Seow Poh Leng



Seow Poh Leng (b. 1883, Singapore–d. 1942, Singapore) was a prominent banker. He was one of the three pioneers of Ho Hong Bank, which later merged with two other banks to form the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation. Seow also played an instrumental role in promoting international banking to the Chinese in Southeast Asia.1

Early life
Born in 1883, Seow was the second son of Seow Chye Watt. His parents had migrated to Singapore from Malacca.2


Seow was first enrolled in a Chinese school and spent two years there. He was then transferred to Eastern School, and completed his education at Anglo-Chinese School (ACS). After passing the Senior Cambridge examination at ACS, Seow became a teacher and taught at the Eastern School from 1900 to 1901. Between 1902 and 1904, he taught at ACS and Raffles Institution. He applied for the Queen Scholarship in 1902 but was unsuccessful.3

Besides being a teacher, Seow also worked as a chemist’s assistant, a law clerk and a stockbroker. He was an insurance agent with Great Eastern Life Assurance Company Limited in 1912, and a clerk at John Little & Company at one time. He was also once briefly involved in the rice trading business.4

Ho Hong Bank
Seow entered the banking sector when he joined Chinese Commercial Bank.5 He subsequently left the bank to work at Ho Hong Bank, which he co-founded in 1917 with Hokkien merchant Lim Peng Siang and well-known public figure Lim Boon Keng.6


Seow was the general manager of Ho Hong Bank, a position he held until his retirement in 1932. The bank started with an issued capital of 3.5 million Straits dollars, of which half was paid up. By 1920, it had a fully paid-up capital of 4 million Straits dollars. The bank’s main objective was to expand into Southeast Asia and China, particularly in foreign exchange transactions.7

Seow introduced the foreign exchange business to Chinese banks in Southeast Asia. He also advocated the benefits of a limited-liability company to many Chinese businessmen.8 He relied mainly on his own study and observations to acquire knowledge on various banking mechanisms.9

Ho Hong Bank soon became an important foreign exchange bank in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Malaya. From 1925 to 1929, the bank generated profits of between 572,000 and 1,003,000 Straits dollars. However, it suffered huge trading and foreign exchange losses during the economic depression in the 1930s. Its capital and reserves were valued at only 2.6 million Straits dollars in June 1932. On 31 October 1932, the bank merged with Oversea-Chinese Bank and Chinese Commercial Bank to form Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (now known as OCBC Bank).10

Theatre
An avid theatre lover, Seow took part in many amateur theatricals. He named his seaside bungalow in Siglap “Titania”, and his house at 117 Emerald Hill Road “Oberon”, both of which are names of characters in Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.11 An early resident of Emerald Hill, Seow lived at 117 Emerald Hill Road shortly after it was built in 1902. After his death in 1942, his family continued to reside there until 1957 when the house was demolished to make way for the present block of flats.12


Seow often invited friends to Oberon for evening soirees. He enjoyed acting and singing,13 and once played the principal character in a farce titled In a Race for a Dinner. The purpose of the performance was to raise funds to repair the roof of the Straits Chinese Recreation Club at Hong Lim Green. Seow also acted in a dramatic piece titled Cherry Bounce at the same venue on 18 February 1902.14

Public role
Seow was active in clubs and sports. He was honorary secretary of the Straits Chinese Recreation Club in 1905. He was also honorary secretary and treasurer of the Singapore and South Malaya Boy Scouts Association, and vice-president of the Tanjong Katong Swimming Party.15


Concerned with public welfare, Seow organised numerous “charity and social concerts” to raise funds for various causes. He also contributed articles to The Straits Chinese Magazine on issues relating to education and social reform.16

Seow Poh Leng medal
The Seow Poh Leng medal was instituted in 1936 for students of ACS. It is awarded to the school’s top student in the Senior Cambridge/General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level examinations.17


Marriage
Seow’s family lived in a shophouse on 117 Emerald Hill Road, opposite Lim Boon Keng’s residence. When Lim heard that the family of Lilian Tan, the great-granddaughter of pioneer and philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, was seeking a prospective groom for her, he recommended Seow. Notwithstanding Seow’s humble background, the wealthy Tan family accepted Lim’s recommendation as they only wanted a kind and good man for Tan.18


Like Seow, Tan was heavily involved in charity work. She was a member of the Chinese Women’s Association. During World War I, she helped to raise funds for the war efforts. Unfortunately, when the first influenza epidemic hit Singapore, Tan succumbed to the virus and died at a young age of 32. To fulfil her wish for a Christian burial, Seow asked a pastor to baptise her before her death. She was then buried at Bidadari Cemetry.19

Seow remarried a few years later. His second wife,Polly Tan Poh Li,was the daughter of Tan Boo Liat, who was the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng.20

Family
21
First Wife:
Lilian Tan Lark Neo (alias Lilian Tan Luck Neo)

Second wife: Polly Tan Poh Li
Sons: By first wife: Duke Seow Siew Jin (alias Seow Sieu Jin); By second wife: Eugene Seow Eu Jin
Daughters: By first wife: Amy Seow Guat Cheng and Betty Seow Guat Beng; By second wife: Rosie Seow Guat Kheng



Author
Lee Hwee Hoon



References
1. Lee, K. L. (1984). Emerald Hill: The story of a street in words and pictures. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 22–23. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
2. Lee, K. L. (1984). Emerald Hill: The story of a street in words and pictures. Singapore: National Museum, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
3. Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 474. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
4. Lee, K. L. (1984). Emerald Hill: The story of a street in words and pictures. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 22–23. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
5. Lee, K. L. (1984). Emerald Hill: The story of a street in words and pictures. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 22–23. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
6. Jones, G. (Ed.). (1990). Banks as multinationals. London; New York: Routledge, p. 178. (Call no.: RBUS 332.15 BAN)
7. Jones, G. (Ed.). (1990). Banks as multinationals. London; New York: Routledge, p. 178. (Call no.: RBUS 332.15 BAN)
8. Loh, G., Goh, C. B., & Tan, T. L. (2000). Building bridges, carving niches: An enduring legacy. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 10. (Call no.: RSING 332.1095957 LOH)
9. Silcock, T. H. (Ed.). (1961). Readings in Malayan economics. Singapore: D. Moore for Eastern Universities Press, p. 462. (Call no.: RCLOS 330.9595 SIL)
10. Brown, R. A. (Ed.). (1996). Chinese business enterprise. London: Routledge, pp. 137–138. (Call no.: RBUS 338.50951 CHI)
11. Seow, J. (2008, September 30). Jeffrey Seow’s family tree. Retrieved 2017, June 29 from rootsweb website: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=jefferyseow&id=I14
12. Singapore days of old: A special commemorative history of Singapore. Singapore; Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Pub., p. 101. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
13. Lim, B. (c1994). A rose on my pillow: Recollections of a nyonya. Singapore: Armour Pub., pp. 10–11. (Call no.: RSING 920.72 LIM)
14. Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 359, 372. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
15. Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 474—475. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
16. Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 475. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
17. Anglo Chinese School Singapore. (2012, August–September). A legacy of service: A chat with affable Mr Richard Seow.  Retrieved from 2017, June 29 from ACS Echo: http://www.blueskies.com.com/alumni/aug_sep_12/richard_seow.html
18. Lim, B. (c1994). A rose on my pillow: Recollections of a nyonya. Singapore: Armour Pub., p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 920.72 LIM)
19. Lim, B. (c1994). A rose on my pillow: Recollections of a nyonya. Singapore: Armour Pub., pp. 5–7. (Call no.: RSING 920.72 LIM)
20. Seow, J. (2008, September 30). Jeffrey Seow’s family tree. Retrieved 2017, June 29 from rootsweb website: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=jefferyseow&id=I14; Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 92–93. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
21. Seow, J. (2008, September 30). Jeffrey Seow’s family tree. Retrieved 2017, June 29 from rootsweb website: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=jefferyseow&id=I14



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.

Subject
Bankers--Singapore--Biography
Personalities
Seow, Poh Leng, 1883-1942
Personalities>>Biographies
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Services>>Banking