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Ong Sam Leong

Kinmen, Fujian (1857-1918)

Ong Sam Leong was a successful and respected Peranakan businessman, accumulating his fortune from supplying labourers to the mines in phosphate-rich Christmas Island. Ong also owned other businesses in the Straits Settlement, such as brickworks, rubber plantation in Batam Indonesia, and numerous sawmills in Singapore. However, he was most notable for his role in providing indentured servitude for prospective miners.

Humble Beginnings
Ong came from a humble background and received little education as a child. He owed most of his successes to his business acumen and perseverance. He was the founder of “Ong Sam Leong and Company” and in 1899, he secured an important contract with Christmas Island Phosphate Company Limited as the sole labour supplier; ensuring him a virtual monopoly over the industry. He sourced for labourers from coolie houses along Pagoda Street to work in the phosphate mines on Christmas Island. Most of the labourers recruited were early Chinese immigrants from Guangdong or Guangxi, China. Realising that the miners there would need provisions, he opened and operated a successful sundry business on Christmas Island.

Associations and Contributions
Ong served as the President to Ban Chye Hoe club for many years, and was a senior member of several other reputable Chinese clubs and associations. He was keenly interested in the patriotic movement of the Straits Chinese community, and during World War 1 he contributed significantly to fund raising efforts aimed at supporting the defence of the Strait Settlement. He also donated a large sum of his own money to build a garage for the Strait Volunteer Corps (SVC), for use by the SVC’s motor lorries.

Prominent Family Figures
In his private life, Ong was married to Madam Yeo Yean Neo, and had two sons and several daughters. Both his sons Boon Tat and Peng Hock were educated in Raffles Institution, and became prominent figures among the Straits Chinese Merchants. Ong’s sons (Ong Brothers) were better known as the co-owners of the New World Theme Park in Jalan Besar, which they built in 1923. Ong also had a son-in-law Lim Teck Kim, who is the uncle to late Singapore’s second Chief Minister, Lim Yew Hock. Ong Tiang Wee a grandson of Ong, was a partner of a law firm Laycock & Ong, and served as the president to the Peranakan Association from 1948 to 1992.

Largest Tomb Plot

Ong died of heart failure in 1918 at the age of 60, at the time of his death he had owned several large properties, brick wood, plantations, and sawmills. He was buried together with his wife who passed away in 1935 at the age of 73 years, in the largest grave on the highest hill of Bukit Brown Cemetery. His two sons’ tombs, Boon Tat and Peng Hock are buried next to him. Together, their tomb plot’s size is the equivalent to 3 basketball courts.

Seh Ong Cemetery
Bukit Brown Cemetery was previously named Seh Ong Cemetery, before the Singapore government reclaimed the land in 1922 for the Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery. Back then, the land was owned by the Ong clan, whom Ong Sam Leong was an popular and influential member. Burial in Seh Ong Cemetery was restricted only to Hokkien deceases, and who bears the surname of “Ong “. Ong Sam Leong burial site occupies the largest plot in Seh Ong Cemetery, and is located on highest hill, Tai Yuan Shan (Tai Yuan Hill, also known as Sam Leong Hill).Take a look at the Gallery tab to find more pictures of Ong Sam Leong’s tomb.

Tai Yuan Shan & Fengshui
The name Tai Yuan Shan was given by the Ong clan who initially bought the cemetery land, and is believed to have originated from Tai Yuan – “Great Plains”, the capital and largest city of Shanxi Province in North China. It is strongly believed that the location and placement of Ong’s burial site, possess certain fengshui properties, that bring forth the abundance of luck and wealth to his future generations.

Lost & Found
The Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) have been searching for the Ong’s graves for many years. It was discovered in 2006, by a pre-school principal and former employee of the National Archives, Tan Beng Luan who immediately alerted her ex-colleagues. By then, the grave have been neglected for many years and was covered with overgrown weeds. The tombs were subsequently cleared of weeds and archived by the National Archive of Singapore.

Larger than Life Tomb Ornaments
The grave had many traditional designs of Chinese graves, such as “Golden Boy and Jade Girl”, “Dragon Fish”, and various deities statue (such as the 3 lucky deities “Fu Lu Shou” and the earth deity) – the only difference was that they were significantly larger in size. The tomb also featured a pair of Sikh guards and Chinese lions; a 15 metres long moat that surrounds the entire tomb; and beautiful carvings depicting the Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety (Er-shih-ssu hsiao, according to traditional Confucius’s teachings). Another interesting characteristics of the tomb is the use of Minton tiles on the granite flooring. Minton tiles were frequently used in Peranakan families’ homes.

The Sikh Guard guarding Ong Sam Leong’s grave.

The Chinese Lion at his grave.

Leaving Behind a Legacy

Besides having contributed significantly to Singapore, and the Straits Chinese communities, Sam Leong was also one of the pioneers who assisted in building up the prosperity of Malaya. His business contacts extends far beyond the shores of Singapore and Malaya. In return for his contributions, “Sam Leong Road” – between Jalan Besar and Verdun road – was named after him.

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