You can call Greater Bukit Brown Cemetery a social and cultural repository of early Singapore. In recent years, researchers have slowly unearthed the stories of many pioneering Chinese immigrants who rest there.
But it was only last month that the 1888 grave of a key personality, a merchant who was one of the original land donors of the cemetery itself, was found.
Raymond Goh, a "tomb hunter" famous in the heritage scene here, had often passed by the tomb of Ong Chong Chew without realising it was what he had been looking for. It was only on September 17, on one of his tomb-hunting walks in the grounds of Seh Ong Cemetery that Goh found the tomb.
"It had escaped my radar all this time because I was expecting a tomb from the Qing dynasty era to have a more elaborate design."
The tomb is in a forested part of the cemetery slanting downwards. It had been nudged into that position by the roots of an old tree.
On closer inspection, Goh saw it bore the posthumous name of Ong as 'Ting Ying', and listed the names of his four sons. This corroborated with research by his great-great granddaughter, retired librarian Ong Chwee Im, 75, who had written a book about her ancestor in 2006.The inscribed 1888 date in Chinese was another telltale sign. Goh had been trying to track down the tomb after descendants of the late pioneer asked him for help in doing so in 2011.
He told The Sunday Times his search was especially intense in the first year, and he spent many weekends combing through different parcels of Greater Bukit Brown, which includes Seh Ong and the Hokkien Huay Kuan cemeteries. "His descendants and I had looked through old records from the Ong Clan but we couldn't find any paper trail... It was very challenging locating the tomb." It turns out that Goh had been looking in the wrong area — bashing through overgrowth at the Sime Road section of Seh Ong Cemetery after a false lead. Goh was elated when he finally found Ong's tomb. "I realised that the long-lost grave I had been looking for over the past five years had finally been found."
The late Ong had come to Singapore from "dirt poor conditions" in Bai Qiao village in Fujian province as a young man in the 1850s. He did well, setting up a lumber and shipping company called Teck Cheang located along Rochor River.
By 1864, he began buying land, and came to own parcels in Toa Payoh, Amoy Street, Bugis Street, Telok Ayer, Hylam Street, Victoria Street and Cecil Street.
Ong had learnt about her ancestor's role in Bukit Brown Cemetery only in the 1980s. She had read about him in a 1923 tome called One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore, which listed the late Ong, as well as Ong Ewe Hai and Ong Kew Ho, both of whom can also be traced back to Bai Qiao, as having donated 500 yuan to buy 85ha of Bukit Timah land. The trio had decided to give back to the community in 1872.
Their original plan was to build a village for newly arrived immigrants from China. "The three Ongs left a worthwhile, noble and pragmatic gift to the people of Singapore," said Ong. As the area was under-utilised, the colonial authorities converted 39 hectares of it into a burial ground for the Chinese around 1919, before officially opening it as the Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery in 1922.
Goh said the remains of the late Ong Ewe Hai either rest in Bukit Brown or have been transferred to a temple. Ong said Ong Kew Ho is likely to be buried in Malacca.
Her research also points to why the late Ong's grave was not as elaborate as those of his contemporaries — it had likely been remade in the 1950s following its reinterment from the family's estate in Telok Blangah to Kheam Hock Road where Seh Ong Cemetery is today.