Teo Soon Kim


Teo Soon Kim (b. 23 June 1904, Singapore–d. 23 April 1978), also known as Teow Soon Kim and later Lo-Teo Soon Kim, was the first local woman admitted to the bar of the Straits Settlements1 and the first woman barrister in Hong Kong when she was admitted to the Hong Kong bar on 8 August 1932.2 She studied in London and was the second Malayan Chinese woman to qualify as a barrister in England, but only practised in Singapore between 1929 and 1932.3

Early life
Teo was the daughter of the Teochew rubber baron, Teo Eng Hock, and his second wife, Tan Sock Gee.4 Her family was prosperous and lived in various homes on Read Street, Prinsep Street, North Bridge Road and in Woodlands where her father had a rubber plantation. She studied at the Methodist Girls’ School even though women’s education was not a high priority for Chinese families at the time, because her father wanted all his children to have the best education possible. He believed that education, unlike wealth, could not be lost. It was unusual then for girls to complete their Senior Cambridge examination, and teaching was one of their few career options.5

Major accomplishments
Studying in England
With her father’s financial support, Teo travelled to England to study law. During her voyage, Teo was looked after by a couple introduced to her family by a missionary. She then converted to Christianity, despite her grandmother’s warning that she would end up as a “hungry ghost”.6 Once in England, she enrolled at the University of London and lived in Finchley.7

In May 1924, Teo was admitted to Inner Temple in London and studied under H. H. L. Bellot, former secretary of the International Law Association. She was called to the bar of England and Wales in June 1927.

Making history in Singapore and Hong Kong
Upon Teo’s return home in late 1928 (as Lo-Teo Soon Kim) she applied to the bar and was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple, and to the Singapore Bar in 1929, thus becoming Singapore’s first female barrister.9 Teo’s father encouraged her to pursue a legal career, but after spending some time in a law firm she decided it was not an appealing vocation.10

Teo spent the next two years in China, then returned to practise in 1931.11 In 1932 she went to the Supreme Court to argue her most significant case, defending a farmer charged with murder after killing his cousin in a fight.12 In doing so, she became the first woman barrister to appear at the assizes.13 Her debut at the assizes drew an unusually large crowd to the public gallery, including many women and friends, who witnessed Teo succeed in securing her client’s acquittal.14

Later that year Teo won another case at the assizes involving a fatal motor accident, but soon thereafter moved to Hong Kong.15 In August 1932, she became the first woman admitted to the Hong Kong bar, making her a pioneer in two colonies. She was uncertain whether to remain there permanently, and details of her subsequent career are unknown.16

Teo died on 23 April 1978.17 In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations.18

Family
Siblings: Half-brother Teo Ping Keh (whose mother was deceased), and one younger sister Teo Moh Tet. She probably had other younger half-siblings, as her father had more than one wife.19

Husband: Lo Long Chi (Dr), whom she married in 1928.20
First cousin once removed: Teo Cheng Guan (d. 10 May 2002), former chairman of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation.21
First cousin twice removed: Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.22



Author

Duncan Sutherland




References
1. Aedit Abdullah. (2005). The legal profession. In K. Y. L. Tan (Ed.), Essays in Singapore legal history. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic and Singapore Academy of Law, p. 202. (Call no.: RSING 349.5957 ESS)
2. Chinese woman barrister. (1932, August 16). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Malathi, D. (2007, October). 40 Law Society and legal firsts facts. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Law Gazette website: http://www.lawgazette.com.sg/2007-10/legalfirst.htm; Chinese woman barrister. (1932, August 16). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. (2014). Teo Soon Kim. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/20-law/158-teosoon-kim
5. Chew, D. (Interviewer). (1992, December 23). Oral history interview with Mrs Goh Heng Chong [Transcript of recording no. 1392/02/01, pp. 1–5, 11]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
6. Chew, D. (Interviewer). (1992, December 23). Oral history interview with Mrs Goh Heng Chong [Cassette Recording No. 1392/02/01, pp. 7, 10–11]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

7. Teo, S. K. (1925, January 27). Chinese and England. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Chinese woman barrister. (1932, August 16). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Malathi, D. (2007, October). 40 Law Society and legal firsts facts. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Law Gazette website: http://www.lawgazette.com.sg/2007-10/legalfirst.htm   
10. Chew, D. (Interviewer). (1992, December 23). Oral history interview with Mrs Goh Heng Chong [Cassette Recording No. 1392/02/01, p. 7]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
11. Social and personal. (1931, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved NewspaperSG.
12. Assizes triumph for Mrs Lo. (1932, January 9). The Straits Times, pp. 12, 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Straits budget supplement [Microfilm no.: NL 2193]. (1932, January 14). The Straits Budget, p. 93.
14. Woman assigned for the defence. (1932, January 8). The Straits Times, p. 14; Assizes triumph for Mrs Lo. (1932, January 9). The Straits Times, pp. 12, 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Negligence that was not criminal. (1932, May 6). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. (2014). Teo Soon Kim. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/20-law/158-teosoon-kim
16. Chinese woman barrister. (1932, August 16). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. (2014). Teo Soon Kim. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/20-law/158-teosoon-kim
17. Rojak Librarian. (2014, April 11). Teo Soon Kim (pioneer female lawyer). Retrieved 2017, January 5 from Rojak Librarian website: http://mymindisrojak.blogspot.sg/2014/04/teo-soon-kim-pioneer-female-lawyer.html  
18. Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. (2014). Teo Soon Kim. Retrieved 2016, December 30 from Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/20-law/158-teosoon-kim
19. Chew, D. (Interviewer). (1992, December 23). Oral history interview with Mrs Goh Heng Chong [Transcript of recording no. 1392/02/01, pp. 2, 4]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
20. The wedding of Singapore’s first lady lawyer. (1928, December 22). Malayan Saturday Post, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Chew, D. (Interviewer). (1992, December 23). Oral history interview with Mrs Goh Heng Chong [Transcript of recording no. 1392/02/01, p. 8]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Obituaries. (2002, May 12). The Straits Times, p. 30; Former OCBC Bank chairman dies. (2002, May 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 1157. (Call no. RSING 959.004951 SOU)



The information in this article is valid as at 2015 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
Women lawyers--Singapore--Biography
Teo, Soon Kim
Personalities
Law and government
Personalities>>Biographies