Roots and the Connectedness It Brings….50 years ago in Bukit Brown

Let’s start from the beginning. My PhD. Strange, just woke up one day and said I wanted to do it. My bucket list. Is it like that? Did I just wake up and tell myself this? Or did my guardian angel whisper in my ear one night….hey, isn’t it time you connected to your roots? 

And so it begins……started off with a fascinating psychiatrist who became a good friend. DNA. Wow! If I hadn’t written my book, I wouldn’t have begun this fascinating journey. This is so crazy…. But I am happy. 

Like my friend, it starts with a deep longing. He wanted to find his biological parents. I wanted to find my father’s ancestry. Perhaps it’s this intuition that I had Manchu-Tibetan blood….weird, huh? But who knows? My childhood fascination with Chinese history, then my trip to Dharamsala which opened my eyes to compassion. I felt I belonged. 

This search has led me so many places. Let me learn so many things. I have this affinity to Penang. Now it’s coming back. There is a connection.

I think somewhere at the back of my mind is this image of Daddy clearing the grass along Sime Road and me standing about 10 steps below watching him. I must be seven or eight years old. So I was born a year after my grandma’s death. 

Sometimes you have to believe that God will lead you to discover what you need….when the time is right. And you have to do your own homework and trust in him. Never was it so miraculously revealed than in that hot sweltering afternoon in Bukit Brown Cemetery.

I think I come to an age where I need to explore my spiritual needs. Spiritual vs Religious. I feel there’s a huge distinction….I am spiritual, not religious. And I believe I have a soul…..which has travelled through many bodies. When I read Dr Brian Weiss’ books, it made so much sense. Past life regeneration. Yes, we all have past lives…..

Which is why I delve so intensely into research for my novel…. It is even more fascinating when you know it is about your own lineage….

I started off with finding my paternal grandparents. The only link I had on them was Daddy’s birth certificate and addresses in Geylang. It all drew a blank. But this memory….Daddy sweeping her grave in Sime Road on Ching Ming and I standing below the hillock, watching him…I never did have the chance to ask him about it. 32 years….a lot has happened since then. He would have been 91 if he was still around.

And he would have loved Facebook. Tell you why…. 

I ran out of options. My leads led nowhere. Mr Chan from Chan Khoo Association suggested I look at Kopi Swa (Coffee Hill) in Bukit Brown Cemetery (BBC). Yeong Chong from NLB Singapore Memory Project introduced me to Catherine Lim of BBC. She told me, hey, post in our FB page. I was skeptical…..after all, it was just a hunch. And it was 50 years ago….. But God works in mysterious ways! 

Faith. Belief. Call it what you like…..I posted in BBC’s page. And guess what! Within ten minutes I had a reply. OMG! I was asking about my Grandma who died in 1958….meticulous records kept by the British indicated my grandpa was also buried there in 1943. 

And a very kind Brownie, James Tann, offered to help me search in BBC. He was even so kind as to send me a note on Messenger, “Just to prepare you …. It’s not exactly a walk in the park (we do that only on weekends, haha) 

1. Wear covered shoes.

2. Be prepared for mosquitoes by the squadrons (repellent and long sleeves would be good)

3. Bring water (very hot day) and hat also good!

4. Be prepared to bash through shrubbery/thicket. It’s all overgrown and dense where your grandparents’ graves are.

I was prepared for items 1 to 3. I was not exactly looking forward to trudging in lallang and wild grass. But if Catherine Khoo is on the trail, she’ll grit her teeth and get there, no matter how! 

On a sweltering 34-degree afternoon on 22nd May, I met James at the entrance of BBC, now flanked by green aluminium boards which a very modern expressway will run. I wondered if we have paid too heavy a price in the name of progress. James tells me that official estimates are 5,000 graves will be affected! My heart dropped ….what if my grandparents’ graves are among them? But I squashed the negative thought away….I believe things happen for a reason and I’ve come this far….

Strangely, as the concrete pavement turned into a dirt track on the left, the heat didn’t grip so tightly….it gave way to a cooling breeze. As we walked through the track, I felt a surge of hope. Must be the stolid trees and green green grass which are silent guards to the memories of a generation. James told me he found his grandparents’ graves some years ago …. pay it forward… he understands the emotion and he wants to help me! Bless you, James! 

And so we dug in. We clambered over tombstone after tombstone. James brought a handy monopod to feel his way about. Be careful, don’t fall into an empty grave coz some might have been exhumed, he warned. And yes, there might be snakes. So I meekly walked behind him and trudged where he trudged. We found lot 132, but where was 133 where my grandma was buried? We kept on going, me treading gingerly….and I thanked God it wasn’t raining 🙂

He was patiently searching …. I told myself to look for the hillock, but most of the graves overlook a hill! ….. And I wandered off on my own…. Then we met Lim Hock Chye, or Ah Hock as the Brownies call him. He took care of the graves on Hill 5 or Block 5 and he had that confident look that told me he knew where my grandparents’ graves were. He and James went behind some trees, I plunged downward, still keeping my eye for the graves overlooking the hillock, but it seemed I was going around in circles ….

I heard James call my name. You found it? I asked, more a question, then a confirmation. But I was too far away to hear his answer. I headed in their direction, nearly missing an empty grave overgrown with grass. I clambered over a particularly large stone, but the stone gave way, I stumbled and for a second I thought I’ll fall …. Must be my guardian angel who guided me….like a dream, I felt myself propelling forward and as I turned into a shady nook, and saw the faces of both James and Ah Hock, my heart missed a beat! 

It took only 45 minutes but it meant so much to me! This is the first time I’ve “met” my grandpa and grandma. I am sure Daddy is smiling down at me. Maybe he is with them now, guiding me in what I do. I’ve found my roots! My next step, Khoo Kongsi, who I know have direct links to their ancestral village.  

This is getting exciting! Seek and I shall find!

Grandpa, Khoo Chiong Tat

  

Grandma, Wee Choo Neo

  

Grandpa died on 27 Dec 1943

  

Grandma died on 27 Oct 1958

  

Grandpa was from Sing Kang village, Fujian

  

Grandma also came from the same village

  

Their descendants, in Chinese characters

  

Their descendants, in English characters. My Dad’s Khoo Beng Chye

  

Guardian diety guarding their tomb on the left

  

….and on the right

  

The 5 hills of Bukit Brown Cemetery

  

My grandparents are buried on Block 5, Lots 133 and 146

  

The long road in….turn left at the shack

  

James Tann, my Brownie guide and Ah Hock, tombkeeper

 

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,700 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 28 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Dear friends who are following my blog, I am tracing my lineage beginning from my grandmother who ran a gambling den in Geylang way back in the 1940s. My dad swore off gambling because of that! It’s for a novel I am writing about a highly adventurous and courageous female who lived 1868 to 1958. Think Gone With The Wind. …. that’s my muse

Seriously, I lost touch with all my Dad’s relatives, so now am tracing way way back. Tough but hey, learning as I go along…. My grandma’s one tough lady!

I need lots of help. I will be posting photos and letters my Dad left behind on this page and thoughts as I travel this journey into my past. If it seems familiar or if you think you know someone, please, please let me know.

Take care and speak soon,

Catherine Khoo

Coffee and Conversation with Israel’s Literary Darling

Yes, it sounded intriguing. And Zeruya Shalev books have been translated into 25 languages. Added to that, a view to die for….. Overlooking the cultured greenery of Orchard Road and just behind a potential UNESCO heritage site, the Botanic Gardens. No, no one says No to this invitation.
I like intimate conversation with authors. I must admit I got hooked on this after my trip to the Iceland Writer’s Retreat. Though I stayed only four days, the intense sharing of authors such as Andrew Evans, Geraldine Brooks and Joseph Boyden provided me insights which helped me rethink my novel.

Zeruya underlined the motivations for writing. I an going to note this down here so I shan’t forget. So I can turn to it when sometimes I feel I am getting nowhere with my words. Three pieces of advice I will always remember:

Literature should make changes in people’s lives.

Set emotional borders. Not geographical borders.

Writing is not only about writing. It is also about listening to your characters.

So, yes, sometimes when I struggle, when all seems tough, it’s good to remember those words…..

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Retirement? Hey, what does it mean?

Retirement is a very strange word. It connotes a time when u cease doing anything of monetary value and just wilt away. Or well, look after your grandchildren. That’s what us city folks think it is. So in Singapore, we have the official retirement age raised from 55 to 60 to 62 and perhaps soon, 65. And all around me are laments and rantings that “we can’t afford to retire coz we do not have enough savings to last till we are 80!” Oh! So what exactly is retirement?

I can’t quite grasp the word, and frankly, I wonder why it’s such a scary word to many people I know. It’s like the “c” word which spells cancer. And I wonder if it’s the effect of a kind of xenophobia that is strangling the country I live in? Sometimes I go to our shopping malls, and I see people walking around aimlessly….. Is it the bid to keep ourselves busy so we don’t have to think about our lives? Reminds me of HH The Dalai Lama’s “The Paradox of Life.”
So is it only me? Or is it that I have come to another phase of life? I am just thankful that I have come this far…. sometimes I wonder why I met The Dalai Lama? And why I feel so drawn to his philosophy?
Compassion. Love. This is what the world needs more of. Just like Mother Teresa said, we can only help one person at a time.
Which is why I don’t know the meaning of retirement. I think there’s so much to do. I know my vision of giving each child the right to dream and write somehow will lead me to the Tibetan Children’s Village. I just have to believe and follow my dream.

Love, Japanese Style

On the way to Kagoshima, our tour guide, who happens to be a Taiwanese married to a Japanese, was sharing about the merits of being married to a Japanese wife. Truth be told, or if you are a Japanese wife reading my blog….. Tell me if it’s this tradition today. Here goes: A Japanese wife does not work. She wakes up at 5:30 to wake up her kids for school, sends them off, then prepares breakfast for her husband and off he goes for work. And yes, the husband gives his whole pay packet to his wife. And her husband does not return home till late. He treats the house like a hotel. Out early morning and back really late. Why? Coz the Japanese home is so small that the couple will get in each other’s way. The only time they spend together is during the weekends. Seems to me this is like most cities in the world…… the quest for economic gains has eroded the family togetherness. Yes, I’ve heard this many times, have even lived through this. Therein lies the similarity. Now, again I need someone, a Japanese lady of a good enough age to verify this. The Japanese government actually gives every month, to every couple at age 65, ¥25k for the husband and ¥10k for the wife. Cool, isn’t it?
And my guide said something that hit straight home. The couple discovers love, meaning really knowing and understanding each other, only when they retire and well, spending time together.
Isn’t this so romantic? But will it work in today’s world? I find this really sweet but then, if you have read my book, you’ll wonder how much patience is needed on both sides. Can we? I believe it’s a matter of believing in the positive. No one’s perfect.

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I love Japanese temples. They are so serene.

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The man of my life....

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At Sakurajima. Behind us is an active volcano

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Kumamoto Castle

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The solid strong temple gate

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Big open spaces give breathing space. This is what everyone needs!

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So majestic, the power of nature!

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Coastal Kagoshima

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Overlooking Kagoshima Harbour. Notice the glow..... Just after the hot sand bath.

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Villages nestled in a sea of green. Can I retire here?

The Price To Pay For Peace

9th May 2014. After 16 years, I came back to Kyushu. Last time I came was on a press trip. SIA started flights and invited PHP Institute, and I went along. It was an eye-opener….. for Kyushu, especially Nagasaki and the Peace Museum, made me wonder why we fight and when we do, why do we have to inflict so much suffering and pain to our fellow men?
Aristotle once said, “We make war to have peace.” Noted gurus and philosophers argue that, only in suffering, can we see the true nature of men.” Perhaps this is so. Or how can we explain the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan’s civilians? Who are going about their normal lives on the morning of 9 August 1945? I felt my hair stand as I saw the pictures of the victims, who a moment (yes, just a second) ago, was either reading a book, or tending to their vegetables in the farm, or writing at their desks in school. In a flash (pun intended), the world became a bitter pill to swallow, for the power of science in the hands of men who wielded the most power, begs a question: Should we play God? Or is God playing with us mere mortals?

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The victims of the war

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Mother's love brings contentment in death

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Thank goodness it happened instantly for him

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Clothes are not scant protection from extreme burning heat

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Fatman changed the way the world. Energy became a weapon of mass destruction.

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Death, death everywhere and not a soul in sight

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