Since writing the post “New Museums in Old Buildings“ , I have made a startling discovery. My granduncle David Wee Cheng Soon was a major benefactor to the SJI building on Bras Basah Road, with a contribution of a princely sum of $1,500 in 1912!
Wee Cheng Soon name on SJI's Donors' Plaque .
Catholic-Teochew philanthropist David Wee Cheng Soon married my grand-aunt Regina Tan Mui Liam on 30 July 1901 at St Peter and Paul’s Church. Regina Tan was the elder sister of my mum’s adoptive father, Francis Tan. My grandfather Francis worked as a foreman in Wee’s construction company and during her childhood, my mum lived with other branches of the Tan family in homes built by the Wee family in Pasir Panjang, Bukit Timah Road and Newton Road. I was born when we resided at the shop house (now signed “Baker”) at the corner of Newton and Makepeace Roads until I turned four. Other branches of the Tan family lived within the Makepeace Road enclave that still stands (www.TansofMakepeaceRoad.wordpress.com).
Research undertaken by Marc Rerceretnam, great-grandson of Wee revealed that “he was born in Singapore and lived in Armenian St (near MPH Building) prior to 1904. A self-made man, Wee’s first big break came when he won a contract to tow training targets out at sea, while the British cannons shot at it from land, around 1905. He then started his own construction company “Wee Cheng Soon Construction Ltd”, located at Stamford Rd. The company helped build most of the colonial British army camps, SGH hospital wings, Kallang Airport runway, Sembawang Naval Base and KL’s Majestic Hotel which was converted to an air museum in the 1990s. He also owned a granite quarry on Pulau Ubin from where he quarried granite for his construction projects and, a gold mine in Malaysia. A newspaper article in the mid to late 1930s revealed that his company owned and operated the best road building equipment in Malaya at the time. Held in high regard by the Catholic Church hierarchy, he also donated large amounts to the construction of St Teresa’s Church on Kampong Bahru (where his ashes are now interred), constructed the Sacred Heart Church on Tank Road with funds from the Low Khiok Chiang family which was linked by marriage; and funded a wing of St Joseph’s Institution on Bras Basah Road. Wee himself was once a student of SJI as was his son Philip Wee (in 1917) and Marc himself (1976)”.
Bro. Columban (James Lim) with parents & siblings
An even closer connection between SJI and my family is that my late father, James Lim Teck Liang was a La Salle Brother (Columban) who resided and taught at SJI and St Patrick’s School on East Coast Road. The story goes that he and other local brothers quit en bloc as they were dissatisfied with the way they were treated by the foreign missionaries. It seems that the foreign brothers “enjoyed their wines and cheeses but denied local brothers basic needs like new cassocks” (uniform worn by brothers).
Post-brotherhood years, my father married and had five children. He continued his life of service to the Catholic Church by founding and conducting choirs at St Peter & Paul’s Church (twice – 1950-1954; 1970-1974), St Michael’s Church (1959 -1964), Holy Spirit Church (1964-1970). These are approximate dates coinciding with our moves from Makepeace Road to May Road (1954) and Thomson Gardens (1964) where he lived till he died in 1975. He remained an educationist all his life teaching mainly language and literature at Monk’s Hill School (Windstedt Road), Boon Lay Primary School, Whitley Primary School (1955 to 1965) (Onraet Road) where he was headmaster and finally, the Catholic High School and the Adult Education Board in Fort Canning Road and Kim Keat School during his post-retirement years. At home, he emphasized the importance of education to all his children.
The connection between SJI and my generation is that both my brothers were educated at St Michael’s School and SJI. As a CHIJ Victoria Street Pre-University student in the late 1960s, I attended literature and history classes at SJI as the two schools shared classes taught by the CHIJ teachers. My son also attended secondary school at St Patrick’s School at East Coast Road in the 90′s.
With Bro. Joe McNally, Alan Rubinstein and Sue Walker, Director of Victorian Tapestry Workshop after opening "Woven Tapestry" exhibition.
I think my feelings of “at-homeness” with SJI and the La Salle Brothers pre-disposed me to support Brother Joseph McNally when upon his retirement, he sought the Ministry of Culture’s assistance to set up St Patrick’s Arts Centre and later La Salle School of the Arts. The Ministry extended a grant of $30,000 in 1981 towards the construction of the outdoor shed facing Marine Parade Road which housed a significant sculpture workshop. That’s when I met notables like Ng Eng Teng, Han Sai Por, Tan Teng Kee, Michael Ong and the Trimurti artists – Chandrasekeran, Goh Ee Choo and Saleh Japar. Later, when Brother started the Arts Housing Scheme, we gave La Salle School of Arts the Teluk Kurau East School (now called Teluk Kurau Artist Studios) before its move to its Goodman Road Campus. Regretably, we could not fulfill Brother’s wish to house La Salle in SJI Bras Basah as it had already been promised to the National Museum for an arts gallery (the Singapore Art Museum).
I mention elsewhere that a past life as a struggling artist seems to have propelled me into my current life of service to the arts. I now feel it is karmic that my generation has a role in preserving SJI which our fathers built and treasured. Interestingly, photos shared by cousins in UK reveal that many of the buildings onWaterloo Street (now a key arts precinct) were also built / owned / lived in by members of the Wee Family; as are the buildings on Armenian Street although I have yet to ascertain which ones.