Tracing the history of Chinese immigrants

Tracing the history of Chinese immigrants

SINGAPORE - Back in the 1930s when Lee Khoon Choy was a seven-year-old enrolled in Primary 1 at St Mark's School in Butterworth, he was puzzled why the Peranakans (descendants of Chinese immigrants who married local Malay or Indian women) could not speak, read or write Chinese even though they followed many Chinese customs and cultural practices.

He would have become one of them, he says, if not for a quick switch from the Catholic school to the Chinese-medium Yeok Keow School there - much against his father's wishes.

"I didn't know why, but I just felt very uncomfortable with the environment at St Mark's where Chinese wasn't taught," he says.

The former senior minister of state and retired diplomat, an old guard of the People's Action Party (PAP), remembers that his late father Lee Kim Fook, then a wealthy rubber plantation owner and philanthropist in Penang, chased him out of the house with a broom for leaving St Mark's, the school which most well-to-do Chinese families wanted their children to attend.

"My father, a former Customs officer for the British colonial government, sent me and all my other siblings - 11 brothers and five sisters - to English-medium schools because he believed that our futures depended on our mastery of the English language, not Chinese," says Mr Lee, now 89.

A full-time author, he has been writing both in English and Chinese since retiring from politics in 1984, and as a business consultant a few years ago.

His tiff with his father was resolved after the Chinese school's principal spoke up for him, and the elder Mr Lee, who incidentally was also the school management board chairman, later gave his blessings.

"But I became the black sheep of the family as all my other siblings never learnt Chinese," says Mr Lee.

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