(English translation of original Chinese language article)
Aussie Artist’s Search for Her Roots in Singapore: Her father is a local Chinese, and Mum is a Caucasian
26 March, 2018
By Chen Ying Hong
Jennifer Lim used to visit Singapore from Australia every three years or so. Although she could not communicate with her grandparents due to the language barrier, her father insisted on taking her to see the country of his birth. Henceforth, the seeds of an early yearning to seek out her roots were quietly sown.
When it comes to the subject of seeking one’s roots, overseas Chinese invariably think about visiting mainland China. Yet Jennifer Lim, a 41 year-old artist, is a mixed Chinese-Caucasian who comes from Australia and is seeking her roots in Singapore.
Jennifer’s father is Lim Soo Khiam, a former Singaporean who once worked in the merchant navy. Soo Khiam migrated to Australia when he was 25 years old and married a Caucasian university lecturer named Robyn. Together they raised Jennifer and her brother.
Jennifer inherited her mother’s Caucasian looks such as pale skin and a high nose. She recalled that her dad used to take her to Singapore to regularly. Although she spoke only English, and her grandparents only Malay and a Chinese dialect, her father was adamant about taking her back to visit Singapore. These trips had the unwitting effect of planting the seeds of an early desire to find her roots.
Some six ago, Jennifer and her husband moved to Singapore for work. Her father came over to visit and took her to see his old house and a shophouse once owned by her great grandfather. These visits reinforced her interest in wanting to know more about her family history.
On the subject of her ancestral tree, Jennifer revealed in a somewhat embarrassed fashion that most of the material she had gathered so far came from family wakes. She recalled that “Chinese family gatherings such as weddings are usually hurried affairs and it is only during wakes that families allow themselves to slow down and take the time to chat”.
Jennifer’s search for familial material gathered pace four years ago when her father suffered a stroke which rendered him unable to walk or talk. All the data that she has found so far including ancestors’ photos and records are now collected and stored in a black document folder file.
Jennifer’s grandfather, Lim Chong Lay, used to be in charge of a warehouse, and her great grandfather, Lim Nee Yam, was the owner of a bumboat company. Her elderly relatives told her that her great grandfather was a wealthy and solidly-built man who used to live at 42 Club Street. He had a total of 3 wives.
Visiting ancestral graves is a common part of doing one’s family tree. Jennifer’s great-great grandfather, great grandfather, maternal great grandfather and maternal great grandmother are all buried at “Kopi-Hill”, also known as Bukit Brown Cemetery. When the Singapore government announced its intention to build a highway through part of the cemetery, Jennifer’s uncle organised the exhumation of the affected family tombs about six years ago. Jennifer accompanied her eldest uncle to witness the exhumation of her great grandfather’s grave.
“It was raining heavily that day and the atmosphere was laden with sadness,” she recounted. “We stood quietly under the tent and watched the Daoist priest recite his prayers in the downpour. After that, we took great grandfather’s remains to the Tse Tho Aum Temple on Sin Ming Road and deposited them in an urn.”
Jennifer, who lives in Toa Payoh, would on occasion visit the temple to offer prayers to her grandfather and other forbearers. On one such visit, she succeeded in enlisting the help of a caretaker to unlock the urn storage compartment so that she could speak to her ancestors directly.
Looking for Ancestry from the Tombstones
Jennifer has collected considerable information on her ancestry from the tomb inscriptions found at Bukit Brown Cemetery. Such tombs include place of origin and the names of descendants such as sons and grandsons. She exclaimed, “Traditional Chinese tombs record the names of family descendants in such great detail!”
Over the last few years, she has gleaned a lot about Singapore’s history from the tombstones during her visits at Bukit Brown Cemetery with a few of her “Kopi friends”, volunteer guides also known as the “Brownies”. On one such occasion, a history aficionado revealed that a stone stele listing the names of donors in the Nine Dragon Lim Clan Ancestral Hall (LCAH)on Cantonment Road included the name ‘Lim Nee Yam’. Subsequently, this friend accompanied her to the Hall, where she discovered her great grandfather’s name inscribed on the stele along with the large donation of $500.
When Mr Lim Cheng Eng, the Chairman of the hall found out that this reporter was interviewing Jennifer on location, he arranged for his committee members to welcome them.
Mr. Lim said, “The LCAH has close to 1000 members. As Jennifer is not a local Singaporean, she could not become a member. However, this does not affect her membership in the youth wing. Jennifer has participated in many of LCAH events including its 90th anniversary celebrations in November 2017. She took part in and celebrated the event with her fellow clansmen.”
He added that “It is indeed rare for someone with a foreign background such as her to show such a powerful sense of attachment to LCAH. We take great comfort in her sense of belonging. We hope that more descendants with a like background can look up her as an example and participate in our activities.”
There are two floors to the main building at LCAH and the first floor is given over to the display and storage of Lim clan ancestral tablets. Regardless of one’s ancestral origin, LKR said that anyone with the surname Lim is entitled to place his/her tablet there.
As Jennifer’s grandmother Tan Im Neo was a Peranakan Chinese, Jennifer is also very interested in Peranakan culture. The Peranakan tiles have now become a source of creative inspiration for her prints works.
Mr Lim Wen Sheng, chairman of the LCAH mutual aid association, was the first individual to take Jennifer on a tour of LCAH. Pointing to the wall inscriptions with the words “loyalty and piety”, he said that these are the two of the most valued moral virtues for the Lim clan.
Jennifer’s husband Chin Jin Guang, an Australian born Chinese, works as a project manager for the Singapore branch of an Australian international construction company. They have 2 children - a daughter, Zhi Sian (7 yrs) and a son Zhi Guang (4 yrs).
Ever since her dad suffered a stroke, Jennifer felt that the responsibility of helping her father put together the family tree fell on her shoulders. “This material is meant for our next generation. I encourage my children to learn Mandarin and told my daughter to master the language because I want them to conscientiously protect and preserve Singapore’s history”.
Jennifer smilingly said that whilst her daughter remains unfamiliar with the meaning (of this hope), and even takes the view that Bukit Brown Cemetery is ‘the hottest place in Singapore”, she hopes that her growing-up years in Singapore would become a beautiful memory for her and a wonderful start in life.
父亲是本地华人 母亲是高加索裔 澳籍女艺术家在我国寻根2018年3月26日 星期一