Saturday, October 31, 2015

Graves of my Forefathers


November 1 is All Saints' Day.  It is a popular time for the French to visit New York.  As a French friend once joked, "We'd rather shop on Fifth Avenue than sweep our ancestors' graves."  Halloween itself has its roots originating from these few days which in religious terms, are meant to be a time of remembrance of the dearly departed.  But in modern history, Halloween has become the ghoulish festival of dress-up.  Innocent toddler costumes, sexy Goth, carved-out pumpkins, bar-hopping, trick-or-treating, and midnight cemetery tours.

Back in Singapore, there continues to be a debate about the fate of the Bukit Brown Cemetery.  This is a cemetery of 100,000 graves, once considered the largest Chinese cemetery outside of Singapore.
Check out www.bukitbrown.com or www.bukitbrown.org.

This past Friday, the Peranakan Museum conducted a talk about the history of Bukit Brown.  For my family, the cemetery takes on a lot of significance.  Several members of my father's and mother's families, going five generations back, are buried there.  They are sprawled throughout the large piece of land.  For many prominent Peranakan families, for some reason which I have yet to understand (I missed the talk, for sure.), the cemetery became the place to rest in perpetual peace.  In fact, the Cheang Hong Lim family members were reburied there from their original private graveyard off Alexandra Road.

The government has earmarked part of Bukit Brown for a four-lane highway extension, with longer-term plans to turn it into prime real estate in a few decades. Loyal 'Brownies' - volunteer guides who are passionate about history and heritage, advocate turning this into a protected monument site. Read Tan Chuan-Jin's reflections, written when he was Minister of State for National Development.

Yet, descendants like me aren't more involved for various reasons. We are not proficient in the Chinese language or culture of our ancestors after years of creating our own Peranakan identity.  Many of us have converted to Christianity, hence we no longer observe the traditions of ancestral worship, let alone clean up the graves.  Ironically, we hold on to the superstitions of our ancestors and would rather not have anything to do with claiming exhumed bodies, leaving it to the migrant workers to do so.  So while the ministry involved tries to contact us, many decline responsibility.

Swept up in the controversy, I made a personal visit to a few of these graves back in March, 2013. Anything funereal is not my scene….and the warning of snakes in the lush undergrowth made me think twice.  (I have such a phobia of snakes that I decided not to attend a recent Mexican event commemorating the "Day of the Dead" because there was a snake charmer.)  That misty morning in March, Chew Keng Kiat, my tour guide, proudly declared that he had never encountered a snake during his jaunts.  My sisters did not want to tag along as expected.  Eew. Why visit a cemetery if you can avoid it?  "And you, Sharon, of all people?",  "Aren't you always scared of ghosts and spirits?"  
Well, I guess my interest in family history overrode my lifelong fear of the dark arts.  

I arranged for another friend to join us to make it a merrier, noisier crowd.  Always good to be loudmouths among the sleeping dead.  First stop was Gan Eng Seng who buried himself among his wife and several adopted sons, along with a special plot for his faithful servant.  It was quite a large compound and pretty well kept. Keng Kiat later explained that the students of the Gan Eng Seng School made a trip on every Founder's Day to pay homage.  They probably tidied the place up.  

Gan Eng Seng's tomb

Cheang Hong Lim was tucked all the way back, to the point that his large grave was a literal stone's throw away from a luxurious bungalow off Andrew Road.  Imagine sunning yourself by the pool and knowing that Mr. Cheang is lurking at you from the backyard.  After all, he had several wives.  



Cheang Hong Lim's grave 
Us - the descendants of
two enemies who sued each other.
Right behind his tombstone was the grave of his nemesis - a man who had sued him many times over the opium business.  Funnily enough, the person I had invited to join us was the man's descendant.  So we laughed it off that the two old men ended up together.  

Tombstones tell a lot.  Recently, my family visited Arlington Cemetery in DC and I was anticipating a boring tour.  Lo and behold, my children gleaned many facts from those tombstones - the age of the soldier when he died, his religion, the names of his wife or children buried with him, perhaps an infant baby.  Similarly, the Bukit Brown tombstones detailed the names of sons, the number of wives, the date of birth and death according to the year of the Chinese emperor's reign, his official ranking and titles (if he had any).  The origin of his township in China.  

I was fascinated.  If I had scored a double A for the Chinese language back in school, I would have been recording and translating my family genealogy right there on the spot.  Besides, the cemetery planning was probably filled with references to geomancy, symbolism, and

Illustration of a typical tomb from a history book published before 1910. 


architectural details unknown to the laymen like me but meaningful for learning the Chinese culture.

This all begs the question of the future of such a historically rich gravesite - that memorializes the immigrant story of early Singaporeans.  I hope that one day, UNESCO will recognize it as a World Heritage Site.  If one has visited any of these sites elsewhere in the world, you know that the Botanic Gardens has little to compel when compared with Bukit Brown.  



Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sarong Kebaya


Sarong Kebaya: attire consisting of see-through blouse (kebaya) worn with a sarong skirt.

Right after my mother celebrated her 70th birthday, we made a trip to Penang.  Apart from trying out the "two sisters' char kway teow", my most vivid recollection of that trip was of my father, sister, aunt and I standing in the sweltering equatorial heat for three hours while my mother sat in a cramped seamstress shop with a tailor to discuss kebaya patterns.  That was the highlight of her trip and was her hidden agenda.  Sweating away, I was not very happy to say the least.  I grumbled and quarreled with my mother about her selfish ways.

Made by the Penang tailor. 
Unknown to me until very recently, this tailor was a national artisan and a UNESCO cultural award winner.  My mother, sadly enough, died only a few months after the Penang trip and was dressed in one of those kebayas she had spent much time and money commissioning from this tailor.  "Aiyee!  Sayang!", my female relatives might exclaim if they knew these facts about the tailor.  Then again, in the end, my mother remained the sartorial queen as she arrived in heaven, dressed to the nines.

Lim Swee Kim - the famous kebaya maker in Penang.
The sarong kebaya is the epitome of elegance for a Nonya, if worn with proper decorum.  I am not a fan of the new wave - when the kebaya is worn as a jacket over a flimsy camisole, or paired with jeans.  For that matter, the vibrant colors can be so jarring at times that I often wish the ladies who dress up would co-ordinate their colors so that they collectively look like a fragrant bouquet of flowers.

Not too long ago, there was a comprehensive exhibition at the Peranakan Museum about sarong kebayas.  An accompanying book by the curator, Peter Lee, was launched this year, a heavy tome that I had to leave behind in Singapore due to excess baggage.  I have yet to read it more carefully.  My take is that for the most part of its early history, the kebaya that a Nonya wore was far simpler.  Essentially a white top to pair with the busy pattern of Pekalongan batik.

It was probably with the advent of the Singer sewing machine that the stitched embroidery became more nuanced, with floral motifs, animals, birds, made of varying thread types and colors.  An expert tailor will take a novice through the lessons about the gauge of the thread thickness, how to manipulate the machine and edge those swirls and curls.



I labeled my mother "the original Madonna, she with her pointy bra".  Indeed, my mother had a Triumph corset bra which she would don before she put on her blouse and fastened with her heirloom kerosang brooch.  Preceding any wedding banquet, the bedroom would have full-blast airconditioning while my nimble fingers would be called upon to fix the hooks and eyes of the corset bra.  She would be perspiring and dabbing her make-up with tissue while I squeezed her into her lingerie.  I always marveled at how someone so proper like mother, had no inhibitions parading among hundreds of wedding guests in a see-through blouse and a lacy, pointy bra.

My mother and her obsession with kebayas seemed to be a concoction that caused occasional arguments between her and me.  She took great pains to customize a confectionery pink kebaya to wear to my Singapore wedding.  Her mutterings about the "peacock" befuddled me and I did not realize that she was referring to the pair of peacocks that would anchor the left and right corner edges of her blouse.  I never took a close look or appreciated the details of the kebaya on the night of my wedding banquet and I suspect, it was much to her utter disappointment.  Wistful about my actions after her death, I stashed that particular kebaya and brought it back with me to New York as a tangible remnant of her life.  The peacock's images grace the content pages of my cookbook, memorialized in honor of my mother's excitement for my wedding.  Ironically, for all the passion that she had for kebayas, she left behind fewer than ten blouses.  They were costly to begin with.

If only my mother was still alive to teach us the art of discerning a top notch kebaya from a common one.  We can only critique them according to how 'halus' (refined) the stitching is but then again, what makes for refinement exactly?  Besides, the material is meant to be voile, not cotton as is frequently presented in kebaya tops these days.  Apart from the Penang tailor, my mother was very fond of Benjamin Seck, whom she 'discovered' when he started out sewing in a small shop in Frankel Estate.  I would suggest St. Francis (Benjamin's label) although many customers shop at Rumah Bebe and Kim Choo as well.  One very recent addition is a small pop-up store in Suntec City (opposite Din Tai Fung) where I found some admirable floral patterns.  The lady gets her stock from Malacca.


Recently, a few family members and I attended the Peranakan Ball.  I personally have never worn a sarong kebaya.  While I consider it the attire of my heritage and self-identity, I am possibly scarred by memories of my mother and her see-through blouse and pointy bra.  Instead, I wore my Shanghai Tang qipao for the umpteenth time, pretending to channel Maggie Cheung all the while acknowledging that I pass off more so as a mamasan for my nieces.  What encouraged me was the excitement among my nieces and daughter of putting together their individual sarong kebaya outfits.  And what encouraged them was an affirmation from President Tony Tan who exhorted them to keep the tradition alive by continuing to wear the attire in the future.  

My nieces and daughter with President Tony Tan and Mrs. Mary Tan.
Three good books exist.  My favorite is Datin Endon's book if only to look at the beautiful patterns and quality of each kebaya.

1. The Nonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume, Datin Seri Endon Mahmood
2. Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion in an Interconnected World 1500 -1950, by Peter Lee
3. Timeless Peranakan Legacy: The Antique Sarong Kebaya Collection of Peter Wee, by Noelle Tan

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Last of the Big Spenders


The new year is usually a time to make resolutions.  While I don't think I could ever complete one, I make an endeavor to spend less.  Or at least start the year spending less…..


I have just read this autobiography called "No Feast Lasts Forever".  It's obscure and out-of-print.  "Crazy Rich Asians", the voyeuristic, thinly-disguised book that allows people to peer into the lives of the wealthy in Singapore, pales in comparison.  Written by Mrs. Wellington Koo, "No Feast Lasts Forever" is a frank telling of her rich and privileged lifestyle which spanned Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Paris, London and New York.

A few months back, a confluence of coincidences had piqued my interest in this particular writer. 1) I had just attended a close friend's wedding where there were several Chinese-Indonesian relatives (I understood what they were saying and chuckled at the conversation concerning the need to don a corset  to look slim), 2) a newspaper article featured the 109th birthday celebration of a Mrs. Wellington Koo, 3) Park Avenue acquaintances who told me that this same matriarch lived upstairs and played mahjong with equally elegantly-clad Chinese friends, and finally, 4) a PR release by the Met Museum about their upcoming Chinese-themed fashion exhibition which will feature clothes once worn by Mrs. Wellington Koo.

Long story short, who was this Mrs. Wellington Koo?  Well, there were two (and actually, more) and the most famous one was the Mrs. Koo of the 1930s and 1940s whose clothes will indeed be featured at the museum.  The 109 year-old is a later wife.  It was the former Mrs. Koo (nee Oei Hui Lan) who wrote her autobiography and who was the person of interest because the Peranakan Association had once featured her in an article.  The indulged, favored daughter of Indonesian sugar tycoon, Oei Tiong Ham (Oei is pronounced Wee), she was considered the first Nonya to make it to the international scene as the wife of Nationalist China's most famous diplomat and a founder of the United Nations.


"No Feast Lasts Forever" is a cautionary tale of how unimaginable riches dissipated in a lifetime after a series of memorable opportunities to hobnob with the most notable figures of the 20th century. Mrs. Koo wrote this in her twilight years after her husband had moved on to another wife.  She was never to return to Indonesia to reclaim her assets, her father's business was broken up by the anti-Chinese government and he himself, had several children claiming a piece of their trust fund pie.

It made for fascinating reading because Oei Hui Lan was a glamorous, cosmopolitan and sophisticated woman who had an unusually unrestrained lifestyle compared to most of her Nonya peers back in Southeast Asia.  She was a generation before my mother, born in the late 1890s and she witnessed the unfolding of War World Two in Europe and the emergence of Communist China and Nationalist Taiwan.  This book was her firsthand account.  Her mother's separation from her tycoon father enabled her mother, sister and her to move to Europe where they parked themselves in the most exclusive residential enclaves and spent extravagantly.  To have mingled among aristocrats in London and their weekend country houses  in the 1920s illustrated that with money, race was not an issue so long as you had class.  She was, in essence, the Lady Mary Crawley of her crowd.  Her mother only spoke pidgin English, yet made fast friends with the princess of Monaco.  They brought along her mother's Malay maid and a cook who could prepare her mother's favorite spicy dishes wherever they travelled in the world.

Before they had moved, Hui Lan had actually been educated by a British governess in Java.  Of languages, she wrote "Being multilingual is a natural way of life to me.  I slide easily from one language to another when I move from country to country.  I speak English with a British accent or an American, depending on where I am.  My French became polished and authentically Parisian when Mamma bought a house in Paris….The Chinese in Java spoke Fukien which is very difficult.  In family circles, Fukien was the official tongue…. Lower Javanese is spoken when addressing inferiors, middle Javanese is spoken to equals.  All the servants spoke Malay; it was a servants' language."

There were the gilded dinner sets and jewelry…"I had left the house on Curzon Street, sadly saying goodbye to my little Daimler….Mamma was ordering a specially built gray Rolls-Royce with windows so large, people would refer to it as 'The Crystal Palace'.  It was her idea of what was proper for the wife of a minister and would arrive with a chauffeur outfitted by Dunhill, of course.  As a wedding present, she ordered a 36-piece dinner set from Regent Street.  The soup and dinner plates were solid silver, the dessert plates and serving dishes were gold….."

In the first section of the autobiography, Hui Lan described in vivid details the plantation compound she grew up in, in Java.  She was also honest about the subtle racial disparity between the Dutch colonials and the Chinese immigrants despite their newfound entrepreneurial success.

Most interesting for me, she explained her ancestry which helped me understand how Peranakans evolved as a community.  Her paternal grandfather left Amoy, China and moved to Java, Indonesia.  There, he sought refuge in a camp and impressed the camp owner with his intelligence, so much so that the camp owner, a local Chinese, offered him one of his many daughters.  In typical Chinese immigrant fashion, he worked hard and lived frugally, eventually becoming prosperous.  Yet, he maintained his Chinese identity closely because he was not accepted by the Dutch and the Indonesian natives considered him a 'singkeh' (new guest).

I once had to educate my first boss, an Englishman, about who the Peranakans were.  After he read the book I'd lent him, Felix Chia's "The Babas", he quipped, "Ah, now I understand your lot.  Last of the big spenders."

Truly indeed, this other book by Mrs. Koo, would put that description to practice.











My mother's kitchen and mine

Today is Mothers' Day.  Recently, a few of my daughters' friends (through their mothers) purchased the cookbook and earmarked what ...