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Seow Poh Leng (1883 - 1942) one of the first few Peranakan Babas[1] at Emerald Hill,[2] 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),[3] philanthropist and benefactor of public development works. He was a strong advocate of limited liability trading and promoted the advantages of the Limited Liability Company system.[4][5][6][7][8][9]

Seow Poh Leng
Traditional Chinese蕭保齡
Simplified Chinese萧保龄



Seow Poh Leng, the second son of Seow Chye Watt,[10] came from humble beginnings. He spent two years in a Chinese school and completed his schooling at the Anglo-Chinese School. After passing his Senior Cambridge examinations, he decided to become a teacher. He competed for the Queen's Scholarships in 1902. 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.[10][11]

In order to help support his family, he was forced to take up additional work. After school each day he would sell nonya cakes 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.

Later, Seow moved on from teaching to become the manager of the Ho Hong Bank. He was also a cashier at John Little & Co for many years, before he entered the rice business. His chequered career included stints as a chemist's assistant, schoolmaster, lawyer's clerk, stock-broker, insurance agent and company liquidator.[10][11][12]

He was one of the promoters of the Eastern United Assurance Corporation Ltd. (EUA), Chinese Commercial Bank (CCB) and Ho Hong Bank (HHB). He founded HHB in January 1917[13] together with Lim Peng Siang, Dr Lim Boon Keng and others, and served as its secretary and general manager. HHB was the first Straits Chinese institution to enter the field of worldwide banking and established connections with London, New York City, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Batavia and many others, in order to facilitate direct trade between the Chinese in Malaya and people in other parts of the world. Later, HHB was amalgamated with CCB and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Ltd (OCBC).[10][11][14][15][16]

According to government archives, Seow was responsible for the development of a row of nine terrace houses along Cairnhill Road. The same records show that he owned bungalows in Emerald Hill Road and Lorong 20 Geylang Road, and had additions and alterations done to them.[17] He bought 117 Emerald Hill in 1902.[18]

Public lifeEdit

Seow Poh Leng was concerned with public welfare and engaged in many different roles and activities in this area. He suggested constructing a short connection road between Emerald Hill Road and Cairnhill Circle.[19] He was also involved with the Singapore and South Malaya Boy Scouts Association since its inauguration, holding the position of secretary and treasurer, and did much to interest parents in the movement. Other activities included organising charity and social concerts and entertainment. His contributions to the Straits Chinese Magazine dealt with such subjects as education and social reform.[10]

A love of theatre ran in the family. According to Sir Song Ong Siang, Seow took part in amateur theatricals in the 1930s. He was a lover of Shakespeare and named his seaside bungalow in Siglap "Titania" and his house on Emerald Hill Road, "Oberon."[20] He was considered modern and loved artistic activities such as acting and singing, and served as the Hon. Secretary to the Straits Chinese Recreation Club in 1905.[10][21]

Seow was a keen sportsman on the football field and in club sports, a tennis player and a chess player. He was one of the early members of Tanjong Katong Swimming Party, now the Chinese Swimming Club, where he once held the office of vice-president. During the early years of the volunteer movement, he served in its ranks.[10]

In 1936 His Excellency The Governor appointed him to be a member of the Council of Raffles College.[22]

In 1937 he was elected to membership of the Council of the King Edward VII College of Medicine.[23]

Apart from The Hawker Bill, in which he played a major role, he was also associated with other subjects he believed to be of importance to the common man like championing pedal rickshaws[24] and the abolition of water meter rents.[25]

Hawker BillEdit

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 serious year on year.[26]

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, Superintendent of Town Cleansing, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Clerical Union, Teo Chew guilds, Indo-Ceylon Club and the Straits Chinese-British Association.[26]

Seow championed 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, depositions and 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.[26]

Personal lifeEdit

Seow's family lived in a shop house along Emerald Hill Road opposite Dr Lim Boon Keng, whom he had worked for on a part-time basis. When Lim heard that Lilian LuckNeo Tan's family were looking for a groom for her, he recommended Seow to them. Lilian's family wanted a kind and good man for her and it did not matter to them if he was from a poor or rich family. Lilian was the great grand daughter of famous philanthropist Tan Tock Seng. Her father was Tan Soon Toh and her mother was Lin Neo (Jambol) Seow. 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.[27][28][29] Tan Kim Ching was the son of Tan Tock Seng.[2][30]

Lilian Tan was a refined lady, spared from having to do household chores. Her family lived in a three-storey 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. This meant that her husband would come and set up home in her family's house. Their marriage produced three children - (Seow Sieu Jin, Amy Seow Guat-Cheng and Betty Seow Guat-Beng - later Mrs Betty Lim Koon Teck).[30]

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. When the first influenza epidemic hit Singapore, Lillian succumbed to the virus. She died in October 1918 at the age of 32. In accordance with her wish for a Christian burial, Seow asked a pastor to baptise her and she was buried at Bidadari. Lilian's mother later converted to Christianity.[30][31]

Seow remarried a few years after Lilian's death. His new wife, Polly Tan Poh Li (daughter of Tan Boo Liat) was his niece. Lilian's mother thought it would not be a bad thing for Seow to marry her.[2][30][32] His children by Polly were Eugene Seow Eu Jin and Rosie Seow Guat Kheng.[33]

Seow Poh Leng medalEdit

An alumnus of the Anglo Chinese School, Seow instituted a medal in 1936 to be awarded to the top ACS boy at the Senior Cambridge/GCE "O" Level Examinations.


  1. ^ Reconstructing identities: a social history of the Babas in Singapore - Page 327 - by Jürgen Rudolph - History - 1998
  2. ^ a b c Historic buildings of Singapore by Edwin Lee, Singapore. Preservation of Monuments Board, 1990, ISBN 9971-88-224-8, ISBN 978-9971-88-224-2
  3. ^ British Malaya By Association of British Malaya Published by Newton & company, 1928 Item notes: v.2 1927-1928; p. 60
  4. ^ One hundred years' history of the Chinese in Singapore - Page 474 - by Ong Siang Song - Social Science – 1923/1985
  5. ^ Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society - Page 120 - by Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Malaysian Branch, Singapore - History - 1953
  6. ^ Emerald Hill, the story of a street in words and pictures - Page 23 - by Kip Lin Lee, National Museum (Singapore - Architecture) - 1984
  7. ^ Building bridges, carving niches: an enduring legacy - Page 10 - by Grace Loh, Chor Boon Goh, Teng Lang Tan - Business & Economics - 2000
  8. ^ Seaports of the Far East: historical and descriptive, commercial and ... by Allister Macmillan - 1925
  9. ^ Readings in Malayan economics by Thomas Henry Silcock - 1961
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Song Ong Siang (1923) One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore.London : J. Murray. pp 474 - 475
  11. ^ a b c 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.
  12. ^ The Chinese in Southeast Asia and Beyond By Qinghuang Yan, ISBN 981-279-047-0, ISBN 978-981-279-047-7
  13. ^ Lim Boon Keng - A Life To Remember (1969-1857), Exhibition Archived 18 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ Chinese Business Enterprise By Rajeswary Ampalavanar Brown; p. 137
  16. ^ Capital and Entrepreneurship in South-East Asia By Rajeswary Ampalavanar Brown, 1943- Brown Published by St. Martin's Press, 1994 ISBN 0-312-12096-6, ISBN 978-0-312-12096-2; p. 161
  17. ^ Singapore National Archives -- Maps & Building Plans 1918, 1926, 1927, 1929 -- Microfilm No: CBS 105, Microfilm No: CBS 1105, Microfilm No: CBS 1038
  18. ^ Illustrated Magazine Publishing Co.,Ltd., 1992: Singapore: days of old, Page 101
  19. ^ (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.)
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ 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 0-231-14032-0, ISBN 978-0-231-14032-4; p. 775
  22. ^ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 3 November 1936, Page 11
  23. ^ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 22 May 1937, Page 1
  24. ^ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 27 April 1936, Page 6
  25. ^ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 7 November 1936, Page 3
  26. ^ a b c 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 4 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 25 August 1931, (3) Memorandum from Seow Poh Leng to the President of the Municipal Commissioners of Singapore dated 1 June 1931 relating to a meeting on 9 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 23 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 26 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 4 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 August 1931.
  27. ^
  28. ^ 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)
  29. ^ 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
  30. ^ a b c d Lim, Betty (1994) A Rose on My Pillow: recollections of a Nyonya. Singapore : Armour Publishing.
  31. ^ The Straits Times, 17 October 1918, Page 6
  32. ^ Emerald Hill, the story of a street in words and pictures by Kip Lin Lee, National Museum (Singapore), Published by National Museum (Singapore), 1984
  33. ^ Seow Poh Leng By Lee, Hwee Hoon (2009-01-14) National Library Board Singapore
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  • Jones, G. (1990). Banks as Multinationals (p. 178). New York: Routledge.
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  • Loh, G., Goh, C. B. and Tan, T. L. (2000). Building Bridges, Carving Niches: An Enduring Legacy. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
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  • Silcock, T. H. (1961). Readings in Malayan Economics (p. 460-465). Singapore: D. Moore for Eastern Universities Press.
  • Song, O. S. (1985). One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (p. 474), Singapore: Oxford University Press.
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