A 90cm buried rock reveals an 1860s estate stretching from Clementi to Queensway

National Development Minister Desmond Lee had come across the stone on one of his walks in Dover Forest at the start of the year. PHOTOS: NHB

SINGAPORE - When he was young, Professor Walter Tan would hear comments from his parents about how "the whole of Queenstown used to be ours", but it was not until this year that the full extent of his ancestor's estate became clear.

The discovery of a granite boundary marker in Dover Forest in January sparked months-long research that proved that his philanthropist great-great-great-grandfather Tan Kim Seng's landholding in the 1860s was far larger than imagined.

Overlaid on today's map, it encompasses Singapore Polytechnic, the National University of Singapore's Kent Ridge Campus, a long stretch of the Ayer Rajah Expressway, one-north, Queensway and the Southern Ridges.

"It stretched from Clementi Avenue 2 in the west to Dawson Road in the east, the School of Science and Technology in the north to southern Kent Ridge Park in the south," said Ms Sharon Lim, senior manager of heritage research and assessment at the National Heritage Board (NHB).

"The whole parcel was handed over to the state in 1947, apparently due to a squatter problem."

Realisation of the sheer scale of Tan Kim Seng's erstwhile estate came about after the spotting of the inconspicuous - and moss-covered - granite boundary marker in the forest. Two-thirds of it were buried. It was later found to weigh 62kg and measure 90cm in length.

The granite boundary marker weighs 62kg and measures 90cm. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

National Development Minister Desmond Lee had come across it on one of his walks in Dover Forest at the start of the year. He posted about it on Facebook, and this quickly attracted the attention of the Tan family, who made a formal request to the authorities to preserve the marker.

On Oct 27, it was extracted from the ground, wrapped and transported to the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC), where it is undergoing cleaning. It will be added to the National Collection under the purview of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

"It is the only known boundary marker associated with Tan Kim Seng," said Mr Alvin Tan, deputy chief executive of policy and community at NHB. "It is also unique because it is one of the few bilingual markers engraved with English and Chinese characters.

"It will receive the necessary care and be used as a resource to educate current and future generations of Singaporeans about the life and contributions of one of the early pioneers of Singapore."

Tan Kim Seng, who lived from 1806 to 1864, was a prominent Peranakan businessman known in particular for his philanthropic work, including a donation of more than $13,000 in 1857 to improve the community's freshwater supply through the construction of MacRitchie Reservoir.

Kim Seng Road and Kim Seng Bridge were named after him, and the Victorian-style Tan Kim Seng Fountain, erected in Fullerton Square in 1882 by the colonial government for his contributions to waterworks, still stands after being moved to Esplanade Park in 1925.

In 1854, he was one of the chief mediators in the Chinese community who quelled the Great Riot between the Hokkiens and the Teochews.

He made his wealth from the spice trade, and was one of only a handful of businessmen who refused to peddle opium.

Mrs Vivienne Tan, Professor Walter Tan and Heritage Conservation Centre's Berta Manas Alcaide with the granite boundary marker. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Prof Tan's wife, Mrs Vivienne Tan, who wrote a biography of Tan Kim Seng published in 2019, said the Chinese inscription on the granite marker, pronounced "Hong Hin" in Hokkien, was a well-known moniker for Tan Kim Seng in the 19th-century Chinese community.

Tan Kim Seng's initials, T.K.S, were also carved on the marker, which delineated the estate's northernmost frontier. Landowners at the time were legally responsible for putting these markers up as "the government simply didn't have the resources", Mrs Tan said.

"He already owned all this land in 1862, two years before he died. Opium was the easiest way to make money then, but the family said no. He was a very nice man whom everyone wanted to do business with," she said.

The Tan family made a formal request to the authorities to preserve the granite boundary marker. PHOTO: NHB

Since its discovery, the marker has been wiped down with alcohol, swabbed with cotton buds and washed with de-ionised water, said Ms Berta Manas Alcaide, senior conservator of objects at HCC.

It was important to extract the stone, as the carvings were worn from exposure to the elements. Fine cracks in its structure would have led to its disintegration.

For now, there is the small issue of the marker having traces of either "98" or "9B" painted in black over the originally red inscription. It is unknown when or why this was added, and whether it should be removed from the marker is still being debated by the conservator and museum curators.

Mrs Tan said of this later addition: "Was it for an administrative survey? Was it done by the Japanese? Was it done for the other boundary markers? There must have been a reason."

Tan Kim Seng landmarks

Peranakan businessman and philanthropist Tan Kim Seng is considered one of Singapore's most prolific early pioneers, and many sites are associated with him or named after him for his contributions to the community.

He is best known for his $13,000 donation in 1857 for the construction of MacRitchie Reservoir.

He also supported the building of Tan Tock Seng Hospital in 1844 and built a school for boys in 1854. Chui Eng Free School taught Hokkien and was known as the top school in Singapore at the time.

Kim Seng Road and Bridge

Tan contributed financially to the building of the road and the bridge, which crosses the Singapore River. The bridge, with four car lanes, allowed many vehicles to enter and exit the city. It was built by Ewart and Company in 1951 with steel imported from Britain.

Tan Kim Seng Fountain

The fountain was unveiled in 1882 to commemorate Tan's donation to improve the city's waterworks. It was erected in Fullerton Square but was moved to Esplanade Park in 1925. It was gazetted as a national monument in 2010.

Panglima Prang

Tan Kim Seng built Panglima Prang, likely between 1851 and 1855. At least six generations of the Tan family resided in the house until 1982 when the land was sold to a private developer. It was situated in Jalan Kuala, off River Valley Road. Its name means "war admiral" in Malay - a tribute to the site's history of supposedly having once been the burial ground of an officer of the Sultan of Singapore. The bungalow was demolished in 1982.

This article has been updated for accuracy.

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