Jennifer Lim

My search for my Singaporean heritage brought me from cemeteries to shophouses.

Growing up in Australia with a Chinese father who did most of the cooking produced many interesting moments, such as me not knowing how to make Lamingtons or Pavlova when I visited my friends. My father used to bring me to visit my grandparents in Singapore every three years or so but unfortunately, I couldn’t really communicate with them due to the language barrier. In university, people used to tell me I didn’t “look” Chinese, and Chinese people also expected me to speak Mandarin.
Although I’ve always been in search of my own identity, my deep dive into my Singaporean roots truly started after I “returned” to Singapore with my husband in 2012. As he also has Chinese ancestry, we were both determined to explore our heritage.
Shortly after that, my father visited us and brought us to his old home, a shophouse once owned by my great-grandfather. The shophouse is situated on Club Street and now houses a bar/restaurant.
It was also around that same time that I witnessed the exhumation of my great-grandfather’s grave at Bukit Brown Cemetery. I remember the dark clouds and the feeling of sombreness while we stood quietly and watched a Daoist priest recite prayers in the downpour.
When my father fell ill several years ago, I felt an even stronger desire to learn more about my Singaporean family’s history. It felt like I was handed the responsibility of putting together the family tree, and it’s a responsibility that’s led me down surprising paths. Even with my background in visual arts, it’s still extraordinary that the search for my Singaporean heritage was spearheaded by the worn and weathered tiles that often adorn the tombs at Bukit Brown Cemetery.
I founded Singapore Heritage Tile Project to record all the exquisite and rare tiles that I’ve come across, not just at Bukit Brown Cemetery, but also at shophouses and temples around Singapore. Even after years of studying these tiles, I’m still amazed by the tales that they can tell.
Some of these tiles’ origins can be traced back to the already-bustling international trade routes that existed between Europe and Singapore in the early 20th century. That explains why I’ve managed to find tiles depicting “exotic” scenes, such as that of the Dutch countryside (complete with windmill!) on a tomb in Bukit Brown Cemetery.
In the same way as when I was working as a translator in Japan, I now find myself interpreting the hidden stories behind these tiles for my audience on my website and Instagram account. My interest in these tiles is no longer just an appreciation on an aesthetic level, but a much deeper one that is directly connected to my personal heritage.
After seven years of living in Singapore, I can safely say that my search for my heritage has been very fulfilling. My family and I live in a flat in Toa Payoh, my children attend a local pre-school, and I’m currently learning Mandarin and Malay. One of the best ways to embed yourself in a culture is through its food, and it’s no different for me. Ikan bilis goreng dengan kacang (anchovies fried with peanuts) is now a staple part of my meals!
As I grow increasingly comfortable in my life here, I’m starting to realise how important it is for Singapore to preserve and honour its local art and design history, especially in a rapidly changing world. I hope that my research into the heritage tiles of Singapore will inspire more people to do so, and they in turn can encourage future generations to continue an appreciation of this beautifully insightful piece of local history.
Jennifer Lim