The mysterious tomb of Mdm Tan Chwee Neo: Sir Stamford Raffles’ rumoured mistress buried in Stevens

MS Investigates: The mystery behind the tomb of Mdm Tan Chwee Neo

Mention Sir Stamford Raffles, and many would instinctively recall the founding story of Singapore.

However, much less is known about his romantic life. In fact, throughout his lifetime, the British colonial official had married twice in 1805 and 1817 respectively.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye — for decades, Raffles has also been rumoured to have a mistress by the name of Mdm Tan Chwee Neo.

She reportedly died in 1904, according to an article published by The Straits Times (ST) in 2002.

The Teochew woman’s tomb, which has since been exhumed, remains a lingering mystery today.

Source: The Straits Times via Asia Paranormal Investigators

Who was Mdm Tan Chwee Neo?

Mdm Tan’s ancestral worship tablet stated that she was born in 1818 and died in 1904, reported ST in 2002.

If the numbers were accurate, she would have been around 86 years old at the time of her death.

Speaking to ST in 1988, Ms Lee Chor Lin, then curator of the National Museum’s Southeast Asian collection, suggested that the tomb’s elaborate design and location pointed to Mdm Tan’s wealthy background.

The 10 sqm grave was adorned with monkey statues, carvings of carp, and paintings of what resembled warriors.

Origins of the rumour

The rumour involving Mdm Tan surfaced in 1988 when ST raised the possibility of the affair.

Mdm Tan’s ornate tomb was said to be situated on prime land next to 52 Stevens Road and opposite Stevens Close.

At the time, a caretaker at a nearby private elderly home by the name of Madam Ah Mei told the newspaper about her encounter with an old man who had visited the grave.

He had shared that his deceased ancestor was the mistress of an important man.

A reporter then posed the question if the “mystery woman” could have been Sir Stamford Raffles’ mistress.

Mdm Tan’s descendants back the rumour

Since then, Mdm Tan’s surviving relatives have vouched for her relationship with Sir Stamford Raffles.

In 1995, her great-great-granddaughter-in-law told Chinese newspaper Lianhe Wanbao that her ancestor was married to a British governor.

He had only been known as “Manam”. More details also surfaced regarding the context of their marriage.

As the story goes, Mdm Tan had been forced to marry the governor to keep her father, a local government captain, out of jail due to a petty crime.

Mdm Tan’s great-great-great-grandson, John Tan, was also a firm believer in the family’s connection to Sir Stamford Raffles.

Source: A picture of Mr John Tan, retrieved from The Straits Times via Asia Paranormal Investigators

According to Mr Tan, the British governor had given a large chunk of land to Mdm Tan before going back to England.

This included the Stevens Road site where she was buried.

Mr Tan also claimed to be an indirect descendant of this relationship.

He alleged that Raffles and Mdm Tan had a son together, who died young.

Thereafter, Mdm Tan purportedly adopted a son who shared the same race as her. Mr Tan claimed that the adopted son was his great-great-grandfather.

“I know he [Raffles] was in our lineage,” said Mr Tan to ST in July 2002.

“As for sceptics and their questions, I have not really thought of how to answer them. My great-great-great-grandmother’s only mistake was not to put her name down officially as Tan Chwee Neo Raffles.”

Was Tan Chwee Neo of age when Raffles came to Singapore?

Doubts have indeed been cast about the rumoured relationship between Mdm Tan and Raffles.

In particular, sceptics question if Mdm Tan was even of age to marry during the instances that Raffles was in Singapore.

In 2002, National University of Singapore (NUS) professor Ernest Chew contended that the Raffles only visited the island during three specific periods, which he said were:

  1. 29 Jan 1819 to 7 Feb 1819
  2. 31 May 1819 to 28 June 1819
  3. 10 Oct 1822 to 9 June 1823

Based on these dates, Mdm Tan — who was said to have been born in 1818 — would have been about a year old when Raffles first came to Singapore.

Similarly, a report by Lianhe Zaobao highlighted that she was merely five years old during Raffles’ final visit to Singapore in 1823, rendering the theory about their relationship implausible.

When Mr Tan was questioned about the inconsistency, he argued that some individuals living in Mdm Tan’s era only obtained birth certificates five to 10 years after they were born.

Source:, for illustration purposes only

He thus proposed that this could explain the supposed timeline discrepancy.

According to Singapore Infopedia, Sir Stamford Raffles was married twice in 1805 and 1817.

His first wife, Olivia Mariamne Fancourt née Devenish, passed away in 1814.

He then married Sophia Hull with whom he had five children, though none of them survived to adulthood.

The exhumation of Mdm Tan’s tomb at Stevens

In 2002, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) announced plans to exhume Mdm Tan’s grave.

Citing an intention to develop the area, SLA put up notices regarding the exhumation at the site of her tomb.

Source: The Straits Times via Asia Paranormal Investigators

Mr Tan said that his family then appealed for the exhumation to be deferred for another two years.

According to him, Teochew’s custom does not allow exhumation to occur within three years of his mother’s death, which happened in 2001.

Mdm Tan’s grave was eventually exhumed in 2003.

Together with his family, Mr Tan brought her remains to Cheng Hong Siang Tng Temple for enshrining, The Star reported. The Buddhist temple is located along Arumugam Road.

Source: Google Maps

For a while, a timber cross marked the spot where her grave formerly resided, Asia Paranormal Investigators found.

Mdm Tan’s tomb made way for new residential development

In November 2009, ST noted that there were plans for new residential development to be built on the land near Mdm Tan’s tomb.

The project, which involved a new 20-unit residential block at 52 Stevens Road, was led by developer Tang City Homes.

It was completed in 2013, property portal confirmed.

Named Fifty-Two Stevens, the freehold condominium is located in District 10 at Tanglin.

Source: Google Maps

The apartment is a stone’s throw away from Stevens MRT Station and other key amenities.

Decades after the rumour involving Mdm Tan Chwee Neo first made the news after 1988, new evidence about her purported relationship with Sir Stamford Raffles has yet to surface.

As such, this story remains shrouded in mystery.

Also read: SingPost Releases Bicentennial Stamps Featuring Sir Raffles & Sang Nila Utama

SingPost Releases Bicentennial Stamps Featuring Sir Raffles & Sang Nila Utama

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Featured image adapted from The Straits Times via Asia Paranormal Investigators and Singapore Tourism Board

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