My Peranakan & Hokkien Connection

My Hokkien grandfather Lim Chong Lay and Peranakan grandmother Tan Im Neo. Both were born in Singapore.

My Hokkien grandfather Lim Chong Lay and Peranakan grandmother Tan Im Neo. Both were born in Singapore.

Peranakan, a term meaning ‘locally born’ in Malay, has come to refer to the descendants of traders who married local women in Southeast Asia as early as the 14th century. Chinese Peranakan refers to those who trace part of their lineage back to Chinese merchants who came on the monsoon winds way back. 

Some describe Chinese Peranakan culture as the result of ‘choosing the best and getting rid of the rest’! A distinctive culture incorporating Chinese, Malay, Indian and European influences is a hallmark of Chinese Peranakan material culture. Many Chinese Peranakan made their fortunes by being 'middle men' during colonial times in Malacca and Penang, and later on in Singapore. Their multilingual ability enabled them to work between Europeans and newcomers from China, otherwise known as ‘sinkeh’. 

My father is a Hokkien-Peranakan, who grew up speaking Baba Malay with his Peranakan mother, Tan Im Neo. On my Chinese side, I can trace back as far as my great-great Grandfather Lim Hong Eok. He was born 15/04/1855 in China and died 2/09/1934 in Singapore. I recently met him at Bukit Brown cemetery! I think he was pleased to have a visitor.

Tiles featuring a pair of peacocks on my great-grandmother's grave at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Tiles featuring a pair of peacocks on my great-grandmother's grave at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

I also met my Peranakan great grandparents who are nearby - very tasteful peacock tiles on their graves keep them company.  I'm still researching just how far back my Peranakan side goes - my great-grandfather Tan Teck Yam (b.1874- d.1936) was born in Singapore but I'm not sure beyond that. Apparently he was a businessman and worked a lot in Vietnam. 

Singapore Heritage Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook group has been incredibly helpful in my family research so far and one kind volunteer even took me out to see some graves. 

My mother is Australian and it was her who told me about my father's heritage.  She bought me books at an early age and explained that my dad simply wasn't just a 'Chinese'. Thanks, Mum! 


Famous Peranakan Figures

Lim Nee Soon, 'Pineapple King' and important business and community leader

Lim Nee Soon, 'Pineapple King' and important business and community leader

Lim Nee Soon

As an occasional museum guide at The Peranakan Museum, I wrote a summary about Lim Nee Soon, an important figure featured in the Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives exhibition. No, he's not a relation. I wish! 


Lim Nee Soon was a prominent Teochew businessman and pioneer rubber and pineapple planter who developed Sembawang and was heavily involved in public affairs, education and the community in Singapore in the early 20th century. Born in 1879 in Kampong Glam, Lim was educated in English at St. Joseph’s Institution and then the Anglo-Chinese School. Lim’s father and grandfather were migrants from Swatow, China, however he was brought up from age eight by his maternal grandfather Mr. Teo Lee, a well-known merchant, after his father died. Lim died on holiday in China in 1936.

Development of Sembawang & Business Interests

After working several years in the rubber industry including for United Singapore Rubber Estates Ltd and Sembawang Rubber Estates, he resigned in 1911 to start his own business as a rubber and pineapple planter - pineapples were a good inter-crop with slow-growing rubber trees and were replacing increasingly less popular gambier and pepper crops. He became engaged in the business as a merchant, contractor, and general commission agent. He planted more than 6,000 acres of rubber land in Singapore, and more than 20,000 acres in Johore and other states.

By 1924, Lim’s business had taken off and his plantations in Sembawang led to the development of the area including a row of shophouses and dwellings at Sembawang Road, which became known as Nee Soon Village and later changed to Yishun (done at the height of the Singapore government's campaign to replace dialect names with Mandarin ones). Many roads in the area were named after him and his family members. Lim was also a member of the the Rural Board and a statue of him commemorating his achievements can be seen in Yishun Town Park. The area is still focused on agriculture with the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) making efforts to promote agrotechnology there.

At the height of his wealth, Lim was listed as a founder and executive for many companies including Overseas Chinese Bank (Chairman), Chinese Commercial Bank Ltd. (vice-Chairman), Overseas Assurance Corporation (Chairman), Eastern United Assurance Corporation Ltd. (Director), and Nee Soon & Sons (Chairman). He was also the President of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce for two periods, from 1921-1922, and 1925-1926. He served as a leading member of a Teochew clan association. When the depression hit in the 1930’s, Lim had sold most of this rubber holdings but still held directorships in many banks and other financial institutions.

Political Activities

Lim became involved in Chinese Nationalist politics, and together with his uncle Teo Eng Hock, and Tan Chor Lam (b. 1884, Singapore - d. 1971, Singapore), set up Tung Meng Hui (Chinese Revolutionary League) branch in Singapore in 1906 at Wan Ching Yuan, now known as Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. He also earlier in 1904 contributed $50,000 to found the revolutionary newspaper, the T'oo Nan Daily (Thoe Lam Jit Poh). On 15 December 1911, Dr Sun Yat Sen made his last visit to Singapore, and Lim was among the local leaders who entertained Dr Sun and his entourage. Lim’s efforts to gain local support for the Nationalist cause can be seen in this award (see Artifact 2.) bestowed on him by Sun Yat Sen.

Lim is also known for single-handedly persuading six mutineers to surrender to the government without resistance during the Singapore Mutiny in 1915.

Public Affairs

Lim’s active interest in public affairs and philanthropy earned him a Justice of the Peace in 1925. His contributions included generously presenting 3,600 pineapples to the British Army and Navy during World War I, an act that further solidified his nickname as the ‘Pineapple King’ owing to his large pineapple plantations.

His interests included education and he was a founder of The Chinese High School, and a member of the Raffles College Committee. He donated $10,000 to the school's building fund, and, from its beginnings, was made the school's treasurer. He was one of the co-founders of the Ee Hoe Hean Club, with Gan Eng Seng (1844-99) and Dr. Lim Boon Keng (1869-1957). He donated burial land for the Chinese community at Seletar.

He was also a member of the Singapore Rural Board (1918-1925), and Member of the Reformatory Board (1918-1925), and served on the committees of Raffles College and St. Andrew's Medical Mission Hospital. In 1919 too, he was made President of Thong Chi Yi Yuen Hospital. He was President of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce for two periods, from 1921-1922, and 1925-1926, and a Member of the British Malaya Opium Committee in 1924. With other Teochew leaders, they formed the Singapore Teo Chew Poit Ip Huay Kuan in 1929

In 1936, he went to China for a trip and died there at age 57. Although his body was scheduled to be brought back to Singapore, the Chinese Government requested to give him a State burial and he was buried in Nanjing, near the mausoleum of his close friend Dr Sun Yat Sen.

Link to the other Peranakans

Lim’s maternal uncle was Teo Eng Hock (张永福)(b.1884-1971, Singapore), a well-known Teochew merchant, rubber planter, and manufacturer of rubber goods. Teo Eng Hok was also the great-granduncle of Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. In 1905, Teo bought the villa Wan Qing Yuan, now known at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, where revolutionary meetings were held.

Tan Chor Lam (1884-1971) was the son of Tan Tye (died 1898), a prominent Hokkien chinese merchant who owned a timber-yard called Messrs Tan Tye and Co or Hup Choon at Beach Road, where Lim had his first job. The family also had businesses in rubber and pineapple plantations as well as numerous properties. Tan Chor Lam, Teo Eng Hock and Lim were all neighbours in Beach Road.


Wikipedia - Lim Nee Soon

Singapore Infopedia - Lim Nee Soon

The Long Winding Road blog

Ancestry website - Lim Nee Soon

My Mind is Rojak blog - Tan Chor Lam

My Mind is Rojak blog - Lim Nee Soon & Bukit Brown

History of Yishun