A descendant reflections on the discovery of Tan Yong Seng's grave and the link to Tan Oo Long

 Joanne Tan Kim Lian’s reflections on the discovery of Tan Yong Seng’s grave

I grew up spending a lot of time with my paternal Peranakan grandparents (Stephen Tan Boon Chye and Alice Kwek Bee Neo) and used to ask them about their stories and where they came from. I vividly remember trying to piece together a school project about my family tree and I remember Ah Kong (Tan Boon Chye) telling me about his family owning a plantation in the past which were swindled away by in-laws and that his father had 2 wives and had died young from a boil at the side of his neck which my Cho-Cho (Great Grandmother) (Quah Hong See) had to painstakingly clean out each night.  The first wife had died before Quah Hong See married in. He mentioned that we are related to Tan Tock Seng but he said it so quickly and did not elaborate much because my Mama had chimed in with her story.

From my Mama (Kwek Bee Neo), I know that her father’s name was Kwek Theam Chye who had been a man of some means. My Mama’s mother had died at age 40 when my Mama was only 14 years old. My mama told me that her name was Missy Lim. With the Kwek matriarch dead, everyone was very close to the remaining parent, this Kwek family patriarch, Kwek Theam Chye.  I was very close to my Mama who had been very close to her father and for a few years after the war, she and her oldest brother and their families had lived together with Kwek Theam Chye. Hence when Kwek Theam Chye died, the Kwek family as well as Tan Boon Chye and family would pay respects at Kwek Theam Chye’s grave. For this reason, I know of the existence of Kwek Theam Chye’s grave at Bukit Brown. I’ve always wanted to see the grave for myself but never got down to really asking my father / uncles to take me there. The common comment would be “Oh, Uncle so-and-so would know. Last time, he would drive the family there.” In reality, nobody probably remembers the way anymore 😊

Marriage of Mrs Tan Yong Seng (Quah Hong See) son Tan Boon Chye to Alice Kwek in 1947 

 In January this year, an uncle passed away and on this the funeral bus sat a Kwek uncle and a Tan uncle and a Tan aunty. Some members of the Kweks and the Tans remain close because in simpler days, the in-laws were very hospitable to one another. I had flippantly asked Uncle Patrick Kwek (eldest son of the eldest son of Kwek Theam Chye) if he could bring me to find Kwek Theam Chye’s grave. Within the same conversation, my Chek Chek (uncle) Philip Tan Peng Hock mentioned that my Ah Kong (Tan Boon Chye) would visit his father-in-law (Kwek Theam Chye)’s grave in the past and would disappear for a while to find his own father’s grave. That was the first time I heard about Tan Yong Seng’s grave possibly being at Bukit Brown. On this same bus was one of my Kokos (aunties) (Koko Nancy) (Nancy Tan Gek Suan) whose father (Tan Boon Swee) (my Pek Kong) was the eldest son of Tan Yong Seng by his second wife (Quah Hong See). When I asked her about Tan Yong Seng’s grave, she said it’s probably not there anymore and that it had probably been reclaimed by the government. It piqued my interest, but I let it rest because my attention was on Kwek Theam Chye’s grave.


Within the next few days, I contacted my Kwek cousin, Luke Kwek, to ask if he was interested in finding Kwek Theam Chye’s grave together. Kwek Theam Chye is our shared great-grandfather. Luke was very fast with his research and within a few minutes, managed to locate Kwek Theam Chye’s grave location from one of Raymond Goh’s posts. Luke was more resourceful than I could ever imagine and he found Kwek Theam Chye’s father’s (Kwek Tuan Siew)’s grave location online too.  I then contacted Raymond Goh to ask for more specific directions. To my utter surprise, Raymond responded!  With the information, we made a trip down with Luke, his father, Patrick Kwek and my uncle, Philip Tan. My uncles had some vague memories of the grave being ‘higher than this part’ and ‘I remember there were lions’.  Armed with printed directions from Raymond as well as physical help by some ladies we serendipitously met at Bukit Brown, we found Kwek Theam Chye’s grave. He was buried next to his wife, Missy Lim (Lim Pheng Neo). With more help from the caretakers at Bukit Brown, we found Kwek Tuan Siew and his wife’s tombs too. It was a superbly meaningful exercise, and we were overjoyed. It was Luke’s and my first time visiting Kwek Theam Chye’s grave and my uncles’ first time visiting Kwek Tuan Siew’s grave. The joy was immense. We knew that my Mama and Luke’s Ah Kong would have been very happy for this was the Kwek family patriarch who was very beloved in his time.


Kwek Theam Chye and Lim Pheng Neo grave in Bukit Brown (circa 1960s) 

When I went home, it continued to linger in my mind about the Tan patriarch’s grave. Encouraged by my Chek Chek Philip Tan who continues to encourage me on this quest to find our Tan family roots, I decided to email Raymond once again with only Tan Yong Seng’s name and a rough year that I thought would have been the year he died. I thought that it would not amount to any outcome for the aunty kept saying that his grave had probably been exhumed so when Raymond replied that there was indeed a Tan Yong Seng buried in Bukit Brown in 1930 and requested for a few names, I gave all the names I knew which were only the 3 sons’ (Tan Boon Swee, Tan Boon Chye and Tan Boon Eng) as well as the youngest daughter (Tan Bee Neo) who had lived in the next house to my Ah Kong. Tan Boon Chye and Tan Bee Neo had lived in houses next to each other after my grandparents shifted from Kwek Theam Chye’s place. To my utter surprise, Raymond responded a few days later telling me of our lineage to Tan Oon Long. At that point, I had never heard of Tan Oo Long. I immediately texted whichever aunties and uncles I had contact with and soon, more stories came by. One uncle said that Tan Yong Seng had died when the wound from a coconut that dropped from a tree in his plantation turned septic. And so, it was not a cancerous boil after all. It had been an accident. That same uncle said that my Pek Kong (Tan Boon Swee) had told him about the link to Tan Oo Long but never had the chance to elaborate before his passing. Koko Nancy then mentioned that Tan Yong Seng’s tablet is at a temple at Jalan Senyum. Tan Boon Swee had filially gotten his father’s tablet made and placed more conveniently in a temple when he himself got older and trips to Bukit Brown became more difficult. Through Raymond, I learnt that Tan Yong Seng had been the 10th son of Tan Swee Guan who was the 1st son of Tan Oo Long.

 I had always felt that there must be a wider family out there for us. All my father’s generation has the male generational name ‘Peng’ while all my Ah Kong’s generation had the male generational name ‘Boon’. This was even for the first wife’s line. There must be a generational book out there somewhere which Tan Yong Seng and his first few children followed and hence the rest followed, but it is not with my family now because Tan Yong Seng must have been on the lower rungs of the birth order so the book was not kept by him.  However, my recent online research has shown that Tan Yong Seng and his brothers had different generational names so I might be wrong on this.

The plantation that he had, which all my Ah Kong (Tan Boon Chye), Pek Kong (Tan Boon Swee), Chek Kong (Tan Boon Swee) and Popo (Tan Bee Neo) had told me that the family had must not have come from his efforts alone and must have been carved out from a wider parcel of land from Tan Yong Seng’s father. These were all my thoughts before Raymond’s email about Tan Oo Long.


I am still searching for the first wife’s name but this is proving very difficult because there are not many aunties and uncles left and the memories of those who are left are blurry. Even names being noted down might have been nicknames and not real names. The peranakans love to use nicknames (Anak Bongsoo = youngest child or Mama Gemuk = the fat grandma) Many a times, I have had to verify with the name-giver a few times and use my own discerning eye/ear. My Cho Cho (Quah Hong See) had been the uniting factor between the children of both wives. When she passed on, her eldest son, my Pek Kong, Tan Boon Swee, became the Tan family’s de facto patriarch and descendants from both wives would come visit. However, he passed away in 2009 and the visitations ceased by quite a bit.


Mrs Tan Yong Seng (Quah Hong See) with her daughters, daughter in law, step daughter (from the first wife) and granddaughter (circa 1960s)

I would love to reunite with Tan Oo Long’s or Tan Swee Guan’s lines if this is even remotely possible. Tan Yong Seng had died when his children by second wife were all very young. My Pek Kong who was his eldest son with Quah Hong See had only been about 13-15 years old. My own Ah Kong had been about 8 years old. Over the years, names have been lost; stories have been lost and the people who are remembering them are getting older by the minute. Family sizes have shrunk and contacts with wider family have died down.


However way we move on from this point, I am already eternally grateful to Raymond Goh for all his research and very importantly, his willingness to share all that he knows. Without all his documentation and his expert links, we would never have been able to trace our genealogy. Whether bringing back to consciousness for some aunties/uncles or bringing to new consciousness for my generation, this is all very meaningful for the small Tan family that is left. We knew who we were; we knew we were part of Tan Yong Seng who had 2 wives who died young. But now we know that we are actually part of a greater Tan line and for this, no words can express how happy and grateful we are. It is like finding out that we are no longer just a piece of an unknown puzzle but we actually fit in somewhere on this bigger tapestry of Singapore’s history made up of the families who had taken root here so many years ago.

Thank you, Raymond. Whatever you are doing here is so worthwhile for so many people.

By Joanne Tan Kim Lian

Further reading :

Tan Oo Long


Tan Yong Seng