The Chinese High School

The Chinese High School was founded in 1919 as the first secondary school in Singapore offering a modern education using the Chinese language.1 Initially operating out of bungalows on Niven Road, the school relocated to its current location along Bukit Timah Road in 1925. The clock tower building on the school’s campus is now a gazetted national monument.2 Today, it is known as Hwa Chong Institution, a premier education institution in Singapore that consists of both secondary school and junior college sections.3

The idea of establishing a secondary school for graduates of Chinese-language primary schools in Singapore was first mooted in May 1913 by Tan Kah Kee, a prominent Chinese businessman and philanthropist.4 This suggestion was only revisited only revisited on 15 June 1918 at a meeting held at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, attended by about 55 Chinese representatives including school principals.5 At this meeting, Tan, then the chairman of Tao Nan School, set an example by donating S$30,000 to the cause.6

With an initial enrolment of 78 pupils and four teachers, the first Chinese-language secondary school in Singapore began operations at a private bungalow at 15 Niven Road in March 1919.7 The Singapore Nanyang Overseas School, abbreviated in Chinese to Hua Zhong8 and known in English as the Chinese High School, was also groundbreaking for having a management committee that crossed dialect lines. Besides having Tan Kah Kee, a Hokkien, as the first chairman of the school board, Ng Sing Phang, a Cantonese, served as its vice-chairman and Lim Nee Soon, a Teochew, was appointed as treasurer. K.Y. Doo was the school’s first principal.9

From Niven Road to Bukit Timah
As the Niven Road campus became overcrowded, the school’s board began to explore options outside of the city centre. In 1925, the school moved to an 80-hectare campus located off Bukit Timah Road10 that was designed by architectural firm Swan and Maclaren.11 Tan Kah Kee rallied the Chinese business community to give the financial support needed to make the move possible. Tan Kah Kee continued to serve as chairman of the school board for intermittent periods until 1934, when he handed over the baton to his son-in-law and noted businessman, Lee Kong Chian.12 Before this transition from Tan to Lee, several other notable Chinese businessmen also headed the school board, including Aw Boon Haw.13 Lee chaired the school board from 1934 to 1955,14 which covered the period of the Japanese Occupation. He is best remembered for donating funds for the construction of a new block in 1940, named Kuo Chuan Science Building after his father, that housed modern science facilities.15

Political awakening in pre-war Singapore
The Chinese High School was a politically charged place in the late 1920s and early 1930s. British colonial government officials were generally suspicious of Chinese-language schools in their colonies because many of the students and teachers in such schools harboured communist sympathies.16 The student body of the Chinese High School was no stranger to outward modes of protest, as attested by its non-political strike in 1926 against an inefficient principal that led to the school being closed for a year.17 In the early 1930s, however, the school was closed and re-opened several times due to strikes and protests of a distinctly political nature. In January 1931, the school’s management committee proposed to re-evaluate the contracts of current staff, possibly to allay the colonial government’s suspicions of communist influence in Chinese-language schools. This led to disputes between the school board and students,18 as well as a police raid on the school for suspected communist activities. The school was closed and reopened two months later following a purge of students from the Netherlands East Indies, who were seen as particularly leftist. A new principal was also appointed and all but two teachers from the original staff were replaced.19 In December 1932, a total of 29 students from the Chinese High School were arrested for publicly protesting against the Immigration Restriction Ordinance. The resulting controversy over the school’s political affiliations led to its closure that same month and it was not reopened until February 1934.20

Rebuilding in the political turmoil of post-war Singapore
Between 1941 and 1947, the Bukit Timah campus was occupied first by the Japanese Army and later by the returning British Military Administration.21 Following its return to the school board, new facilities were constructed in the early 1950s, including classroom blocks, a new running track and the Kuo Chuan Library in 1956,22 which was renamed Kong Chian Library after Lee’s death in 1967.23

The Chinese-educated students of the Chinese High School came under greater government scrutiny amidst the volatile political climate of the 1950s and 1960s.24 This was especially so because the school had educated alumni such as Fang Chuang Pi, better known as “The Plen”, an agent of the Malayan Communist Party, and Lim Chin Siong, a vocal left-wing politician of the People’s Action Party.25 Chinese High School students and graduates were also motivated into action by social controversies such as labour rights, discrimination against the Chinese-educated in the civil service and military conscription.26 In 1954, over 700 Chinese High School students petitioned against the National Service Ordinance, which led to a march and subsequent confrontation with police in what was dubbed the “May 13th Incident”. Joined by students from Chung Cheng High School, they protested against the police violence with a 22-day hunger strike in June 1954.27 In 1956, the forced dissolution of the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Students’ Union for its alleged communist sympathies led to a joint protest by students. When the principals of the involved schools and the Ministry of Education took disciplinary action against students and teachers in early October, the students responded by camping out at Chung Cheng High School and Chinese High School in protest. This eventually resulted in a clash between the police and over 2,000 protesters on 25 October in the Bukit Timah area near the Chinese High School.28 In November 1961, Chinese High School students boycotted the school examinations to show their dissatisfaction over an enforced change in the examinations system.29

Chinese High to Hwa Chong
The school emerged from the political turmoil of the post-war period to become a leading education institution in Singapore. Chinese High School alumni who have gone on to serve in key public service roles include Jek Yeun Thong, former Minister for Culture, and Ong Teng Cheong, former President of Singapore.30 In 1974, Hwa Chong Junior College was founded, becoming the second junior college to be established in Singapore after National Junior College.31 In 1978, Chinese High School was the first and only government-aided school to run a single-session school programme. The school also started to use English as a medium of instruction for mathematics and science, while retaining Chinese as the medium of instruction for arts subjects.32 This school policy predated the mandatory government directive issued to schools in 1987 to use only English as the medium of instruction.33 In 1979, the school became one of the first secondary schools to participate in the Special Assistance Plan, which allowed for the preservation of its bilingual policy where students study both English and Chinese as first languages.34 Continuing in this groundbreaking spirit, the school was also part of the pioneering batch of educational institutions to attain independent status from the Ministry of Education in 1988, which gave it greater autonomy in curriculum planning and school administration.35

Although the campus has undergone massive reconstruction, most notably the S$45-million redevelopment project in the late 1980s, the architectural integrity of the original campus facade has been preserved.36 In 1999, the 31-metre-high clock tower building was gazetted for preservation by the Preservation of Monuments Board.37

In 2005, the Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College merged to form Hwa Chong Institution, offering a six-year integrated programme covering the secondary school and junior college curricula.38 Hwa Chong Institution is presently a leading education institution in Singapore with a strong focus on Chinese studies, being one of the few schools offering the Chinese Language Elective Programme.39


Fiona Tan

1. Ilsa Sharp Koh Yan Poh, “Chinese High's Name Gives Away Its Roots,” Straits Times, 13 December 1978, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Monument No. 43,” Straits Times, 21 March 1999, 32 (From NewspaperSG); Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 208. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])
3. “Top Marks for Merger of Chinese High and Hwa Chong,” Straits Times, 16 October 2008, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Chinese High School, Cherishing Values, Unfolding Visions: Celebrating 80 Years of Quality Education (Singapore: Chinese High School, 1999), 19 (Call no. YRSING 373.5957 CHE); Singapore Chronicles (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Pub, 1995), 199 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS]); Lee Ting Hui, Chinese Schools in British Malaya: Policies and Politics (Singapore: South Seas Society, 2006), 28. (Call no. RSING 371.82995105951 LEE)
5. C. F. Yong, Tan Kah-Kee: The Making of an Overseas Chinese Legend (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 88. (Call no. RSING 338.040924 YON)
6. Tan Ban Huat, “Tan Kah Kee: A Chinese Patriot,” Straits Times, 22 December 1987, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 517. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
7. Leong Weng Kam, “Tower of Strength Stands Test of Time,” Straits Times, 17 March 1996, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 207.
8. Lee, Chinese Schools in British Malaya, 29.
9. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 517.
10. Chinese High School, Cherishing Values, Unfolding Visions, 19; Singapore Chronicles, 199.
11. “Monument No. 43”; Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 207.
12. Yong, Making of an Overseas Chinese Legend, 89.
13. “MATTERS OF CHINESE INTEREST,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 13 September 1930, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “History of Library,” Hwa Chong Institution, accessed 2010; Chinese High School, Cherishing Values, Unfolding Visions, 22.
15. “Chinese High School's New Block,” Straits Times, 30 June 1940, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Singapore Chronicles, 199.
17. Lee, Chinese Schools in British Malaya, 109.
18. Singapore Chronicles, 199.
19. Lee, Chinese Schools in British Malaya, 110–1.
20. Singapore Chronicles, 199; Lee, Chinese Schools in British Malaya, 119.
21. Leong, “Tower of Strength Stands Test of Time”; Ong Choo Suat, “Discovering Singapore,” New Nation, 26 June 1971, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Chinese High School, Cherishing Values, Unfolding Visions, 28.
23. Hwa Chong Institution, “History of Library.”  
24. Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 108. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
25. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 208.
26. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 108.
27. Hong Liu and Sin-Kiong Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition: Business, Politics, and Socio-Economic Change, 1945–1965 (New York: Peter Lang Pub., 2004), 142–3, 147 (Call no. RSING 959.5704 LIU-[HIS]); P. J. Thum, “The Limitations of Monolingual History,” in Studying Singapore's Past: C. M. Turnbull and the History of Modern Singapore, ed. Nicholas Tarling (Singapore: NUS Press, 2012), 94. (Call no. RSING 959.570072 STU-[HIS])
28. Hong and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 148–9, 180.
29. Hong and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 153–4.
30. Leong, “Tower of Strength Stands Test of Time”; Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 208.
31. “New Junior College Ready in March,” Straits Times, 14 February 1974, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Tan Ban Huat, “Nanyang's First Secondary School,” Straits Times, 30 May 1978, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “English Stream only By 1987,” Straits Times, 24 December 1983, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Chinese High School, Cherishing Values, Unfolding Visions, 32.
35. “Three Schools to Go Independent Next Year,” Straits Times, 23 June 1987, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 207; Chinese High School, Cherishing Values, Unfolding Visions, 38.
36. Chua Chong Jin, “A Bold, New Look for Two Schools,” Straits Times, 26 November 1988, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Monument No. 43”; Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 208.
38. “Merger of Chinese High and Hwa Chong”; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 108.
39. Derrick A. Paulo, “Chinese LEP Approved,” Today, 30 November 2004, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resource
Ou Rubai 区如柏, “Zouguo qiqu, fanyue fenglang: Huazhong ziqiangbuxi 70 nian” 走过崎岖,翻越风浪:华中自强不息70年 [Through trials and tribulations: Hwa Chong's tenacity through 70 years of history], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 19 March 1989, 41. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 18 April 2013 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 resources on the topic.

Schools (Buildings)
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