Oei Tiong Ham

Oei Tiong Ham (b. 19 November 1866, Semarang, Indonesia d. 6 June 1924, Singapore) was a successful Indonesian Chinese businessman.  He built the Oei Tiong Ham Concern, which was then one of the earliest business empires in Southeast Asia.  He was also known as the "Sugar King of Java". 

Early life
Oei Tiong Ham was born in Indonesia to Oei Tjie Sien.  He was the elder of two sons. He was educated in a Chinese school.  In 1885, he joined Kian Gwan Kongsi, a multinational trading company that his father established in 1863.

Semarang, Indonesia
With his wealth and businesses, Oei exerted significant influence over the Chinese community in Semarang.  In 1896, the Dutch colonial government appointed Oei the Major of the Semarang Chinese Community.  During that time, many Chinese were legally required to wear the traditional Chinese attire.  In November 1889, Oei got his Dutch lawyer, Baron C. W. van Heeckren, to submit a request for permission to be dressed in European fashion and became the first Chinese in Indonesia to do so.  Subsequently, he also became the first Chinese in Semarang to cut his pigtail.

Testimony to Oei's reputation and social status are the visits he received from distinguished guests, such as the King of Siam, and the crown princes of Denmark and Greece.

Oei Tiong Ham Concern
Oei's most famous legacy is the Oei Tiong Ham Concern (OTHC).  It was the largest conglomerate in the Dutch East Indies in the early 20th century.  It began with Kian Gwan, which Oei inherited from his father in 1890 and converted to a limited liability company in 1893.  The firm's main activity was trade in commodities, such as rubber and coffee.  In addition, it operated pawnshops and postal services.  It was also involved in logging and the highly lucrative opium trade.  Between 1890 and 1904, Oei made a profit of 18 million guilders from the opium trade alone.

Unlike many Chinese businessmen, Oei relied heavily on written contracts. Oei's main debtors in the 1890s were owners of sugar factories in East Java.  Because of the sugar crisis in the 1880s, these factories could not repay the loans.  With the written contracts, Oei legally acquired the collaterals for the loans he extended.  This included five sugar factories. Sugar factories then became the backbone of Oei's company.  Oei was considered the most successful sugar merchant in the Netherlands East Indies and was nicknamed the Sugar King of Java.

From 1890 to the 1920s, OTHC expanded overseas, venturing into banking and shipping businesses as well.  OTHC became the largest ethnic Chinese business conglomerate in pre-war Asia.  In 1912, Kian Gwan, the trading branch of the conglomerate was brought public.  It was capitalised at 15 million guilders.

Oei did not rely on family members to run his business enterprises.  He employed talented outsiders, such as ethnic Dutch directors, managers, and engineers to manage his companies.  Nevertheless, the top managerial positions were held by members of the Oei family.

After Oei's death, OTHC continued to grow.  However on 10 July 1961, the Pengadilan Ekonomi (the court for economic crimes) in Indonesia issued a confiscation order on OTHC in Indonesia.  The company and its owners were charged with economic crimes against the country.  OTHC was then nationalised and renamed on 12 October 1964 to PT Radjawalli.  However, the overseas subsidiaries remained with the Oei family.

Moving to Singapore
In 1920, Oei left Semarang to settle in Singapore. It was suggested that he did so probably because he did not agree with the Dutch succession law.  The Dutch Civil Law gave daughters the right of inheritance.  Apparently Oei did not want any of his daughters to inherit his fortune.  Another likely reason is that he wanted to avoid paying the 30% tax imposed on excess profits earned during the First World War (1914 to 1918).

The 1910 Dutch law required all citizens to report to a Dutch Consulate within three months of arrival in a foreign country or have their citizenships revoked. Oei chose not to do so and conveniently had his Dutch citizenship forfeited.

By 1920, Singapore was already an important base for Oei's business operations. Kian Gwan had earlier established a branch office in Singapore in 1914.  Earlier in 1912, Oei had bought The Heap Eng Moh Steamship Company Limited, a Singapore company registered at 22, Telok Ayer Street, and became its chairman.

In Singapore, Oei gave generously to many causes, including $150,000 for the construction of a central hall for Raffles College.

Wives and children
Oei had 8 official wives who bore him 13 sons and 13 daughters. 

Daughter (s)
Son (s)
Goei Bing Nio;
Oei's first wife,  hand-picked 
by his parents
Oei Tjong-lan
Oei Hui-lan (better known as Mrs Wellington Koo).
The Khiam Nio
Oei Djoe Nio
The Tjik Nio
Oei Hwan Nio
Oei Oen Nio
Oei Liang Nio
Oei Siok Kiong Nio
Oei Tjong Tee
Oei Tjong Swan
Oei Tjong Yoe
Oei Tjong Tiong
Oei Tjong Liam
Ong Tjiang Tjoe Nio
Oei Siok Kiong Nio
Oei Bien Nio
Ong Mie Hoa Nio
Oei Swat Nio
Oei Tjong Hauw
Oei Tjong Tjiat
Oei Tjong Yan
Oei Tjong Ik
Njoo Swat Ting Nio
Oei Siok Ing Nio
Ho Kiem Hoa Nio (alias Lucy Ho); moved to Singapore with Oei.  She lived with him until his death.
Oei Twan Nio
Oei Tjong Le
Oei Tjong Bo
Oei Tjong Hiong
Oei Tjong Tjay
Tan Sien Nio
Oei Siang Nio 

Man of 200 Millions
Oei died of a heart attack in 1924. His daughter, Oei Hui-lan, believed that he was poisoned. Oei's body was shipped to Semarang for burial in his father's tomb.

Oei had made nine sons his rightful heirs but only two, Oei Tjong Swan and Oei Tjong Hauw, reached maturity.  Both inherited an estate worth a total of two hundred million guilders.   Because of the wealth he left behind, Oei became known as the "Man of 200 Millions.

Lee Hwee Hoon

Godley, M. R. (2002).
The Mandarin-Capitalists from Nanyang: Overseas Chinese Enterprise in the Modernisation of China 1893-1911 (p. 18-20).  New York: Cambridge University Press. 
(Call No.: RSING 309.15103 GOD)

Kunio, Y. (1988).
The Rise of Ersatz Capitalism in South-East Asia (p. 218 & 229). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call No.: RSING 330.1220959 KUN)

Kunio, Y. (Ed.) (1989). 
Oei Tiong Ham Concern: The First Business Empire of Southeast Asia.  Kyoto: The Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.
(Call No.: RSING q338.092 OEI)

Pan, L. (1994).
Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora (p. 150-152). New York: Kodansha International.
(Call No.: 909.04951 PAN)

Suryadinata, L. (1995). 
Prominent Indonesian Chinese: Biographical Sketches (p. 114-117). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
(Call No.: RSING 959.8004951 SUR)

Song, O. S. (1985).
One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (p. 205). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call No.: RSING 959.57 SON)

Further reading
Koo, W. and Taves, I. (1975). No Feast Lasts Forever.  New York: Quadrangle.
(Call No.: 327.20924 KOO)

Onghokham. (2003).
The Thugs, the Curtain Thief, and the Sugar Lord: Power, Politics, and Culture in Colonial Java (p. 205-223). Jakarta: Metafor.
(Call No.: RSEA 959.82 ONG)

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.

Community leaders
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Oei, Tiong Ham, 1866-1924

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