Lee Cheng Yan
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Lee Cheng Yan (b. 1841, Malacca, Straits Settlements - d. 1911), merchant and philanthropist. He was one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Company and helped start a number of schools in Singapore.
Born to a Straits Chinese family in Malacca, Lee arrived in Singapore in 1858. Soon after his arrival, he started Lee Cheng Yan & Co. (company chop Chin Joo) in Telok Ayer Street. The company dealt with general trading and acted as a commission agency firm. In its later years, Lee Cheng Yan & Co. would diversify into shipping, financing and property.
Within a decade of its establishment, the company became one of the more prominent Chinese trading houses which conducted business with Europeans. In 1883, Lee toured Europe with Tay Geok Teat, another Malacca-born businessman, paying special attention to the manufacturing towns in England. The local press billed the two businessmen as the first Straits-born Chinese to visit Britain for commercial purposes.
Straits Steamship Company
In 1890, Lee worked with Dutchman Theodore Cornelius Bogaardt, Mansfield & Company directors and other Chinese tycoons including Tan Jiak Kim and Tan Keong Saik to form the Straits Steamship Company. The company was the first joint Singapore-European shipping venture, with trading houses previously being served by English, Dutch, German and French shipping lines.
Straits Steamship was started with a nominal capital of $10 million and five ships initially plying the ports of Malacca, Penang and Singapore, transporting tin ore and other cargoes such as rubber and rice. Later, the company ferried passengers, largely Chinese labourers bound for the mines and plantations in Malaya.
Lee held an active interest in the affairs of the Chinese community, and was regarded as one of the leaders of the Hokkien community. He retired from day-to-day operations of his company, handing over charge to his son Lee Choon Guan, in order to participate more fully in community service.
He was invited to serve as one of the Hokkien representatives on the Chinese Advisory Board, set up by the British colonial government in 1890 to facilitate better ties between the government and the Chinese community. The board was the only official forum for the Chinese community to discuss matters affecting the interest of the Chinese community, but it also played only a consultative role. Besides being a representative on the Chinese Advisory Boar, Lee was also made a Justice of the Peace.
One of Lee's main concerns was education. He founded and endowed the Hong Joo Chinese Free School in Serangoon Road, which had an starting intake of 70 scholars. He was also one of the original trustees of Gan Eng Seng School and a board member of the Toh Lam Chinese School (later known as Tao Nan School). In addition to his involvement in education, he served on the committees of Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the Po Leung Kuk, a charitable organisation for girls and women.
Lee was also one of the founder members of the Ee Hoe Hean club in 1895, along with other millionaire businessmen like Lim Ho Puah, Tan Cheng Siong and Tan Jiak Kim.
In 1906, Lee chaired a meeting of community leaders during which it was decided that the Thian Hock Keng temple should stop its sponsorship of the Chingay procession and cut short the extended Hungry Ghosts Festival, on the grounds that these activities ran contrary to Confucian values and that the money expended would be better used in education. The meeting was notable for being among early efforts at reform within Singapore's Chinese community.
Lee was also known for his four villas - Magenta Cottage in Killiney Road, which was his main residence, Hampstead Bath in Upper Bukit Timah, Mandalay Villa in Amber Road and a seaside bungalow at Changi Point. He specified in his will that Magenta Cottage could only be sold 21 years after the death of his last surviving grandson. The cottage was eventually sold in May 1991.
Chinese topics in Malaya [Microfilm: NL654]. (1931, December 10). The Straits Times, p.16.
The late Mr. Lee Cheng Yan [Microfilm: NL355]. (1911, June 3). The Straits Times, p.8.
Lee Cheng Yan. (2006). In Singapore: The Encyclopedia (p. 292). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet/National Heritage Board.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
Liu, G. (1999). Singapore: A pictorial history 1819-2000 (p. 162). Singapore: Archipelago Press; National Heritage Board.
(Call no.: SING 959.57 LIU -[HIS])
Singapore Chronicles (p. 102-104). (1995). Singapore: Illustrated Magazine.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SIN [HIS])
Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years history of the Chinese in Singapore (p. 110). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON)
Suryadinata, L. (Ed.) (2002). Ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia: A dialogue between tradition and modernity (p. 215). Singapore: Times Academic Press.
(Call no.: SING 305.895105957 ETH)
Tegonning, K. G. (1967). Home port Singapore : a history of Straits Steamship Company Limited, 1890-1965 (pp. 6, 9-10, 17, 39). Singapore : Oxford
(Call no.: RSING 387.5095957 TRE)
The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Lee, Cheng Yan, 1841-1911
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