‘Her Gentle Heart’ by Norman Cho

Portrait of the late Mdm. Tan Chwee Neo displayed in Norman's home

Portrait of the late Mdm. Tan Chwee Neo displayed in Norman’s home

A special thanks to Norman Cho for sharing a bittersweet yet heartwarming story about his late great grandmother, the late Mdm Tan Chwee Neo (1875-1957). I met Norman during my fieldwork trip to Singapore in december last year. Norman welcomed me to his beautiful home to view his personal collection of Peranakan antiques and heirlooms. I owe much gratitude to Norman for sharing his wonderful old family photos and allowing me to post snippets of his family’s memoirs here. It is always a great pleasure to meet like-minded people passionate and sensitive not only about conservation and restoration, but also ensuring the propagation of these practices. Thank you Norman.

‘Her Gentle Heart’ by Norman Cho

“Tan Chwee Neo, my paternal great-grandmother from grandma’s side was born in 1875. Not much was known about her early years nor her origins or ancestry. Some said that she was born in Malacca but settled in Singapore while others thought that she was born in Singapore.She was also affectionately known as Mak Tua as she was one of the oldest in the neighbourhood.

A ripe old age: The late Mdm Tan’s 81st birthday celebrations, 16 May 1956

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I vaguely recalled that grandma (Yeo Koon Neo) had told me that Chwee Neo’s mother lived in Telok Blangah. This was my grandma’s grandmother whom she called “Mama Taik Lalat” because of a large mole she had on her face. Koon Neo’s lasting impression of her grandmother was the hibiscus she put on her sanggol nyonya (chignon) beside her chochok sanggol tiga batang. Hibiscus is known as “Bunga Raya” is a pun for “Kaya Raya” which means wealth and prosperity. So there’s no guessing why wore the hibiscus on her hair every day…

While I do not have much information about Chwee Neo’s childhood, we do know that she was married in the 1890s to a second-hand trader, Yeo Lye Heng who hailed from Rio (Riau Islands). They settled in 674 North Bridge Road, Singapore and had 14 children, of whom my grandma Koon Neo was the 13th child amongst the 7 sons and 7 daughters. Lye Heng ran a thriving business dealing mainly in second-hand jewellery. This line of business was known as Keday Pajak Gantong. Pretty much like the Cash Converter chain of stores that we have today. People in those days would sell him things like silverware, hardware and even sarongs! Unfortunately, Lye Heng died young during the early 1920s and his business wound up.

Chwee Neo was a kindly lady who was not known to have any temper but her only vice was gambling. She was addicted to cherki, a peranakan card game. She would gamble from noon till late at night, much to the frustration of her husband. One night, great-grandpa had enough of her gambling and locked her out for the night and warned the servants not to let her in! That night might have been a bad day for her. I suspect that she continued gambling through the night to try to recoup her losses. On her way back, she was chased by someone… She thought that it could be the police or a robber… The streets in the 1920s were quite dimly lit. She hid behind the crates in the back alley until it was safe for her to come out. Upon reaching home, she found that the front doors was locked and made her way to the back door which was also locked. Luckily, she found some crates nearby and stacked them up to climb over the wall in her sarong! It’s anybody’s guess how she managed…

Her gambling habits meant that even her little children’s jewelleries were not spared. Grandma recalled during one Chinese New Year sojar (kneeling down with clasped hands to paying respects) her father had asked her why she was not wearing the jewellery that he had given to her. Later he realised that it was lost to the pawnshop. Subsequent years, she would avoid her father whenever her jewellery was not available.

Chwee Neo’s addiction to cherki was also an indirect cause of her death. She made newspaper headlines on 3 July 1957 when the taxi that she was travelling on dived into a swamp due to bad rainy weather. It killed her. This was what was reported – “DEREK MOLLEY OF THE ROYAL NAVY DIVES INTO SWAMP-WOMAN, 82, DIES AN 82-year-old woman, Tan Chwee Neo, died after this car plunged into a swamp at the 12/2 milestone Sembawang Road Singapore, yesterday. Seven other people were also in the car.”

In memory of the late Mdm. Tan Chwee Neo, the gentle matriarch.  

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On the brighter side, Chwee Neo was known to be a doting grandmother who would buy kuehs for her grandchildren each time she comes home during her winning streaks. My father remembers this clearly as he was always the first to raid whatever bundle of goodies his grandmother carried home. Chwee Neo was also very fond of parties, albeit shy when guests of her grandchildren arrived. This was in the 1950s. She would peer from behind the curtains watching her grandchildren dancing and quietly enjoyed herself… My auntie caught her one day and drew back the curtain and shouted “mama come out and join us!” Everyone laughed. You can imagine how embarrassed Chwee Neo was! She smiled and scurried off to hide.

Her kind heart was etched in my grandmother’s memory as she recalled her mother bringing home a Chinese beggar one day.

This was in their SIT flat in Bendemeer Road in 1950s. She had seen the beggar trembling in hunger squatting beside the staircase downstairs on her way home.

She felt sympathetic and brought him home to cook a meal for him. Her family members were of course against her bringing stranger home. But her actions spoke a whole lot about her character…I may have also inherited her gentle traits… Who knows?

Mdm Tan Chwee Neo (Great grandmother of Norman Cho)

The late Mdm Tan Chwee Neo posing at home in a casual baju panjang

This is Norman’s second contribution to this site, many thanks! Read about how he ‘re-discovered’ a photograph of his paternal ancestors here. Read his articles on the official Bukit Brown cemetery heritage website which provide answers and insights pertaining to  tracing your ancestors, Peranakans in mourningPantuns and Bangsawan in Singapore.

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