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.

After he was wrongly accused of stealing money, the elder Mr Chew ran away to Singapore. He set up a biscuit factory called Ho Ho Biscuits and owned rubber estates in Jurong and Johor. Boon Lay estate was named after him. The account in the journal included the sea snake incident and his life right up to his final days. Mr Chew Boon Lay died in 1933.

Besides relying on family accounts, Madam Ong also did her own research using resources such as the digitised newspaper archives at the National Library Board. She also referred to company reports and oral history audio tapes at the National Archives and old maps in the geogaphy department at the National University of Singapore. Some friends passed her older texts and maps.

Her research revealed that her ancestor's achievements were greater than what she had thought. The 1923 text, Seaports Of The Far East, has an entire section devoted to Ho Ho Biscuits, indicating that they were an important Singapore product. The company eventually folded in 1942, at the start of the Japanese Occupation.

There was even a type of soil named after him. A 1970s map of Singapore showed parts of Toa Payoh and Paya Lebar containing "Chew Boon Lay soil", probably originating from his rubber estate in Jurong and carried by rivers out to Kallang Basin.

Impressed by her enthusiasm, her cousin Chew Kheng Chuan, 56, who used to run a business in corporate communications and publications, helped her to put her findings into a book.

Chew Boon Lay: A Family Traces Its History was published in 2002. The family effort included essays and photographs contributed by Madam Ong and other family members. In all, 13 family members, including Madam Ong's aunts, uncles and cousins dug into their own pockets to pay for the publication of the book. Fired up by the experience, Madam Ong embarked on a similar journey - with the help of her brothers - to trace the history of her paternal family.

A second book, The Journey From White Rock: The Ong Chong Chew Family Tree was published in 2006. It traces the family history back to Madam Ong's great-great-grandfather Ong Chong Chew.

Madam Ong's brother, businessman Ong Chin Leong, 66, went to look for the village of Bai Qiao in Xiamen, China, where their great-great-grandfather hailed from. He not only found the village, but also a wall of inscriptions which showed the Ong ancestry going back all the way to a Wang Shenzhi who lived during the Tang dynasty.

The effort of writing the family albums has brought together some family members who have never met before, says Madam Ong. On the Ong side, she reconnected with a third cousin, Madam Andrea Tan, 57, a former church and social worker, and visited her in Oregon in the United States, where she now lives.

Since then, Madam Ong has received requests from other families to help them with their family research.

She has helped edit a book, Jewel In The House Of Davar, for a Singaporean-Indian family who wanted to record their mother's story and publish it on her 90th birthday in July this year.

Says Madam Ong: "Genealogy, it has been said, is perhaps the only hobby that can tell people what makes them what they are and why."

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