What the Past Can Teach Us About the Present: Talking Fossils with Calvin Chu
Growing up in the 90s, I was exposed to gargantuan monsters such as Godzilla, King Kong and the mighty dinosaurs of Jurassic Park duking it out in epic battle scenes or eating human beings alive. While they are works of fiction, dinosaurs did, in fact, exist centuries ago and used to roam the lands that we tread on today. Despite their disappearance, the fascination still remains and many have turned to fossil collecting in hopes of understanding the past through remnants of former geologic periods.
Calvin Chu, 42, an avid hobbyist, has been collecting fossils since the age of 10 and has loaned out his impressive private collection to the ArtScience Museum and Science Centre Singapore for educational awareness. Some of his prized possessions include a full saber-toothed cat skull, a Mammoth femur bone and a section of a T-Rex’s Jaw. His expertise in fossils and palaeontology was also paramount to the successful opening of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, as experts from NUS sought advice from Calvin and other members of the Singapore Fossil Collectors group when the museum was first set up.
Stepping into Calvin’s abode is akin to visiting an art gallery. White walls with glass cases of ancient artefacts, artworks and fossils are all on display, complete with an information card and description of each specimen. As I handle some of these specimens, Calvin begins launching into their origins, with a fervent glow in his eyes. Sensing his infectious enthusiasm, we quickly delve into the world of fossil collecting and how his interest turned into a full-fledged obsession with over a thousand pieces under his name.
High Net Worth: How did your interest in fossils start?
Calvin Chu: My mother bought me a trilobite when I was about 9 to 10 years old. Holding such a different, unique and strange looking creature in my hand brought me back to a period of time around 300 million years ago. It was mind-boggling, so I became curious about its origins.
Fossil collecting was a very expensive endeavour in Singapore in the 80s/90s. There were only a few fossil shops around and due to the small market, they pushed up the prices to try and make money. I was fortunate enough to go overseas with my parents when I was young and collected whenever I could. It was only after I started working as a strategy consultant and travelled around the world for work, that I got to see the abundance and affordability of fossil collecting.
With the advent of the internet, a lot of auction sites sprung up online. However, the experience still wasn’t very satisfying because the items were often not of high quality and they weren’t affordable as well. I was looking for alternatives and took to Facebook. Eventually, I went on to set up a Facebook group called Singapore Fossil Collectors in 2011, which is currently one of the largest and most active fossil collecting groups globally. We have a lot of foreigners who contribute to the discussions too. Social media has been very helpful at linking like-minded people together and also in allowing us to get to know professional palaeontologists.
How do you verify the authenticity of each piece?
I wrote an article about this on my blog. There are many ways of faking and depending on the specimen, people will replicate it differently. When something first surfaces out of the ground, it’s broken into a thousand bits and you need to patch it together, almost like solving a jigsaw puzzle. There is also something called restoration—say, when there’s a crack, some people might put a filler, cover it and paint over it. If it has been restored, you need to be transparent. If you don’t follow the chain of ownership and somebody has restored something but he sells it to you as a complete piece, then he is being unethical. You have to know which parts are restored.
We also have composites like this Dimetrodon here that has been patched together. I know it’s a composite, but don’t try to sell a composite and pretend it’s a full complete. There are also other people doing things to fool palaeontologists. They take a dinosaur fossil and a bird fossil, put the two together and market it as a new species. Palaeontologists bought it and both pieces are original fossils, but it’s a chimera. I think the best way to think about this is that the more you handle the real one, or sometimes even the fake ones, you develop a certain intuition for it. I started the Fossil Collector Group with that purpose in mind as well, so that young collectors can get a chance to handle many different types of fossils.
Do you ever feel spooked by all these bones and skeletons lying in your house?
They actually provoke a lot of curiosity. Fossils possess a beautiful form and they’re designed by nature. There are people who collect skulls. An example would be this human sacrifice from Peru—it has an elongated skull, almost alien-like, the skin is intact, and it has jaguar marks. It’s a bit too scary for me and I don’t think my wife can accept it too [laughs].
What do you enjoy most about this hobby?
When I first started, the most amazing feeling is when you dig up your fossil, crack open the rock surface and realise that you’re the first person to lay eyes on a specimen in millions of years. It creates great wonder and the sense of time makes you feel so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things—how these creatures lived, and learning about them brings a lot of humility.
In recent years, what I find enriching about this hobby is the ability to share it. We run Singapore’s only travelling fossil museum and bring genuine specimens to schools. We have to do talks because when we visit these schools from pre-school to junior college, the kids are rarely taught about life. Schools are also very grateful as the kids get to hold the fossils and they have such wonder and joy in their eyes. There is no other education like that. The nature of education is to inspire people, to spark the curiosity to learn and create interest in certain subjects. Even when you visit museums, you don’t get a chance to touch the dinosaurs. In fact, in most of the museums, the dinosaurs are just casts. They are not even the real specimens. When you can actually hold and touch something from millions of years ago, that feeling is unmatched.
What is the rarest piece in your collection?
This T-Rex jaw from Kazakhstan has a very nice history behind it. It was found in a joint expedition between the Russians and the Germans in the 1950s. They brought the specimen to a museum in the USSR, and after the fall of the Cold War, when the USSR broke up, the museum curator took it and sold it on the private market.
It was passed around to various regions like Belgium, and finally, I managed to get my hands on it. It is very rare to come across a section of a T-Rex. You can see that the nose, snout and teeth are completely intact. It is unrestored and the original label from when they first found it is still intact. This is one of the rarer pieces that I have ever seen in the market for this species. It’s not the most expensive piece but the nature of these fossils is that even with money, you can’t buy a lot of them. They are just not available on the open market.
Which specimen took you the longest to find?
Probably this Dimetrodon, it was a two-year wait. Originally, I built a shelf for it, but it never arrived. I got it from a proper auction and we made a side deal to get the whole creature. However, I only got parts of it. I paid the dealer quite a lot of money and he said he was going to dig it up. I kept on chasing him for it. A year passed, and at some point, he just disappeared and stopped responding to me. I panicked, thinking that my money had gone down the drain. Finally, I resorted to getting a debt collector who managed to locate the guy in Texas. The debt collector called the guy and warned him that he had committed wire fraud, which is a federal offence. If he did not close the deal within the next 48 hours, we are going to get the FBI to come after him. Finally, the guy got in touch and we managed to sort it out. He still had to dig out some parts. Although it was a done deal, it was too much drama for me.
Do you plan to open a museum one day?
I have loaned out my collection to the ArtScience Museum and Science Centre in the past. In all likelihood, what I will probably do down the line is to donate my collection to a museum. To actually open a private museum in Singapore, you’ve to pay rent, keep the business going and worry about the market size. My professional job is a business consultant, so I know how difficult it is to keep things afloat. Instead of it being a source of joy, it becomes an added stress.
Are your kids interested in inheriting your collection?
I’ve been trying to get my son to be interested in fossils. In fact, I went to his school to give a talk and all his classmates got a tooth, except him. He asked me why he didn’t get one, and I told him the whole collection will be his one day if he wants it! He hasn’t shown much interest so far, perhaps he’s little jaded due to constant exposure all day long, and there isn’t a novelty factor.
On the other hand, I asked my daughter to help me out during a recent outing we had. She is only four years old and she helped me sort 4 types of teeth (from a spinosaurus, mosasaurus, plesiosaur, and crocodile) into small packets. Ironically, it’s usually the boys that like these kinds of things, but who knows? Maybe it will be my daughter who develops an interest in it. I think every collector hopes that their children will take to their hobby. However, when you are gone one day, the last thing you want is to burden your children with all these things. It may be treasure to you, but it could be junk to them.
Is your ultimate goal to inspire and get people interested in fossils?
That is what I would like to achieve. When you walk into the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, you will see three huge Diplodocid sauropod skeletons. It’s an awesome feeling to get dwarfed by these creatures. I enjoy that feeling and I hope others can experience that too. I always bring a mammoth bone to schools and let kids carry it because of the sheer weight and size.
We actually do some work in the education space professionally as well. We study the different pedagogies, things that inspire people… it is very fashionable these days to talk about future skills. I find that as a parent of young children, the fundamental thing is to create passion, then hard work, commitment, success and mastery will follow suit. If you are not passionate, it becomes a chore. Passion is key, and what creates passion for me are things to evoke awe and a sense of curiosity. Palaeontology is the gateway to not only dinosaurs or ancient lifeforms, but also to science, natural history, and all kinds of interesting subjects. The world is rich, but when I was taught history back in school, it was an information dump. We were taught to memorise dates and stories, which weren’t so interesting. So how do you make these experiences come to life? When you can actually see and hold a coin from Dracula’s time, or touch actual sunken treasure from the Spanish galleon… it becomes real and more tangible, which can ignite passion.
Do you believe in evolution?
It’s a bit tricky for me as a Christian, because religion and science can be conflicting. When it comes to evolution, from what science indicates, there are at least two types of evolution: Microevolution and Macroevolution. Microevolution happens on a small scale, while macroevolution happens on a scale that transcends the boundaries of a single species.
Fossil records actually tell us, for example, in the case of Lucy that she has just one jaw, a couple of ribs, one arm, a few bits here and there. Lucy is supposed to be one of the first hominids that can stand upright. What constitutes standing upright is usually your hands are supposed to be shorter than your legs, otherwise your hands will drag. There’s also something about the spine, but she didn’t have much of a spine (from the fossils). But when you look at her picture, she looks like a monkey. Her hands are actually still longer than her legs. So what is the missing link? The fossil evidence for the macroevolution of hominids isn’t so concrete. Do we come from apes? It’s not so obvious.
Is it clear that dinosaurs have variations in size, and some of them have feathers? Yes, that is very reasonable. Let’s say we believe that as a single species, homo sapiens, came out of Africa. After that, we go on our different paths, some of us went to the northern parts where it’s very cold and it snows. Due to the snow, we adapt and our hair colour changes, our eyes become smaller so the glare from the ground reflected from the snow will not blind us. Therefore, I look very different from an African guy today, but that’s adaptation. It doesn’t mean that we are of a different species.
Even if human evolution really originated from the apes, the question that I ask myself is what was the force that inspired that? Is it truly just survival, or is there some inherent genetic design that allowed us to evolve that way? Then there is also God, right?
Do you ever feel conflicted?
If I take the Christian word very literally, that God literally created man from nothing in seven days from the bible (which was written by man), there will always be a translation gap because we write based on what we know. If the bible says that God created the earth in seven days, could it literally be days or could it mean seven periods, and each period could be a billion years old? It’s quite an open interpretation to me.
You are this way, possibly because of your creator rather than purely survival of the fittest. If you go into the space of religion, the nature of one’s religious experience is very personal. How you experience something greater than yourself, would convince you much more than any scientific argument would.
You can then easily reconcile that yes, there is God, and obviously there is science too. Are they at odds? Yes. Just be content with the fact that you don’t know everything and be humble. This is coming from a consultant who’s job is to research everything, understand facts and form a strong opinion. There are certain things that you may never understand within your lifetime.