My great grandfather was Cheang Jim Chuan, the second son of Cheang Hong Lim. My eldest aunt was born before the war and she remembers the mansion on Pasir Panjang Road (extravagantly named ‘Palm Beach’). It stood on land the size of two football fields, and the house was double fronted: a neo-Classical portico facing Pasir Panjang Road for guests arriving by car, and a matching portico on the opposite site for visitors approaching the house by sea. Birthday celebrations for up to five hundred people (including European guests) were held at the house with a military band, ronggeng and Chinese wayang to entertain the guests. These events were large enough to be reported in the society pages of the local newspapers.
My grandmother did not have fond memories of the time. She was sixteen when she married my grandfather, Cheang Theam Kee, the second son of Cheang Jim Chuan. Her mother-in-law, the matriarch of the family, was ferocious. Nothing she did was right and nothing she did could please her. Things became disastrously worse when the Japanese came in 1940, and she found herself shouldering the whole burden of caring for the family. It was her own mother, not the Cheang family, who managed to find the family a house in which to live. When she cooked, my grandfather would eat first, then the children, and if there was any food left only then would my grandmother eat. Things did not become easier until some decades after the war, when the children went out to work and were finally able to contribute to the upkeep of the family home.
This is a photograph of my grandfather and grandmother (Cheang Theam Kee and Seow Seok Kim Neo) outside the family home on Chinese New Year Day
I did not learn to cook when I was growing up, but when I left home for university, it was food that I missed the most. I only started cooking in my second year at college, on a single electric ring. I used packets of supermarket rempah to start with, and a single saucepan also doubled up as a high-walled frying pan. The simplest dish to cook is chicken soup that is just left in the pot to simmer over many hours: so skill is required, only patience. On one her visits from Singapore, Mum gave me a Japanese rice cooker, which I still have today.
Mama passed away at the age of a hundred years old. She never wrote down any recipes, but my aunts recorded what they could, on scraps of paper and card. During the pandemic, my father was unwell, which means I was travelling between the UK and Singapore quite a lot, and during the pandemic, this means almost a total of six months in quarantine. My first spell in quarantine was at the Carlton Hotel, where I was issued with a single-use keycard to the hotel room and fourteen bottles of water.
I spent my first birthday in quarantine, with friends and family dropping food and other gifts off for me. The doorbell would ring, and on a chair by the door, I would find a sushi bento box or homemade spring rolls or other some other present waiting for me to collect. That year, my best birthday present came from my mother. She wrote down for me all of Mama’s recipes onto neat index cards, filed in a folder.
Over the next few months, when the snatches of time I had in Singapore, I asked my Mum, her sisters and cousins to teach me how to cook. The recipes were not easy to follow, because they had a language of their own. Twenty cents of chillis, milk from one coconut, water measured using an old condensed milk tin kept on the window sill. Steps were often left out: “But you didn’t mention sugar in the recipe!” “Aiyah, you taste you know need sugar what!” “Fry the peanuts? You didn’t mention frying the peanuts in the recipe!” “Who uses raw peanuts? Of course the peanuts have to be fried first before you pound them!”
But the most fascinating thing was the stories. Each recipe had its own story and as the sisters stood in the kitchen cooking, they told stories about times long past. About catching rats in a bucket with a piece of dried fish as bait; about the ducks named Patsy and Daisy who one day were slaughtered to become dinner; about cutting their feet accidentally on the Murex shells buried in the sand on Changi beach; about my great aunt chasing her grand daughter around the house with a hot needle and slice of ginger to piece her ear lobe for earrings. The stories came and came and I found myself in a different world, a Singapore that is long gone and which is irretrievably lost…except the food. As they cooked and they laughed and cried, the food was infused with all these memories so that the preparation of the food was just as important as the eating of it. It is these stories and recipes that I collected into a book called Agak-Agak Chukop Rasa.
I was moved to hunt for these stories before they were lost completely. I first spoke to my distant cousin, Darren Koh, who introduced me to others in the Bukit Brown group, including Raymond Goh. My family stopped visiting the graves on Bukit Brown some time in the 1960’s or 1970’s…certainly before I was born.
Raymond discovered the tomb of Cheang Sam Teo, the tomb of my great great great grandfather, more than 10 years ago, on top of a hill where the jungle had long since claimed it. Not being able to trace any family, he had maintained it himself, year after year at Cheng Beng/ Qingming 清明. This year, for the first time, a group of cousins and I visit the tomb with Raymond acting as guide, and he showed us the other tombs, including the grand tomb of Cheang Hong Lim, which has been maintained through the years by Cheang Jim Hean’s descendants through his daughter Cheang Tew Muey. My great grandfather’s tomb, Cheang Jim Chuan, had been cut off by a fallen tree, but Ah Beng, the tomb keeper cleared it for us, as well as a fallen stone lion and the roots which had come up through the concrete pavement.
I do not know why my family stopped visiting these graves and none of the surviving family are able to answer that question. Part of the reason is that all the surviving family converted to Christianity, which means the ancestral tablets were discarded and Cheng Beng tomb sweeping all stopped at some point in the 1970’s. Part of the reason may also lie in the legal battles played out in court, which brought different branches of the family into conflict with each other and so “family” came to mean something quite bitter.
Raymond’s discovery was important to me because I was born after the feuds had burnt out and many of the main players had passed on. Cheang Sam Teo’s tomb gives me a connection to Singapore which goes back all the way to the early 19th century, to within a few years of its founding two centuries ago. I have spent more than half my life outside of Singapore: UK, US, Thailand, The Netherlands… but Singapore is still home. Three generations of my family are buried in Bukit Brown, in Singapore soil, and led by Raymond, a group of cousins went to visit out great great great grandfather’s grave for the first time in decades. We had come together only because we discovered that we shared a common ancestor and so this visit to Cheang Sam Teo’s was something of a pilgrimage.
I don’t know how many descendants of Cheang Sam Teo are alive in Singapore today, but there must be hundreds, and many of them probably do not even know that they are related. I know that his descendants include lawyers, doctors, nurses, politicians, teachers, journalists, and entrepreneurs. The family have played a role in almost every corner of Singapore society. I don’t know how to measure the contribution made by a family over two hundred years? But there is a man buried on Bukit Brown, who came from China in 1820 and we know that that is when it started.