Thus I have heard. Brief notes from the field.

  • Lynn Wong

The man and the clan furniture he saved from a fire almost half a century ago

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Antique furniture are a common feature in many clan associations, but this set is of great significance particularly for 88-year-old^ Mr Tan Cheng Hiang (陈清贤).

Photo credits: Lynn Wong | Taken at: 潮安第三区同乡会 @ Lorong 38 Geylang

Back then, his dad came to Singapore at the age of around 30-years-old to escape enlistment into the Chinese army. His dad settled down here and eventually started a sundry business (杂货店). Nonetheless, his dad often reminded him and his brother of their ancestral hometown and brought them back a couple of times.

As such, when a fellow Tan clansman introduced him to join the Tio Ann Third District Co-Villages Association (潮安第三区同乡会) in Singapore, he agreed readily.

This is a locality-based clan established by Teochew clansmen from the district of Yixi (湘桥区意溪镇) in 1946. Many of the early clansmen (particularly those from three villages: 东津乡、中津乡、下津乡) were involved in the wooden clogs industry (木屐行)*. The clan originally rented the second floor of a shophouse on Malay Street (Bugis area). The tenant below it was a laundry shop.

On that fateful day in March 1975, Mr Tan was driving a lorry along Malay Street when he saw a huge commotion - the floor below the clan was in flames! When he rushed up, the clan door has already been burnt down and one of the clan’s antique arm chairs has been looted! (Literally as per the Chinese idiom 趁火打劫 “looting a burning house”!)

Without hesitation, he dashed into the burning premise and salvaged the clan’s remaining furniture. All other written clan records were however engulfed in the flames.

The salvaged furniture has since been moved to the clan’s present premise on Lorong 38 Geylang Road.

Mr Tan’s fiery spirit and dedication towards clan remains strong till today. He is currently the clan chairperson - a role he has helmed for over 3 decades! His eyes lit up as he recounted the incident as if it happened yesterday. The energy from this 88-year-old was magical. It really felt whimsical when I asked him to point out which black-and-white portrait on the wall was him - a juxtapose of the same person around 50 years apart, but just as spirited.

I have to admit that I felt very sad when I first read the Chinese newspapers on 27 July 2020 that this clan will close next year. However, after my interactions with the clan stakeholders, understanding that the clan ancestors will be formally invited to “move in” to Teo Ann Huay Kuan (潮安会馆) of which the clan was one of its three founding members, and that their important documents/artifacts (including the salvaged furniture) will be taken care of, I feel somewhat happy for the clan. It feels like a part of its natural evolution. The imagery that comes to my mind is the embracement of a younger and older sibling.

I look forward to following and documenting this clan’s journey of closure, uncovering more of its untold stories, and observing how its spirit will live on.

^Age based on Chinese calculation; Mr Tan was born in 1933

*The wooden clogs industry faded into history with the rise of rubber soles and the clansmen pivoted to other industries.

#dedication #clanculture #inspiration #小人物的故事也重要 #clanclosing #hobby #documentingasmuchaspossible #clanICH