TL;DRA 2021 discovery of a pair of boundary markers uncovered the true extent of prominent philanthropist Tan Kim Seng’s sweeping estate, as well as the little-known story of merchant Sim Liang Whang and his business, Teck Kee, after which a road on the fringe of Serangoon Gardens is named after.
History In Plain Sight
For more than a century, Dover Forest hid a secret. Partially buried under a soft pile of leaves was a boundary marker linked to one of the largest swathes of land likely ever owned by a single person in modern Singapore’s history.
In January 2021, while out on a site visit with some members of the nature community, National Development Minister Desmond Lee stumbled upon the artefact. On closer inspection, it was clear that the moss-covered granite marker belonged to prominent merchant Tan Kim Seng for it bore his English initials, as well as the name of his family’s business in Chinese “豊興” (Hong Hin).
One of the oldest surviving personalised boundary markers likely to exist in Singapore was discovered in Dover Forest in January 2021. The 90cm long slab was covered in moss with about two-thirds of it buried. It weighs 62kg, the average weight of an adult. Its discovery serves as a tangible reminder of Tan Kim Seng’s larger-than-life presence and spirit of enterprise. It now lies in the National Heritage Board’s care.
Boundary markers demarcate the perimeters of land owned. Its discovery thus provides concrete evidence of the scale of Tan’s estate, depicted on a 1885 map.
Likely purchased by Tan as an investment in 18621, researchers ascertained that the estate stretched from present-day Clementi Avenue 2 in the west to Dawson Road in the east, and also encompassed the area beginning at the School of Science and Technology — a specialised independent secondary school in the north, all the way down to Southern Kent Ridge Park in the south.
To put it simply, Tan’s estate ran the length of more than four MRT stations beginning at Queenstown, passing through Commonwealth and Buona Vista, and ending after Dover, en-route to Clementi.
Watch: The Story of Tan Kim Seng's Hong Hin Marker
Vivienne Tan, who published a book about Tan Kim Seng, her husband's ancestor, shares about the family's delight upon learning about the existence of the boundary marker. Meanwhile, map research consultant Mok Ly Yng weighs in on its significance.
The substantial area Tan Kim Seng owned in southwestern Singapore during the 19th century which is now home to educational campuses such as the National University of Singapore and Singapore Polytechnic, as well as a part of the Southern Ridges, one-north, and Queensway. The marker, depicted by the cross above, delineates the northernmost frontier of Tan’s estate which was once planted with rubber and coconut trees. Source: OneMap
The marker lends credence to the oft-repeated refrain — at least among his descendants — that the family had once owned “the whole of Queenstown”2.
Portrait of prominent philanthropist Tan Kim Seng — one of the largest landowners in Malacca and Singapore during the 19th century. Tan’s empire also comprised mansions, warehouses, and a slew of other properties. Collection of the Asian Civilisations Museum.
The estate, much of which was uncultivated, was handed over to the colonial government in 1947 by Tan's great-great grandson Eng Chiang.
A Surprise Find
During the excavation of Tan’s marker in October 2021, a second marker, engraved with just the words “德記界” (Teck Kee’s Boundary in Chinese), was found. This time, some sleuthing was required to unearth its owner and his backstory.
The Chinese characters 德記界, which mean Teck Kee’s Boundary, were painted in red — an auspicious and eye-catching colour.
Researchers eventually learnt that the land lot where Tan’s marker had been found, shared a boundary with land owned by Sim Liang Whang (1856-8 March 1921) — a merchant who ran a business called Chop Teck Kee3 at 15 and 16 Kling Street (present-day Chulia Street in downtown Singapore).
Watch: A Serendipitous Discovery - The Story of Sim Liang Whang's Teck Kee Boundary Marker
Senior Conservator (Objects) Berta Mañas Alcaide shares the steps involved in the conservation of the granite markers while map research consultant Mok Ly Yng discusses the significance of Sim Liang Whang's marker with Winston Lim, General Manager of Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.
Land records show that Sim purchased two lots in the area for a combined total of four acres — the size of about two football fields — where he ran a modest rubber plantation. He owned it for 11 years after buying it from another merchant.
Sim, who also traded pepper and gambier4, became synonymous with the name Teck Kee, likely because of the success it saw.
In October 2021, both markers were carefully extracted and sent to the Heritage Conservation Centre for cleaning, conservation treatment, and further research.
Conservators conducting an initial survey of the boundary markers at the Heritage Conservation Centre.
Delving deeper into Sim’s story, researchers learnt that Jalan Teck Kee — an existing road on the fringe of Serangoon Gardens which he owned — was named after his business. A village named after the road also sprouted up in the area before it was redeveloped in the 1980s. It was likely that Chop Teck Kee was one of Sim’s most important or significant enterprises.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew greeting residents of Jalan Teck Kee Village from his campaign vehicle during his tour of Serangoon Gardens in 1963. Image from the National Archives of Singapore.
Together with the road, the marker represents the life and legacy of Sim, and offers Singaporeans of today a unique opportunity to learn more about the merchant class of yesteryear.
Both unearthed artefacts will be in good company for they join a pair of boundary markers used by businessman and philanthropist Cheang Hong Lim (1825–1893) and his son to demarcate the limits of the land they owned near present-day Pasir Panjang. These were added to the National Collection in 2015.
Boundary markers used by Cheang Hong Lim (1825–1893) and his son to demarcate the limits of land they owned. These artefacts were added to the National Collection in 2015., Gift of Loy Siang Teng and Kee Kok Leng. Collection of the Peranakan Museum.
In 1881, Sir Henry Edward McCallum, the Acting Colonial Engineer and Surveyor-General of the Straits Settlements, introduced the practice of marking boundaries permanently with granite stones. On 12 May 1882, the Landmarks Ordinance which required landowners to install appropriate markers, came into effect.
Today, boundary markers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are cylindrical and made out of concrete, others might be made out of iron spikes. The least obtrusive ones are cut marks on tiles. These days, only land surveyors are permitted to install boundary markers in Singapore.
Tan Kim Seng
A road, bridge and fountain are named after Tan (8 November 1806-14 March 1864), a prominent Peranakan businessman and philanthropist who is known for his contributions to waterworks in the colony, as well as his charisma and large parties7.
His ability to converse in Chinese, Malay and English gave him a leg-up over his business rivals,8 paving the way for him to ink deals with both British and Chinese merchants.9
Originally based in Malacca, but prompted to move because the Dutch were taxing businessmen like him heavily, Tan left for British-run Singapore.10
He started out trading spices before moving into estate management, making the conscious effort to avoid getting involved in the highly profitable opium trade.
His company Hong Hin has roots in Malacca. It was started by his grandfather who moved from China to Malaya in the hopes of carving out a new life. Tan grew Hong Hin and continued to make a success of it.
With the goal of raising educational standards, Tan started Chong Wen Ge, Singapore’s first Chinese school in 1849 along Telok Ayer Street. Although the school is now defunct, the pavilion in which it was housed still stands today, having been gazetted as a national monument in 1973 alongside the neighbouring Thian Hock Keng temple. Tan also founded the Chui Eng Free School in 1854.
Sim Liang Whang
While Sim is less famous than Tan, his story is similarly riveting, especially since it offers a snapshot into another strata of society — the upper middle class of yesteryear who poured their hearts into succeeding in the colony.
Sim was a first-generation immigrant to Singapore, having moved to the island as a teenager from the Chao’an District of Guangdong, China.
To get an edge over his competitors, he adopted the name Sim Choon Kee which was presumably simpler for English-speaking clients and businessmen to remember. He also went by the name Sim Teck Kee, after his most successful business. This was possibly great for brand recall.
Over time, Sim became a relatively successful businessman. For instance, his involvement in the rubber trade extended to Johore. According to an advertisement in August 1923, he owned almost 300 acres of rubber estate in Muar and another 85 or so acres in Kota Tinggi.11
Sim also grew to become a prominent Teochew community leader, doing well enough to co-found Tuan Mong School in 1906;12 and contribute to the establishment of one of Singapore’s earliest banks — the Sze Hai Tong Banking & Insurance Company Limited which later merged with the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Limited or OCBC.13
Sim Liang Whang was a Teochew community leader who, among other things, co-founded Tuan Mong School (above) in 1906. Collection of the National Museum of Singapore.
To further integrate into the colony, Sim enrolled his sons in English language schools. The oldest, Boon Kwang, became a member of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry and rose to the rank of corporal before leaving the local militia unit in 1907. His second son Boon Eng was a shipping clerk. His youngest, Boon Teck, was a lawyer.
Records show that Sim threw his weight behind important political causes. For instance, both he and his son Boon Kwang (沈文光) were members of the Tong Meng Hui (同盟会) Singapore Branch — an underground resistance movement founded by Dr Sun Yat Sen who was involved in overthrowing the Qing dynasty and securing China’s future as a modern republic.
Record on the Tongmenghui Singapore Branch by Lim Nee Soon (1928) Reproduced with Permission from Xiamen University
While both Tan and Sim’s trajectories differed somewhat, the paths of their descendants would one day converge serendipitously.
An entry in the book One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore notes that Boon Kwang and Tan's great-grandson Tan Soo Bin, both members of the Chinese Company of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry, participated in the same meeting in 1905.
Tan Kim Seng’s great-grandson Soo Bin and Sim Liang Whang’s son Boon Kwang likely crossed paths while serving as members of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry according to this excerpt from the book One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (above) which notes that they attended the same meeting in 1905.14
Sim also owned a shop at 71 North Boat Quay called Chop Huat Seng which was likely his final business venture. It was also the site of his wake in 1921. Upon his passing, revolutionary leader Dr Sun conveyed his condolences to Sim’s family through prominent local revolutionary leaders.
1 Tan, V. (2019) Tan Kim Seng: A Biography. Landmark Books. https://books.google.com.sg/books/about/Tan_Kim_Seng.html?id=vw8LEAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&hl=en&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
2 Yong, C. (2021, Nov 21). A 90cm buried rock reveals an 1860s estate stretching from Clementi to Queensway. The Straits Times. GT4. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/a-90cm-buried-rock-reveals-an-1860s-estate-stretching-from-clementi-to-queensway
3 It was standard practice to affix the word chop before the names of Chinese businesses during the colonial era.
4 Leong, S.Y. S'pore Roots (4 January, 1984). Singapore Monitor, 4 January 1984. Retrieved 2022, from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singmonitor19840104-184.108.40.206
5 Boundary Marker 苑生(全记)界. In Roots. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.roots.gov.sg/Collection-Landing/listing/1323741
6 Boundary Marker 苑生界止. In Roots. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.roots.gov.sg/Collection-Landing/listing/1323304
7 Zaccheus, M. (2019, Feb 10). Shedding light on life and legacy of Peranakan pioneer Tan Kim Seng.The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/shedding-light-on-life-and-legacy-of-tan-kim-seng?fbclid=IwAR0x9OQxf2WCnYe5_VDclH1ZCO5khnJWXUhyTDQT8Jmzkt2YNOo2ljdItew
8 Chia, J.Y., Chew, V. (2016). Tan Kim Seng. In Infopedia. Retrieved 2021, from https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1119_2010-05-07.html
9 Zaccheus, M. (2019, Feb 10). Shedding light on life and legacy of Peranakan pioneer Tan Kim Seng.The Straits Times. . https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/shedding-light-on-life-and-legacy-of-tan-kim-seng?fbclid=IwAR0x9OQxf2WCnYe5_VDclH1ZCO5khnJWXUhyTDQT8Jmzkt2YNOo2ljdItew
10 Zaccheus, M. (2019, Feb 10). Shedding light on life and legacy of Peranakan pioneer Tan Kim Seng.The Straits Times. . https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/shedding-light-on-life-and-legacy-of-tan-kim-seng?fbclid=IwAR0x9OQxf2WCnYe5_VDclH1ZCO5khnJWXUhyTDQT8Jmzkt2YNOo2ljdItew
11 Advertisements Column 1, Page 13. The Straits Times. (1923, 7 August). Retrieved 2022, from .http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19230807-220.127.116.11
12 Tuan Mong School. In Roots. Retrieved 2021, from https://www.roots.gov.sg/Collection-Landing/listing/1135041
13 Chia, J.Y. (2019). Sze Hai Tong Banking & Insurance Company Limited. In Infopedia. Retrieved 2021, from https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1162_2008-10-28.html
14 Song, O.S. (1923). One hundred years' history of the Chinese in Singapore. Murray.