Seow Poh Leng

Seow Poh Leng

Seow Poh Leng (1883 - 1942), the second son of Seow Chye Watt, was a prominent and successful Singaporean banker, founding member of the Ho Hong Bank, member of the committee of the Straits Settlement (Settlement of Singapore) [British Malaya By Association of British Malaya Published by Newton & company, 1928 Item notes: v.2 1927-1928; p. 60] famous philanthropist and benefactor of public development works.

The Early Years

Seow Poh Leng, the second son of Seow Chye Watt,Song Ong Siang (1923) "One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore".London : J. Murray. pp 474 - 475] came from humble beginnings. Seow Poh Leng spent two years in a Chinese school and was then sent to Eastern school and finished his schooling at the Anglo-Chinese school. After passing his Senior Cambridge examinations at the Anglo-Chinese School, he decided to become a teacher. He competed for the Queen's Scholarships in 1902. Although he stood high among the candidates, he failed to win the much-coveted prize, and attributed his failure to the fact that he had to divide his time between his duties as a pupil teacher and preparing for the examinations.Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society By Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Malayan Branch Published by The Branch, 1923 Item notes: v.26 1953; p. 117. 118, 119 and Journal By Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Malaysian Branch, Published 1958, Pgs 117, 119 & 120.]

He did additional work to earn money to help support his family. After school each day he would sell nonya kueh and nasi lemak cooked by his mother and sisters. One day when he saw some of his pupils in the distance he threw all of his food away, fearing they would see him and lose respect for him. He was punished when he returned home. In time Poh Leng moved on from his teaching job to become the manager of the Ho Hong Bank and had quite an active social life. He was, for many years, a cashier at John Little & Co after which he entered the rice business. His chequered career included stints as chemist's assistant, a schoolmaster, a lawyer's clerk, a stock-broker and insurance agent and a company liquidator.

The Banker

He promoted the Eastern United Assurance Corporation Ltd. (EUA), the Chinese Commercial Bank (CCB) and the Ho Hong Bank (HHB). He founded the Ho Hong Bank together with Lim Peng Siang, Dr Lim Boon Keng and others and he served there as Secretary and General Manager. The HHB was the first Chinese institution to enter the field of world-wide banking and established connections with London, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Batavia and many other widely separated points, in order to facilitate direct trade between the Chinese in Malaya and people in other parts of the world. Later, the HHB was amalgamated with the Chinese Commercial Bank and the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Ltd (OCBC). [Readings in Malayan Economics By Thomas Henry Silcock Compiled by Thomas Henry Silcock Published by Published by D. Moore for Eastern Universities Press, 1961; 458, 459, 460] [Chinese Business Enterprise By Rajeswary Ampalavanar Brown; p. 137] [Capital and Entrepreneurship in South-East Asia By Rajeswary Ampalavanar Brown, 1943- Brown Published by St. Martin's Press, 1994 ISBN 0312120966, 9780312120962; p. 161]

The Property Developer And Owner

According to government archival records, Seow Poh Leng was responsible for the development of a row of 9 terrace houses along Cairnhill Road. The same records show he owned bungalows in Emerald Hill Road and Lorong 20 Geylang Road and had additions and alterations done to them. [Singapore National Archives -- Maps & Building Plans 1918, 1926, 1927, 1929 -- Microfilm No: CBS 105, Microfilm No: CBS 1105, Microfilm No: CBS 1038]

Public Life

Seow Poh Leng was concerned with public welfare and engaged in many different roles and many different activities to this end.

He suggested making up one short connection road between Emerald Hill Road and Cairnhill Circle. [(Vide Government Records -- Singapore Improvement Trust -- File Reference No: SIT 945/31, File Opened 16/08/1936, File Closed 04/08/1954, Microfilm No.: HDB 1028 Blip No: CD No .: PDF No. Access: 01.)]

He was connected with the Singapore and South Malaya Boy Scouts Association since its inauguration, holding the position of Hon. Secretary and Treasurer and did much to interest parents in the movement which guided and shaped the character and physical and mental well-being of future manhood of the country. His other activities included organising charity and social concerts and entertainments. The "Oberon Concerts" which he used to hold at his residence brought together a large number of people of both sexes at Chinese New Year Season. His contributions to the "Straits Chinese Magazine" dealt with such subjects as Education and Social Reform.

ocial Life

A love of theatre ran in the family. Seow Poh Leng was an English-educated King’s Chinese who was deeply imbued with English literary tradition. According to Sir Song Ong Siang, Seow Poh Leng took part in amateur theatricals in the 1930’s. He was a lover of Shakespeare and named his seaside bungalow in Siglap “Titania” and his big house on Emerald Hill Road, “Oberon.” [Emerald Hill, the Story of a Street in Words and Pictures: The Story of a Street in Words and Pictures By Kip Lin Lee, National Museum (Singapore), National Museum (Singapore) Published by National Museum, 1984; pp. vi, 22, 23] Seow Poh Leng would often have his friends over for evening soirees as he called them with food, satay perhaps, prepared by Lilian's mother and served by his own children (rather than servants) to demonstrate to his guests the high regard he had for them. Seow Poh Leng was very modern and loved artistic pastimes like acting and singing. After dinner he encouraged his children to perform in a sort of mini-concert. Seow Poh Leng served as Hon. Secretary to the Straits Chinese Recreation Club in 1905. [The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama By Gabrielle H. Cody, Evert Sprinchorn Contributor Gabrielle H. Cody, Evert Sprinchorn Published by Columbia University Press, 2007; Item notes: v.1; ISBN 0231140320, 9780231140324; p. 775]

He was a fine performer on the football field and in club sports, a keen tennis player and a stiff opponent on the chess-board. He was one of the early members of Tanjong Katong Swimming Party, since developed into the Chinese Swimming Club, of which he held the office of vice-president. During the early years of the Volunteer movement, he served in the ranks and was one of the group frequently seen on the canteen concert platform.

The Hawker Question in Singapore

Hawkers had been considered by some people to be a nuisance. In 1903 a bill was drafted by the Chinese Protectorate to provide licensing of hawkers and setting aside spaces where hawking was allowed. In 1905 Municipal Commissioners asked that the Municipal Ordinance be amended to provide them with the necessary powers to register hawkers and bring them under control, but this was refused by the Governor. There were numerous other activities through the years intended to regulate and control the number and activities of hawkers. The view among some people was that the evils of hawking were becoming more and more serious year on year.Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore printed at the Government Printing Office in Singapore by W. T. Cherey, Government Printer, 1932 incorporating (1) Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore dated 4th November, 1931, (2) Minutes of a meeting between the committee (W. Bartley, R. Onrart, J. A. Black, Gaw Khek Khiam, S. Q. Wong and Dr. K. Ragunatuan) and Seow Poh Leng dated 25th August, 1931, (3) Memorandum from Seow Poh Leng to the President of the Municipal Commissioners of Singapore dated 1st June 1931 relating to a meeting on 9th March 1931, (4) Annexment I of "C" being a reprint of The Hapless Hawker: A Plea for Humane Treatment by Seow Poh Leng, J. P., M. C. in the Malaya Tribune 23rd March, 1931, (5) Annexment II of "C" being a reprint of "The Hapless Hawker: A Time To Make Allowances by Seow Poh Leng in the Malaya Tribune 26th March, 1931, The Hapless Hawkers: And The Death of the Rev. W. E. Horley M. B. E. by Seow Poh Leng in the Malaya Tribune 4th April, 1931, (6) Annexment IV of "C" being a table of comparative prices (hawkers versus shops or markets) of common articles during the last week in May, 1931, provided by Seow Poh Leng (7) Attachment to Annexment IV of "C" being a supplementary schedule of comparative prices (hawkers versus shops or markets) handed in by Seow Poh Leng to meeting of hawkers committee on 25-8-31.]

In 1931 the Governor of Singapore appointed a committee "to investigate the hawker question in Singapore and to make recommendations as to any change in policy in this respect which may be considered advisable," consulting and taking evidence from The Municipal Health Officer, the Police, the Superintendent of Town Cleansing, The Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Clerical Union, the Teo Chew guilds, the Indo-Ceylon Club and the Straits Chinese-British Association.

Seow Poh Leng was a champion of the plight of hawkers who he felt were being treated callously and without any regard for the social benefits they were bringing or for their own precarious economic situation. Through articles in the newspaper, including a self-composed poem, and through depositions and interview meetings with the committee, he sought to achieve a fair and balanced outcome that would take into consideration the needs of the masses who were not European and who relied on the lower-priced food and non-food merchandise provided by the street hawkers of Singapore, exposing in the process the constant brutality hawkers faced from the authorities and bribery hawkers often had to resort to in order to continue to operate.

Married Into A Grand Old Family

The Matchmaker: Dr. Lim Boon Keng, Seow Poh Leng and the Tan Tock Seng family

Seow Poh Leng's family lived in a shop house along Emerald Hill Road opposite the house of Dr Lim Boon Keng whom he had worked for on a part-time basis. When Dr Lim heard that Lilian LuckNeo Tan's family were looking for a groom for her, he recommended Seow Poh Leng to them. Despite being a family of great renown in Singapore, Lilian's side wanted a kind and good man for her and it did not matter to them if he was from a poor family. Lilian was the great grand daughter of famous philantrophist Tan Tock Seng. Her father was Tan Soon Toh. Tan Soon Toh's father was Tan Kim Ching, Siamese Consul General in Singapore and the person who introduced the schoolteacher, Anna Hariette Leonowens, to the King of Siam. [gutenberg|no=8678|name=The English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Harriette Leonowens (Project Gutenberg)] [Hobden, Heather "The King of Siam's Eclipse: the total solar eclipse of August 18th 1868 and other fateful eclipses in Thailand" (ISBN: 978-1-871443-32-5)] ["Cavenagh Private Letterbooks Volume XI Oct 1865 To Oct 1868 and Volume VII 10th Jul 1863 To 27th Dec 1863". University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada] And of course Tan Kim Ching was the son of Tan Tock Seng.Lim, Betty (1994) A Rose on My Pillow: recollections of a Nyonya. Singapore : Armour Publishing.]

A delicate flower

Lilian Tan was very much a sioh chia (refined young lady, usually spared from having to do household chores). She and her family lived in a three-storeyed house along River Valley Road. When the time came for her to be bethrothed her parents decided the groom should marry into their family which was a common practice at the time and meant her husband would come and set up home in her family's house. Lilian lived a charmed life and was seldom called on to do any heavy or menial work. She loved her children very much and would often play with and engage in activities with them. She rarely raised her voice to her children and was a living example of what it was like to be gracious.


When she was not at home she was usually out involved in charity work. She was one of the original members of the Chinese Women's Association and, during The First World War, was actively involved in fund-raising for the war effort for example by making crepe paper roses which she and her other lady friends then sold.

The flower fades and dies

One evening Lilian was out riding in the family's horse carriage and happened to pass by Bidadari, the Christian cemetery. She noted how peaceful it looked and mentioned that she would like to be buried there when her time came. While on her ride that evening she caught a chill. Lilian did not have a strong constitution and when the first influenza epidemic hit Singapore, she succumbed to the virus. The chill she caught that evening turned into full-blown influenza. She was only 32 when she passed on. In accordance with her wish for a Christian burial Seow Poh Leng asked a pastor to baptise her and she was allowed to be buried at Bidadari. Lilian's mother consulted a medium who told her that Lilian was happy where she was and that it was very peaceful. The medium also said that Lilian could see her own father waving to her to come over from the other side of the cloud but that she could not do so because she was on the Christian side and he was on the Buddhist side. The medium went on to say Lilian had a message for Poh Leng "I'll wait for you at the gates of heaven" which stunned Poh Leng when he heard this because they were the very words she said to him on her deathbed and no one else was privy to them. Lilian's mother got to thinking about her own death and the peacefullness of the Christian heaven convinced her that she should convert and be with her daughter after death.

New beginnings

A few years after Lilian passed on Poh Leng remarried. His new wife was not unknown to his children, in fact she was their cousin. Lilian's mother thought it would not be a bad thing for Poh Leng to marry her. But whereas their cousin had gotten along very well with Poh Leng's children (Duke Seow Sieu Jin, Amy Seow Guat Cheng and Betty Seow Guat beng - later Mrs Betty Lim Koon Teck) in the past, familiarity must have bred contempt and things were never the same again when their step mother entered their household. The children generally kept to themselves and went to their grandmother for help and advice whenever wiser counsel was needed.


ee Also

* 'Seow Sieu Jin - A Second Generation Banker', "Sin Chew Jit Poh (星洲日報)", 26th July 1971.
* Singapore Archives & Oral History Dept, (1984) "Pioneers of Singapore: A Catalogue of Oral History Interviews"
* Theodore R. Doraisamy (ed.) (1986) "Forever Beginning II: one hundred years of Methodism in Singapore". Singapore : Methodist Church in Singapore.

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