Finding Farquhar’s backyard

Posted on 12 January 2011

Archaeologists race against time to excavate a nondescript alley, hoping to uncover the home of the first Resident of Singapore.

Photo story by Terence Lee

  • Volunteers spend the entire day digging in the pits looking for artifacts. Displaced soil are swept into buckets and dumped onto sieves to ensure that nothing is missed out.
  • Artifacts are categorised in an abandoned room in the Old Supreme Court so that they can be processed more easily later on.
  • 03: This artifact, according to Chen, could be a Buddhist statuette from the Temasek era.
  • All the dug-up soil had to go somewhere: Aaron Kao, 31, loads earth onto a wheelbarrows and drops them off in a pile to the side. The deeper the pit gets, the larger the pile.
  • Puddles of water form at the bottom of the pit after heavy rain, which is a frequent dampener to the archaeologists’ efforts. Sometimes, Chen and team would cease early and come back the next day, since digging has to end by 7pm.

RAIN BROKE from the evening sky, drenching archaeologist Lim Chen Sian as he scrambled to get up from the pit. The ragtag team of artifact hunters huddled under a makeshift tent, competing for space against wheelbarrows, baskets, and seives.

A packet of soon kway was passed around, leftovers from afternoon tea. Soothing operatic music blared from a stereo set.

Once again, their excavation work in a small alley between City Hall and the Old Supreme Court was halted.

“So, what do you want to talk about?” said Chen, weary from a day’s work. His white shirt was soiled in mud, a spade in his backpocket. Surveying the situation, he decided to call it a day as the sky was darkening.

“No money to afford floodlights,” quipped the 34-year-old.

Chen’s work here was almost done. His team was about to conclude a one-month dig that started on November 2nd. They were well within the deadline, before the twin buildings will be redeveloped as the National Art Gallery.

This place was chosen for a special reason: Historical documents and title deeds indicated that William Farquhar, the first Resident of colonial Singapore, lived around this area.

Although Chen’s hope of landing right in Farquhar’s backyard has dissipated, they still uncovered over a thousand pieces of historical artefacts: Coins, ceramics, and figurines.

The items date from 14th Century Singapore onwards, up to colonial Singapore when the area was designated as bungalows for wealthy European merchants. But those gave way to the Grand Hotel de l’Europe, then a rival to Raffles Hotel, which still stands today.

Now, a huge gaping pit is all that remains in that small strip of land. An excavator guards the mouth of the alley, ready to fill her up with soil.

More work remains for Chen and his team of 6-15 local archaeological enthusiasts. Research will be conducted on the discovered artefacts to determine their place of origin, and how they ended up here. Facts can then be inferred about the lives of historical Singapore’s inhabitants.

“Everyone knows Sir Raffles,  Lee Kuan Yew and all these big, famous people. With archaeology, we’re stripping away all these to find out how was life like for a normal person like you and I in past eras like the 1960s.”

“There’s actually plenty to dig for in Singapore. Modernity keeps moving forward.” – Lim Chen Sian

Such archaeological digs are valuable in uncovering additional layers of history about old Singapore, he added, especially the period before it was colonised. Lessons from the past could teach us about our future and perhaps shape our national identity.

“There’s actually plenty to dig for in Singapore. Modernity keeps moving forward,” said Chen. He explained that present day Singapore could become the subject of future archaeological expeditions.

But more can be done to support archaeology in Singapore, he added.

“Let’s say if you file your taxes, you fill up various forms and its quite straightforward: you tick it off and that’s it. Over here, archaeology is still pretty much in the grey as there are no established rules for it.”

Delays are caused when there are negotiations between various stakeholders, a process which could be sidestepped with clearly-established rules found in many developed countries and even China.

Convincing skeptical stakeholders about archaeology’s value is another challenge that Chen faces. Economic issues like jobs and healthcare are topmost on the civil servant’s minds, which may make archaeology a tough sell.

“The good news is that we have the support of the National Heritage Board and the National Art Gallery people. A lot of them are very enthusiastic about this project and most sympathetic about our cause,” he said.

Plenty of passion also comes from the endless supply of volunteers that support Chen’s team. Students, teachers, and even the random passer-by can be seen digging with spades and pick-axes. But relying on them can be tricky because they come and go. When new people come in, they have to be retrained.

But despite the growing support, Chen remains measured in assessing the strides that archaeology has made in Singapore. There is yet to be a full-fledged archaeological institution here, which he hopes will be set up within his lifetime.

“Things doesn’t seem to be moving anywhere since 2002, but maybe I’ve nothing to complain about because I’m still digging. Nobody’s shutting us down, so that’s the good news right?” said the lone full-time Singaporean archaeologist.

If you’re interested to volunteer for future digs, drop Chen Sian an email at shien [at] seaarchaeology.com.


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This post was written by:

- who has written 81 posts on New Nation.

Terence is an online media nut that is obsessed with writing and publishing on the Internet. Recently, he took up photography to expand his repertoire, and hopes to learn videography soon. He has worked in both online and print publications such as The Straits Times, Today, Mind Your Body, The Online Citizen, and Funkygrad. He is currently the assistant editor with SGEntrepreneurs, a website that covers entrepreneurship in Singapore and Asia. Terence can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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  • D

    Kudos for the volunteers and funding agencies who are supporting archaeological digs in Singapore. However, I want to remind Chen that archaeological digs come with a heavy responsibility; the digging of a site is akin to its destruction. Therefore publishing the results of each excavation is paramount in justifying the site’s destruction. I’ve read plenty about the digs around Singapore in the past decade, but have not read much about the details of the finds and conclusions.

    • V.

      Considering that there is no legislative frameworks for sites and that developers are not required to call in the archaeologists before building the next new spanking residential suits or oppressive but gleaming corporate skyscrapers, I hardly think a self-righteous statement like “the digging of a site is akin to its destruction” has things in perspective. Secondly, Chen is a trained archaeologist, not your Hollywood Indiana Jones who goes blasting things around in the name of exploration and protecting artifacts. Have you really “read plenty about the digs”? The findings are chronicled in many journals, with rather tedious details and plates.

      • V.

        Sorry, an error. First line: “Considering that there ARE…”

  • terence

    hey D,

    i’m curious about your comment on how digs destroy the site. In this case, the site was already slated for redevelopment as the National Art Gallery, which means it would be ‘destroyed’ anyway. Similar for other cases of such archaeological digs, which are often done before a site is developed.

    But I think you raised a good point about how the results of each excavation ought to be made publicly accessible.

  • D

    Hey Terence, I suppose the ‘excavation = destruction’ scenario applies more to sites that are not under the threat of destruction already (such as construction and natural disasters).

  • Christine

    Hi Chen Sian,

    Wondering if there are any opportunities in the near future to work as a volunteer for future digs in Singapore or SEA region. Corresponded with you sometime last year if you recall. I am really keen to volunteer for such programs.

    Thanks, Christine

  • terence

    Hi Christine, it’ll be better if you email him directly. I doubt he comes here :)

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