Khoo Seok Wan 邱菽园

Khoo Seok Wan (­­邱菽园) (b. 10 November 1874, Fujian, China d. 1 December 1941,1 Singapore) was better known in Singapore as a literary scholar and poet. In his youth, he was a strong supporter of the Reformist Movement in China and founded progressive newspapers that advocated China’s reformation. He was one of the earliest Chinese-educated men to promote education for girls in Singapore.

Early life and education
Born in Fujian, China, Khoo followed his mother to Macau before he joined his father in Singapore in 1881. His father, Khoo Cheng Tiong (邱正忠), was a successful rice merchant and prominent community leader in Singapore. Khoo was trained in traditional Confucian education and returned to his hometown to prepare for the Chinese imperial examinations when he was 15. He passed the district and provincial examinations to attain the level of a juren (举人), which qualified him as a candidate for the central government imperial examinations in Beijing. He failed in his attempt in 1895 and returned to Singapore.2

Involvement in politics
When Khoo Cheng Tiong passed away in 1896, Khoo brought his father’s body back to China for burial. He then toured China and became friends with a number of revolutionary activists. He identified with their ideals in Chinese politics and strongly supported their causes in China. In 1897, he returned to Singapore and, together with Lim Boon Keng, founded Thien Nan Shin Pao (天南新报), a progressive newspaper that advocated China’s reformation. Khoo was the Chinese editor for the newspaper while Lim was engaged as a consultant.3

With the inheritance from his late father, Khoo provided strong financial support to the Hundred Days’ Reform Movement (百日维新) launched in 1898, which was crushed by the Empress Dowager (慈禧太后). On 2 February 1900, he invited Kang Yu-wei (康有为), one of the exiled reform leaders of the movement, to Singapore, paid for all of Kang’s expenses, and protected him during his six-month stay. Kang garnered considerable support among the China-born and China-educated Chinese, as well as the English-educated Babas (Peranakan or Straits Chinese males). He planned another revolt that was scheduled to take place simultaneously in four provinces in central and south China on 9 August 1900, but this was eventually aborted.4 Like many who had donated large sums to support the abandoned revolt, Khoo was disheartened. His relationship with Kang turned sour in 1901 due to a quarrel over the handling of a contribution made by the Chinese in Australia towards the revolution. Khoo put up a notice in Thien Nan Shin Pao on 22 October 1901, announcing his support for the Chinese Qing government and disassociation from the reformists.5

Contributions to education and literature
Khoo was a fervent promoter of Chinese education and culture. He set up the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School along with other prominent contemporaries such as Lim Boon Keng in 1899. His generous gift of $3,000 towards the fund to start this girls’ school was exceptional as most Chinese were apathetic to the cause of female education and refused to contribute anything towards the fund. Khoo also encouraged the setting up of modern Chinese-medium schools in Singapore.6

His strong foundation in traditional Confucian education and his qualification as a candidate for the central government imperial examinations in Beijing singled him out as a scholar in Singapore at that time. He was a prolific writer and was best remembered for the estimated 1,400 poems that he penned over the course of his life. Besides political essays published in newspapers, he also wrote articles to introduce Chinese literature and Chinese translated works of world literature to local readers, as well as critiques of these literary works. Khoo called himself the “Sin Chew’s rich man in exile” (“星洲寓公).7

Influenced by the new-text movement, he believed that traditional texts could not help pupils understand the true meaning of Confucianism as the words used were difficult and archaic. Thus, in an effort to promote Confucianism among the youth in Singapore, he wrote Newly Published Ten Thousand Words (《新出千字文》), a textbook for Chinese students, in 1902.8

Khoo’s extravagant lifestyle was a constant drain on his finances. He donated large sums of money to support politics in China and squandered the rest on courtesans and other pursuits. This, coupled with his lack of interest in business management and failed speculations in land and property, led to the loss of Khoo’s patrimony. Khoo’s brother also lost money in his opium and spirit farm business. In December 1907, both were declared bankrupt.9

Khoo went on to make a living as a newspaperman. He was the chief editor for Cheng Nam Jit Poh (振南日报) between 1913 and 1920. He became the secretary of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1926 and resigned three years later to join Sin Chew Jit Poh (星洲日报) as the editor of its literary supplement in June 1929. Due to poor health, he resigned in early 1930, and then worked as a clerk for the Chang Chow Association (漳州十属旅星同乡会). He left the association in 1938 as his health deteriorated further.10

Suffering from leprosy and living off the generosity of his friends, Khoo died in Singapore on 1 December 1941. He was buried in Bukit Brown cemetery.11

Father: Khoo Cheng Tiong (邱正忠)
Younger brother: Khoo Teck Siong (邱得松)
Wives: Wang Mei (王玫), Lu Jie (陆结)
Sons: Qiu Ying Qu (邱应曲), Qiu Jin Xing (邱金星)
Daughters: Qiu Ming Quan (邱鸣权), Qiu Ming Zhen (邱鸣真)

1. Qiu Xinmin 邱新民, Qiū shū yuán shēngpíng邱菽园生平 [Qiu Shuyuan's Life] (Singapore: Shengyou Bookstore, 1993), 8, 18, 21. (Call no. Chinese RSING 920.05957 QXM)
2. Li Yuanjin 李元瑾, Dōngxī wénhuà de zhuàngjí yǔ xīnhuá zhīshì fēnzǐ de sān zhǒng huíyīng: Qiū shū yuán, línwénqìng, sòng wàng xiàng de bǐjiào yánjiū东西文化的撞击与新华知识分子的三种回应: 邱菽园、林文庆、宋旺相的比较研究 [The Clash of Eastern and Western Cultures and Three Responses of Xinhua Intellectuals: A Comparative Study of Qiu Shuyuan, Lin Wenqing, and Song Wangxiang] (Singapore: Department of Chinese, National University of Singapore, Bafang Cultural Enterprise, 2001), 33–36. (Call no. Chinese RSING 305.552095957 LYJ)
3. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 121. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
4. Qiu Xinmin, Qiū shū yuán shēngpíng, 66.
5. Li Yuanjin, Dōngxī wénhuà de zhuàngjí yǔ xīnhuá, 219.
6. Qiu Xinmin, Qiū shū yuán shēngpíng, 47.
7. Rao zong yi bian, Xīnjiāpō gǔshì jì 新加坡古事记 [Chronicles of Singapore] (香港: 中文大学出版社, 1994), 318. (Call no. Chinese RSING 959.57 JTI-[HIS])
8. Qiu, Shuyuan 邱菽园, Niide senjimon新出千字文 [New thousand characters (Singapore: Shengyou Bookstore, 1902), 81. (From BookSG)
9. Qiu Xinmin, Qiū shū yuán shēngpíng, 81.
10. Li Yuanjin, Dōngxī wénhuà de zhuàngjí yǔ xīnhuá, 42.
11. Qiu Xinmin, Qiū shū yuán shēngpíng, 148.
12. Li Yuanjin, Dōngxī wénhuà de zhuàngjí yǔ xīnhuá, 35.

Further resource
Ho Yi Kai, “Heat and Rain in the Poetry of Khoo Seok Wan,” BiblioAsia (Apr–Jun 2014)

The information in this article is valid as at 2010 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.


Political activists--Singapore--Biography
Khoo, Seok Wan, 1874-1941