Gan Eng Seng
by Mukunthan, Michael
Gan Eng Seng alias Yen Hsi K’un1 (b. 1844, Malacca, Malaysia–d. 9 September 1899,2 Singapore) was a Chinese ethnic leader,3 labour contractor, and a landed proprietor of early Singapore who contributed considerably to charities as well as hospitals and schools.4 He was held in high esteem, particularly for his integrity, by the partners of Guthrie and Company, where he worked faithfully for most of his life.5 Gan Eng Seng was also a founding member of the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a clubhouse for Chinese millionaires that was first set up at Duxton Hill.6
Born into a poor Hokkien family in Malacca, Gan, the eldest son, emigrated from Fukien Province (now Fujian) in China to Malaya. Gan probably had a rudimentary education that allowed him to read and write English, as well as keep accounts. Arriving in Singapore at the age of 16 after his father's death, Gan started out working at a nutmeg plantation. He joined Guthrie and Company as an apprentice in 1861,7 and rose through the ranks from assistant storekeeper to chief storekeeper and finally, the company's chief comprador – a position he held for 25 years.8
His golden goose proved to be the supply of Chinese labour and transport for the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company,9 under a company called Chop Guan Ban Seng, which Thomas Scott, Guthrie’s partner, helped to finance.10 After Gan's death in 1899, the business continued for only a mere three years under his son, Gan Tiang Tok, before it rapidly declined along with his health.11
The 1892 Tan Tock Seng Hospital annual report records Gan’s generous gift of a freehold property at Rochor. By this time, Gan was already a prominent figure in the community,12 noted for his social work.13 Among his charitable accomplishments was the establishment of the Anglo-Chinese Free School in one of his Tanjong Pagar shophouses in 1885. The school moved into a new single-storey building at Telok Ayer Street in 1893,14 and was officially opened by then Governor Sir Clementi Smith.15 It was later named Gan Eng Seng School.16 Gan was far-sighted in his dream to build a school for the poor that taught both English and Chinese. The Anglo-Chinese Free School is reportedly the only school in the colony set up by the Chinese for the teaching of English in addition to their own language.17 In response to the shortage of schools and hospitals for the poor in Chinatown, he also donated money for free clinics and other public amenities.18
When Gan died in 1899, he left behind five wives, four of whom were in Singapore. The other was in Sam Tam, near Amoy, China.20 He had seven sons, five daughters and four grandsons.
Brother: Gan Eng Chye, a younger brother.
Sisters: Gan Gin Neo, Gan Guat Neo and Gan Guan Neo.
Koh Chwee Neo – a Peranakan and his first wife, whom he married at 18 in 1859. After Gan’s death, she inherited his house on 87 Amoy Street, which was restored in 1992.22 She did not bear any living children.
Koh Eng Geok – his second wife, a Teochew who possibly inherited the “Gan Eng Seng” house at Upper Serangoon Road. She bore him two daughters – Gan Kwee Neo and Gan Hock Neo – and his first son, Gan Tiang Kwee, and was thus held in high esteem by Gan.
Choo Ah Teng – his third wife bore him a daughter, Gan Chin Neo.
Lim Neo Chik – his fourth wife.
Teo Bok Neo (China) – his fifth wife.
Not mentioned in his will was a wife who was reportedly a sister of Ho Yang Peng, who was from a wealthy family in Malacca. While this was attested to by his grandson, Gan Hock Chuan, there is no clear evidence of this, hence it is assumed that she either died or was estranged.23
Gan Tiang Tok (adopted in 1859) was the eldest son, raised by Koh Chwee Neo.25 He headed Gan’s company after his death. He was on the Gan Eng Seng Free School Board of Trustees.
Gan Tiang Keng (adopted).
Gan Tiang Leong (adopted).
Gan Tiang Khay (adopted).
Gan Tiang Poh (adopted).
Gan Tiang Kwee, eldest son born to his second wife, Kho Eng Geok. He was a member of the Board of Trustees at the Gan Eng Seng School.
Gan Tiang Choon (adopted son of his wife in China).
Gan Chin Neo, born to his third wife.
Gan Ee Neo (adopted), raised by his fourth wife, Lim Neo Chik.
Gan Kwee Neo, born to his second wife.
Gan Hock Neo, born to his second wife.
Gan Eng Seng died at his residence, of blood poisoning caused by a prick on the thumb from a piece of iron, after a short illness. He was 56.27
1. Yen Ching-Hwang, Community and Politics: The Chinese in Colonial Singapore and Malaysia (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1995), 211. (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 YEN)
2. Donald M. Dabbs, The History of Gan Eng Seng School (Singapore: D. M. Dabbs, 1994), 117. (Call no. RSING 372.95957 DAB)
3. Yen, Community and Politics, 182.
4. C. F. Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power in Colonial Singapore (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1992), 4, 6–8. (Call no. RSING 959.5702 YON-[HIS])
5. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 274. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
6. Tan Ban Huat, “The Pioneers of Tanjong Pagar,” Straits Times, 5 April 1989, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 133. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
8. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 110.
9. Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tanjong Pagar: Singapore's Cradle of Development (Singapore: Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, 1989), 135. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TAN-[HIS])
10. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 110.
11. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 120.
12. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 273.
13. Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tanjong Pagar, 135.
14. Raoul le Blond, “Birthplace of Gan Eng Seng School Marked as a Historical Site,” Straits Times, 31 August 1997, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 273.
16. le Blond, Birthplace of Gan Eng Seng School.”
17. “School Gets Its Seventh Home,” Straits Times, 13 July 1989, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
18. le Blond, Birthplace of Gan Eng Seng School.”
19. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 111, 117–20.
20. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 119.
21. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 111, 117–19.
22. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 112.
23. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 117.
24. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 117, 118–20.
25. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 117.
26. Dabbs, History of Gan Eng Seng, 118.
27. “Death of Mr Gan Eng Seng,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 9 September 1899, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
Gan Eng Seng School, Onward: Magazine of Gan Eng Seng (Singapore: Gan Eng Seng School, 1968). (Call no. RCLOS 373.5957 G)
The information in this article is valid as at May 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.