Mansions in Singapore
In the late 19th century, we had our own version of the Four Heavenly Kings. The Teochews would construct four grand Chinese style homes (Si Da Cuo) known as the Four Mansions or Four Great Houses, with four prominent Teochews.
During this time in Singapore, immigrants arrived in huge numbers. Many of them achieved great wealth and several became philanthropists throughout their later years.
Of the four Teochew tycoons’ mansions, three have been demolished and only one, as The University of Chicago’s Asian campus, has survived. Its status as a national monument (since 1974) has assured its survival to the present day.
House of Tan Seng Poh
The House of Tan Seng Poh was the first of Singapore’s four mansions. Tan’s mansion was built in 1869, and it was located near the Armenian Church, which is Singapore’s oldest existing church. Tan was born in Perak in 1830. He monopolized the legal opium trade in Johor as the head of the opium and spirit farm. With his brother Seah Eu Hing, another well-known Teochew entrepreneur and owner of one of the Four Mansions, he moved to Singapore.
Tan was the first Chinese to serve on the Municipal Commission and a Justice of the Peace. During World War II, he was a prominent member of the Chinese community who frequently oversaw charity events, including the Yueh Hai Ching Temple’s construction. He is also recognized for the areas of Tiong Bahru (Seng Poh estate, Seng Poh Road, and Seng Poh Lane).
House of Seah Eu Chin
The most well-known Teochew tycoon was Seah Eu Chin, who served as a community leader. He was one of the initial members of Ngee Ann Kongsi, and he also chaired it. He was also known as the “king of pepper and gambier,” since he was the first person to successfully cultivate gambier on a commercial scale. Seah was born in Chaozhou, China, in 1805. He came to Singapore in 1823. By 1839, his gambier plantations stretched from River Valley Road to Bukit Timah Road and Thomson Road.
The House of the Seafarer Eu Chin was erected in 1872 and stood on Boat Quay, where the current Parliament House now stands. Tan Seng Poh was also Seah’s brother-in-law. In 1845, he organized the Ngee Ann Kongsi with representatives from other Teochew clans. He was an early member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, as well as a Justice of the Peace. His name is preserved in Eu Chin Street (assumed surname: Seah), Liang Seah Street (assumed family name: Lee) and Peck Seah Street (assumed family name: Sing). His tomb was rediscovered at Bukit Brown Cemetery in 2012.
House of Wee Ah Hood
The House of Wee Ah Hood was constructed on Hill Street in 1878 and was positioned diagonally opposite the Tan Seng Poh House. The current Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry is located on the site of Wee’s mansion. Wee’s mansion was, in fact, the chamber’s first operational office. In 1906, the chamber leased his mansion to use as its headquarters, and in 1911 it purchased it. The chamber’s close proximity to the colonial administrative buildings at the mouth of the Singapore River was essential to its primary purpose of lobbying the British authorities.
In the 1960s, Wee’s mansion was demolished and the current chamber building was erected. Wee was a successful Teochew trader who ran the popular Chop Hoon Hong on Telok Ayer Street. He also owned several gambier and pepper plantations. He is remembered at Ah Hood Road off Balestier Road.
House of Tan Yeok Nee
The House of Tan Yeok Nee was the last of the four mansions. It was created in 1885 and is said to have been the most ornate of all four. Today, it is also the only remaining one. Tan was born in 1827 in Chaozhou, China. He made his fortune in Johor by cultivating excellent relationships with Temenggong Abubakar. He was a storekeeper in Singapore, the owner of pepper and spice farms in Johor, and a merchant of opium and other spirits.
Tan was made the Major China of Johor in 1868, the highest-ranking Chinese official in Temenggong Abubakar’s administration. His memory endures in Johor, where the Jalan Tan Hiok Nee thoroughfare is named after him. Tan and his family didn’t stay at Penang Road for long. The colonial government bought the mansion after they built a railway line between 1900 and 1902 that ran adjacent to it.
The building was initially used as the St Mary’s Home and School for Eurasian Girls before being converted into a boarding house. It was purchased by the Salvation Army in 1938 and used as its Command Headquarters for Singapore and Malaya. It was designated a national monument in 1974. Since 2000, it has served as the Asian campus for Chicago University’s Graduate School of Business.
Tan Yeok Nee’s House is the only one of the Four Mansions that survives.