Botanic Gardens gets pioneer Hoo Ah Kay's artefacts

Madam Hoo Miew Oon, great-granddaughter of Hoo Ah Kay, better known as Whampoa, with some of the pots she has donated to the heritage museum. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Madam Hoo Miew Oon, great-granddaughter of Hoo Ah Kay, better known as Whampoa, with some of the pots she has donated to the heritage museum. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

The new heritage museum at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, slated to open at the end of next month, has received some historic treasures.

The artefacts from Gardens' pioneer Hoo Ah Kay, better known as Whampoa, will take pride of place at the museum.

His great-granddaughter, Madam Hoo Miew Oon, 78, has donated five cactus pots and two large flower pots, all antiques.

Whampoa, who lent his name to a river, street and other spots around Singapore, played a key role in the development of the Gardens in 1859.

Fluent in English and a leading member of the Agri-Horticultural Society, he helped negotiate with the British colonial government for the Gardens' establishment. It is believed he was also involved in appointing its original designer Lawrence Niven.

Madam Hoo said the pioneer envisioned the grounds as a site for immigrants such as Chinese coolies and Indian workers to visit on weekends.

Whampoa was also an avid gardener. Hundreds of his small cactus pots, inherited by Madam Hoo and her cousins, used to be scattered around the expansive Whampoa Gardens and the verandah of his mansion in Bendemeer, built in 1840. This stemmed from the Chinese belief that cacti could protect the home.

Madam Hoo said the porcelain pieces from China featuring peonies on a glazed surface, were ordered by Whampoa as it was difficult to produce such high quality pieces and designs in Singapore at that time.

Gardens director Nigel Taylor, who helped picked the items for display at the museum, said the artefacts help tell the Gardens' complete history.

The museum's development is part of the Gardens' bid to become a Unesco World Heritage Site and raise public awareness about its history.

Located at Holttum Hall, next to the Botany Centre in the Tanglin Core of the Gardens, the museum will feature interactive exhibits. Other display items will include old photographs, plant specimens and rare botanical books. Admission will be free.

Madam Hoo said while she will miss having the pots around - having grown up with them - donating the artefacts was the "right thing to do".

"They are more than old pots but cultural and historical artefacts that speak of our country's unique history. These should be shared beyond our family and belong to the country."

melodyz@sph.com.sg