Lee Hoon Leong – grandfather of Lee Kuan Yew

Situated at a nondescript corner of Bukit Brown Cemetery sits the grave of one Lee Hoon Leong. If one had not known better, one would just give it a cursory glance, just as one would perhaps the more than 100,000 other graves at the graveyard just off Lornie Road.

But Lee Hoon Leong is no ordinary man, given the distinguished lineage of which he is part of, and his role especially in the early life of his grandson, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister and Minister Mentor of Singapore.

In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew refers to his immigrant background as a fourth-generation Chinese Singaporean: his Hakka great-grandfather, Lee Bok Boon (born 1846), emigrated from the Dapu county of Guangdong province to the Straits Settlements in 1862.

“My grandfather, Lee Hoon Leong – whom I addressed as Kung or ‘grandfather’ in Chinese – was born in Singapore in 1871, and according to my father was educated at Raffles Institution up to standard V, which would be today’s lower secondary school,” Lee Kuan Yew said in his memoirs. “He himself told me he worked as a dispenser (an unqualified pharmacist) when he left school, but after a few years became a purser on board a steamer plying between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. The ship was part of a fleet belonging to the Heap Eng Moh Shipping Line, which was owned by the Chinese millionaire sugar king of Java, Oei Tiong Ham.”

Lee Hoon Leong later became a managing director of the Heap Eng Moh Steamship Company Ltd.

“In between his travels he married my grandmother, Ko Liem Nio, in Semarang, a city in central Java. There is a document in Dutch, dated 25 March 1899, issued by the Orphan’s Court in Semarang, giving consent to Ko Liem Nio, age 16, to marry Lee Hoon Leong, age 26,” Lee Kuan Yew said in his memoirs.

Lee Hoon Leong had two wives, five daughters and three sons. Lee Chin Koon, one of the sons born to Lee Hoon Leong and Ko Liem Nio, would marry Chua Jim Neo who gave birth to Lee Kuan Yew, their eldest son, in 1923, at 92 Kampong Java Road in Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew would later marry Kwa Geok Choo in London in 1947, and would have three children, one of whom is the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.

One of Lee Hoon Leong’s daughters, Lee Choo Neo, “was the first woman medical doctor in Singapore. She overcame a level of cultural hostility to attain this distinction, and her concern for the status of other women led her to help establish the Chinese Ladies’ Association of Malaya, in which she was active for many years. Lee was also a leading member of the Malayan Branch of the British Medical Association.”

Lee Hoon Leong’s influence over the family was notable even in the names he chose for his grandsons. In those days, it was unusual to adopt British names. However, Lee Hoon Leong, who had much respect for the English, felt that his grandchildren should have these names. Thus, “Harry” was picked for Lee Kuan Yew, a name which, while seldom used by the former Minister Mentor himself, is nonetheless well-known as his English name. Lee Kuan Yew “was mostly known as ‘Harry Lee’ for his first 30 or so years, and still is to his friends in the West and to many close friends and family. He started using his Chinese name after entering politics.”

A cursory search of the Internet reveals that the name has a German origin and means “home ruler” or “Army ruler” or “house ruler”.

Lee Hoon Leong had risen to riches but saw his fortunes decline with the Great Depression in the 1930s. His son Lee Chin Koon “recalled his childhood in a wealthy family, and a time when he was allowed a ‘limitless account’ at Robinsons and John Little, two high-end department stores in Raffles Place.”

“My grandfather was very fond of me and I used to visit him and live with him on weekends and school holidays,” Lee Kuan Yew recalled in an interview.

Lee Hoon Leong passed away just after the Japanese occupied Singapore in 1942.

At his grave at Bukit Brown Cemetery, the picture on Lee Hoon Leong’s tombstone could hardly be seen. But when our photographer, Han Thon, converted the photo to black & white, the face in the picture became more visible.

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