My Grandfather’s (Uncle’s) Road

Neo Pee Teck Lane.

I remember it not so much as a lane than as an opening — I’d no idea what was down there. (Still don’t.) But I look out for it almost every time I go by in a bus or a car, that street sign pointing out a small road I’ve never ventured down. Seeing the sign gives me a tiny (cheap) thrill, the familiar surname of my mother and my grandfather emblazoned in bold letters, set across two sturdy metal poles.

I don’t remember when I was first told that we were related to the man who had a road named after him; when I think about it, it feels like something that I’ve always known. I was particularly taken with this little tidbit of knowledge as a child. It made me feel as if my grandfather was not just my Kong Kong, but an Important Somebody. Or at least, my Kong Kong was related to an Important Somebody. Only Important Somebodies had roads named after them; then relatives — even the ones who’d never known them, like me — could brag about it forever and ever.

It was with this familiar mix of mild smugness and a desire to claim something as one’s own that I responded to the actor Karen Tan’s post of the old black-and-white NEO PEE TECK LANE sign on Instagram. That was how I first got in touch Neo Kim Seng, Neo Pee Teck’s grandson.

Family connections

My great-grandfather’s name is Neo Pee Wan. I think I only learnt this in 2011, when I visited Bukit Brown in search of my great-grandparents’ graves. My mother drove; my grandfather came along. We were accompanied by my cousin once removed — at least, I think that’s who he is to me; I’d always just called him Uncle Smarty, after the Smarties he would bring as a gift when I was a kid. Uncle Smarty was the only one out of the four of us who knew where the graves were. If we’d tried to follow my granddad’s vague, half-remembered directions — “up the path, up a hill, somewhere around there” — we’d probably still be wandering about Bukit Brown today.

My mother, my grandfather and Uncle Smarty at Bukit Brown in 2011.

My mother, my grandfather and Uncle Smarty at Bukit Brown in 2011.

Neo Pee Wan, as you can probably tell from the name, was Neo Pee Teck’s brother. But we didn’t think to seek out Neo Pee Teck’s grave at Bukit Brown that day, nor did we visit the graves of his parents, my great-great-grandparents. Even Uncle Smarty didn’t remember where those were.

Watching My Grandfather’s Road

I’d missed previous iterations of My Grandfather’s Road; I kind of remember hearing about it before when it was first publicised in 2015, although I don’t think I’d realised it was about Neo Pee Teck Lane then.

I caught the English version of the performance with my husband on 14 June 2018, then accompanied my grandmother to the Cantonese one the next evening.

After that serendipitous Instagram posting, Kim Seng and Karen came to my grandparents’ flat in Dover, where I’d spent the bulk of my childhood. During that first meeting, we went downstairs to the coffeeshop for some food and drink. Karen and I walked ahead as Kim Seng took small, slow steps alongside Kong Kong, patiently listening to him chatter away. We looked back at the two of them as we approached the coffee shop.

“They have the same legs,” Karen remarked. We watched them: two Neos, clad in shorts and trainers; two pairs of thin legs; two sets of knobbly knees.

Kim Seng interviewed my granddad one more time after that, but neither Karen nor I were able to make that meeting. Still, a little bit of my grandfather made it into the English version of the show, so I got to feel that frisson of excitement twice: once because I was related to that Important Somebody who had a road named after him, and once because I was the granddaughter of Somebody quoted in a monologue performed before an audience.

Different memories, different stories

In the show, the character of Neo Kim Seng — played by different actors in different languages — recalls his childhood growing up in Neo Pee Teck’s house on Neo Pee Teck Lane. Neo Pee Teck Lane’s just off Pasir Panjang Road, so both Kim Seng and I grew up as “westies”. But that’s about as far as the similarities between our childhoods go.

Kim Seng recalls a childhood of picnics by the sea, floating on a rubber tyre and staring down at jellyfish and corals. He writes of homemade swings on fruit trees, games of hantam bola and bucket toilets, playtime with the neighbourhood children a chaotic mix of Cantonese, Malay, Hakka, Shanghainese, English, Singlish.

My childhood was a totally different mix of sounds and textures, the attaphouses, fruit trees and sandy beaches replaced by the concrete HDB, void decks and government-built playground structures in sand pits. By the time I was born in 1988, Pulau Pasir — on which Kim Seng’s family picnicked — was long gone, the Pasir Panjang area expanded by land reclamation. Nobody spoke to me in Cantonese or Hokkien; the government had launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign and the focus was on me getting things right for school. Kim Seng was born just two years after my mother; in one generation, Singapore had been transformed.

In this rush towards progress and development, a push to build up and up and out and out, there isn’t very much that Singaporeans can really hold on to. The adventures that Kim Seng recounted in My Grandfather’s Road come from a world that’s now been lost. It’s only a matter of time, likely not that far away, before my childhood experiences will be just as romantically unfamiliar to a future generation. (The playground sand pits, for instance, have already given way to foam and rubber, or whatever those materials are that public playgrounds are built on these days.)

Who remembers what

In the post-show discussion after the English monologue, Karen Tan said that the show isn’t about reminding us to “hug a family member today”, but about holding on to what’s important. In My Grandfather’s Road, what’s important is the memories and the stories, the journey of discovering and connecting with family, with oneself. In a place like Singapore, where almost nothing is allowed to stay still, where preserving physical markers is often seen as “impractical” or “sentimental”, these are often the only things we have left to hold on to.

Beyond what Karen said, what My Grandfather’s Road also reminds us is that holding on isn’t just about documenting and recording, but also about appreciating the journey, the conversations, the contradictions, the unknown. About enjoying the moments when memories tell us more about the person doing the remembering than what’s being remembered.

Not much is known about Neo Pee Teck at the beginning of the show. Spoiler alert: not much is known after, either. All that’s left of Neo Pee Teck — apart from the road, of course — are two photographs, a few stories and a bunch of conspiracy theories.

Why was the road named after him? Kim Seng runs through some possibilities: perhaps it was because of his contribution the War Fund. Perhaps he’d done more than just business with the British colonialists. Perhaps the British just named the lane after the man who owned the land.

I’d asked the same question as a child: what did Neo Pee Teck do to get the road named after him?

Por Por — the Chinese-educated eldest child, always proper, always responsible — said she thought it was because he’d given to charity and was a pillar of the community.

Kong Kong — the English-educated Peranakan with the wicked sense of humour — had a very different theory: “There were a lot of Malays there at the time and he had so many Malay girlfriends there they just named the place after him lah!”

Today, when I mention Neo Pee Teck, my grandfather’s story shifts a little bit: “He helped the Malays a lot. They called him raja Melayu.”

When my granddad recalls his childhood visits to Neo Pee Teck’s house during Chinese New Year, he describes Neo Pee Teck’s first wife as a dainty nyonya, dressed up and beautiful. Others, though, told Kim Seng that she’d been pretty nasty.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Perhaps a spiteful woman dolled herself up during a major festival to receive guests. Perhaps a gorgeous petite lady was twisted by envy over the years. Long after her death, descendents are telling different stories, sharing contradictory impressions — there’s no way to figure out which is the “truth”.

Memories fade, contort, shapeshift. They’re part of the narrative tapestry all the same.

What makes us, us

In watching My Grandfather’s Road I found not just a story about my grandfather’s uncle’s road, but a sense of rootedness and of home, even from things outside of my own experience. I’ll probably never learn anything more about Neo Pee Teck; I don’t even know if I will ever see more of his road then the entrance.

But that doesn’t matter, because our history and heritage aren’t just made up of documented facts or concrete experiences. It’s also made up of fragments of memory, recollections of people once loved, snippets of information that provide tantalising hints of lives lived and dreams dreamed. When we open ourselves up to these stories — at once strange yet familiar — and embrace the contradictions contained within, we’re reminded that the past was just as messy and pluralistic as our chaotic present.

Amid this jumble of remembrance, we find what makes us, us.

Kirsten Han