By Grace Wong
Mr Joseph Chan Teck Hee (17/4/1847 – 4/9/1930) was a well-known Teochew Catholic businessman and philanthropist. His name holds place of honour on the stained glass windows and benefactors plaques in Singapore’s oldest churches – Saints Peter and Paul, Sacred Heart and St Teresa.
He arrived in Singapore in the mid-19th century, most probably from Xian Lie Village, near Swatow (Shantou), with his childhood friend, Jacob Low Kok Chiang. Together, they forged a life-long partnership, both in business and in their devotion to God. In 1872, Joseph Chan and Jacob Low established a retail import-export firm, Kiam Hoa Heng along the east bank of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. In 1883, they established Buan Hoa Seng in Singapore. Joseph Chan also had interests in banking and was the director of Se Hai Tong Bank.
In 1897, Joseph Chan purchased land adjoining the Church of Sts Peter and Paul, where he built 11 dwelling houses known as St Joseph’s Houses, which were to accommodate catechists, widows, the aged and the destitute. The houses were later torn down in 1935 to build the Sino-English Catholic School (later renamed Catholic High School after the war).
From 1901 to 1902, extensions to the choir loft, porch and façade at Church of Sts Peter and Paul were paid for by Joseph Chan and another Teochew businessman Low Gek Seng (who was the son of his childhood friend and business partner Jacob Low).
Joseph Chan lived at No. 100 Waterloo Street, which was located just across from Church of Sts Peter and Paul. It was reported that every evening, without fail, he would be seen sweeping the drains of the Church compound. He would also often be seen sweeping the floors of the St Joseph’s Houses.
At some point in time, No.100 Waterloo Street was renumbered as No. 48. The house was a double storey bungalow, with big rooms and front and back halls, with a central staircase that le upstairs just after the front hall, and a staircase behind the house that led down to the kitchen and servants quarters.
In 1909, together with Jacob Low and Cheong Quee Thian, Joseph Chan donated a site in Tank Road to build the Church of the Sacred Heart for the growing Cantonese and Hakka congregation. Joseph also generously donated funds for the main alter and stained glass windows at the Sanctuary. In 1926, Joseph purchased some buildings along Clemenceau Avenue on the left side of Sacred Heart Church. These were known as the ‘Seven Shop houses along Tank Road’. He also purchased the piece of land fronting the old Railway Station along Tank Road. All these properties were later donated to the Bishop of Malacca as legal representative of the Roman Catholic Church.
Joseph’s devotion to his faith saw him contributing once more to the building of another new church, this time for the Hokkien community. Together with David Wee Cheng Soon, he was the financial guarantor for St Teresa’s Church and a member of the organising committee for the church opening ceremony in November 1927, which garnered an attendance of 6,000 people.
Joseph also made a very special donation of five bronze church bells – ‘Teresa’, ‘Joanna’, ‘Francisca’, ‘Catharina’, and ‘Rosalia’, so named after his five children. The bells were formally presented by Joseph’s sons and daughters – Moses Chan Yong Seng, John-Baptist Chan Yong Kee, Francis Chan Yong Huat, Catharina Chan Siu Tsu and Rosalia Chan Siu Noi and blessed on 23 January 1928 (Chinese New Year’s Day) at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.
Less than 3 years after Church of St Teresa was opened, on 4 September 1930, Joseph Chan passed away in his home at No. 48 Waterloo Street at the age of 85. He was survived by three sons, four daughters, thirty-three great-grandchildren. No.48 Waterloo Street was subsequently gifted to the Church.
Joseph Chan was laid to rest in Bidadari Cemetery. Between 2001 to 2006, the graves there were exhumed to make way for housing development. During the exhumation, his grand-daughter, Mdm Marie Chan remembered seeing that his body was uncorrupt. He was then moved to the columbarium in Church of Christ The King. In the years there since, another grand-daughter, Mdm Cecilia Chan, remembered someone leaving a letter at his niche, thanking him for his help in getting a job.
Joseph Chan Teck Hee is fondly remembered by his family as a devoted man who dedicated his life to serving God though acts of financial generosity and kindness towards people, especially the needy and less fortunate. His life’s story was one of All for Church, All for God and a true inspiration not only for his descendants but for others who aspire to love and serve God faithfully.
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About the Author
Grace Wong Mi Ling is the great-granddaughter of Joseph Chan Teck Hee. She is a covenanted member of ICPE Companions Singapore. She attended her school of Mission in New Zealand between 2001 to 2002. Grace is trained in special education and is a private tutor for children with mild special needs. She lives in Singapore with her mother who is the granddaughter of Joseph Chan.
Additional material was obtained from interviews with Mdm Marie Chan, another granddaughter of Joseph Chan and Grace’s aunt.