SINGAPORE – When he was young, Professor Walter Tan would hear throwaway comments while sitting in his parents’ car about how “the whole of Queenstown used to be ours”, but it was not until this year that the full extent of his ancestor’s estate became clear.
The discovery of a granite boundary marker in Dover forest in January sparked months-long research that proved that his philanthropist great-great-great grandfather Tan Kim Seng’s landholdings in the 1860s was far bigger than imagined.
Overlaid on today’s map, it encompasses Singapore Polytechnic, the National University of Singapore’s Kent Ridge Campus, a long stretch of the Ayer Rajah Expressway, One-North, Queensway and the Southern Ridges.
“It stretched from Clementi Avenue 2 in the west to Dawson Road in the east, the School of Science and Technology in the north to Southern Kent Ridge Park in the south,” said National Heritage Board (NHB) senior manager of heritage research and assessment Sharon Lim.
“The whole parcel was handed over to the state in 1947, apparently due to a squatter problem.”
The realisation of the sheer scale of Tan Kim Seng’s erstwhile estate began with the spotting of an inconspicuous – and moss-covered – granite boundary marker weighing 62kg and measuring 90cm, two-thirds of which was buried.
National Development Minister Desmond Lee had come across it on one of his walkabouts in Ulu Pandan Forest at the start of the year, and posted about it on Facebook as a curio, quickly attracting the attention of the Tan family, who made a formal request to the authorities to preserve it.
On Oct 27, it was wrapped and transported to the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC) in Jurong Port Road, where it is undergoing cleaning, and will be added to the National Collection under the purview of the Asian Civilisations Museum.
“It is the only known boundary marker associated with Tan Kim Seng,” Mr Alvin Tan, NHB’s deputy chief executive of policy and community, said. “It is also unique because it is one of the few bilingual markers that are engraved with English and Chinese characters.
“It will receive the necessary care and be used as a resource to educate current and future generations of Singaporeans about the life and contributions of one of the early pioneers of Singapore.”
Tan Kim Seng, who lived from 1806 to 1864, was a prominent Peranakan businessman and was known in particular for his philanthropic works, including a donation of more than $13,000 to improve the community’s freshwater supply in 1857, including for the construction of MacRitchie Reservoir, Singapore’s oldest.
Kim Seng Road and Kim Seng Bridge were named after him, and the blue-and-white Victorian Tan Kim Seng Fountain, erected in 1882 by the colonial government for his contributions to the colony’s water works, still stands in Esplanade Park.
In 1854, he was one of the chief mediators in the Chinese community who quelled the Great Riot between the Hokkiens and the Teochews. He made his wealth from the spice trade, and was one of only a handful of businessmen who refused to dabble in peddling opium, a drug that was abused widely at the time.
Prof Tan’s wife, Mrs Vivienne Tan, wrote a biography of Tan Kim Seng, published in 2019. She said the Chinese inscription on the granite marker, pronounced “Hong Hin” in Hokkien, was a well-known moniker for Tan Kim Seng among the 19th century Chinese community.
Tan Kim Seng’s initials, T.K.S, were also carved on the marker, which delineated the estate’s northernmost frontier. Landowners at the time were legally responsible for putting these markers up, she said, as “the government simply didn’t have the resources”.
“He already owned all this land in 1862, two years before he died. Opium was the easiest way to make money then, but the family said no. He was a very nice man whom everyone wanted to do business with,” she said.
Since its discovery, the marker has been wiped down with alcohol, swabbed with cotton buds and washed with de-ionised water, HCC senior conservator of objects Berta Manas Alcaide said.
It was important that the stone be extracted, as the carvings were already worn from exposure to the elements. Fine cracks in its structure would have led to its later disintegration.
For now, there is the slight problem of the marker having traces of either “98” or “9B” painted in black over the originally red inscription. It is unknown when or why this was added, and whether it should be removed from the marker is still being debated by the conservator and museum curators.
Mrs Tan said of this later addition: “I want to know, was it for an administrative survey? Was it done by the Japanese when they took over? Was it done for the other boundary markers? There must have been a reason.”
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