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