By Dr Marc Rerceretnam
David Wee Cheng Soon was born David Ng Cheng Soon in 1875 in Singapore. His parent’s names were Peter Ng Ah Sai and Victoria Tan. He was born a Roman Catholic and went to St Joseph’s Institution in Bras Basah Road. His family were of Teochew extraction and patronised the St Peter and Paul’s Church on Queens Street, Singapore.
At the age of 26 David Ng married Regina Tan Mui Liam, the daughter of John Tan Hai Seng and Magdelena Lim, at the Church of St Peter and Paul’s on the 30th July 1901. David and Regina proceeded to have several of their own children and even adopted others. David Ng was an enterprising young man. He had a flamboyant personality, was well spoken, had a cheerful demeanour and an ability to charm people. These traits worked to his advantage and by 1905 he landed his first profitable contract with the armed forces of the Straits Settlement British government. As part of this contract Ng towed floating targets which was shot at by cannons on the Singapore mainland!
With the growth of his business, David Ng’s dealing with British entities increased. However he found many a European unable to pronounce his surname, ‘Ng’. He subsequently substituted ‘Ng’ for the much easily pronounced ‘Wee’, which shares the same Chinese character.
With time David Wee’s business interest grew. He set up his own construction company at 9 Stamford Road. His primary business involved building construction and quarrying granite, however he had interests in a diverse number of ventures which included road and building construction, property development and even gold mining. By the 1920s his company was involved in the construction of several of military establishments, built the runway of Singapore’s first airport in Kallang, constructed government buildings and even Kuala Lumpur’s ‘Majestic Hotel’ in 1932. According to a news report from 1939, Wee’s company had the ‘only road making plant’ in Malaya.
Wee was a generous man and within a decade of his business ventures becoming successful he became one of the more prominent philanthropists, much to the benefit of the Roman Catholic establishment in Singapore. As early as 1911, Wee gave $1,500 to his former alma mater St Joseph’s Institution to build a new school hall. In 1929 he was a major contributor to the construction of the Church of St Teresa, located in Kampung Bahru Road.
Over the years Wee continued to contribute large amounts towards the building of new churches and the expansion of mission school buildings. However his largest charitable venture involved the construction of St Anthony’s Chapel in rural Mandai in 1928. As a result of on-going civil war in China, Wee financed the evacuation of an entire village of Peh Ne in China, when the village was destroyed. The refugees arrived in Singapore in February 1928 and many were immediately employed by Wee’s company on his instruction.
Wee was a devoted family man. Despite his great wealth and influence he remained a loving husband to his wife Regina. David Wee Cheng Soon died in 1944 of ‘pluerisy’, two years after the death of his wife. He was buried alongside Regina in the Bidhadari cemetery. By the early 2000s, their ashes were interned and presently rest at the church he helped build, the Church of St Teresa in Kampung Bahru.
Dr Marc Rerceretnam is the great grandson of David Wee Cheng Soon and Jacob Low Kiok Chiang. Marc is a freelance academic and author and has a special interest in social and political trends and movements in colonial and present day Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and three daughters.
This article first appeared on the blog site of “Tan of Makepeace Road”. It is reproduced with the permission of Juliana Lim, also a descendent of Mr David Wee Cheng Soon. https://tansofmakepeaceroad.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/david-wee-cheng-soon-1875-1944-by-dr-marc-rerceretnam/