I’d heard of Jennifer before I met her as my friends had been raving about her project to clear and catalogue some of the overgrown graves at Bukit Brown cemetery. We finally met in person in May 2019, when I was lucky enough to win one of her prints at a fund-raiser for the Singapore Cancer Society at the Australian High Commission.
We’ve kept in touch ever since and I’m delighted to introduce you now to my friend and artist, Jennifer Lim.
Tell us about yourself
“I’m a visual artist inspired by language and landscape. My passion is interpreting my own cross-cultural experiences into a journey able to be appreciated by many. I love telling stories incorporating elements of travel, history and heritage. My work, Shallow Water I, for example, was created in response to the dance of mass and movement seen in waters surrounding Japan and Singapore.
Printmaking is my focus, and I’m a graduate in Visual Art & Asian Studies from the Australian National University. I was an exchange student for a year at Kyoto Seika University, and an artist in residence for the MI-LAB Japanese woodblock program. My background is also in architecture, Japanese translation and fashion.
I returned to Brisbane recently to look after my aging parents while my husband continues working in Singapore. Like many other couples living apart due to current circumstances, it’s been a difficult time. My two young children are a good distraction and we’ve become more grateful for the small things in life.”
What is your connection to Singapore?
“My father was born and raised in Singapore, and migrated to Australia in the 1970s to marry my Australian mother. His great grandfather was born in southern China in 1855. My grandmother is Peranakan Chinese, a centuries-old minority ethnic group descendant of Chinese traders and local women.
My earliest childhood memories are those of Singapore. Trips made with my father to visit our large extended family were often marked by delicious food and ear-tugging reminders to use ‘uncle’ or ‘aunty’ as the appropriate form of address. The smokey smell of Satay Club, smooth terrazzo slippery slides and the thick humid air were a distinctly different part of my suburban upbringing in Sydney.
In 2012, my husband took up a job opportunity in Singapore. I was thrilled at the idea of living in Singapore and researching my family tree. We chose to live in an established housing estate, where we became objects of interest as the rare ang moh family. The sight of my red-headed daughter was a useful way to start a conversation! Over time, we made many friends at our local open-air market including flamboyant joss paper ‘uncle’, motherly Malaysian sewing ‘aunty’ and our fashionable mainland Chinese hairdresser ‘boy’.”
What inspires your artwork?
“My mixed heritage is usually the starting point for my artwork. Through my prints and paintings, I’m able to explore various facets from cultures closest to me. I’m interested in our emotional response to geographical spaces, and I use inspiration from language and the landscape to express my ideas. Baba Nyonya Love Story, for example, was based around my interest in Peranakan culture and stories of matchmaking in elaborate shophouses found around Singapore and Malaysia.
Peranakan Peony was inspired by the batik work of a Eurasian Dutch batik maker, and the symbolism of this popular flower.
Research into my heritage has taken me to shophouses, temples and tombs related to my ancestors, where the tile motifs led me to create Belgium Duo.
Singapore has been kind to me; I was invited to teach at the Peranakan Museum, the National Gallery and for high-level government events. I held two solo shows, and was represented at the Affordable Art Fair.”
Why did you start the Singapore Heritage Tile Project?
“My motivation for starting the project emerged in response to growing community concerns over development plans for Bukit Brown Cemetery, one of the largest Chinese burial sites outside mainland China. The experience of uncovering my own ancestors at the cemetery had triggered an interest in learning more about the obscure presence of vintage tiles. In sharing with local and international audiences, my aim is to draw local and international attention to the largely unknown collection of imported artifacts within this memorial space.
My introduction to Bukit Brown came soon after moving to Singapore. My uncle passed me an address, and told me to come over so we could sort out some ‘family matters’. As I pulled up in my taxi, I was greeted by the sight of an orange-robed priest, workers with shovels and piles of food amid overgrown jungle-like surroundings. The family affair was suddenly apparent; the graves of my great grandfather and his brother were to be exhumed due to the planned construction of an eight-lane highway. Amid the afternoon downpour, I noticed tombs with colourful tiles, often referred to locally as ‘Peranakan’ tiles, normally seen on wealthy shophouses in town.
Intrigued by these delightful tiles and my new-found personal connection, I decided to learn more about the cemetery through tours run by heritage enthusiasts. I was fascinated to hear stories of paupers, pioneers and the privileged, and was often almost left behind while trying to photograph the tile designs I spotted along the way! I began to view the cemetery as somewhat of an ‘outdoor museum’, and inspiration from the tile designs began to filter through to my own artwork.
At the end of another tour in late 2018, we were shown the newly erected Bukit Brown MRT station; a ‘shell’ station presumably built as part of further development plans in the area. I was struck by a sense of urgency to garner more attention to this relatively unknown, but tremendously special space. I reached out to heritage enthusiast Raymond Goh and blogger of Singapore Tombstones Epigraphic Materials with my idea to publish a book. With his encouragement and contacts, I was able to start my project.”
What were some of the challenges faced during the project?
“Cultural sensitivities, tough terrain and relentless insects were the toughest parts of completing the site visits along with the cleaning aspects of this project. Running out of time, energy and water was also a battle. Thrown into the mix was an unexpected tomb restoration, taking seven sessions, and getting lost for several hours in steep jungle forests! My biggest regret is often feeling like I didn’t manage to capture all of the tiles. I try to remind myself that there are at least 80,000 known tombs at Bukit Brown, with more tombs at nearby cemeteries.
Having grown up in Australia, I was initially unfamiliar with Chinese death rituals and the local sentiment towards cemeteries. Many local friends raised their eyebrows to see me enthusiastically spending time at a place usually only visited for ancestral worship at set times throughout the year. Showing my understanding and respect for these sensitivities proved vital when leading culturally diverse teams of volunteers on site.
The people involved in this project were the most magical part. When I first began cleaning tiles to photograph, I quickly realised that it would be impossible to continue on my own and called out for help. I was truly humbled by the large number of volunteers who spent their precious weekends on extremely physically demanding work. I guess the act of removing a century’s worth of mud and swatting mosquitoes in the jungle can bring people together! The comradeship between volunteers of different ages, backgrounds and races was a key part of the project and one that I’m most proud of.
My project has been featured in local publications and on television, which I hope has proven the sincerity of the project to the Singapore community.”
Tell us more about your upcoming book
“Singapore Heritage Tiles: An International Mosaic of Love (working title) will showcase an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese culture, overseas influences and local trends in a spectacular showcase of around 200 rare vintage tiles uncovered through my community project. I’ll be revealing dragons, dandelions and Shinto shrines captured forever in ceramic beauty, along with farmyard animals, fancy ladies and fairies.
Travel buffs will enjoy the international flavour of century-old tiles from countries including Belgium, France, England, Japan and Germany. I’ll also include tiles from different periods, particularly those representing the influences of the Arts & Crafts movement, Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
You can sign up for advance copies from my website. The book is set for release in November 2021.”
What does life look like for you right now?
“Since returning to Australia in January, life has been a bit rough with the sudden passing of my father, reverse culture shock and some health issues. I’ve unfortunately had to delay my book launch, but I’m feeling much better lately and am back on track.
Time is tight, so I’ve taken a sabbatical from creating new artwork while I focus on writing and researching for my book. I’m also busy working on the release of a special chapter ahead of Christmas for my supporters. In my spare time, I continue to teach art classes through my online Creative Print Club.
I love to relax at my local cafe, where the Taiwanese owner makes me matcha latte and chats about his hometown (and vintage tiles!). I also get to practice my Japanese at a nearby gift shop and indulge my passion for Japanese crafts.
My new life in Brisbane seems a world away from tombed hills, but it doesn’t feel that far thanks to the Internet. Even now, I’ll get messages from my tombkeeper friend about ‘special’ tiles that he’s found as he goes about his work at the cemetery.”
Thank you so much for this fascinating post Jennifer and please come back in November 2021 to tell us about the book launch.
The last guest blog will be on 16th October. Penny Graham, Chair of CareerSeekers New Australian Internship Programme, will share her passion for this non-profit social enterprise which creates professional employment opportunities for refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia.
Thanks for dropping by and I look forward to seeing you on 16th October.
With love from Singapore.