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Jul 30, 2017

In Search Of Our Roots


A direct descendant of Chew Joo Chiat, Philip Chew was born in 1935 and is a pioneer of Singapore in his own way.

I am pleased and honored to be invited by Philip to attend the launch of his book "A Penniless Boy, Chew Joo Chiat" on 29 July, 2017 at the Marine Parade Public Library.

Philip is my blogger friend and introduced to me by his younger cousin Ivan Chew several years ago.  He is also an active member of our heritage group "Friends of Yesterday".  In 2012, I posted a blog "Great Grandfather's Road" which was inspired by The Straits Times article "How Joo Chiat Road got its name ..." published on 12 January, 2012.


About 5 years ago when Philip started to blog, he told me that he would like to research on his family tree with various resources for evidence based on records, documents and correspondences about his great grandfather, Mr Chew Joo Chiat.

His book, "A Penniless Boy, Chew Joo Chiat" tells the story of a forgotten pioneer of Singapore.  It shows how Philip's fact-finding exercise becomes a search for roots, unearthing lost relations and strengthening the family bonds of the Chew family.  His example will inspire us with the desire to uncover, safeguard and pass on the family stories.

I am inspired by Philip's determination, patience and resourcefulness with the help of many people, relatives, family and friends in search of the roots of his family tree.  Philip's personal mission is a labour of love, passion, respect and filial piety for his great grandfather.

Not everyone is able to piece the missing links of the jigsaw puzzle of the family tree, especially of the ancestors who have passed away decades or even centuries ago.

It doesn't mean that most people are not interested or concerned about the importance of the family tree.

As Singapore is a multi-ethnic society and our ancestors have migrated from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and various countries of the world, there were no travelling documents with proper records in the old days.  

However, everyone has a surname regardless of Chinese, Indians, Malays or any other nationalities. Those who have the opportunity to trace the family roots, like Philip Chew, is fortunate and blessings to record them for the descendants for posterity.

Philip's great grandfather, Mr Chew Joo Chiat, would be happy to know that his diligent great-grandson had earnestly and painstakingly with his splendid efforts to accomplish the mission he set out to complete a section of  his family tree. Some unseen spiritual help from the Chew ancestors in this meaningful project by Philip.

There is an idiom in Chinese, "五百年前是一家" - five hundred years ago we were the same family   (of persons with the same surname).  Thus the family tree is traced from the surname of everyone, whatever the ancestors' social status, rich or poor, famous or just an ordinary person.  The surnames are inherited from our ancestors centuries ago.


During the "Question & Answer" session at the book launch, I mentioned the analogy of Philip's search for his family roots kinda like the book "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" written by Alex Haley and first published in 1976.


Preface by Philip Chew

In 1877, my great-grandfather Chew Joo Chiat arrived in Singapore from Amoy, China, at the age of 20, without a penny in his pocket.  He had a dream and worked towards it.  It was a Singapore dream, to which he fulfilled and became wealthy.  His significant contributions to the nation's economic, commercial and financial development made him an early pioneer of Singapore.

Chew Joo Chiat passed away in 1926, about 9 years before I was born.  I remember growing up in a house at Joo Chiat Road, where his portrait stood on an ancestor worship altar.  Every morning, I would watch my elders offer prayers to him with lighted joss sticks.

I did not feel connected to Chew Joo Chiat in any way except to the fact that he was my great-grandfather and he was responsible for my existence.  He was just like any other stranger to me, a cold portrait on the altar.  For much of my life, my family history did not interest me at all and I considered my relationship with Joo Chiat to be very remote.

An article in The Straits Times was published on 2 April 1999 - it jolted me.   In an interview that was reported, the article stated that Chew Joo Chiat only had one child, a daughter.  This stirred an immediate response within me:  "If he had no son at all, where did all his descendants surnamed Chew, me included, come from?"

I thought that it would have been of no use if I had written in to correct the misinformation as I needed more information.  As I delved deeper into my research on Joo Chiat, I found more factual errors about him circulating on internet websites.  A few of which stated that Joo Chiat was a wealthy Peranakan land owner.

Chew Joo Chiat had left Amoy and landed in Singapore some 50 years or more.  He was a Hokkien, as reported in an article in The Straits Times, dated 11 February 1926.  Therefore, he cannot be a Peranakan.

I found other informational gaps about Joo Chiat in newspapers, magazines, books, website and oral records.

I decided to put right all these inaccuracies about my great-grandfather.  I consulted my cousin, Ivan Chew, who showed me the way to blogging.  On 1 March, 2008, I started a blog titled mychewjoochiat.   Thus began my arduous journey, retracing my roots and searching for his name in available sources like books, newspapers as well as records kept by clans and associations.

Through mychewjoochiat blog, I discovered that my great-grandfather was a jack of all trades and a successful entrepreneur.

Through A Penniless Boy, Chew Joo Chiat,  I want to share my great-grandfather's incredible rags-to-riches story.  I want his descendants to know that and learn from their ancestors, who had sailed from China to Singapore at the age of 20, a penniless young man.  He had a keen business sense, made a fortune and died a wealthy man.  He had fulfilled his Singapore dream and became an eminent pioneer in the history of Singapore.  More importantly, despite his wealth, Chew Joo Chiat continued to lead a humble and frugle life.


Raymond Goh, Senior Researcher at Asia Paranormal Investigators and the creator of "Heritage Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery" group on Facebook here , helped Philip in finding his 2 great-grandmothers' tombs.


Tony Tan, Executive Committee Member of the Singapore Heritage Society, a long-time friend of Philip, had helped in the resilient experiences to work together with many resource people and organisations.  He is satisfied with the successful completion of the project with Philip.


Mission accomplished!  Tony Tan and Philip Chew displayed the published book.





Book-signing session at the Book Launch




Thanks to Philip for the autographed book with compliments.


Thimbuktu, Lam Chun See,  Tan Wee Kiat



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Jul 21, 2017

Violet Oon's Spice of Life



Photo courtesy of Violet Oon.

When Violet Oon was skinny as a child, her mother fed her with "Scotts Cod Liver Oil" to make her fat. She told John Lui in an interview over a decade ago in The Straits Times of 14 December, 2009.

Our pioneer generation friends and I missed this candid interview with Violet Oon and many interesting articles written by her for many years as a journalist in The Straits Times, Singapore Monitor, New Nation and other publications which are now defunct.   Some may have read it but have forgotten the full detail of the interview ... unless one of Violet's food fan to keep the newspaper clippings.

The old newspapers are not just rubbish or garbage for the "karung guni man" to sell at a few cents a kati.  The printed words in all languages of the newspapers and other publications are the gems valuable for knowledge and resources which everyone could learn and share for education.  Lessons on spice of life which are worthwhile to share.

Once thrown away, general knowledge which are precious and hard to find.  Thanks to media technology as archived articles which are scanned and stored in the public libraries available all over the world on the Internet.

It is my pleasure to reproduce this "aged" newspaper article as "memory-aids" (with courtesy of NewspaperSG, National Library Board of Singapore) which we learn lots of meaningful stuff to share her memories and experiences on Violet's spice of life.  

Despite being Peranakan, the food guru did not pay much attention to food when growing up.

One would expect that Violet Oon, 60, who made her reputation as a food writer, cookbook author, gourmand and expert on Peranakan cuisine, would have learnt to cook the way all privileged Peranakan girls do; at her mother's knee.


But in fact, she did not learn to cook till she was in her teens.  Her mother, Mrs Nancy Oon, belonged to the first generation of liberated, progressive Peranakan women who did not believe that women had to learn homemaking skills.

Mrs Oon worked for a while as secretary to Singapore's first chief minister David Marshall but later spent much of her time doing voluntary community work.  She was the voluntary chairman of a family planning association in Malacca.

"She went out to educate villagers about contraception," Violet says.  Even before she was born, her parents had decided to have only one child, regardless of the child's sex.

Her father was an executive with the Shell oil company, and as the daughter of a well-placed couple, she enjoyed the life-style of British colonial expatriates just before the era faded away.

The family had a nanny who cooked and the young Violet did not have to step into the kitchen.

She was born in 1949 a "totally skinny baby", weighing 2.3 kg, delivered at Kandang Kerbau Hospital by Dr Benjamin Sheares, who would later become the second president of the Republic.

President Benjamin Sheares

Her father named her after Violet Caldwell, an English woman whom he had befriended while working for the British Army as a radio monitor in Kashmir, India, during World War II.

"My first food memories were of being fed cod liver oil to make me fat.  I think my mother regretted it forever because I later remained fat," Violet says laughing.

She insists that the beguiling byline photograph for her restaurant revies in the now-defunct New Nation newspaper that many remember from the 1970s was deceptive.  She had a thin face, she says.

The small semi-detached in Kuo Chuan Avenue, near Still Road, where she spent her first years still exists.  Her mother fed her simple, nutritious Chinese food cooked by their Cantonese amah.

The young Violet did not enjoy the meals much.  But when she was at her neighbour's, a Hokkien family, she would enjoy forbidden pleasures such as coffee and a particular type of "smelly fried fish", she recalls.

While life in Singapore was, by the middle-class standards of the day, fairly ordinary, it was during her father's regular postings to Malacca that her family would go "Somerset Maugham", she says.

There were tea parties on the lawn of their black-and-white bungalow, retreats to hill stations in the Cameron Highlands, a driver and servants, and, of course, a Hainanese cook.


It was about as colonial an experience as one could get in post-war Malaya without actually being a white expatriate.

"We lived the life of pukka sahib people," she says with a laugh, using the phrase popular during colonial times to describe the privileged lifestyle of the British posted to an exotic outpost of the empire.

Her father, Mr Oon Beng Soon, was one of the few Asians in Shell's management in the 1940s.  He had been educated at Raffles College and had told her that her great-grandfather had been a professional gambler and a man skilled enough in his profession to afford sending several of his children to medical school.

At three, she left Singapore and Malacca for the first time.  The family would spend two years there.


"We lived in a humongous black-and-white bungalow in Klebang Besar.  There were three houses - the middle one was for the manager of Shell flanked by two houses that were for the assistant managers."  Her family took one of the side bungalows.

In Malacca, she remembers watching how the locals ate.  She was fascinated by how rice farmers made salted duck's eggs, in front of the bungalows was a citrus farm where they grew pomelos and local oranges, she says.

She reckons she attended six schools from Primary One to Secondary Four during the years when her family lived in Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and London.  Most were convents, though the family is not Catholic.

"One Reverend Mother would write to another and you could get into some of the best schools in the world" is how she describes being able to jump from one convent to another.

Her tertiary education was at the then University of Singapore, where she studied political science and sociology.

In Secondary One, though, she boarded at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Victoria Street and remembers she "went to sleep with the blinking lights of Capitol cinema every night".


Her father had put her there because, as an only child, he felt she lacked contact with other children.

Mr Oon, with the memory of World War II still fresh in his mind, also believed that things were just a bit too cushy for his only child.  "He said that anyone could get used to luxury, but youd had to be trained to get used to war."

He got his wish.  "The food was dreadful," she says.  Rice with one meat and one vegetable "boild to death" was served.  Meal times also came with its own rules.  She remembers one girl who tossed her food, uneaten, into the bin.  The nuns made her take it back and eat it.

"I'm not precious about food," she says of her own daily meal-time routine now, thanks to those formative years.  She will happily eat at any coffee shop or hawker centre.

She has other more pleasant food memories, such as going with her father to eat nasi melayu, or Malay rice, every Sunday morning.  Her mother finally learnt to cook out of necessity, taking classes in Chinese cooking so she could serve home-cooked meals in London.

When Violet was 16, her eyes were opened to the intensity and sophistication of Nonya food through Mrs Khoo Heng Loon, whom she called Auntie Nanny.  Mrs Khoo's husband was her mother's uncle.


Auntie Nanny, an Indonesian Chinese, was a "spectacular cook" and her first inspiration to learn kitchen technique, say Violet.  From her mother, she learnt that everyone can cook, at any age.

She studied Mrs Khoo's methods and asked to be taken under her wing to learn her specialities such as nasi udang (prawn fried rice), nasi kuning (Indonesian tumeric rice) and kueh lapis.  So traditional was Auntie Nanny that she made her own vinegar and yeast, skills that Violet says she has since forgotten.

She also credits her mother and her father's sister, Mrs Nona Bong, with teaching and inspiring her in the kitchen.

She learnt by watching and asking, she says.  Like many great cooks, her relatives worked by estimation and instinct, and the student had to work out the exact amounts on her own.  Once she had it written down, she would test out the recipes immediately.

During that period, she was interested in only Indonesian and Nonya cuisine.  The interest in the food of other cultures would come later, as would formal culinary training.  But she never thought about pursuing the culinary arts as a career.

"As a teenager, my first love was music and I sang a lot and performed a lot," she says.  The keen opera and classical enthusiast once won first prize at the Singapore Musical Society Open Competition for Singing.

She used to sing duets with her father, who was untrained but had a natural tenor voice.  "People said he sounded like Mario Lanza," she says.

Over the decades, she has seen food culture explode in Singapore.  Today, people travel the world sampling food and whip up complex dishes at home.

Compared with classical music, which requires determination and effort, she says that learning about fine food and wine is relatively painless.

"For many young executives, food is the fastest and cheapest way to buy into culture and a sophisticated lifestyle," she says.

You cannot bluff your way in Beethoven, the same way people can about food and wine, says Violet, who was trained up to Grade 8 in piano and voice in London and Singapore.

In 1971, she joined the New Nation, an afternoon daily, as a features writer.  Thanks to her background in music, she was also given the job of music critic.

"Wah! Paradise! Free tickets to every concert.  In those days, I would pay $50 to watch the London Symphony Orchestra, I was lucky to have my hobby turn into a career," she says.

Mr David Kraal, 72, the former New Nation editor who hired her as a music critic, remembers her as someone who came from a "privileged background but she was tough.  She had no airs".

She was later given the job of food writer, thanks in part to her culinary skills.  In the newsroom, many knew of her culinary talent because of the home parties she threw.

As a food critic, she had to talk to hawkers, a job she had no problems with, Mr Kraal recalls.  He believes she was the first in the English-language press to write regularly about street and coffeeshop food.  Her column quickly became popular.

"She would go out to some nasi padang stall and she would come back with a half-page story.  If she said it was good, the crowds would flock there," he says.

Violet left New Nation in the late 1970s to write for Her World magazine.  She left in 1981 to do freelance writing and conduct cooking classes.

This grew into a consultancy and she now advises event organisers on how to promote Singapore through food.  She is also a Singapore food ambassador for the Singapore Tourism Board promoting local cuisine overseas.

Perhaps more than any other writer in English here, she turned street food into topics that people talk and get excited about.  Her recipes demystified Peranakan food, long considered a black art with a reputation for jealously guarded secrets, tedious preparation and complex ingredient lists.

The voluble writer's memories emerge in an untamed torrent during the interview.  But the one-time journalist also has a trained ear for the anecdote, especially ones where she pokes fun at herself.

"People heard my singing voice when I was younger and fell in love on the spot, then they heard me speak and they fell out of love at once!  Why do I sound so mak nenek?  Dreadful."

The interview with Violet is a very entertaining three hours spent at her flat in Braddell Hill.

Her home is filled with photographs of her and her two children, a son and daughter, as well as her current pride and joy, her 2½ -year-old grandson, her daughter's child.

The plant filled flat is furnished with a mix of modern and Peranakan pieces.

Now, she has a new venture.  She has launched a business that she calls a "deli makan shop" in a nondescript industrial spot in Toa Payoh North.  It is part-laboratory and part-kitchen for her food consultancy business.

It also serves Nonya food such as ayam buah keluak, garam assam fish, sambal sotong and ngo hiang to drop-in customers from 11.30 am to 7 pm, Mondays to Fridays.  Dinner is by reservation only.  Set meal prices start at $7.90.

Her hesitancy in going full bore into a pure restaurant business is understandable as not all her past business endeavours have paid off.  Her publication, The Food Paper, and her own chain of eateries folded in the 1990s.

Why is she launching another eatery at this stage of her career?  Violet is fond of a phrase of Mr Steve Jobs', the chief executive of Apple.

Quoting a 2005 commencement speech he gave at Stanford University, she says: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."



This favorite photo taken at the National Kitchen with Violet Oon and Sylvia Toh Paik Choo (best known for her "Eh Goodu" books and long-time colleague with The Straits Times) for high tea. 

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Jul 7, 2017

Memories are the 'Soul of the Nation'


Ponggol (Punggol) Seashore in 1890 (Courtesy of NAS)


Teenagers having a picnic at Punggol Beach in 1949

Singapore has many stories to tell.  As a young nation with a culturally diverse population, Singapore has seen incredible growth and change over the past.  With development and progress comes a lot of changes from one generation to another generation.

In a time of ever-accelerating change, memory still provides important threads of identity and connection to the past.  Many people, the rich and famous or just the ordinary people in the street have shared their stories in books or other forms of media.  If their stories are not recorded for us to share, whole areas of social history risk being obliterated from memory altogether.

No two different people have the same life stories to tell; even among the twins, born by the same parents at the same birth place, same date but different time, a few minutes apart.

It is fortunate for those who have "memory-aids" of old photographs preserved in "treasure chests" (in boxes, photo albums or envelopes). However, these precious old photos were thrown away during the annual spring-cleaning to save storage spaces at home before the Chinese New Year.  They could so easily have been lost or simply decayed beyond recovery in our tropical climate.

Moreover, many people with personal stories may not be willing to share them as a matter of privacy or not feeling like telling them.

When they leave this world, all their memories would leave with them.  They did not realise that these stories could provide lessons to teach their children, grandchildren or great grandchildren for posterity.

On the other hand, these stories may not find a receptive audience at the right moment. The younger grandchildren may not be interested and refuse to listen to the grandfather's stories as history and the 'generation gap' between the young and old widens the bridge of the family relationship.

The stories of the pioneer generations would take an effort of imagination on the part of a listener from a younger generation, whose on life is already so much changed that they find it hard to relate to such tales from the past.  For example, the grandchildren could not visualise the living condition in a kampong when they are born in HDB flats, condominums or private bungalows.

Kampong Punggol in the Past

With the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore to share the archived photos of Kampong Punggol to share on the blog.

Punggol Point with Coney Island in the background.  c 1985

View of Punggol River c 1985

Punggol River c 1986

Malay stilt house at Punggol Point c 1985

House at Punggol Point c 1985

Punggol farmer's house in 1985

Punggol farmer's shed and the back of the house


The farmer's wooden latrine using 'bucket system'.  A closed-up photo of the wooden latrine (below).


Punggol Village c 1985

Roof-top of Masjid Wak Sumang in Punggol  c 1986

Punggol Village Track 13 Chinese Temple c 1986

Punggol Road water ponds and fruit trees c 1988

Punggol Road pigsty c 1987


Punggol Road shed to store husked coconuts c 1987 (above & below)



The village at Punggol Point with heaps of sea mussel in 1985 (above & below)


A seafood restaurant worker steaming sea mussels.  The seafood restaurants in Punggol Point were abundantly supplied from the Punggol River.


A Punggol village man making mould for charcoal stoves (above) and the completed charcoal stoves for sale (below).  This is one of the cottage industry in the Punggol kampong.


A shipyard at Kampong Punggol  c 1986


Punggol village 'Yak Seng Pig Farm' at Punggol Farmway1 c 1986 (above & below)



Punggol Village Track 13 Chicken Farm (above & below)


Children playing in front of house in Kampong Punggol  c 1985

Memories of Punggol in the past

I know very little about Punggol when it was still a kampong, nor stepped into the place before it was developed and changed into a sprawling HDB housing estate.

However, I could vaguely remember that in the 1980s, I invited my former colleagues to a seafood restaurant for a treat of chilli crabs on my birthday (couldn't remember which year but was in my early 20s when I was still single) to celebrate with me.  We went in a colleague's car and arrived at Punggol Point where the few seafood restaurants were located.  There was a pier overlooking the sea and also the bus terminal for buses.

Unfortunately, no photo was taken on that occasion.  We could only recollect from memories, the "cameras in our minds".  Unlike now, when smartphones are taken to capture the moments of every event, occasion at the drop of a hat.  Even alone, 'selfie' photos are taken to post to Facebook on the spot to let everybody to know where the guy or gal go to, what to do or eat ...  we did not even take a photo of the big plate of chilli crabs we eat and slurp the "shiok" gravy with bread.

The only photo I had was taken with my former OPS colleague on an outing to a kelong opposite Punggol Pier in 1978.  That's me on (first right) of the photo. I couldn't recognize me :)



Fond memories of sleepy, rural Punggol



Source: The Straits Times, 28 September 2012 (excerpt with thanks to NewspaperSG of the National Library Board, Singapore).

Sleepy Punggol Point, once known for its rows of seafood eateries, may no longer be a place in the Singapore today, bit it still has a place in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's heart.

The Prime Minister can remember the first time he visited the area in 1967, when he was a 15-year-old boarding the ferry from Punggol Point to the Outward Bound School.

"Punggol was a very rural environment," he said, recalling how he would get "suddenly lost" non orienteering exercises in the kampong and secondary jungle areas.

"Today, you can't get lost in Punggol any more," he said with a tinge of nostalgia.

Mr Lee was responding to a question on whether he loved or missed any part of Singapore which has since been built over.

The importance of memories in defining the "soul of the nation" was a key theme of the Prime Minister's National Rally in August, 2012.

In his speech, he reminisced about vanished places dear to him, and stressed the importance of memories of old places and friends in keeping Singapore the best home.

His memories of Punggol Point, however, were sparked by a visit to the "beautiful new town" of Punggol West in 2012.  The areas has undergone an extensive makeover over the years, from pig farms being resettled from the 1970s and bustling seafood restaurants moving out in 1994 to the building of new housing estates.

And while he has fond memories of old Punggol, the new Punggol is "better" and the town would be almost as big as Ang Mo Kio.

At the same time, Prime Minister took comfort in the fact that a bit of the old Punggol has been retained.

Kelong Bridge, one of five foot-bridges along the waterway, looks like one of the old fishing villages which used to dot Punggol's shoreline.  A stretch of Old Punggol Road, which used to lead to Punggol Point, and an old bus stop have also been conserved.

He quipped, "they've kept the old bus stop".  "I think it's a nice microcosm of how Singapore has changed in one generation".

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during his tour of Punggol constituency on 2 June, 1963




















Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew cutting the ribbon for the official opening of the Kelong Bridge in Punggol on 2 June, 1963.















54 years ago on 2 June, 1963 when the Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew toured the Punggol constituency, the kampong folks warmly welcome him and the opportunity to meet him.

In these archived photos shared on this blog with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore, the babies and young boys and girls would now be over 50 years old. 

How many of those who were present at the memorable event and who are now still living in Punggol?

We hope that anyone who could recognise the photos of the parents, grandparents, the family or neighbors to share your fond nostalgic memories of Punggol when it was once a kampong.

The Punggol Waterway Park 

How different the Kampong Punggol in Singapore have transformed into a park and nature reserve in over 50 years. Please take a look here at the same place in the past, present and future for everyone in Singapore.

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