For God and Church – Early Catholic Philantropists

If you walk into the Churches of Saints Peter and Paul, Sacred Heart and St Teresa, you are likely to see benefactors’ plaques and other inscription tablets bearing the names Jacob Low Kiok Chiang, Joseph Chan Teck Hee, David Wee Cheng Soon, and Low Gek Seng. These men were Teochew immigrants of humble beginnings who were converts.  Through hard work, they prospered in their businesses and through their generous contributions, were instrumental in the building of new churches in in Singapore throughout the late 19th and early 20th Century.

The Philanthropists

Jacob Low Kiok Chiang converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of 20. Together with his childhood friend Joseph Chan Teck Hee, he set up trading businesses in Bangkok, Singapore and Penang.  Jacob was one of the principal benefactors of Church of Saints Peter and Paul and Church of Sacred Heart in Singapore. He also gave thousands of dollars in donations to Catholic schools, in particular St Joseph’s Institution and also single-handedly paid for restoration of the damaged rooftops of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Victoria Street. Away from Singapore, Jacob’s philanthropic legacy can be seen in his birthplace of Shantou (formerly Swatow) where he paid for the construction of the Church of the Holy Rosary. In Bangkok, the largest church project which he funded was the French Romanesque Assumption Cathedral. For a fuller profile of Jacob Low

Joseph Chan Teck Hee was a Teochew immigrant like Jacob Low, his childhood friend.  Together they partnered in business as well as in devotion to God’s calling to contribute to the building of the Roman Catholic Church in Singapore.   Joseph Chan was one of the principal benefactors of Church of Saints Peter and Paul, both in his personal capacity as well as through his trading company. He was also the financial guarantor for the construction of Sacred Heart Church and St Teresa’s Church. He also donated to Catholic schools – his name can be found on the benefactors’ plaque for SJI’s King George’s Hall 1912, which was one of the largest school halls at the time. A number of his properties was donated to the Church – land on Tank Road next to Sacred Heart Church as well as his house at 48 Waterloo Street. For a fuller profile of Joseph Chan

David Wee Cheng Soon was a third-generation Catholic. His grandfather Pedro Tan No Keah is believed to be the first Chinese Catholic convert in Singapore. David Wee’s generosity towards the Catholic Church has been well documented. The benefactors’ plaque of SJI King George’s Hall 1921 shows he donated $1,500, the third largest sum.  His name is at the top of the benefactors’ plaque below the statue of St Teresa. He contributed $30,000 towards the construction of the church and also stood as guarantor together with Joseph Chan for any unraised balance so construction could proceed. David Wee was also instrumental in helping to relocate persecuted Catholics who fled to Singapore from Swatow. He gave them employment in his construction company and settled them in Mandai where he helped build St Anthony’s Church. For a fuller profile of David Wee

Philip Julian Low Gek Seng was the son of Jacob Low Kiok Chiang.  He succeeded his father as managing director of Chop Kiam Hoa Heng. In his own right, Low Gek Seng was acknowledged to be one of the pioneers of the rubber industry in Malaya. Like his father he was a prominent Roman Catholic philanthropist.  Together with Chan Teck Hee, he funded the extensions to Church of Saints Peter and Paul in 1901-1902, and his donation to the construction of King George’s Hall at SJI was in memory of his father.  Low Gek Seng died in 1945 in Valreas, France at the age of 75. He body was placed at a mausoleum until 1948 when it could be shipped back to Singapore and placed at his residence at No.54 Waterloo Street before burial at Bidadari.

John Lee’s gravestone

John Lee Kia Soon was a businessman dealing in real estate, rubber plantations and trading in commodities like gasoline which was sold by his company Chop Tiong Seng Chan. His philanthropic contributions to the Catholic Church are lesser known compared to his contemporaries like Jacob Low and Joseph Chan. The most significant record appears to be his kick-starting contribution of $10,000 to the building fund campaign for the new St Teresa’s Church. When he died in July 1927, the funeral service was held at Church of Sts Peter and Paul and he was buried at the Bukit Timah Cemetery. In 1971, his gravestone, along with 11 others was moved to Fort Caning Green where it still stands today, an impressive, intricately designed structure.

Church of Saints Peter and Paul

The Church of Saints Peter and Paul was considered the ‘seat’ of the Catholic Chinese community. It was a beacon not only for the growing community of Chinese converts in Singapore but also from all over Asia. The construction of the church was sponsored by wealthy Chinese Catholics such as Pedro Tan No Keah, who going by the church sacramental records, was the first Chinese Catholic convert in Singapore.  By 1880’s it was clear that the church would need to be expanded to accommodate its growing congregation. However it was only around 1891-1892 that Father F Vignol was able to get the expansion programme off the ground largely due to funding from a group of generous benefactors – their names are listed on the plaque by the entrance of the church.

The first phase of the expansion included the construction of three marble altars, new transepts and a sacristy. Later in 1901 – 1902, extensions were made to the choir loft, porch and façade. These were paid for by Joseph Chan Teck Hee and Low Gek Seng.

When the sanctuary was added, five stained glass windows made in France bearing the images of St Joseph, St Peter, Our Lady of Lourdes, St Paul and Sacred Heart of our Lord were installed. All five frames were donated by benefactors: St Joseph by Mr Joseph Chan Teck Hee; St Peter by a group of well-wishers of the church; Our Lady of Lourdes by Mr Goh Ngee Kee; St Paul by Chop Kiam Hoa Heng (the business established in Bangkok by Jacob Low Kiok Chiang and Joseph Chan Teck Hee); Sacred Heart of Our Lord by Jacob Low.

Church of the Sacred Heart

In 1910, Chan Teck Hee, Jacob Low and his son Low Gek Seng, and Cheng Quee Theam purchased a piece of land on Tank Road and donated it for the construction of a new church that was to cater to the Hakka/Cantonese congregation.  In addition, Chan Teck Hee also generously presented the main altar and installation of stained glass windows at the Sanctuary.

The stained glass panel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was presented by Messrs Chop Buan Hoa Seng (the trading company of Jacob Low and Joseph Chan in Singapore); the middle panel with the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was presented by Jacob Low; and the panel of St Joseph on the far right was by Messrs Chop Kiam Hoa Heng (Jacob & Joseph’s trading company in Bangkok).

The main benefactors of the Church’s sanctuary were inscribed on a donor’s plaque that has been placed at the entrance to the Church. Joseph Chan Teck Hee’s name is inscribed on the right panel of the plaque, and there is another inscription on the side of the main altar.

Church of St Teresa

In December 1925, Joseph Chan Teck Hee and David Wee Cheng Soon stood as the financial guarantors for the construction of new Church of St Teresa in Kampong Bahru, which would minister to the needs of the Hokkien Catholics.  Joseph Chan was also a member of the fund-raising committee, and spearheaded the subscription drive with John Lee Kia Soon by pledging $10,000 each.  By the time construction of the church was completed, Joseph Chan would have contributed $50,000 in total. Together with David Wee Cheng Soon and Low Gek Seng, the trio raised $100,000 of the $211,000 needed to build the church.

Entries in the Church of St Teresa’s donation book – from right; Lee Kia Choon (John Lee) $10,000, Chan Teck Ee (Joseph Chan) $10,000

Group photo of the Organising Committee for the Church Opening Event on 7 April 1929. Joseph Chan Teck Hee (with white blouse) is seated 7th from left. Next to him is Rev Fr Michael Seet (bearded, holding on to a white hat). Seated to Fr Seet’s left is Rev Fr Stephen Lee, the Parish Priest of Church of St Teresa.

In 1934, Joseph Chan Teck Hee, David Wee Cheng Soon and Low Gek Seng joined other Chinese Catholics in purchasing shares (houses) in the Bukit Teresa Catholic Settlement, which included the Carmelite Convent, a Catholic trade school and a cemetery. The shareholders received houses on the Bukit Teresa Hill.

St Joseph’s Institutuion King George Hall 1912 Benefactors Plaque located at front porch of the School (Now the Singapore Arts Museum)

Besides their generous contributions towards the building of churches, Jacob Low, Low Gek Seng, Joseph Chan and David Wee also donated to Catholic schools. They have contributed to the building of a School hall as part of the St Joseph’s Institution expansion plans. The hall was named King George’s Hall when it was completed in 1912.