan associations were crucial to one’s survival.
I got this photo from my grand uncle, who kept many of the family records. Apparently Nee Yam came out from Shantou with his father, Lim Hong Eok (born 1855). According to family gossip, they went back and forth to China for a while but due to a dispute with a neighbour in their hometown, they stopped travelling there. Their neighbours accused Hong Eok of causing bad luck to them through his new house extension.
The main area on the first floor of the Nine Dragon Hall holds many ancestral tablets, and I saw people praying to loved ones by lighting three sticks of incense and bowing. The second floor is devoted to Mazu, a Chinese patron goddess is also known as Goddess of the Sea. Worshipped in many Chinese coastal regions and in Japan, she is a popular figure among sea-faring communities. Her surname is also Lim, and for this reason she is considered the ‘Great Aunt’ of the Lim clan.
The Jade Emperor is also worshipped on the second floor, and his shrine sits out on a balcony overlooking the street. As the most important figure in the hall, he is traditionally worshipped first during ceremonies. I was also taken up to the flat rooftop, where I was shown bits of the old shrine display. I had thought the current one looked a bit too shiny! The building itself is in need of repairs here and there and I was pleased to hear that they would be doing some upgrading works soon.
I was warmly welcomed by many people who would have been my father’s age. One chap told me that often people only becoming interested in praying to their ancestors as they themselves get older and reflect on life. I’ve been motivated a little earlier in life due to the sudden passing of older family members and my wish to find out as much as possible now. I've very grateful for the help of a volunteer member from the FB Group Heritage Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery.
I’m now signed up as a member and look forward to several events this year. The ladies’ karaoke committee is keen to have me join, so I know there’s somewhere to go on a Saturday afternoon if I wish to warble!
Artwork Connection: Mind Map II
MIND Map - handmade print series
My great-grandfather was one of three generations of my family in Singapore who worked in the maritime industry. My father was in a merchant navy and my grandfather was a clerk in a goods warehouse near the Singapore river. For me, the sea is symbol of history and life. Research into my family tree has revealed that my great-great grandfather, Lim Hong Eok, (born in 1855) came out from southern China with his two sons. Their journey to Singapore must have been been full of stories.
This print was created using the Japanese woodblock printing technique. After designing and carving multiple wooden blocks, I used watercolour pigments, handmade brushes and a bamboo baren to print on specialist Japanese washi paper. Learn more.