Koh Hoon Teck

Koh Hoon Teck (b. 1878?–d. 14 February 1956, Singapore) was both a publisher of Baba Malay titles and a bookseller.1 The Peranakan was beloved by his community for keeping alive the unique dondang sayang, a poetic art form adapted by the Peranakans.

Early life 
Koh was the only son of Koh Lian Gee. In his youth, he was a member of the Cornwall Minstrels, a singing group which included several young Babas. He remained its avid supporter, often hosting the group for its annual general meetings. In 1909, he was elected the Minstrels’ honorary secretary.2

Peranakan performing arts 
Koh was credited for introducing to Malaya the bangsawan, a Malay opera originating from Dutch-occupied Indonesia. The bangsawan was later adapted by the Peranakans into their own wayang Peranakan. However, Koh is most remembered for his passion for the classic art of dondang sayang. The poetic repartee of songs in dondang sayang demands a strong understanding of Baba Malay and its lyrical innuendos. Koh was one of the founding members of the Gunong Sayang Association formed in 1910. Every weekend, Peranakans would gather at the association to practise and perform dondang sayang with Koh, who often accompanied them on the violin. Koh’s home at 105 Chin Swee Road was often the venue of musical activities, including visits by groups such as the Cornwall Minstrels.3

In his older years, Koh was seen as a mentor and guide to the next generation of dondang sayang singers. His publication, Panton dondang sayang Baba Baba Pranakan, was a five-volume collection of dondang sayang songs and poems, published soon after the founding of the Gunong Sayang Association, and probably reflected a growing interest in the art of dondang sayang during this period. The first volume was published in 1911, the second in 1912 and the remaining three in 1916.4 The collection was reprinted several times under Koh’s own publishing house, Koh & Co.

Book publisher 
The Koh & Co. publishing house, located at 90 Bras Basah Road in Raffles Hotel, published Baba Malay titles, such as Cherita Abu Nawas and Cherita Abu Nawas dan Cherita Rampay Rampay, as well as Koh’s own collection of poems in Panton dondang sayang Baba Baba Pranakan.This collection also printed postcards of early Singapore. In addition, Koh published a monthly journal, Postcard Exchange Register, which is believed to have started in 1907. It featured events concerning postcards, such as postcard exhibitions, and other information that postcard aficionados would be interested in.6 Besides books, the publishing house sold an array of goods from stationary to perfumery. Koh was known for bringing new scents into Singapore, such as stangee, a scented wood, and bunga rampay, a floral-based scent. However, his business did not always succeed, and his family was known to have faced difficult times.7

Personal life and death 
He had six sons and four daughters. He lost his three sons and a son-in-law to the Sook Ching massacre during World War II.8

At Koh’s funeral, dondang sayang poems and rhymes accompanied his cortege as he had requested. He was interred according to an ancient Chinese custom.9 His eldest son had to don layers of silken Ming robes while standing on a chair. After consuming a bowl of vermicelli, he transferred his robes to his deceased father. Koh was laid to rest at Bukit Brown Cemetery.10

1911–16: Panton dondang sayang Baba Baba Pranakan


Grandmother: Mrs Chia Kiow Neo (d. 17 January 1910)
Father: Koh Lian Gee (Ghee)
Sons: Kong Swee, Kong Leong, Max
Daughters: Mrs Chin Chye Fong, Mrs Thio Keng Tiang, Mrs Wee Tiang Siew and Mrs Pang Pee Nang

Bonny Tan

1. “He Was Buried with a Song,” Straits Times, 19 February 1956, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Gwee Thian Hock William, “Remembering Baba Koh Hoon Teck: A Pioneering Baba Entrepreneur,” Peranakan Association Newsletter (July–September 2007), 19–20. (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 PAN) 
3. “He Was Buried with a Song.”
4. Bonny Tan, A Baba Bibliography: A Select Annotated Listing of Sources on the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia (Singapore: National Library Board, 2007), 40. (From BookSG)
5. Koh Hoon Teck, Panton Dondang Sayang Baba Baba Pranakan (Singapore: Koh & Co, 1911–16). (Microfilm NL18098)
6. Cheah Jin Seng, Singapore: 500 Early Postcards (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006), 11. (Call no. RSING 769.566095957 CHE)
7. Gwee, “Remembering Baba Koh Hoon Teck.” 
8. Gwee, “Remembering Baba Koh Hoon Teck,” 19.
9. “He Was Buried with a Song.”
10. Philip Goh, “Sing Pantuns for Me at My Funeral,” Straits Times, 16 February 1956, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Koh, Panton Dondang Sayang Baba Baba Pranakan; Tan, Baba Bibliography, 40.
12.  Goh, “Sing Pantuns for Me at My Funeral.” 

The information in this article is valid as at August2020 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.



Koh, Hoon Teck, 1878?–1956
Publishers and publishing--Singapore
Booksellers and bookselling--Singapore
Authors and publishers--Singapore--Biography

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