Chew Boon Lay
Quanzhou, Fujian (1851-1933)
Chew Boon Lay was one of Singapore’s early pioneers, and a successful businessman. Acclaimed as Singapore’s Biscuit King, Chew founded and ran a highly successful biscuit manufacturing and distribution company (Ho Ho Biscuit Factory). Chew also owned several other businesses such as Chop Leong Tye, a soap manufacturing company; and owned large tracts of land in Jurong, which he used to cultivate gambier, rubber, and pepper.
Chew was born in a small village in the Quanzhou prefecture of Fujian, China. Chew’s father died in Chew’s early teens. Chew became an orphan when his mother died several years later. Already in his late teens, Chew decided to travel to Bangkok, Thailand to pay a visit to his uncle, whom he worked for in the next three years. Chew was laboured hard under his uncle, working tirelessly with little pay and minimum career progression.
Once, Chew was accused by his own uncle for stealing 600 ticals (Thai Baht) and was threatened to be handed over to the police. In a moment of pure desperation, he borrowed 1 tical from his aunt, and spent it in a lottery stake the following day. He prayed before the Goddess of Mercy (Kwan Yin) for a miracle and won the lottery (winning 900 ticals), which he used to repay his uncle and aunt. Chew kept the remaining 299 ticals and vowed never to work for his uncle ever again.
Chew went on to ply his trade as a clerk on board a sailing ship between Bangkok and Singapore. After accumulating a sizable sum of money, he finally bought a small cargo ship after consulting the Goddess of the Seas (Mazu). Using knowledge arbitrage, Chew’s trade barter business grew and his business network expanded.
Through his business ventures, Chew began to form a belief that a viable business model is one that involves the manufacturing and sales, or trade of daily necessities. Being in the trade bartering business, Chew was well-positioned to identify emerging consumer’s trends, and profit from the deficit that arose from supply and demand imbalance.
Chew subsequently settled down in Singapore, and started a soap manufacturing company (Chop Leong Tye) and a biscuit factory (Ho Ho Biscuit Factory), which he was most notable for. Ho Ho Biscuit Factory was highly profitable and earned Chew a substantial amount of money. The Gaw (Go) family – a wealthy family – from Semarang, Indonesia who happened to chance upon Ho Ho biscuits, loved it so much that they eventually partnered Chew to expand his biscuit business, providing him with the financial strength and leverage to penetrate international markets. Ho Ho Biscuit Factory subsequently won a prize in an international food fair in Hanoi.
Chew then proceeded to invest his proceedings into acquiring large tracts of land in Jurong and also in Kukup and Kota Tinggi, Johor, on which he begin cultivating cash crops: gambier, rubber, and pepper. Realising the diminishing demand for gambier, and increasing demand for rubber, Chew began substituting gambier plantations for rubber – a decision that made him a huge fortune.
In 1912, Chew started a brick-making factory on Pulau Tekong island, but was forced to sell it off after it was discovered that the fatality rate among his workers was high – he would rather sell the factory at a loss than commit more workers to their deaths. He also started plantations growing consumable fruits. After retiring from active management, Chew handed management of his business to his eighth son, Chew Hock Hint to head the operations of his business.
Chew was married to Madam Ong Cheng Neo. Together they have 6 sons and 3 daughters. Chew was Confucian and would practice Confucian rites and rituals. Throughout his life, he spoke Amoy Hokkien to his children. Although his wife was Peranakan and spoke Baba Malay, they spoke Hokkien at home.
Chew passed away in 1933. In 2005, his descendents published a coffee-table book that detailed Chew Boon Lay’s life and family tree of about 700 descendents. Today, the housing estate around Jurong area was named after him, as well as a train station.