Lee Kip Lin
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Lee Kip Lin (b. 11 February 1925, Singapore – d. 9 July 2011, Singapore) was an architect, professor and author. He practised architecture while teaching at Singapore Polytechnic and the University of Singapore, and was a mentor to prominent local architects such as Tay Kheng Soon. After his retirement in 1984, Lee authored several books on architecture in Singapore, including the landmark work The Singapore House 1819-1942, published in 1988. Throughout his life, Lee was a vocal advocate for the conservation of old buildings in Singapore. In 2009, Lee’s collection of rare Singapore memorabilia was donated to the National Library.
Lee was born in 1925 in a seafront house at 19 Amber Road, next to the Chinese Swimming Club. He was the fourth of five children of a wealthy Peranakan family, and enjoyed a comfortable and cultured upbringing. His father, Lee Chim Huk, was a businessman who enjoyed music and books. A keen golfer, Lee’s father was enthusiastic about sports and fitness, and often took his sons on brisk walks. He also equipped Lee with special golf clubs and sent him to the Singapore Island Country Club for lessons with a professional golfer. Lee’s mother, Tan Guat Poh, came from a wealthy Malaccan family. She was a homemaker who had received an education in her youth, an unusual achievement in an era when girls usually did not attend school.
Lee spent his early primary school years at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School at Emerald Hill before transferring to Anglo-Chinese Primary School at Coleman Street in 1933. He later attended Anglo-Chinese Secondary School at Cairnhill. In 1942, the year when he was due to sit for the Senior Cambridge examinations (the equivalent of the “O” Levels at the time), the school was closed due to the advance of Japanese forces. His education was put on hold for almost four years and he was able to continue with his studies only after the surrender of the Japanese in 1945.
At the start of the Japanese Occupation in February 1942, Lee survived a mass screening of thousands of male Chinese civilians at the Telok Kurau English School, which had been converted into a concentration camp. Between September 1942 and December 1945, he worked as a bill clerk in an estate and trust agency where his father, unable to continue his own business, worked as a manager. To avoid being assigned to forced labour, Lee enlisted in the Japanese Medical Auxiliary Service in 1944.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Lee recorded his memories of the Japanese Occupation in a series of oral history interviews for the National Archives of Singapore. Although he did not witness one of the worst atrocities of the period, the Sook Ching massacre, which had taken place on the beach near his house, he recalled hearing gunshots as civilians were executed and seeing bodies washed up on the beach thereafter.
Lee had not done well in school before the war, but his experiences during the war made him determined to complete his education. He began attending private tuition classes in English language and mathematics in late 1944 to prepare to return to school after the war. In December 1946, at the age of 21, he was part of the first post-war batch of students to sit for the Cambridge examinations. He obtained his Malayan School Certificate with a Grade One pass. He read mathematics at Raffles College for three months before leaving for Britain in March 1948 to train at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. After graduating in 1955, he worked for a year at the Housing Division of the London County Council. He returned to Singapore in October 1956.
Lee lived in the family home at Amber Road for a number of years. In 1960, he demolished the house and designed and built a new one on the same site. The Bedok-Tanjung Rhu reclamation works at Amber Road in the late 1960s, however, led to the loss of the house’s seafront position, followed by the building of the new Chinese Swimming Club sports complex in front of the house in the late 1970s. These developments led Lee to regard the house as “intolerable to live in”, and he subsequently sold it.
He and his family moved to a two-storey brick house that he designed and built on the site of a former fruit plantation in Binjai Park. The house was notable for its architectural simplicity and use of design features suitable for a tropical climate, such as a high ceiling for better internal ventilation and a wide veranda to keep the house cool. He also retained three old binjai trees within the property.
Architect and professor
Lee began practising as an architect in 1956. In 1965, he served for a year as a member of the Board of Architects together with his contemporary Alfred H. K. Wong, another prominent local architect. He was at one time a partner with the firm Architects Team 3. He retired from the practice of architecture in 1984.
Lee entered academia after finding that the business side of practising architecture did not suit him. He taught architecture at the Singapore Polytechnic Department of Architecture and Building in the 1960s and 1970s and later at the University of Singapore. Some of the prominent architects he mentored were Tan Kay Ngee and Tay Kheng Soon, who designed the Singapore Management University and Golden Mile Complex respectively. Tay and Lee were good friends for many years, and Tay credits his former lecturer with teaching him about architecture as well as an appreciation of beauty, culture and history.
In April 1990, Lee was part of a three-man delegation selected to represent Singapore at the First ASEAN Architecture Symposium and Exhibition held in Bangkok, Thailand. The symposium was part of the Intra-ASEAN Cultural Programme, which aimed to study and promote indigenous architecture and to encourage the development of the architectural profession in the ASEAN region.
Conservationist and author
Throughout his career, Lee was a leading voice in the public discourse on the preservation and conservation of old buildings in Singapore, and was often consulted for his views on conservation issues. He was a member of the Preservation of Monuments Board during its early years from 1971 to 1977, during which he chaired the Board’s Research, Documentation and Publicity Committee from 1972 to 1975.
After his retirement, Lee published several works on Singapore architecture. These included Telok Ayer Market (1983) and Emerald Hill: The story of a street in words and pictures (1984). In 1988, he published The Singapore House 1819-1942, a landmark work that traces the history of architecture in Singapore. He also contributed a chapter in Tanjong Pagar: Singapore’s cradle of development (1989).
Lee Kip Lin Collection
Lee had a keen interest in Singapore history and amassed an extensive collection of rare memorabilia. In October 2009, the Lee family donated a valuable collection of more than 19,000 items to the National Library of Singapore. The historically significant collection comprises 1,322 monographs, including the complete collection of early Raffles Institution annual reports, and letters and related documents of the East India Company; 291 rare Singapore and Southeast Asian maps; and 630 rare photographs. The collection also includes more than 17,000 slides and negatives of early and modern Singapore, including pictures that Lee, an avid photographer, had taken of Singapore scenes over the years, in particular of shops and streets before they were demolished due to urban renewal.
Lee was in ill health in his later years, and suffered from dementia. He died of pneumonia at the age of 86.
Wife: Lee Li-ming.
Children: Son Lee Peng Hui and daughter Lee Pek Yen.
Siblings: Elder brother Kip Lee and sisters Alice (Joo Lee), Eileen (Joo Har) and Peggy (Joo Leng). Lee Kip Lee is an expert on Peranakan culture and former president of the Peranakan Association. Lee’s nephew (Lee Kip Lee’s son) is composer and Cultural Medallion recipient Dick Lee.
Relatives: Lee’s paternal grandfather was merchant Lee Keng Kiat, a manager of the Straits Steamship Company and after whom Keng Kiat Street in Tiong Bahru is named. Lee’s paternal granduncle was businessman and philanthropist Lee Choon Guan, who owned the land at Amber Road on which Kampong Amber once stood. Lee’s maternal uncle was Tan Cheng Lock, a founding member of the Malayan Chinese Association and one of the founders of modern Malaysia.
Joanna HS Tan
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No chairs, few books but 'we were in high spirits'. (1996, August 10). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved July 25, 2011 from NewspaperSG.
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Lee, K. L. (1983). Telok Ayer market: A historical account of the market from the founding of the settlement of Singapore to the present time. Singapore: Archives & Oral History Dept.
Lee, K. L. (1984). Emerald Hill: The story of a street in words and pictures. Singapore: National Museum.
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Tanjong Pagar: Singapore's cradle of development. (1989). Singapore: Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee.
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 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.