Keeping slices of history

Go through Mr Dan Teo's collection of Singapore artefacts and you will get an eclectic view of the nation's history.

He has a contract from the 1920s showing the building of Singapore Naval Base, which failed to protect Singapore against Japanese troops during World War II; a Raffles Hotel menu from 1953 which had a dish called "Fresh Oysters Henry IV"; and a cast-iron plate likely to be from the Straits Settlements period from 1826 to 1942.

The 47-year-old founder of advertising agency Nest Communications has been collecting these objects since the 1990s and has amassed more than 100 pieces in his Telok Blangah home. He is married to a lecturer in Ngee Ann Polytechnic and has two daughters aged eight and 12.

His collecting hobby started with antiques and Chinese paintings in the early 1990s, but he moved on to Singapore artefacts after buying a 5cm-long bottle opener in the shape of a can of Tiger Beer from a local vintage shop.

Later, he realised it was one of the rare Tiger Beer memorabilia the Asia Pacific Breweries Singapore was crowdsourcing for as part of the beer label's 65th anniversary in 1996.

His interest in historical Singapore objects started to grow. Now, he often scours vintage shops in Singapore, auctions overseas and the Internet for items from Singapore's past, spending up to thousands of dollars on each artefact.

He says: "Some artefacts have great historical significance, but cost me less than others. To me, the stories behind them carry more weight than their prices."

The creme de la creme of his collection goes into a wooden cabinet in his living room. He rotates the items placed on top of the cupboard - the prime location - every three to four weeks. One of his most prized items is a document from 1900, which has Queen Victoria's signature when she approved Cavaliere Francesco Bruni-Grimaldi as the Consul-General of Italy in Singapore. It is kept in a special transparent acid-free sleeve and placed on a wooden stand.

Another treasured item is a thick red tome which reads "Singapore - Naval Base - Main Contract" on its spine. Dating back to the 1920s, the book has many plans and handwritten annotations. Mr Teo says: "This book is very rare. It belonged to Sir Leopold Savile, who was in charge of building the Singapore Naval Base."

Opened in 1938, the base cost the British government about £60 million to build. But it did little to protect Singapore against Japanese troops, who advanced on land instead of by sea. Also known as Sembawang Naval Base, it was converted to government-linked commercial shipyard Sembawang Shipyard in 1968.

Although he often finds interesting objects abroad or in shops, unexpected gems can come from places closer to home.

A friend once found a rusted cast-iron plate hanging at the back of his bungalow in the 1980s and removed it for his family's safety. Mr Teo bought it and found that it was a plaque likely dating back to the Straits Settlements period. On it were the words "Singapore Municipality Danger Electric Power Line" engraved in English, Tamil, Chinese and Jawi - the Arabic alphabet which Malay was written in before it was romanised.

Given that he has such a wide-ranging collection, it is no surprise he has been approached to feature his artefacts in exhibitions.

The Singapore School & Private Hire Bus Owners' Association has photographed his old tram and bus tickets for an exhibition on the history of Singapore's public transport, to be held next month.

Mr Teo prefers photos of the tickets be exhibited so that the original pieces can be kept in good condition.

He plans to donate some items to the National Museum of Singapore. "I'm also thinking of writing a book about my collection, so the younger generation can know of its history."

This article was first published on April 25, 2015.
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