The man who went by four names: NHB pieces together clues to unveil historic boundary marker

A mysterious stone (back) was found completely buried in Dover Forest during excavations for another marker (front) in October last year. PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

SINGAPORE - It was a veritable cat's cradle, comprising a man who went by four names, a membership register containing 250 people and a land deed from the 1910s.

At its heart: A mysterious rock found completely buried in Dover Forest, discovered by chance by the National Heritage Board (NHB) crew in October last year.

On Wednesday (Feb 23), NHB unveiled the historic 26kg granite boundary marker, measuring 82cm by 17cm by 14cm.

Though it was well known that such markers were used in colonial times to delineate territory, it took two months for researchers to establish its origins.

Consulting English and Chinese sources, they traced it back to Teochew businessman and community leader Sim Liang Whang, an early 20th-century Singapore-branch treasurer of the Chinese revolutionary society Tongmenghui, founded in 1905 to replace the Qing monarchy with a Chinese republican government.

Though Sim's name is not as well known as pioneers like Lim Boon Keng and Lim Nee Soon, he was co-founder of such institutions as the Sze Hai Tong Banking and Insurance Company, which was later renamed Four Seas Communications Bank and then merged with OCBC Bank.

The project rejuvenated research around a lesser-known leader in the early Singaporean Chinese community, said Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive of policy and community.

"The find was completely serendipitous. The marker was completely buried and lying horizontally," he said of the chance find. "It is the only artefact associated with the Chinese pioneer that we currently have."

Called the Teck Kee boundary marker after Sim's business, it is the second boundary marker that the NHB has announced in four months.

The previous one, unveiled to the public in November, had belonged to philanthropist Tan Kim Seng.

The NHB team had set out to retrieve it from Dover Forest on Oct 27, but ended up also unearthing the Teck Kee marker during the same dig, although sparse information about it led NHB to delay announcing the find until it was surer of its origins.

"We didn't want to announce it (in October) because we did not want to just tell the public that we found something. We needed time to find out who the marker belonged to," Mr Tan said.

Remote video URL

The quest for information required guesswork and sheer luck. The marker was inscribed with the Chinese characters "de ji", but searches of the name had turned up nothing.

Ms Sharon Lim, NHB's senior manager of heritage research and assessment, then hazarded a guess under the name's pronunciation in dialect, Teck Kee, which suggested a possible connection with Jalan Teck Kee, a small road off Yio Chu Kang Link named after Chop Teck Kee, a company owned by Sim.

But this link was not enough to show that the two were related.

The researchers dug further, encountering different iterations of the man's name in Chinese and English records, including Sim Keok Choon, Sim Choon Kee and Sim Teck Kee.

It was only when they found his obituary in The Straits Times in 1921 listing all four of his names and cross-referenced them with Singapore Land Authority records that the team could establish that a Sim Choon Kee had indeed bought that parcel of land in Dover, owning it from 1910 to 1921.

"We looked at the Chinese sources and English sources, whether it's newspapers or the land records, to prove without a doubt that this boundary marker belonged to Sim Liang Whang," Ms Lim said.

On why Sim had so many names, she said: "My guess is that he probably had a business professional name for the English market. Sim Teck Kee was also a common name formation, where Chinese business owners put together their surname with their business name."

Sim's landholdings in Dover stretched from the southern parts of Leighwoods and The Marbella condominiums in Ulu Pandan today to inside Dover Forest.

The parcel of land was likely used as a rubber plantation, matching Sim's other plots of land in Muar, Johor and Kota Tinggi that were used for a similar purpose.

The marker is now on display in the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, where a membership register of the Tongmenghui in Singapore is held.

Compiled by community leader Lim Nee Soon, the register includes Sim Liang Whang, as well as the name of his son, Sim Boon Kwang, both members of the Nanyang Tongmenghui.

Mr Winston Lim, the general manager of Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, said Sim Liang Whang was instrumental in shaping the Chinese community in Singapore, co-founding the now defunct Tuan Mong School and the revolutionary newspaper Chong Shing Yit Pao.

Called the Teck Kee boundary marker after Sim's dialect name, it is the second boundary marker that the NHB has announced in four months. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

"This marker comes back full circle because Mr Sim would have been in Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall 110 years ago, where the Singapore branch of the Tongmenghui was founded, discussing revolutionary activities," he said.

"It's a very, very pleasant surprise and a very heartwarming story."

There are four boundary markers now in the national collection, including the Teck Kee and Tan Kim Seng markers. The other two belong to Cheang Hong Lim, after whom Hong Lim Green, now Hong Lim Park, is named.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.