It’s a grave matter!
|by ICCS Team
|Thursday, 6 July 2023
How far would you go to keep your cultural identity and heritage alive?
Try taking photos of thousands of graves in Singapore’s largest cemetery over half a decade!
Sandra Galistan has been doing this since 2018 as part of her ongoing project to preserve a record of Eurasians who have lived in Singapore before their graves are exhumed to make way for future developments.
“Before a part of Eurasian history completely vanishes, I decided to photograph the remaining Eurasian graves at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery and keep them as digital records on the Eurasians International platform,” shared Galistan, who is a Singaporean Armenian Eurasian.
“To date, I have photographed and documented over 2,100 Eurasian graves and niches. One day, I hope to increase this number to 5,000 and attach Global Positioning Tags (GPS) tags to them so that Eurasians from any part of the world could locate their loved ones’ graves and pay their respects.”
Sandra Galistan at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery in 2018. (Photo: ST Photos: TK Raju)
Motivated by family
“I started the gravestone documentation because of my late granduncle, Emile Galistan. When he passed away, he was buried at the Bidadari Cemetery, which has been defunct since 2006 to make way for a new housing estate,” said Galistan.
“It felt like a great loss to me—my granduncle was one of the founders of The Orchid Society of South East Asia, and he was a master at cultivating orchids, the national flower of Singapore. I couldn’t let memories of him and so many other Eurasians in Singapore be lost with time.”
Emile Galistan (Photo: OSSEA)
Niche of Emile Galistan and his wife Hilda. (Photo: Sandra Galistan)
Sandra Galistan is also the founder of the non-profit organisation Eurasians International (EI), which has established an independent group on Facebook with a membership comprising 95 percent Eurasians and 5 percent from other races with strong connections to Eurasians, mostly through marriage.
“It all started when my mother passed away around 2011. As I grieved, I realised that the essence of being Eurasian in Singapore is to carry on the heritage of our ancestors. Despite the many differences between individual Eurasians, there are plenty of things that unite us, which is what we need to focus on as a community. That was why I started EI in 2017.”
“As an Armenian Eurasian, generosity and hospitality were the values that defined our actions. Big house parties used to be a common occurrence in my household, where hundreds of people would show up and enjoy good food and company.”
“Now, as most Eurasians in Singapore live in public housing or overseas, we hardly get to meet one another anymore. Having a platform like EI would allow Eurasians to reconnect with one another and keep our collective identity intact.”
Food for the soul
Besides the documenting of gravestones, the EI also has a food bank initiative to cater to Eurasians in need.
“There are plenty of food banks in Singapore, but few offer Eurasian food options in their packages for the disadvantaged. We, on the other hand, have a huge network of Eurasian home-based businesses that could prepare and provide bentos for needy Eurasians, with sponsorship from our EI members,” shared Galistan.
“It all started when we were informed of this elderly Eurasian lady who was living alone. She had previously approached other Eurasian self-help groups, but she never managed to get the help she needed due to the cumbersome procedures. We didn’t know much about her or her medical conditions, so we just prepared a basic food package and appeared at her door.”
“Before we knew it, word of our food bank spread, and people started to come forward with information on Eurasian individuals that needed our help.”
Sandra Galistan on her way to distributing food bank packages to Eurasians in need in September 2021. (Photo: Sandra Galistan)
“It didn’t matter if they were Eurasians living alone, Eurasian couples or mixed families. As long as there’s a Eurasian in need, we helped them all.”
Defining the Eurasian identity
Eurasians typically refer to people who have mixed European and Asian lineage. The term is used to describe individuals who have a combination of genetic, cultural or historical connections to both continents.
Most Eurasians in Singapore can trace the European part of their ancestry to the Portuguese, Dutch or British, while others are of Danish, French, German, Italian or Spanish descent. The Asian component of their ancestry is usually derived from the Chinese, Malays or Indians.1
So what does it mean to be Eurasian?
“Simply put, it is to be true to my heritage, and to ensure that my family and the greater Eurasian community could do our best to keep this heritage alive,” said Galistan. “As interracial marriages between Eurasians and other ethnic groups in Singapore become more commonplace, it raises the question of how future generations of Eurasians would formulate their cultural identities.”
“Eurasian culture is not just about the sugee cakes or languages—we have unique ways of living, thinking and carrying on with our traditions. The living, breathing Eurasian heritage in Singapore is much more vibrant that what could be represented in books and the occasional public event.”
“If we want to keep our heritage alive, we need to proudly take ownership of it and let Eurasians tell the Eurasian story.”
Indeed, keeping the Eurasian heritage alive is the mantra Galistan lives by, even if it means that she continues to document the deceased.
Sandra Galistan with Christina Swan (right), co-administrator of EI. (Photo: Sandra Galistan)
“It does feel quite ironic to ‘keep the Eurasian heart beating’ by hunting down the final resting places of Eurasians who have already passed away,” Galistan mused.
“However, as I walked through the graves and niches and looked at the many Eurasian faces, I came to realise that it is because of them that EI exists.”
“Heritage is not only about our food, dance, culture and traditions—it is also about the responsibility to lay the foundation for future Eurasians to learn and appreciate their roots, and to provide them the opportunity to learn about their Eurasian identity and their community, past and present.”
1 Ho, Stephanie (2013). Eurasian community.