The story as told by her descendants…
It was just one week after Cheng Beng in 1940.
The husband and a 6 year old daughter were the only family at the grave of 28 year old Toh Pow who had died a few hours earlier from complications during child birth. Maternity mortality then was 8.3 per 1000 births. Toh Pow’s baby, a boy had miraculously survived.
The 6 year old daughter in 1940 is now 90 years old(2023). This account is based on her memories of her mother and grandmother, in conversations with her daughter.
Money was tight in the family which had included 4 children – 3 girls and 1 boy aged 8, 6, 4, and 3 – and a widowed grandmother The widowed grandmother had “adopted” Toh Pow “very young” , so she would grow up with her only son and marry him. It was taboo for her as an elder, to send off her daughter of a younger generation, to the grave. But she took on the responsibility to dress her daughter, one final time. For the “pretty and dainty” daughter who was careful about dressing appropriately, she chose a white top paired with black trousers, and coiled her hair in a bun. Into the coffin, she placed an effigy of a baby boy on her chest, believed to “protect” the surviving infant.
The 6 year old daughter remembers her mother’s lifeless body. When it came time to close the coffin, her grandmother could no longer contain her grief and wailed bitterly at her daughter for leaving her children behind in her care. Her pain was so overwhelming, shehad to be physically restrained.
The coffin, described as a simple box travelled to Bukit Brown in a lorry rented by a neighbour – with space for two mourners - to be buried in a pauper’s plot.
What followed was the painful desicion to immediately give up her infant grandson for adoption. Grandma knew there was no way they could afford to keep him. His 6 year old sister, remembers the day her baby brother was carried away never to return. The grandmother heldonly the hope and belief, that he would have a better life than what she could give him.
Less than a week after Toh Pow’s death, her husband was sent to jail for taking part in a workers riot. His mother visited him everyday accompanied by his 6 year old daughter, worried and increasingly more depressed.It was a short two week sentence but it had life long repercussions on the family. Upon his release, he was asked where was his home. He replied, “China” . The colonial authorities ever suspicious of troublesome workers, “sponsored” his journey to the motherland, never to return. The son had asked his mother to follow him back. When she asked what about his children? He replied “give away or sell.”
The mother chose to stay. The children were now in reality “orphaned” and she, the sole caregiver. Their childhood would be a far cry from her own.
Grandma Lim was born in China circa 1870s/80s. At the age of four, her father, a farmer arranged to bind herfeet. It was believed it would change her birth status from “lowly maid” to “privilege lady”. By her own account she led a rather carefree life. Her bound feet privileged her from farm chores. Eventually she married, had one son and when widowed young, joined the waves of migrants heading south to Nanyang in search of a better life.
In Singapore, Toh Pow was a welcome addition to the family. Born here, she was adopted from relatives who had settled in Singapore earlier. She married the son as planned and supported the family as an amah/baby sitter for an English family. She would have improved her English and learned new ways. When her employers returned to England, they gifted Toh Pow their sewing machine. (Later, grandma used the sewing machine, to alter Toh Pow’s clothes to fit her daughters)After her English employers left, she found regular work at a factory making biscuits. The family grew with first an adopted daughter, followed by biological children soon after. The family may have been poor, but there was always the prospect that Toh Pow who was young and spoke English, could find better paid employment, and their circumstances would improve.
In the here and now however, Grandma Lim estimated to be in her early 60s, returned to her farming roots to earn a living. She grew vegetables and reared pigs. The grandchildren helped out with farming chores, something she never had to do because of her bound feet. She now discarded the lotus shoes and shod her bound feet in thick black socks to relieve the pain from her labours. But it became a source of ridicule and name calling, adding insult to injury. Still despite the constant bullying, she remained upright. Once her grandson pulled up a crop from a neighbour’s plot, and was scolded for having neither discipline nor upbringing. Grandma tied him up with rope and whipped him soundly in front of the neighbours.
She was also bullied by the landlord of the home she stayed in. It was rented by a friend. Together with her grandchildren, grandma Lim lived with her friend and his family. The landlord was unhappy about this arrangement and harrassed her.
She was desperate to move out but just could not find alternative lodgings. She was advised by a neighbour to appeal to the spirit of war hero, Lim Bo Seng. His remains were due to be repatriated from Perak in Malaya to Singapore on 7 December, 1945. On arrival at Tanjong Pagar Railway station, the hearse accompanied by British officers and prominent businessmen made its way to Hock Ann Biscuit factoryin Woskel Road . It was here, that the now 11 year old granddaughter remembered Grandma Lim joining the large crowd of mourners already gathered. She was struck by the very large “hongkim” - a Hokkien term for funerary urn - containing Lim Bo Seng’s remains, in “alarge office space”. On a wall, hung the portrait of Lim Loh, Lim Bo Seng’s father. Grandma Lim walked to the middle of this space, knelt and prayed in front of the “hongkim” for help to find a new home. She then followed up by appealing to a “Towkay Lim” from Lim Bo Seng’s family. She was given “a hut with a roof”. With the help of some male relatives a new home was built. A year after Toh Pow’s death her daughter then seven had a dream the family moved. When she accompanied her grandma to the location allocated by “Towkay Lim”, she recognised it as from her dream. Toh Pow herself had worked at Lim Loh’s Hock Ann Biscuit factory.
Through all her struggles and pain, Grandma Lim was resolute and resilient. She kept alive the memory of their mother to her grandchildren, reminding them of the brother who was given away. She had found out where he was earlier, but never made contact. One day by fate, not design, the two brothers met face to face. The grandson who was brought up by grandma Lim was struck by how much they looked alike. He started a conversation and confirmed it was indeed “his long lost” younger brother. According to relatives in the know, they were “delighted” to have met, and kept in touch until the older brother died in 2022.
Grandma Lim died in 1967, in her 90s. Her gift to hergrandchildren was an abiding duty of remembrance to their mother every Qing Ming. When they were very young, they had kind neighbours who rented a lorry to take them. When they were old enough they took the bus. In the passage of time the four siblings who had visited their mother together became, two. It was the two eldest daughters of Toh Pow who continued to visit her together with their families.
Then in Qing Ming 2018, when a family member drove them to Bukit Brown, they got lost. The familiar landscape of the Bukit Brown they knew, changed irrevocably with the construction of the 8 lane way over the cemetery. So they could not find their usual route. Now already in their late 80s, the two sisters were confused, only remembering their mother’s grave was “deep in the forested area”. They were not confident they would be able to find their mother’s tomb.
In February, 2023 Angelique a granddaughter of Toh Pow initiated a search for her tomb. She reached out to the brownies for help. She had her grandma’s name, the name of the youngest son on her tomb as chief mourner and a plot number 093. But she did not know the exact year of death, only that it would have been in the early 1940s. She was advised to pinpoint the year of death.She had already found the Bukit Brown Burial Registeronline and understood that potentially without an exact year, she would have to comb through 4 years of records. She spoke to her mother to ascertain the ages of all four children at the time of Toh Pow’s death. This pinned down with absolute certainty the year of death. She was surprised that she found the entry in the burial registry easily, and excited to see Toh Pow’s name and the 3 digit plot number told to her by her mother.
With the full address – the numbers of block, division and plot - Toh Pow’s tomb was found by Raymondtogether with brownies Peter, Ah Beng and Meibao. The area was quite clear as a tomb keeper had been maintaining the neighbouring tomb.
The plot number originally remembered as 093 was 930. But the name of the son was different. The name given by Angelique was Lim Tong Bok. He was her Uncle after all, and the family had called him “Tong Bok”. The name on the tomb was “Ah Gong”. There is a Chinese belief, that very young children, especially boys were vulnerable to being snatched away by evil spirits. To repel them, the child is also given an unattractive name. “Gong” in this instance means “foolish”. The names of the three daughters names were left out. It’s not known whether it was deliberate because of some unknown taboo, or simply a lack of space on the tombstone. . Daughters have always been secondary in any case.
The visit to Toh Pow’s tomb took place on a drizzly Saturday morning. Angelique was accompanied by two cousins. They were the first family to visit after a pause of 4 years. They paid their respects and made arrangements to spring clean her tomb in time to continue their Qingming visits. The baton has been handed down to the next generation. Angelique noted, it poured after their visit. Her mother had shared that inprevious Qing Ming visits after prayers, when the weather was threathening, it was like a signal from Toh Pow to leave quickly, before the family got caught in adownpour.
Her mother was the 6 year old daughter and only child who attended Toh Pow’s burial in 1940. Growing up she was very timid and stucked closely to grandma, accompanying her everywhere , even to prison. Her ears and eyes bore witness to grandma Lim’s struggles. And just as grandma Lim had shared stories of her mother Toh Pow with her, she too has shared stories with her own daughter about the two most important women in her life. The conversations across four generations of women have come full circle.
Every year the brownies celebrate International Women’s Day which falls on 8 March, by sharing stories about the women buried in Bukit Brown. This year the tour coincided with the visit to Toh Pow’s grave on March 4th. Paths crossed but did not meet.
Next year, the story of Toh Pow and Grandma Lim - rare and remarkable for the fact that the struggles of ordinary women are hardly documented – will join the brownie collection of stories that celebrate and remember the women buried in Bukit Brown. .
Written by Catherine Lim and Raymond Goh with inputs by Angelique
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