Tucked away on a rise above Outram Road across from the Shell Station, they aren’t easy to spot if you zip past at 50 kilometer an hour, but they are accessible on foot. The one near the base of the pedestrian bridge is elaborate, with four moss-covered lions guarding the massive grave, mounded with overgrowth.
Despite the decrepit state of the tomb, a few burnt joss sticks offer evidence that the interred are still tended to, even if the identity of the long deceased occupant remains something of a mystery.
Farther along Outram Hill is another, less ornate tomb, but its occupant is well known to most Singaporeans: Tan Tock Seng, considered one of the pioneer members of early Singapore. The hospital that bares his name to this day is the modern incarnation of a pauper’s hospital that Seng founded in 1844 at the base of Pearl’s Hill, near the site of what is now the car park behind the People’s Park Complex.
A Peranakan born in Malacca in 1798, ‘Baba’ Seng became a prosperous businessman in the colony by selling fruits and vegetables at Ellenborough Market, spending most of his money on projects for poor Chinese workers, though another aspect of his legacy is as the foremost donor for the construction of Thian Hock Keng Temple, on Telok Ayer Street. This exquisite temple is the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, built between 1839 and 1842, itself on the location of a former joss house.
Seng would die in 1850 of an enigmatic disease and would be buried in an unknown location. However in 1877 his body was disinterred and reburied in the tomb on Outram Hill, where he remains to this day. As for the resident of the far more grandiose tomb? Sources agree that it is a relative of Tan Tock Seng, apparently a daughter- in-law, though the grave might have more than one occupant.
The tomb was built in 1882. Recently the city planned to move the tombs as part of the process of widening Outram Road, but a descendant of Seng asked the city to let his illustrious ancestor rest in peace, with the result that the road now narrows beneath his tomb. Thus more than a century and a half after his death, Tan Tock Seng still wields authority in Singapore, which point alone makes his tomb worth a visit.