Over 1,000 fossils in museum-like home: S'porean man, 43, never lost childhood love for dinosaurs

Stories of Us: Fossil collector Calvin Chu takes us on a tour of his house (*cough* museum) and explains the passion he holds for these ancient creatures of the past.

Ashley Tan | November 21, 2020, 02:45 PM

Most parents will gift their children the latest toys or clothes that they want.

But for 10-year-old Calvin Chu, his mother surprised him with a gift of a fossilised trilobite, an ancient extinct arthropod which roamed the seabeds of eons past.

Looking at the small rock which nestles perfectly in one's palm, the rough-hewn edges perhaps smoothened by Chu's hands over the decades, it's hard to imagine it alive and scuttling about on an Earth that scientists can only attempt at envisioning.

The trilobite fossil Chu's mother gave him. Photo by Ashley Tan

Like many kids (me included), Chu already had a healthy curiosity for ancient beings like dinosaurs.

Little did he know though, that the small gift would spark a lifelong love for fossils — now 43 years old, Chu has a jaw-dropping array of over 1,000 fossils stored in his two-storey terrace house at Upper Thomson.

"It just opened up a world of fascination for me, you'll never ever see this kind of creature today," Chu said of the trilobite fossil.

He reckons that one batch of fossils he bought consisted of around 800 pieces, mostly comprising teeth from prehistoric creatures like ancient crocodiles, Spinosauri and Mosasaurs.

Living in a natural history museum

And of course, the home of a fossil collector like Chu isn't like any other.

One wall of his light and airy living area is lined with white floor-to-ceiling cabinets. A glass cabinet takes pride of place on one pillar, displaying a whole set of Spinosaurus teeth and a full Dimetrodon skeleton, which he assembled by hand.

The fossil of a Dimetrodon, an ancient creature with a large sail on its back. Photo by Zheng Zhangxin

Chu confesses sheepishly that the Spinosaurus skull was something he made out of paper maché specially to display the teeth, a sort of "circuit breaker art project", he says.

The paper mache Spinosaurus skull, with real fossilised teeth. Photo by Zheng Zhangxin

My eyes then rove over the rest of the displays, taking in the skull of the largest species of Sabertooth cat in another alcove, and a 30cm elephant bird egg displayed on the top shelf.

Photo by Ashley Tan

Photo by Ashley Tan

I'm then drawn to a huge skull displayed in one of the cabinets — laying my eyes upon it is at once terrifying and humbling.

The skull belongs to a Mosasaur, an extinct group of marine reptiles which were the apex predators of the seas in the past. The largest species in the group, the Mosasaurus, can grow up to 17m in length.

Photo by Ashley Tan

That's not it though — opening the doors of the cabinets reveals a hidden treasure trove of prehistoric remnants. From the the skull of an Ankylosaurus, coprolites (fossilised poop ha ha), the tooth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the fossil of a gigantic extinct dragonfly-like insect called Meganeura; you name it, Chu (probably) has it.

Photo by Zheng Zhangxin

Photo by Zheng Zhangxin

I'm even more amazed when Chu brings us up to his study to reveal a stash of even more fossils, including the huge leg bone of a mammoth.

Photo by Zheng Zhangxin

Photo by Ashley Tan

It's almost akin to living in a mini natural history museum.

Photo by Zheng Zhangxin

When asked what his family thinks about the fossil displays, Chu says he tries his best to be considerate to his wife and two young children.

"I can't force my wife to like something she may not be very fond of. She's told me before like 'You know I don't like to have all these skulls all over my house'," he chuckles.

Keeping some of the fossils out of sight is thus something he kept in mind during the design of the living area.

Fossils on eBay?

Amassing such an extensive fossil collection does require some expertise and intuition.

And contrary to what some might think, not all fossils are rare and some can actually be easily found online.

Fossils are sold on auction sites like eBay and Catawiki (a cursory search for a trilobite on the former yields hundreds of results with prices ranging from a mere S$4 to S$3,300).

Screenshot from eBay

More experienced fossil collectors like Chu leverage on a network of contacts, including fossil prospectors (those who actually dig up the fossils) in the U.S. and Morocco, and liaise with them directly for interesting finds.

Chu's work occasionally brings him overseas, during which he tries his best to pack time in to scour museums and its shops for fossils despite his hectic schedule.

"All my trips are packed back to back with meetings, so I'll visit five states in five days. I will fly in the night before, then I wake up the next morning, cover all my meetings, and I will finish around four to five o'clock, then I'll rush on [to] the museum, check out the museum and museum shop, then rush to the airport, hop on the plane to the next state. Then repeat this five times."

However, Chu warns of the risk of purchasing fake fossils, especially when buying them from online marketplaces. He highlights the importance of checking if the seller is reputable.

Bringing out a clutch of fossilised oviraptor eggs, he explains that listening to the sound a fossil makes is one of the ways to check if fossils are real.

Cocking his head as he taps on it with his fingers, Chu elaborates on the intricacies of the different sounds as I simply nod my head in agreement, unable to tell the difference.

Photo by Ashley Tan

He goes on to mention how to check if fossilised amber is real — stick a heated needle into the amber and check if the smell is that of a sweet fragrance or burning plastic.

"There are also a lot of people who don't know what they're selling even, and sell like dragon bones," he said.

Every fossil is more than just a monetary value

Considering the number of fossils in his possession, acquiring them must not have been cheap. Dinosaur fossils in particular, cost quite a pretty penny, Chu said.

However, he did not disclose exactly how much he has spent in total on his collection. He says though, that the Mosasaur skull alone costs somewhere in the five digits.

Chu is quick to note that to him, each fossil is priceless — "Every one of them is one of a kind in the world, every one of them is unique".

These pieces are also more than just a financial investment for him — they're precious because of the intangible values they bring.

"When you are beholding a fossil, you might be the first [person] in perhaps 60 million years to lay your eyes on this strange creature. There's nothing quite like it that humbles you and gives you a sense of wonder about the world, that sense of excitement, a sense of where we are in the universe, in the big scheme of things."

These feelings are why he decided to start a local group called the Singapore Fossil Collectors.

As do all communities, the Singapore Fossil Collectors started with a realisation 10 years ago.

"At some point in time, I felt it would be nice to not just collect [fossils] on my own," Chu said. "Fossil collecting can be quite a solitary hobby you know."

He then decided to reach out to The Straits Times, and the resulting feature was seen by fellow fossil collectors in Singapore, who then reached out to Chu.

Now, the Singapore Fossil Collectors group is 1,000-strong, and prior to Covid-19, regularly held large gatherings to swap knowledge, trade fossils, or simply catch up with each other.

A gathering at a member's house in 2019 to trade fossils. Photo from Singapore Fossil Collector's / FB

Chu, however, does not see himself as a leader of any sort. Instead, he merely sees himself as the vehicle to bring together this group of like-minded hobbyists. He quips:

"You're really a crazy guy, until you have your first follower right?"

When asked if he does consider himself a "crazy guy", Chu heartily agrees: "Yeah yeah I think so!"

'Am I the only crazy guy?'

Chu's words remind me of a thick encyclopaedia of dinosaurs I had and loved when I was young. I still have it but it is now collecting dust on my bookshelf, and it's safe to say I haven't opened it in more than a decade.

Which leads me to wonder — what happened to people's childhood love for dinosaurs?  Did this natural curiosity and wonder fade out alongside the drudgery that accompanies adulthood as childhood ambitions to be astronauts and archaeologists do?

This sentiment is echoed by Chu, who ponders aloud:

"I mean logically, it shouldn't be [just me being the "crazy guy"], because most of us were probably fascinated by these ancient creatures of the past at some point in time."

"Why is everybody not interested, am I the only one interested, is there something strange with me? Should I just follow everyone else and be interested in just getting a job and a condominium? Is that really the point of my existence or should I hold on to my passion?"

More real than any textbook

Despite his doubts, Chu emphasises the importance of sustaining that passion. Looking back on how his avid interest suffered a small slump during his late adolescence, Chu says he has since found a new way to sustain this passion:

Spreading the sense of wonder, magic and excitement he feels when he lays his eyes on a fossil, to the next generation.

As part of the Singapore Fossil Collectors, Chu often organises and takes part in outreach events at schools where they let students touch real fossils, and learn more about dinosaurs and palaeontology.

"The tacit experience of actually holding onto a fossil, and inspecting it is so much more real than what any textbook or YouTube programme can offer," Chu said.

Photo from Andy Chua / FB

This love for fossils and history is something he tries to inspire in his eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter too.

He amicably shares that he even visited his son's school for one of the outreach sessions and "gave Spinosaurus teeth to everyone except him". After all, Chu says, his fossil collection will eventually be passed down to his children (if they are interested to inherit them).

When asked if he has any fossil-related plans for the future, Chu reveals that he's thought of setting up a fossil shop at one point in time, but has since reconsidered.

Unlike those who often conflate their passion and their source of income, Chu believes otherwise and doesn't want his hobby to become a source of stress for him.

He has, however, entertained the idea of conducting trips for people to carry out their own fossil prospecting.

At the moment though, he will be focusing on the group's outreach, with his goal of turning the Singapore Fossil Collectors into the "de facto place" for parents seeking knowledge and resources to support their children with similar interests.

"What I'm really hoping for is that this will continue to inspire [the children] not to give up on what was once a passion for dinosaurs but to see that these things are real, to inspire them to be interested in nature and science. And this branches into many other fields like geology, biology, palaeontology, even robotics. I think all of these sciences can be a very nice offshoot of some of this work that we do."

At the end of the interview, Chu opens a large chest filled with ancient teeth, and asks us to choose one each despite our protests.

I'm inexplicably excited at the prospect of having my own dinosaur tooth, and carefully select one belonging to a Mosasaur, my mind already jumping to ideas of how to display it despite the fact that frankly, my love for dinosaurs died out many years ago.

And perhaps it really is as simple as this — to ignite, or reignite such an interest — like gifting someone a prehistoric tooth. Or even presenting a small trilobite fossil to your kid.

Photo by Ashley Tan

Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

Top photo by Ashley Tan and Zheng Zhangxin