Seow Poh Leng

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

Early life
Seow Poh Leng was born in 1883. He was the second son of Seow Chye Watt. His family came to Singapore from Malacca.

Seow was first enrolled in a Chinese school and spent two years there. Thereafter, he was transferred to a school called the Eastern School. He completed his education at the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS). After he passed the Senior Cambridge examinations at the ACS, he decided to teach. He first taught at the Eastern School from 1900 to 1901. Between 1902 and 1904, he taught at the ACS and Raffles Institution. In 1902, he applied for the Queen's Scholarship but was unsuccessful.

Seow's interesting career path included various different jobs such as a chemist's assistant, a law clerk, a stockbroker and an insurance agent. He was also, at one time, a clerk at John Little & Company. In addition, he was once briefly involved in the rice trading business. Seow entered the banking world when he joined the Chinese Commercial Bank (CCB).

Ho Hong Bank
Seow subsequently left CCB to work at the Ho Hong Bank, which he co-founded with Lim Peng Siang and Dr. Lim Boon Keng in 1917. Lim was a rich Hokkien merchant and Dr. Lim was a well-known public figure. Seow was made the General Manager of the bank, and held this position 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 1940, it had a fully paid-up capital of $4 million. The bank's main focus was to expand into Southeast Asia and China, particularly in foreign exchange transactions.

As a banker, Seow introduced the foreign exchange business to the Chinese banks in Southeast Asia.  He also advocated the benefits of a limited liability company to many Chinese businessmen.  He relied mainly on his own study and observations to educate himself on the various banking mechanisms.

The Ho Hong Bank soon became an important exchange bank in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Malaya. From 1925 to 1929, the bank had profits between $572,000 and $1,003,000. However, it suffered huge trading and foreign exchange losses during the 1930s economic depression. Its capital and reserves were valued at only $2.6 million in June 1932. On 31 October 1932, the Ho Hong Bank merged with the Overseas-Chinese Bank and the Chinese Commercial Bank to form the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation. 

A theatre-lover, Seow took part in amateur theatricals in the 1930s. He adored Shakespeare. He named his seaside bungalow in Siglap "Titania'' and his house on Emerald Hill, "Oberon". He was an early resident of Emerald Hill, having purchased and lived in unit 117 shortly after it was built in 1902. After his death in 1942, his family continued to live there until 1957 when the house was demolished to make way for the present block of flats.

Seow often invited friends to Oberon for evening soirees. He enjoyed acting and singing. He once acted in a farce, In A Race For A Dinner. The aim of the performance was to raise funds to repair the roof of the Straits Chinese Recreation Club on Hong Lim. He also acted in another dramatic piece, Cherry Bounce, at Hong Lim Green on 18 February 1902. 

Public role
Seow was active in clubs and sports. He held several positions-

  •       Honorary Secretary to the Straits Chinese Recreation Club in 1905. 
  •         Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the Singapore and South Malaya Boy Scouts Association.
  •         Vice-President of Tanjong Katong Swimming Party.

Concerned with public welfare, Seow organised many charity and social concerts to raise funds for various causes. He also contributed articles to the Straits Chinese Magazine on issues regarding education and social reform.

Seow Poh Leng Medal
The Seow Poh Leng medal was instituted in 1936 for the students of the ACS. It is awarded to the top student at the Senior Cambridge/GCE 'O' Level Examinations.

Marriage into the Tan family
Seow's family lived in a shophouse along Emerald Hill Road opposite the house of Lim Boon Keng. When Lim heard that Lilian Tan's family was looking for a prospective groom for her, he recommended Seow. Tan was the great-grand daughter of Tan Tock Seng (an early pioneer of Singapore). Despite its wealth and status, the Tan family accepted the recommendation. They only wanted a kind and good man for Tan. It did not matter that Seow was from a humble background.

Like Seow, Tan was very 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.

When the first influenza epidemic hit Singapore, Tan succumbed to the virus and died at a young age of 32 years. To comply with her wish for a Christian burial, Seow asked a pastor to baptise her. She was then buried at Bidadari, the Christian cemetery.

Seow remarried a few years later. His second wife was Tan Boo Liat's daughter, Polly Tan.

Wife: Lilian Tan Lark Neo (alias Lilian Tan Luck Neo), Polly Tan Poh Li. 
Son: Duke Seow Siew Jin (alias Seow Sieu Jin) and Seow Eu Jin.  
Daughters: Amy Seow Guat Cheng and Betty Seow Guat Beng.

Lee Hwee Hoon

Brown, R. A. (1994). Capital and Entrepreneurship in South-East Asia (p.161).  New York: St. Martin's Press.

(Call No.: RSING 338.040959 BRO)

Brown, R. A. (Ed.) (1996). Chinese Business Enterprise (p.137-138).  London: Routledge.
(Call No.: RBUS 338.50951 CHI)

Jones, G. (1990). Banks as Multinationals (p.178).  New York: Routledge.
(Call No.: RBUS 332.15 BAN)
Lee, K. L. (1984).  Emerald Hill, the Story of a Street in Words and Pictures: The Story of a Street in Words and Pictures (p.22-23).  Singapore: National Museum.
(Call No.: RSING 959.57 LEE -[HIS])

Loh, G., Goh, C. B. and Tan, T. L. (2000).  Building Bridges, Carving Niches: An Enduring Legacy.  Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call No.: SING 332.1095957 LOH)

Singapore Tatler (1992). Singapore days of old: a special commemorative history of Singapore (p.101). Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Publishing Company Limited.
(Call No.: RSING 959.57 SIN -[HIS])

Silcock, T. H. (1961). Readings in Malayan Economics (p.460-465).  Singapore: D. Moore for Eastern Universities Press.
(Call No.: RCLOS 330.9595 SIL)

Song, O. S. (1985). One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (p.474), Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call No.: RSING 959.57 SON)

Further reading
Lim, B. (1994). A Rose on My Pillow: Recollections of a Nyonya (p.1-11).  Singapore: Armour Publishing.
(Call No.: RSING 920.72 LIM)

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.

Seow, Poh Leng, 1883-1942
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Services>>Banking

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