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My grandfather's road...really

Only a few can claim that their family names adorn road signs on our island. Here are their stories. -TNP
Nur Asyiin Mohamad Salleh

Wed, Jun 13, 2012
The New Paper

Above: Mr Chew Joo Chiat's great-grandson, Mr Philip Chew Peng Kia.

Your grandfather’s road, is it? Only a few can claim that their family names adorn road signs on our island. Here are their stories.

Chew Joo Chiat

THE great-grandfather of Mr Philip Chew Peng Kia (above) died in 1926, long before he was born, but his legacy lives on.

You may have heard of him yourself: plantation owner and philanthropist Chew Joo Chiat, who lent his name to Joo Chiat Road, Joo Chiat Avenue, Joo Chiat Terrace, Joo Chiat Lane and Joo Chiat Place.

Mr Philip Chew grew up on the streets of Joo Chiat when he was younger before moving to Eunos in 1958.

"His living legacy is everywhere in the Joo Chiat area, where so many roads are named after him," said the 77-year-old.

He added: "I never knew him, but he's all around me. I'm very proud that several roads have his name. It tells me that he really left his mark on Singapore.

"When I was living at Joo Chiat Road, most of the people there knew I was related to Chew Joo Chiat. But they didn't make a big deal, so I didn't either.

"Still, occasionally, I'd joke with friends, saying, 'This is my grandfather's road, you know?', and they'd burst out laughing."

Mr Philip Chew's grandmother raised him in a two-storey house, which used to stand on the now-vacant plot of land between Joo Chiat Complex and Joo Chiat Terrace.

His grandmother used to tell him about his famous ancestor.

Chew Joo Chiat came to Singapore from China in 1877, a 20-year-old without a penny to his name. He later rose to wealth, owning coconut and rubber plantations, as well as properties in various parts of Singapore.


"He's one of my biggest inspirations," said the younger Chew fondly.

"He was a pauper when he first came to Singapore, but he died a millionaire. So I grew up depending on myself to give my family a good life. I don't depend on the family wealth," he maintained.

Joo Chiat Road was once a simple dirt track, plied by bullock carts. Back then, it was known as the Confederate Estate Road, and was owned and maintained by Mr Chew Joo Chiat.

It was later upgraded to a proper road by the municipality, which acquired the land from Mr Chew's ancestor.

In 1917, the road was renamed Joo Chiat Road to honour him for his generosity.

Speaking about the Joo Chiat area during his childhood, Mr Philip Chew warmly recalled the grand Peranakan mansions, "which had fancy names like Noel Villa and Sandy Point Villa", and the bustling makeshift market that would appear every morning at the junction of Joo Chiat Road and Joo Chiat Lane and disappear by mid-day.

Now, Mr Philip Chew, who was a public health officer before he retired 19 years ago, is a self-made family historian. He is actively tracing the Joo Chiat clan, which has about 400 members, and he is still trying to find more.

He has also dedicated time to building Chew Joo Chiat's family tree, as well as that of Joo Chiat's brother, Chew Koh Beng.

Although he now lives in Marine Parade, Mr Philip Chew pops by the neighbouring Joo Chiat area almost every week. Mr Chew also tells his four children and five grandchildren about their ancestors so that they can stay in touch with their roots.

"One of my grandsons told his teacher, 'Joo Chiat Road is my great-great-great grandfather's road'. He was so proud of it," Mr Chew recalled.

Francis Thomas

HE SPENT years at St Andrew's School - first as a teacher, then, from 1963 to 1974, as its principal.

There, Mr Francis Thomas met his wife, who wasmatron at the school. He even proposed to herthere. So it was fitting, said his daughter, Ms Margaret Thomas, that the small road leading up to St Andrew's was named after him.

Francis Thomas Drive was opened by Mr Thomas's wife, Madam Catherine Lee Eng Neo, in 1980. This was a posthumous honour for MrThomas, who died in 1977.

"My father spent some years in politics, but teaching was his first love and his entire career as an educationist was spent at St Andrew's," said Ms Thomas, a 60-year-old media consultant.

"He was highly regarded by many of the students and staff and I'm glad the school authorities decided to honour his memory by naming the road after him."

Indeed, he served as a minister in the Labour Front government and was the Minister for Communication and Works from 1955 to 1959.

He served with both David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock before resigning his position as minister just months before the 1959 general election.

Ms Thomas grew up on the school grounds (she lived there from 1951 to 1974) until the family moved out in 1974 following her father's retirement.

She said the issue of there being a road named after her father has come up only a few times, but people were "suitably impressed" to learn about it.

She still drops by the area around StAndrew's, sometimes for lunch at the Joan Bowen cafe there, or to attend an event.

"When I do, I will of course drive along Francis Thomas Drive as this is the road that leads into the complex," she explained.

"But the memories or emotional connection is with the whole St Andrew's compound rather than with that stretch of road."

Chew Boon Lay

HE WAS a man who valued his privacy, said Ms Evelyn Chew of her grandfather, Chew Boon Lay, but his name is now on various roads, schools and other buildings in western Singapore.

Chew Boon Lay died 10 years before she was born, but she had heard stories of him from her family. "I understand that he was a very private man who kept a low profile. He did business to make money and kept to the company of his large family only," she said.

Roads and institutions now bear his name not because he was a high-profile figure like Tan Kah Kee or Tan Lark Sye - but purely by accident.

Chew Boon Lay named the roads in his rubber estate after himself and his grandsons, Chin Bee and Chin Chong, explained Ms Chew, 68.

When his estate in Jurong was acquired by the government, they did not rename the roads. And as Jurong developed, various edifices there too adopted Chew Boon Lay's name.

Ms Chew's brother, Victor, was five years old when their grandfather died.

'Vague memories'

He said: "My personal memories of him are vague as I was very young then. But there's a picture of me leading him around the garden when I was young. He was afflicted, as I am now, with macular degeneration, which rendered him blind.

Added the 84-year-old: "My father said Chew Boon Lay was a man of strong moral fibre, who wasn't willing to be involved in businesses that made money at the expense of others."

Mr Chew recalled that Chew Boon Lay once set up a brick factory in Tekong. When some people died there from reasons unknown, he decided to shut the factory down altogether, not wanting his workers to be at risk.

"I'm proud he's remembered well by the streets, institutions and the MRT station that bear his name, and that he is remembered positively," MrChew said.

But he admits that not many people know that he is related to Chew Boon Lay.

"People didn't know. Not until the recent interest in our heritage, roads and the Bukit Brown cemetery where he is buried," he said.

The Chew family is holding on tight to family history, and that includes the new generation of Chews who are just in their teens.

On his 14th birthday last October, Chew Jun-E, a great-great-grandson of Chew Boon Lay, visited Bukit Brown with his family to pay his respects to their ancestors buried there.

"When I learnt about Chew Boon Lay and his connection with the early days of Singapore, I feel very rooted to Singapore. It's my home," he said.

His sister, 17-year-old Hui Yan, agreed.

She said: "Singapore means many things to many people. To me, having places in Singapore named after my great-great grandfather gives me a strong sense of belonging to this land."

Lim Boon Keng

DR LIM Su Min (above) rarely passes the estate his great-grandfather gave his name to, but when he does, he feels a sense of pride.

"I can say Boon Keng Road is my great-grandfather's road. Boon Keng MRT station is my great grandfather's station. Boon Keng estate is my great grandfather's estate," Dr Lim said with a laugh.

The 66-year-old, a retired doctor who now dabbles in community service, said not many people know he is related to Dr Lim Boon Keng, a prominent figure in Singapore's history.

"These places hold special meaning to me personally. They're memory markers for my ancestors," said Mr Lim, who lives at Cavenagh Road.

"I don't need anyone else to be in awe. Our family philosophy is not to look for fame. We don't want to be in the public limelight. We don't look for glory," he added.

Dr Lim's great-grandfather, Dr Lim Boon Keng, was the first Chinese to clinch the Queen's Scholarship and went on to study medicine at Edinburgh University.

Dr Lim Boon Keng, said his great-grandson, was orphaned when he was just a teenager.

His mother died when he was still a child. Years later, his father died of blood poisoning from a razor cut.

"Experiencing such tragedies when he was young made him want to become a doctor," explained Dr Lim.

Dr Lim Boon Keng was not just a doctor - he was also a shrewd businessman who started the first Chinese rubber enterprise in his estate off Yio Chu Kang Road.

Eventually, he would become the director of Ho Hong Bank and the Chinese Commercial Bank.

Later, he became the first president of Amoy University (now Xiamen University) in China, in his bid to empower people through education.

Dr Lim, who has four siblings, recalled that when he was still a child, his family used to visit Dr Lim Boon Keng every Chinese New Year at his old house at Paterson Road.

Dr Lim Boon Keng died in 1957. His old house, said Dr Lim, has since been demolished and replaced by a condominium.

Inspired by his family's legacy, Dr Lim is now a spirited conservationist hoping to preserve Singapore's heritage.

He is now focusing his efforts on Bukit Brown Cemetery where some of his ancestors are buried.

"But it's not just about big names in our past. I also feel strongly for the no-names, because they also contributed to Singapore's development," he maintained.

"Sure, there might be places in Singapore named after my grandfather and not many people can say that. But it doesn't matter. The best landmarks are in people's hearts, in the lives you've touched, in stories they retell of the impact you've had on their lives. That's another way to remember them."

Eu Tong Sen

MR RICHARD Eu Yee Ming (above) is now at the helm of a 133-year-old business started by his great-grandfather, Eu Kong.

And in southern Singapore, another strand of family history lingers in the form of Eu Tong Sen Street, named after Mr Eu's grandfather, tycoon and philanthropist Eu Tong Sen.

And Mr Eu, 64, is confident that remembering contributions by people can help mould future success. "Certainly, the drive to shape our society and country is worth the later generations knowing and emulating," Mr Eu said.

Traditional Chinese medicine company Eu Yan Sang first started as a small shop in Malaysia set up by Eu Kong to nurse tin miners battered by hard work and poor living conditions back to health.

Eu Tong Sen would later, besides dealing in tin and rubber, expand the family business.

He also donated to the needy and championed the development of education.

Even now, Eu Yan Sang echoes Eu Tong Sen's philosophy of caring for mankind.

"I was born after his passing," said Mr Eu, who admitted that he feels proud to have a street named after his grandfather.

"However, from the stories shared within my family, my grandfather's far-sightedness and determination stood out the most to me."

He said people would sometimes comment about his family name.

"It didn't mean that much to me because I never met my grandfather," Mr Eu maintained.

"But as I got older, I would ask my father more about family history. So you get a sense of family responsibilities. A sense of the family name," he added.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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