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In Search Of Our Roots

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James Seah on 30 Jul 2017

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A direct descendant of Chew Joo Chiat, Philip Chew was born in 1935 and is a pioneer of Singapore in his own way.

 

I am pleased and honored to be invited by Philip to attend the launch of his book "A Penniless Boy, Chew Joo Chiat" on 29 July, 2017 at the Marine Parade Public Library.

 

Philip is my blogger friend and introduced to me by his younger cousin Ivan Chew several years ago.  He is also an active member of our heritage group "Friends of Yesterday".  In 2012, I posted a blog "Great Grandfather's Road" which was inspired by The Straits Times article "How Joo Chiat Road got its name ..." published on 12 January, 2012.

 

About 5 years ago when Philip started to blog, he told me that he would like to research on his family tree with various resources for evidence based on records, documents and correspondences about his great grandfather, Mr Chew Joo Chiat.

 

His book, "A Penniless Boy, Chew Joo Chiat" tells the story of a forgotten pioneer of Singapore.  It shows how Philip's fact-finding exercise becomes a search for roots, unearthing lost relations and strengthening the family bonds of the Chew family.  His example will inspire us with the desire to uncover, safeguard and pass on the family stories.

 

I am inspired by Philip's determination, patience and resourcefulness with the help of many people, relatives, family and friends in search of the roots of his family tree.  Philip's personal mission is a labour of love, passion, respect and filial piety for his great grandfather.

 

Not everyone is able to piece the missing links of the jigsaw puzzle of the family tree, especially of the ancestors who have passed away decades or even centuries ago.

 

It doesn't mean that most people are not interested or concerned about the importance of the family tree.

 

As Singapore is a multi-ethnic society and our ancestors have migrated from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and various countries of the world, there were no travelling documents with proper records in the old days.  

 

However, everyone has a surname regardless of Chinese, Indians, Malays or any other nationalities. Those who have the opportunity to trace the family roots, like Philip Chew, is fortunate and blessings to record them for the descendants for posterity.

 

Philip's great grandfather, Mr Chew Joo Chiat, would be happy to know that his diligent great-grandson had earnestly and painstakingly with his splendid efforts to accomplish the mission he set out to complete a section of  his family tree. Some unseen spiritual help from the Chew ancestors in this meaningful project by Philip.

 

There is an idiom in Chinese, "五百年前是一家" - five hundred years ago we were the same family   (of persons with the same surname).  Thus the family tree is traced from the surname of everyone, whatever the ancestors' social status, rich or poor, famous or just an ordinary person.  The surnames are inherited from our ancestors centuries ago.

 

During the "Question & Answer" session at the book launch, I mentioned the analogy of Philip's search for his family roots kinda like the book "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" written by Alex Haley and first published in 1976.

 

Preface by Philip Chew

 

In 1877, my great-grandfather Chew Joo Chiat arrived in Singapore from Amoy, China, at the age of 20, without a penny in his pocket.  He had a dream and worked towards it.  It was a Singapore dream, to which he fulfilled and became wealthy.  His significant contributions to the nation's economic, commercial and financial development made him an early pioneer of Singapore.

 

Chew Joo Chiat passed away in 1926, about 9 years before I was born.  I remember growing up in a house at Joo Chiat Road, where his portrait stood on an ancestor worship altar.  Every morning, I would watch my elders offer prayers to him with lighted joss sticks.

 

I did not feel connected to Chew Joo Chiat in any way except to the fact that he was my great-grandfather and he was responsible for my existence.  He was just like any other stranger to me, a cold portrait on the altar.  For much of my life, my family history did not interest me at all and I considered my relationship with Joo Chiat to be very remote.

 

An article in The Straits Times was published on 2 April 1999 - it jolted me.   In an interview that was reported, the article stated that Chew Joo Chiat only had one child, a daughter.  This stirred an immediate response within me:  "If he had no son at all, where did all his descendants surnamed Chew, me included, come from?"

 

I thought that it would have been of no use if I had written in to correct the misinformation as I needed more information.  As I delved deeper into my research on Joo Chiat, I found more factual errors about him circulating on internet websites.  A few of which stated that Joo Chiat was a wealthy Peranakan land owner.

 

Chew Joo Chiat had left Amoy and landed in Singapore some 50 years or more.  He was a Hokkien, as reported in an article in The Straits Times, dated 11 February 1926.  Therefore, he cannot be a Peranakan.

 

I found other informational gaps about Joo Chiat in newspapers, magazines, books, website and oral records.

 

I decided to put right all these inaccuracies about my great-grandfather.  I consulted my cousin, Ivan Chew, who showed me the way to blogging.  On 1 March, 2008, I started a blog titled mychewjoochiat.  Thus began my arduous journey, retracing my roots and searching for his name in available sources like books, newspapers as well as records kept by clans and associations.

 

Through mychewjoochiat blog, I discovered that my great-grandfather was a jack of all trades and a successful entrepreneur.

 

Through A Penniless Boy, Chew Joo Chiat,  I want to share my great-grandfather's incredible rags-to-riches story.  I want his descendants to know that and learn from their ancestors, who had sailed from China to Singapore at the age of 20, a penniless young man.  He had a keen business sense, made a fortune and died a wealthy man.  He had fulfilled his Singapore dream and became an eminent pioneer in the history of Singapore.  More importantly, despite his wealth, Chew Joo Chiat continued to lead a humble and frugle life.