SEAS Alumnus Goh Kok Wee featured in The Straits Times, LIFE!, Saturday 27 October 2012

On a charted journey – They have spent $25,000 on their old maps but Goh Kok Wee and Serene Ng are still buying more, The Straits Times LIFE!, Saturday 27 October 2012.

While other couples bond over a movie or meal, civil servant Goh Kok Wee and Ms Serene Ng pore over an old map.

In four years, the married couple have amassed almost 200 antique maps and prints of Singapore, South-east Asia and China. These date back as far as the 16th century and are all originals.

“Isn’t is amazing that in the 1500s and 1600s, without satellites, people were still able to map the world so accurately?” says Mr Ng, 41, who holds a doctorate in management and is currently in between jobs.

The collection is stored in archival sleeves and tubes as well as folders with mylar paper in between to prevent the plastic from sticking to the paper. It is kept in an air-conditioned room in the couple’s executive apartment in Jurong East to protect it from humidity.

Most of the maps and prints were made by old European colonial powers such as France, Britain and Portugal, in languages ranging from Latin to German. Their creators include renowned cartographers such as the Flemish Gerardus Mercator and the German Sebastian Munster.

The prints of drawings or sketches document everyday life in 19th-century China, before cameras were invented.

Among the more outstanding items are a five-fold panoramic print titled View Of The Towns and Roads of Singapore From The Government Hill, made by a Captain Robert Elliot of the Royal Navy in 1830. Government Hill is today known as Fort Canning.

There is also a map depicting Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and British posessions in the Far East in the 1800s.

One item holds particular historical significance: a first-edition Singapore map from 1954, created to mark the island’s ascension to the status of city by King George VI.

The couple rarely take out the archived collection to view, although many of their favourites have been framed and hung on the walls.

Ms Ng says they have spent at least $25,000 on the entire collection. Each map usually costs them hundreds of dollars. The most expensive is a €1,600 (S$2,540) map of South-east Asia dating from 1641, made by Dutch cartographer G. Blaeu. Bought from a dealer in the Czech Republic, it bears colourful illustrations of knights and angels.

Mr Goh estimates that original early maps of Singapore by cartographic engineers from the East India Company can fetch US$800 (S$976) to US$1,200, depending on their condition. Some are as small as an A4-sized sheet of paper.

He says that maps with panoramic views of Singapore from the 19th century can be sold for up to US$3,000, depending on their condition. The 41-year-old adds: “Most people prefer to go on Google to see them but the feeling of holding a 200- to  300-year-old map in your hands is just different.”

Their collecting habit started in 2008 in Canberra. The couple were based in the Australian capital then because Mr Goh had been posted there. They stumbled on some old maps of the region in a vintage shop and realised that there were many affordable maps out there.

That was the spark for Mr Goh, who majored in South-east Asian Studies at university, while Ms Ng was struck at the stories that these old documents had to tell.

“To entice people to buy their maps, map-makers threw in funny monsters and creatures. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did maps start to resemble the ones we know today,” says Ms Ng on how modern maps are unadorned with such aesthetic flourishes. “These were the things that intrigued us.”

Some pieces in their collection were acquired from overseas galleries on their travels. They are also in touch with dealers and tradesmen in Europe and the US, who alert them when interesting items come on the market.

Items they buy are then shipped to them with a certificate of authenticity.

The couple have two children aged 12 and eight. Mr Goh says: “We encourage them to look and ask questions. It’s very different from the Xbox but I think they are beginning to appreciate it.”

Asked what they will do with the collection in the long term, Ms Ng says they hope to leave it as a historical legacy to a local museum. Mr Goh adds: “I don’t think we will ever be done. We are continuously researching and looking for new editions.”

He adds with a laugh: “We are constantly trying to add to our collection. We save up to buy a piece of paper.”

By Nicholas Yong, nicy@sph.com.sg

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