Song Hoot Kiam

1830 - 1900
Pioneer Straits Chinese Christian

The Songs were originally from Fujian Province in China and spoke the Hokkien dialect. They were
Peranakans or Straits-born Chinese.[1]This means that the first patriarch from the Song family settled in
Melaka and then married either a local Malay woman or a local-born Chinese woman who was descended
from the intermarriage between an ethnic Chinese man and a local Malay woman. Born in Melaka in 1830,
Song Hoot Kiam – the father of Song Ong Siang, the first Chinese in Malaya and Singapore to be knighted –
was the exemplary patriarch who helped plant the first church catering to the Straits Chinese in Singapore.

The elder Song was first exposed to Christianity while studying in his hometown of Melaka under the
Scottish missionary James Legge of the London Missionary Society (LMS) and later, in Hong Kong.
Together with two other Chinese youths from Malaya, he furthered his studies in Scotland where he studied
the Bible, accepted Christ and was baptised at the age of 17. At that time, there was said to be no more than
“six Protestant communicants in all of China” (see photo of memorial plaque). Hence, in 1848 the three
Chinese youths were given an audience with Queen Victoria, who was very keen to interact with these “first
fruits” of the LMS.

After returning from the United Kingdom in 1849 and rejoining his family in Singapore, Song insisted on obeying the Bible and resisted his father’s attempt to get him to marry a non-Christian lady. That same year, he married Yeo Choon Neo, a Christian student of the LMS Girls’ School (today’s St Margaret’s Secondary School) to form what is reputedly the first Peranakan Christian family in Singapore. When Choon Neo died, Song then married Phan Fung Lean, a Christian Peranakan lady from Penang. Out of this second marriage was born Ong Siang, who became a respected community and church leader, followed by three other sons and a number of daughters.

Song Hoot Kiam emulated Legge in fostering orphans or poor children into his family even though he already had children of his own. The two known ones were Foo Teng Quee (1843-1906) and Oh Ghee Choo (1879-1964). His time with the Legges also made him an ardent believer in education for both genders at a time when most girls were not educated. He sent all his sons for formal education and allowed as many of his daughters to have a basic education as was possible, given his finite income. As the head of the household, Song led family prayers and devotions, teaching and exhorting his children to worship God and to work for the “kingdom of Heaven”. More importantly, he lived out his faith by example, rather than just mere words.[2] Unlike many Babas of his day, he was not known to socialise much nor to indulge in gambling, opium smoking, drinking or womanising. Song chose to spend whatever free time he had with his family, sharing his life experiences and values with his children.

Song started worshipping at the Malay Chapel (later known as Straits Chinese Church; today’s Prinsep
Street Presbyterian Church) just after his return from the United Kingdom in 1849. As a Peranakan, he was
naturally inclined to its Malay language service. [3] The Straits Chinese Church became the Song family
church from then on and Song was a regular lay preacher for the Baba Malay service. In later years, he even
occasionally preached at the English language service which had a predominantly British congregation.
With his “fine voice” trained by Legge’s wife, Song became a “precentor” in the choir in the days when the
church did not have an organ. His work experience in accounting and his reputation for integrity resulted in
his being made a deacon and the honorary treasurer of the chapel in the 1860s. He became a pioneering
Sunday school teacher after religious classes for children and young adults were started in his church in
1886. In 1895, Song was made one of three pioneering local elders responsible for governing the church.

Song was greatly respected for his personal character. He was described by contemporaries as characterised
by “simplicity, humility, coolness and contentment”. These traits influenced a number of Straits Chinese to
become Christians, notably Tan Kong Wee and Tan Boon Chin who subsequently became his sons-in-law
and fellow lay preachers in the Baba Malay congregation. He gained the trust of his employers by being
“honest, punctual, sober, industrious and conscientious”. Upon his retirement at the age of 65 in 1895, after
42 years of dedicated service in the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, his employers
rewarded him with a large gratuity. [4]

Song died at the age of 70 in October 1900, leaving behind nine daughters and five sons. The memorial
service held at his church was well-attended and a memorial plaque was subsequently unveiled in the main
sanctuary a year later by Rev John A. Bethune Cook, moderator of the church who called Song “the founder
of the Straits Chinese Church…a true and tried Christian for years”. The colonial government also named a
road in the River Valley area in Singapore in honour of him.

Song lived a life of faith, piety and service to God and others which laid the foundation and provided the
inspiration for his illustrious son Ong Siang’s own lifelong piety as a Christian leader. Other sons of Song
Hoot Kiam also followed in his footsteps of faith and service. Teng Quee served as a deacon in their home
church who ministered to the poor and widows and as the honorary treasurer in later years. Throughout most
of the 1930s, three out of the four elders of the church were from the Song family – Ong Siang, Ong Joo and
Ghee Choo. Thus, it is no exaggeration to claim that the history of the Straits Chinese Church in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries was closely intertwined with that of the Song family. Of all his biological sons, Ong
Siang would most take after his father’s personality, attributes and character. Two decades later in One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, he paid tribute to his father: “To the memory of my late father (Song Hoot Kiam), whose Christian life and example have been a constant inspiration to me…I dedicate this book.”[5]


  1. ^ “Straits” here refers to the “Straits of Melaka”, where the Straits Settlements were located. The term “Straits-born Chinese” isoften contracted to simply “Straits Chinese”. “Peranakan”, meaning “local-born”, is the generic term for Straits Chinese of bothgender. Peranakan men are also known as “Babas” and women as “Nyonyas”.
  2. ^ 2 Lim Boon Keng, “Obituary: Song Hoot Kiam,” Straits Chinese Magazine, Volume IV, December 1900, 186.
  3. ^ The church was founded by Rev Benjamin Keasberry of the LMS as an outreach to the Malays. After Keasberry’s death in 1875,all the Malays in the congregation went back to Islam and the church became known as the Baba Church instead, as Peranakanswere now in the majority.
  4. ^ Mid-day Herald, February 19, 1896, 3. After retirement, Song lived a quiet life with his family. It was said that he remainedmentally and physically normal right until death. He was even sharp enough to write two articles on the reminiscences of histime with James Legge in Melaka and Britain for the Straits Chinese Magazine in 1898.
  5. ^ Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (The Annotated Edition) (Singapore: World Scientific,2020), v.

Malcolm Tan Shih Lung

The writer is a history teacher in Singapore and has a Master of Arts (History) from the National University
of Singapore.


Cook, J. A. Bethune. Sunny Singapore. London: Elliot Stock, 1907. 19, 20, 24, 59, 60, 92 & 156.

Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. 150 Years of Faithfulness 1843-1993. Singapore: Prinsep Street Presbyterian
Church, 1993. 17.

Sng, Bobby E. K. In His Good Time: The Story of the Church in Singapore 1819-2002. 3rd ed. Singapore: Bible Society
of Singapore, 2013. 82, 83 & 121.

Song Ong Siang. One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (The Annotated Edition), Singapore: World
Scientific, 2020. 113, 115, 116, 117, 118, 139, 140, 143, 293, 336, 340, 377 & 693.

Straits Chinese Magazine, Volume II, December 1898, “Reminiscences of Dr Legge in Malacca,” Song Hoot Kiam. 9-

Straits Chinese Magazine, Volume IV, December 1900, “Obituary: Song Hoot Kiam,” Lim Boon Keng. 186.