Gavin Koh (left of Cheang Sam Teo tomb) together with relatives and Brownies Raymond, Bianca and Darren sometime in May 2023
Everyone has two parents: a mother and a father. Everyone has four grandparents: two grandmothers and two grandfathers; eight great-grandparents, sixteen great great-grandparents and thirty two great great great-grandparents? Why would I seek out one particular branch of my family over any other?
In Singapore’s history, the records are not so clear, much has been lost and not all Chinese families in Singapore are able to trace their ancestors all the way back to China. I have in my veins, Teochew, Hakka and Cantonese blood: if I do know the village my forefathers came from, I do not have the resources to visit China and the trail goes cold.
I am Singaporean, and I identify more with Singapore than I do with China. The Cheang branch of my family has been in Singapore almost since the beginning, since it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in September 1819. Unlike most of my other ancestors, I can follow that line back the farthest and the public records contain a wealth of detail about the Cheang family. Unlike the other branches of my family, this means that I am able to colour-in the stories; and the persons become fully fleshed-out and three-dimensional.
Cheang Sam Teo was my mother’s father’s father’s father’s father and we believe that he arrived in Singapore from China in 1820, probably via Malacca or Batavia. He came from the Chiangchew 漳州 district of Hokkien Province 福建省.
Chiangchew was the major source of Singapore’s earliest Hokkien migrants: although they came to Singapore through the port of Amoy, they did not speak the Amoy dialect. The Hokkien dialect from Chiangchew has distinctive features which make it different from “standard” Amoy Hokkien, and which were carried to Southeast Asia by the Chiangchew migrants. The largest distinctive population of Chiangchew Hokkien speakers is in Penang, and Penang Hokkien retains the key features of this Hokkien dialect.
The most distinctive characteristic of the Chiangchew Hokkien is in the pronunciation of the word “door” 門, which in standard Hokkien is pronounced mng, but in Chiangchew Hokkien is pronounced mui. Similarly, 黃 is pronounced ng in the standard dialect, but ui in the Chiangchew dialect. So, some of the oldest Hokkien families in Singapore have the surname Wee (like Singapore’s former president, Wee Kim Wee) or Oei (if they came via Dutch Batavia). This also solves the mystery of why the city of Amoy 廈門 is called E-mng in standard Hokkien, but ‘Amoy’ in English—it is because English follows the Chiangchew pronunciation of E-mui, since all the Hokkiens whom the British encountered in the 19th century were from Chiangchew.
There are no details of his early life, but Cheang Sam Teo first appears in the public record in 1846, as one of the founders of the Teang Thye Temple on Upper Hokkien Street 清元真君廟. The size of the donation means he must have already attained some considerable wealth by 1846, for the temple did not stand alone and was part of a larger complex of buildings which he built, including a residence for himself, offices and the Teang Thye Clan association (Teang Thye is a district of Chiangchew).
China Square now sits on the site of the old temple and the Teang Thye clan association. Although the temple is no more, the original memorial tablets are retained inside the Chinese restaurant on China Square, along with his name.
The next time Cheang Sam Teo appears in the public record, is as the head of the consortium which wins the Spirit Farm from the colonial government in 1849. In colonial Singapore, alcohol and opium were government monopolies and major sources of tax revenue. The government did not tax these directly, but instead sold the monopolies by annual auction to the highest bidder, and in 1849, Cheang Sam Teo led the consortium that won the monopoly, giving him sole right to import, process and sell opium.
There are no surviving Chinese language records of Cheang Sam Teo’s business dealings, and almost every thing we know about him is from the British colonial records, which are difficult to search, because Cheang Sam Teo’s name is spelled a variety of ways (Chung Tio, Chang Teoh, etc.). We know from the Straits Directory that he owned a number of ships, moving goods to and from Malacca and Hong Kong.
Cheang Sam Teo died in 1862, leaving most of his wealth to his eldest son, Cheang Hong Lim. His will was contested in court: his two elder sons, Cheang Hong Lim and Cheang Hong Guan battled out for their share of the inheritance. Cheang Hong Guan’s claim was that the will was forged, but the case collapsed because the jury rejected his claims.
The majority of Cheang Hong Lim’s wealth was derived from opium, although he traded in a wide variety of goods, including alcohol, tobacco, rice, etc. His company traded under the name Wan Seng 苑生, which therefore also became his courtesy name.
Cheang Hong Lim’s first residence seems to have been located near or at his father’s own residence on 25 Kreta Ayer Street, in the complex associated with the Teang Thye Temple and very close to Cheang Hong Lim Quay. However, he later moved to a new mansion on 115 Havelock Road, next to which he built a new Taoist temple, the Giok Hong Tian Temple 玉皇殿 dedicated to the Jade Emperor.
In his later life, Cheang Hong Lim’s business interests expanded to include huge tracts of property, and he became known as a philanthropist and a pillar of Singapore society. This all appears in the newspapers of the time. His name appears in guest lists for events hosted by the Maharajah of Johore and the Governor of Singapore, including the wedding of the Governor’s daughter in 1886. He put on an exhibition of fireworks at the Esplanade in 1878.
He was a major donor to St Joseph’s Institution and the school band played for him at a concert hosted at his mansion on Havelock Road in honour of his birthday. Chinese temples, Catholic churches, mosques and Hindu temples were all recipients of his generosity. He donated to flood relief in China as well as famine relief in Ireland. He set up Singapore’s first fire brigade, to serve his estates around Havelock Road. The one landmark to which Cheang Hong Lim’s name is still attached today, is Hong Lim Park (bounded by Upper Pickering Street and New Bridge Road) which is the result of a donation he made to the town to create a recreation space. The neighbouring shopping centre and hawker centre were named for the park.
Cheang Hong Lim Place, Cheang Wan Seng Place are also named for him; and there was a formerly a Hong Lim Market (later renamed Covent Garden, bounded by Zion Road and Kim Seng Road). The portion of Alkaff Quay between Ord Bridge and Read Bridge was formerly called Cheang Hong Lim Quay.
At the time of his death, his estate included large tracts of land along River Valley Road, Havelock Road, Jervois Road and Tanglin Road. He was buried in the family cemetery on Havelock Road, in the area now bounded by Stirling Road and Alexandra Road. The cemetery and its 5000 graves were exhumed in the 1960’s to create the first of Singapore’s new towns, called Queenstown. The graves of Cheang Sam Teo and Cheang Hong Lim and the principal members of the Cheang family relocated from Queenstown to Bukit Brown in the 1960’s where they remain today.
Cheang Hong Lim’s will set out that the majority share of his wealth would go to his eldest son, Cheang Jim Hean, but Cheang Jim Hean died young, leaving only an infant daughter to inherit the bulk of the family fortune. Claims and counter claim were litigated in the courts through the ensuing decades, and most of the property was lost during the Japanese occupation of the 1940’s. My branch of the family inherited a stack of legal papers including a copy of Cheang Hong Lim’s will and a schedule of assets which ran to many pages, these we donated to the National Archives in 2020.