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Ong Boon Tat – Peranakan businessman

Boon Tat Street, right in the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District, is named after Ong Boon Tat (1888-1941) – a well-known, wealthy, Peranakan businessman who also served as Municipal Commissioner and Justice of Peace.

Boon Tat Street is parallel to Cross Street and runs from Amoy Street and intersecting with Telok Ayer Street, Robinson Road, Shenton Way and Raffles Quay. Interesting landmarks on Boon Tat Street include the SGX Centre (Singapore Exchange), the iconic neo-classical Ogilvy Centre, and the distinctive Octagon and historic landmark, Lau Pa Sat. And most importantly for many of us, part of Boon Tat Street is closed to traffic in the evenings to make way for dining at the row of Satay stalls just outside Lau Pa Sat.

Boon Tat Street used to be known as Japan Street before 1946 which possibly hints at another more benevolent role the Japanese played in Singapore long before the war and the terrible occupation. The Municipal Commissioners had the street renamed in 1946, soon after the Japanese occupation ended on 12 September 1945. It was the first street to be renamed after the war.

Ong Boon Tat was born in 1888, the elder son of Ong Sam Leong and Yeo Yean Neo. Unlike his father who had little education, Boon Tat and his brother, Peng Hock, were educated at Raffles Institution. Boon Tat started working in his father’s company at the age of 19, training to take over the business which was involved in supplying mining workers to Christmas Island. A report in the Straits Times in 1919 tells of him going to Christmas Island to help in investigations into worker riots.

Being prominent in society, the family’s social life was often reported in the newspapers. In 1932, the Singapore Free Press ran a story when the Ong brothers entertained 400 guests at their home, Bukit Rose, for their mother’s 69th birthday. The sons were said to love their mother dearly. And as a sign of their influence, the Sultan of Johor was reported to have sent his state band to play at her funeral.

The Ong brothers also opened The New World Amusement Park at Jalan Besar in 1923, which was later bought over by the Shaw brothers. The amusement park was famous for cabarets, boxing arenas and food stalls; and was associated with entertainers like Sakura Teng, striptease Rose Chan and boxer Felix Boy.

Ong Boon Tat died in 1941 after an accident when he was inspecting a sea pavilion for his new home on Pulau Dama Laut. He was survived by four sons and two daughters; one of his sons Tiong Wee was then the Municipal Commissioner. He was buried at the foot of his parents’ grave on the highest hill in Bukit Brown Cemetery. While his grave is under threat of exhumation and redevelopment, the street named after him is marked as a conservation area by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority).

By Yvonne Ho