By Dr Marc Sebastian Rerceretnam
Mr Low Kiok Chiang (1843 – 12 March 1911), also known as Jacob to his contemporaries, was a successful businessman and prominent Roman Catholic Church philanthropist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Singapore, Thailand (then called Siam) and China. He played a major role in financing the construction of major Roman Catholic infrastructure in Singapore, Bangkok and China, which is still in use today.
Jacob Low was born in the South Chinese Guangdong province coastal town of Shantou (formerly Swatow) in 1843 in a Teochew family. Due to financial difficulties his family sent 2 sons to Singapore in search of work. Low, arriving in Singapore as a 16-year old in 1859, had originally worked as a cook, and later as a clerical assistant at the French Roman Catholic religious order Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) headquarters in Oxley Road, Singapore, from the 1850s. It was during his employ as a young man that the residing priest Fr Patria recognised promise in Low and advised the young man to relocate to Bangkok in Siam to start up a business venture. According to family sources the Roman Catholic Church extended a generous loan to Low in order for him to see the plan through.
By 1872, Low established the retail/import-export firm Kiam Hoa Heng along the east bank of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. He did so with a childhood friend and now business partner Mr. Joseph Chan Teck Hee (1845–1930). It was from their import-export business based in Bangkok, Kiam Hoa Heng and in 1883 Buan Hoa Seng in Singapore were set up. The Singapore side of this operation was overseen by Mr. John Goh Ah Seng (1851–1916). 
After having attained financial success, Jacob Low donated large amounts of capital needed for the construction of local Chinese parishes and mission schools in Singapore, Bangkok and in Swatow China, especially between the mid-1890s to 1910. There is, however, no evidence to show if the Roman Catholic Church had a direct say in the use of Mr. Low’s business profits. From interviews with descendants in the 1970s and 1980s, it appears the reasons for doing so were totally personal. This wealthy patronage did not go unnoticed by some in the rival Protestant churches. Rev. J. A. Bethune Cook accused the Roman Catholic Church in 1907 of conducting ‘ordinary business houses in the name of Chinese traders and others.’
Much of Low’s contributions were directed to the Catholic Church and its various instruments. In the late 19th century, Low single-handedly paid for restoration of damaged roofs at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in the Singapore city precinct. His family and firm contributed several thousand dollars to Singapore’s St Joseph’s Institution. Kiam Hoa Heng also paid for refurbishments in the form of three large stained glass windows behind the altar, at the St Peter and Paul Church in Queen Street, Singapore. His last project was the modest Church of the Sacred Heart in Tank Road, Singapore completed in 1910, one year before his death.
Low Kiok Chiang died on the 12 March 1911 from complications arising from blood poisoning due to an infection. His body was transported via steam ship from Bangkok to Singapore for burial. He was buried in a cemetery behind Singapore’s Presidential Istana. Low was exhumed in 1970 to make way for a park. His marble tombstone and body are now interned at the Roman Catholic section of the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery in Singapore. Immediate descendants live in Singapore, Thailand, Italy, the USA, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and the UK.
- Business Directory of the Straits Settlements and Singapore, 1903.
- J. A. Bethune Cook, ‘Sunny Singapore: An Account of the Place and its People with a Sketch of the Results of Missionary Work’, London: Elliot Stock, 1907, p. 134
About the Author
Dr Marc Sebastian Rerceretnam is the great great grandson of Jacob Low Kiok Chiang and David Wee Cheng Soon. 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.