Chasing history over a sea snake

Chasing history over a sea snake
Madam Ong Chwee Im and her brother, Chin Leong, with old family documents from the paternal side of the family.

SINGAPORE - A "sea snake incident" involving her maternal great-grandfather, biscuit manufacturer Chew Boon Lay, set Madam Ong Chwee Im on the path to tracing her family tree.

Over dinner one day, her cousin told her this story: In the late 1860s, their ancestor was travelling on a junk from Bangkok to Singapore when water started to gush in through a gap in the vessel. Crew members frantically bailed the boat. Suddenly, the deluge stopped. Later, when the boat berthed in Singapore, someone found a sea snake lodged in the gap - the reptile had sealed it and saved their lives.

While Madam Ong was sceptical over the veracity of the account, she was aghast that she had not heard it before. She recalls: "It struck me that all these family recollections should be captured before our collective memories dim and disappear forever."

That was in early 2000. Not long before that, in December 1999, Madam Ong retired from her job as a librarian at the Ministry of Defence.

Unearthing her family's roots was just the project for her retirement, says the 72-year-old mother of two sons who is married to a retired district judge, aged 73.

She started by calling up five cousins and aunts - she has about 40 living in Singapore and others in Britain, Canada and Australia - and had them spread the word that she was looking for family anecdotes and information for a family album. She also asked them to ransack their cupboards and drawers for old family photos.

Within a year, she had gathered more than 350 old family photographs and a list of the names of about 800 family members spanning six generations. They all descended from Mr Chew, who had eight sons and five daughters, most of whom got married and had children.

It was her aunt, retired civil servant Evelyn Chew, 70, who handed her a gem: the journal of her late father, Mr Chew Hock Leong, who is also Madam Ong's granduncle. Mr Chew, a former banker, had recorded verbatim what his father Chew Boon Lay had told him about his life after he left a village in Changchow for Bangkok to work for an uncle in a provision shop.

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