Contray to popular belief, tomb hunters Charles and Raymond Goh, who discovered a 150-year-old grave in the heart of Outram last month, rely on cold, hard facts and not the supernatural to lead them to their next find.
Tomb hunters Raymond Goh (left) and Charles Goh, at Bukit Brown Cemetery.
Likening themselves to fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, the co-founders of Asia Paranormal Investigators (API) spend their weekends poring over old records and trekking through forgotten forests and graveyards.
The specialised heritage hunters may not have come face to face with a ghost but they have found hundreds of graves, including those of pioneers Seah Eu Chin and Chia Ann Siang.
Said Mr Raymond Goh, 50: "We set out to break taboos and show Singaporeans that cemeteries are wonderful repositories of historical data. The multi-ethnic make-up of some of our old graveyards testifies to how Singapore was at the crossroads of the East and can reshape how we interpret our history."
Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin said the Gohs have become authorities on old tombstones.
"They are driven by their passion and have spent years slowly accumulating wide-ranging knowledge, sometimes with no specific goal in mind, resulting in surprising discoveries and finds.
"We need to acknowledge their skills and recognise them as serious researchers," she added.
The brothers said they work well together. The strong suit of younger brother Charles is map work. He digs up land records detailing past and present occupants of an area. By comparing old and new maps, the 46-year-old construction safety manager is able to narrow down search areas.
Older brother Raymond, a pharmacist and Hwa Chong alumnus well-versed in Chinese culture, then writes a report of the tomb inscriptions, lineage and significance of each grave.
They have found the graves of lesser-known Singaporeans, whose stories are no less important, they said. These include rickshaw puller Low Nong Nong, whose 1938 grave was found in Bukit Brown Cemetery last year.
Low had been on strike with other rickshaw pullers seeking better wages and died in a confrontation with police. The tombstone noted that fellow coolies pooled money to bury the penniless Low, who had no kin here.
The brothers credit their late taxi driver father and 73-year-old mother, a former kway chap hawker, for instilling a love for reading, learning and research in them and their three other siblings.
Mr Charles Goh said he spent his younger years reading voraciously, borrowing books from the old National Library in Stamford Road. "Our noses were always buried in books. At the dinner table, our mother would tell us to put our books away," said the younger Mr Goh, whose wife, 44, works in retail.
After buying his first computer in 2001, he dived into local urban legends online.
"There was so much misinformation... I wanted to be the alternative voice in the midst of all the rumours," he said.
This led him to set up API with his older brother in 2005. Both conducted tours at supposedly haunted houses and graveyards. They would relate findings from their interviews with witnesses and use coroner's reports to debunk myths of hauntings.
These trips, including tours to Bukit Brown, sparked a desire to find out more about Singapore's ancient relics.
The brothers have since helped about a hundred Singaporeans locate their ancestors' graves, at no cost. They said it is meaningful to see families connecting with their relatives despite the decades.
Mr Raymond Goh's wife, Angeline, 40, a housewife, sometimes jokes that he spends more time with the dead than the living. But, like their children aged 14, 19 and 20, she said she is proud of him.
The brothers hope the likes of the National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore will recognise them as serious researchers and open their archives and resources to them for free.
They are also calling for more support from clan associations, educational institutions and the National Heritage Board for their research work at Bukit Brown. The older Mr Goh said: "We are on the threshold of discovering even more heritage gems in our backyard and we need back-up."
We set out to break taboos and show Singaporeans that cemeteries are wonderful repositories of historical data. The multi-ethnic make-up of some of our old graveyards testifies to how Singapore was at the crossroads of the East and can reshape how we interpret our history. - Mr Raymond Goh
Raymond 50 (white) and Charles Goh 46 discovered the last Tiong Bahru tombstone near Singapore General Hospital.
A forgotten tombstone in the heart of Outram has been found, on the heels of the rediscovery of an abandoned reservoir on Keppel Hill last month.
Wrapped snugly by creeping tree roots in a forested area, the 150-year-old tombstone was discovered last month by intrepid grave hunter Charles Goh, 46.
He made his latest find last month while bashing through the forest hunting for remnants from old cemeteries in the Tiong Bahru area.
"I often walk by the forested area, but I had no idea that it housed an ancient treasure and relic from Singapore's first few Hokkien cemeteries," he said.
The construction safety manager had also stumbled across the lost reservoir near Mount Faber back in 2005, without knowing it, while he was tomb-hunting.
The lone grave in Outram has stood the test of time even as modern Singapore grew around it, staying untouched in its original spot since the 1860s. It is sandwiched between the defunct 1828 Tiong Lama and 1859 Tiong Bahru cemeteries.
Mr Goh hopes the tomb, which belongs to Madam Ho Koon Neo, will be included in heritage tours of Tiong Bahru estate.
Both cemeteries were exhumed after the 1920s to make way for the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and later housing projects.
Most of these exhumed graves now rest in Greater Bukit Brown, which Mr Goh and his brother Raymond, 50, a pharmacist, have been researching and documenting.
The brothers, who also co-founded Asia Paranormal Investigators, realised some relocated tombs and urns in Greater Bukit Brown had been haphazardly rehoused, leading them to believe that some reburials were done in a hurry.
Mr Goh said: "We then wondered if some graves had been left behind from the Tiong Lama and Tiong Bahru cemeteries."
After consulting maps, he narrowed his search down to a forested parcel of land about the size of two football fields. Bounded by College Road, Jalan Bukit Merah and MacAlister Road, the forest is part of the SGH compound.
According to an 1884 land deed, the hilltop graveyard where Madam Ho's tomb rests was owned by a Chua Bian Kay.
The 1m-high tombstone states that Madam Ho, who married into the Chua family, was from Zhong Shan in Fujian, China. Her exact date of death is not listed, although her grave states that she died during the 1862-1875 reign of Chinese emperor Tongzhi.
The tomb also lists her children - son Gim Guan, daughters Huat Neo and Eng Neo, and grandson Choon Swee.
The Goh brothers, who have hunted down hundreds of graves including those of pioneers Seah Eu Chin and Chia Ann Siang, are appealing for Madam Ho's descendants to come forward.
They hope the National Heritage Board (NHB) clan associations and other volunteers can help do more research on the country's pioneers.
An NHB spokesman said the board looks forward to doing research on the grave with the brothers to "shed more light on the discovery".
Meanwhile, Mr Kelvin Ang, the chairman of Seng Poh Residents' Committee in Tiong Bahru, said residents who conduct heritage tours and talks on the conservation estate might consider including the tomb as part of their talks.
He added that the find proves "history is all around us". "Mr Goh's discovery adds to the historical knowledge of the area and, hopefully, as we go on, more stories can be built upon such finds."
This article was first published on October 15, 2014.