Bukit Brown Cemetery: My Family Connection

I never imagined that a Chinese graveyard would be at the heart of my family tree research. The unexpected exhumation of my great-grandfather in 2012 revealed my personal link to Bukit Brown Cemetery. This event sparked my interest in one of Singapore’s most unusual commemorative spaces and uncovered other connections to both my Hokkien, Peranakan and Eurasian heritage, and to other places in Singapore.

Rediscovering my Peranakan great-grandparent’s tomb

Rediscovering my Peranakan great-grandparent’s tomb

With the help from my extended family and ‘Brownie’ members of cemetery’s volunteer guide group, I’ve since uncovered the graves of four other relatives. These include my great-great-grandfather from southern China, my great grandmother (who is also first wife of my great grandfather!), and my Chinese Peranakan great-grandparents. It's taken me several years just to get these details straight!

Visiting my Hokkien great-great-greatfather’s tomb during the annual Ching Ming tomb cleaning ceremony

Visiting my Hokkien great-great-greatfather’s tomb during the annual Ching Ming tomb cleaning ceremony

My surname reveals my Hokkien ancestry, and I never gave it much thought till I stood in front of my great-great grandfather’s tomb. I suddenly saw myself as part of a long line of relatives descending from China, and it felt both strange and wonderful. Born in 1855, Lim Hong Eok braved the seas between southern China and Singapore in the 1880s with his two sons, Lim Nee Yam and Lim Nee Chip. He died in 1934, and his tomb records his life story along with the inscription of his many descendants. Whether he had plans to eventually return to his ‘motherland’, I’m not sure, but some say he unable to return due to trouble with neighbours in his home town.

The tomb of my great-grandmother, with lovely floor tiles.

The tomb of my great-grandmother, with lovely floor tiles.

You've heard about those stories of Chinese and their multiple wives? Yes, it certainly happened in my family too! Madam Yang Tang Ho had seven children and one of them was my grandfather, Lim Chong Lay. There were two other wives, who ended up having three other children between them. I'm really not sure how my great-grandfather Lim Nee Yam handled it all, but apparently, he was a very generous and easy-going personality.

My Chinese Peranakan great-grandmother Ong Leong Neo

My Chinese Peranakan great-grandmother Ong Leong Neo

My father’s Chinese Peranakan side has been of particular interest to me as it is a hybrid sub-cultural group in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. I was thrilled to discover my great-grandmother’s tomb in 2014, and re-discovered it recently after confusion caused by nearby construction of a highway. After several hours looking for it in the heat, I ended up asking a cemetery caretaker to find it. Sure enough, I had a happy text message the next day informing me about its whereabouts!

A very popular peacock tile imported from Japan on the tomb of Ong Leong Neo, my Peranakan great-grandmother.

A very popular peacock tile imported from Japan on the tomb of Ong Leong Neo, my Peranakan great-grandmother.

My father has always strongly identified as a Peranakan, and I was interested to see my great-grandmother dressed in a Kebaya blouse with a Sanggol hairpin to keep her tell-tale bun in place. I was also amazed to find decorative tiles featuring peacocks, flowers and landscapes on her tomb, as well as on that of her husband next door, Tan Teck Yam (1874-1936). Until then, I’d only thought that people decorated their shophouses with these imported tiles, and was surprised to find quite a few beautiful and unsual tiles at the cemetery.

A landscape tile panel on my the tomb of Tan Teck Yam, my Peranakan great-grandfather

A landscape tile panel on my the tomb of Tan Teck Yam, my Peranakan great-grandfather

The twin tomb of my Peranakan great-grandparents is inscribed with both Chinese and English lettering, which usually means that the deceased or descendants felt an affinity with English, or were schooled in English. I have recently come across Chinese tombs that have only English inscriptions. My own father was educated in English, although he did attempt several weeks at a Chinese primary school before he ran away screaming…or so I’ve been told!

My great grandmother Ong Leong Neo. My mother reckons I look like her...what do you think?!

My great grandmother Ong Leong Neo. My mother reckons I look like her...what do you think?!

If you’ve just started looking into your family history, you’ll know the great feeling you get when you start to ‘join the dots’. Particularly as a person from a ‘mixed marriage’, it’s nice to uncover my heritage even if I don’t exactly look like my ancestors (local kids still try to ‘wipe’ off my freckles). For the sake of my kids and my invalid father, I’m glad I’ve been able to find out more about my past. I hope you get the chance to know more with your own roots too.

The next generation admiring tiles!

The next generation admiring tiles!

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Where to See Peranakan Tiles in Singapore

Beautiful then and now

Both functional and decorative, vintage tiles are a beautiful reminder of Singapore’s past. Imported from around the turn of the century, these beautiful objects were popular for both their functionality and design. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Chinese-Peranakans in Singapore appeared particularly fond of these elaborate surface coverings, which are hence often referred to as ‘Peranakan’ tiles. Shipped in from countries including Belgium, the UK and Japan, these costly trade tiles can still be found in some kitchens and facades of traditional shophouses, and on the tombs of locally based Chinese and others.

Beautiful tiles at a shophouse on Petain Road, Singapore

Beautiful tiles at a shophouse on Petain Road, Singapore

Tiles at Temples

Imported tiles also included robust patterned floor types suitable for the local tropical climate. Their use extended to public places including temples, schools and public institutions. A comfortable design marriage between Chinese culture and English floor tiles can be seen at Thian Hock Keng Temple, one of Singapore's oldest Hokkien sites of worship. Take a careful look around and you’ll see both floor and wall tile examples.

A foot-selfie at Thian Hock Keng Temple

A foot-selfie at Thian Hock Keng Temple

Peranakan Tiles Gallery

Nearby, you’ll also find the Peranakan Tiles Gallery. Boutique owner Victor Lim offers a wide range of both replica and vintage tiles, along with a variety of Peranakan gifts. Rest you legs as you try at local coffee and some sweets at the nearby Chong Wen Ge cafe. You can even enter the nearby pagoda to take a look and chill out in the shade. The new MRT station Telok Ayer is right nearby, after you’ve sampled some Korean and Japanese food nearby!

Amazing range of tiles available at the Peranakan Tiles Gallery

Amazing range of tiles available at the Peranakan Tiles Gallery

Cemetery Tiles

Over the past several years, I’ve discovered similar tiles on tombs of my Peranakan relatives at Bukit Brown Cemetery, also known as Singapore’s best ‘outdoor’ museum. The cemetery is a wonderful place to learn about Singapore’s history, but is quite overgrown after having been closed for over thirty years. Unless you are used to bush-bashing in the tropics, I strongly recommend that you join a tour operated by volunteer guides, otherwise known as the ‘Brownies’. Private tours are also occasionally offered by Jane’s Singapore Tours.

Wall tiles at least 100 years old decorate a Teochew style tomb

Wall tiles at least 100 years old decorate a Teochew style tomb

Tiles in the City & Beyond

If you’re looking for somewhere around the city to take in tiles, try Emerald Hill near Orchard Road, or Keong Saik Road near Chinatown. Other main spots include Petain Road, Everton Road, the Wanderlust Hotel on Dickson Road, the Joo Chiat area and East Coast Road. I’d love to hear what other areas you might find!

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Japan Export Tiles in Japan

And if you happen to be visiting Japan, note that vintage tiles can be found there too! In fact, Japan was one of the major manufacturers of export tiles to Southeast Asia from the early 20th century until World War 2. I’m keen to learn more about the production of tiles in Japan and explore the link between one of my favourite countries and my ancestors in Singapore! In 2017, I visited the INAX Tile Museum, which is dedicated to the general history of tiles and situated in Tokoname City near Nagoya. Tokoname has a long tradition of ceramics dating back to the 8th century. 

Tea and Tiles

I hope you enjoy admiring vintage tiles in Singapore, with lots of fun exploring along the way. Singapore has lots of coffee shops for you to recharge and ‘post’ along the way. On Instagram, make sure to use the hashtag #sgheritagetiles to see other tile examples around Singapore!

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