Hoo Ah Kay

Hoo Ah Kay (also known as Whampoa)1 (b. approx 1816, Whampoa, Guangdong, China–d. 27 March 1880, Singapore2) was a prominent Chinese businessman who ran Whampoa & Co., expanding it after the death of his father. With an uncommon mastery of English,3 Hoo became the first and only Chinese to be an extraordinary member in the Executive Legislative Council.4 He took the Oaths of Members of the Legislative Council on 23 May 1870.5 He served as the honorary treasurer of the first Committee of Management of Tan Tock Seng Hospital in 1844.6 He was also noted for entertaining diners at his Whampoa home (renamed Bendemeer House when the property was sold to Seah Liang Seah after Hoo’s death) and his fascinating Whampoa Gardens.7 In 2013, Hoo’s great-granddaughter, Madam Hoo Miew Oon, donated some of his antiques to the new heritage museum at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.8

Early Life
Hoo was born in Huangpo (Whampoa), near Canton (Guangdong, China).9 He arrived in Singapore in 1830, as a 15-year-old eager to work for his father.10 

Hoo's father had set up a provision shop located at the junction of Bonham Street and Boat Quay, supplying beef, bread and vegetables. Hoo inherited the business after his father's death.11 The company, Whampoa & Co., had adopted the name of his birthplace, and as Hoo grew in fame, the company’s name became synonymous with his own. By 1840, Whampoa & Co., then located at Telok Ayer, had established itself as a ship chandler to the British Royal Navy.12 There were only three other ship chandlers in 1854 – W.S. Duncan, John Steel & Co. and Mr Dare.13 Hoo’s fluency in English gave him an edge in business and social interaction and he gained business from Europe. However, these ventures brought him losses.14

One such unsuccessful business was Whampoa’s Ice House. It was an ice-house set up in 1854, close to Coleman Bridge at Boat Quay. The godown was constructed on land that had been part of the exchange for Whampoa’s Tanglin plantations15 where the Singapore Botanic Gardens16 now stands. The ice-house became a landmark of sorts with its Victorian wrought-iron balustrades. Although the ice trade under the initiative of American Frederick Tudor boomed in an age prior to refrigerators, the demand for ice proved too low for Whampoa’s business to succeed in Singapore. However, his bakery venture fared better. The bakery might have been opened in as early as 1853 at Havelock Road, and was reportedly still operating in the 1980s.17

Hoo held positions of Consul of Russia, China and Japan.18 When the Legislative Council was first formed in 1867, he was one of its Unofficial Members.19 In 1869, he became the first Asian member of the Legislative Council and within a few years was made an extraordinary member of the Executive Council, the first and only Chinese to have held this seat.20 On 10 May 1876, he received the honour of Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (C.M.G.) at a public investiture ceremony held by the Straits Settlements Governor.21 The honorary C.M.G. was bestowed upon him by Queen Victoria for his great contributions to society.22

The general public, however, knew Hoo for his Whampoa House at Serangoon Road23 with its expansive gardens.24 Whampoa’s Gardens, called Nam-sang-Fa-un in Cantonese,25 was opened to the public during Chinese New Year and was a popular place for gatherings during that season.26

Hoo passed away on 27 March 1880. In accordance with his personal wish for his resting place to be in China,27 his remains were shipped on 31 May 188028 and buried on Danes Island opposite Guangdong.29

Sons: Hoo Ah Yip, Hoo’s eldest son was educated in England and managed Whampoa & Co. for a time before he died shortly after. Hoo Keng Choong, his second son, had died early while his youngest son, Hoo Keng Tuck, who initially worked for Joaquim Bros. (now Allen & Gledhill), eventually took over the family business.30

Bonny Tan

1. Donald Davies, “Whampoa’s Showpiece of the Island,” Straits Times, 5 December 1954, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 23. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
3. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 52. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
4. “Did You Know?” Straits Times, 25 September 2009, 108. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Legislative Council,” Straits Times, 28 May 1870, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 52.
7. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 54, 55.
8. Melody Zaccheus, “Botanic Gardens Gets Pioneer’s Artefacts,” Straits Times, 29 October 2013, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Did You Know?”
10. “‘Whampoa’ Was the First of Singapore’s Towkays,” Straits Times, 13 March 1954, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “The Chinese in Singapore,” Asiaweek 20, no. 11 (16 March 1994), 35. (Call no. RCLOS q950.05 A)
12. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 51.
13. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 373. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
14. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 659.
15. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 23.
16. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 178.
17. “Singapore Municipal Committee,” Straits Times, 17 May 1853, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 23.
18. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 22.
19. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 659.
20. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 56.
21. D. J. M. Tate, Straits Affairs: The Malay World and Singapore: Being Glimpses of the Straits Settlements and the Malay Peninsula in the Nineteenth Century as Seen Through the Illustrated London News and other Contemporary Sources (Hong Kong: John Nicholson Ltd., 1989), 46. (Call no. RSING 959.57 STR-[HIS])
22. Ngiam Tong Hai, “Singapore’s First Ship Chandler,” Straits Times, 28 June 1977, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Teo Han Wue, “Whampoa’s House of Splendour,” Straits Times, 7 June 1984, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “The House That Hoo Built,” Straits Times, 19 October 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 53.
26. Donald Moore and Joanna Moore, The First 150 Years of Singapore (Singapore: Donald Moore Press, 1969), 241 (Call no. RSING 959.57 MOO-[HIS]); Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 53.
27. “‘Whampoa’ Was the First of Singapore’s Towkays.”
28. “Wednesday, 12th May,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 15 May 1880, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 659.
30. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 56.

Further resources
Lim Phay-Ling, “Singapore's First Heroes,” Straits Times, 6 November 1983, 18. (From NewspaperSG)

Singapore Free Press, One Hundred Years of Progress: Centenary Number, October 8, 1935 (Singapore: Singapore Free Press, 1935), 4–5. (Call no. RRARE 959.59 SIN: microfilm NL3615)

Sumiko Tan, Streets of Old Chinatown: Singapore (Singapore: Page Media, 1990), 35. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TAN-[TRA])

The information in this article is valid as at August 2019 and correct as far as we can 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.

Hoo Ah Kay, 1816?-1880