Trishaw rider Koh Teong Koo pedals steadily down Oxley Road, pulling up at No. 38, the home of Singapore’s prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
A group of his friends trail in a car from a safe distance, expecting him to be turned away by the Gurkha guards at the gate. None of them believes his story that he regularly visits the home of Singapore’s most powerful man.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, the gates are opened and Mr Koh cycles right in.
It turns out their coffee shop buddy is no ordinary trishaw rider, but the only one in 1970s Singapore with close ties to the Lee family.
It is a story the late Mr Koh’s surviving friends relate with relish. What his friends did not know either, was that the Lees always described Mr Koh as the man who saved Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s life during World War II.
His story began in 1934 when he arrived in Singapore from Fujian province in China at the age of 22. Like many of his kinsmen from the Hock Chia dialect group, he became a rickshaw puller.
In 1937, a Peranakan housewife, Madam Chua Jim Neo, got him to start taking her four sons and daughter to school by rickshaw. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was her eldest.
Said Mr Lee’s youngest brother, Dr Lee Suan Yew: “Imagine that, one man pulling at least four of us at one go. You have to be very strong to do that.”
Mr Koh also put his green thumb to work, growing sweet potatoes and cucumbers in the Lees’ backyard at Norfolk Road, in the Farrer Park area, where they lived until 1942. “Teong Koo also taught me how to rear chickens and ducks,” recalled Dr Lee.
But to the Lees, Mr Koh is best remembered for taking care of Mr Lee when it mattered the most – when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942.
By then, the family had moved to their grandfather’s home in Telok Kurau, farther from the city, to avoid getting hit by bombs.
One day, Mr Lee, then 19, and Mr Koh were checking their food stocks at the Norfolk Road house when they were ordered by the Japanese to go to a registration centre at Jalan Besar stadium.
They were to be screened by Japanese soldiers, who would decide if they were “cleared” to return home, or if they should be rounded up and taken away. Those who refused to be screened would be punished by the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police.
It happened that Mr Koh’s coolie-keng – the dormitory for rickshaw pullers – fell within the registration centre’s perimeter which was enclosed by barbed wire.
It was an area with many Hock Chia immigrants and Mr Koh had a friend who let him and Mr Lee stay for a night at his home at 75 Maude Road.
The next day, Mr Lee tried to leave the centre through the exit point, but the Japanese soldier on duty told him to join a group of young Chinese gathered nearby.
Feeling instinctively that this was ominous, Mr Lee asked if he could collect his belongings first. The soldier gave permission and Mr Lee took off. He did not return.
Instead, he laid low with Mr Koh for another day and a half until a different soldier was on duty. This time, he was cleared to leave.
Mr Lee recalls that episode in his memoir, The Singapore Story. Had he not escaped, he would almost certainly have been taken to a beach near Changi prison and shot to death.
The Lees believe they have the rickshaw puller to thank for Mr Lee’s narrow escape from Sook Ching, an exercise to punish the Chinese in Singapore for supporting China’s war effort against the Japanese. It is estimated that Sook Ching claimed between 25,000 and 50,000 lives.
Dr Lee told The Sunday Times that when he visited his eldest brother recently, Mr Lee, now 90, could still recall the episode in detail.
Dr Lee said: “My son told him, ‘If it weren’t for Teong Koo, the history of Singapore would have turned out very differently!’”
Mr Lee laughed in response, said Dr Lee.
Retired factory worker Tan Ah Mok, 84, who lived in Maude Road after the war and knew Mr Koh, told The Sunday Times: “Mr Lee’s mother was very happy that he came back alive. So she treated Teong Koo well.”
Dr Lee believes Mr Koh looked out for the family because his mother first looked out for him. When he wanted to try his hand at entrepreneurship, it was Madam Chua who helped him with the money he needed to get started.
He opened a canteen stall, then two provision shops on Maude Road and Bencoolen Street, and later bought five trishaws that he rented out to other riders.
When war broke out, Mr Koh moved all his supplies of food and provisions to the Lees’ Norfolk Road home, and these kept the family going as food became increasingly scarce.
“My mother always said, ‘Kindness begets kindness’. And she was right,” said Dr Lee.
Mr Koh’s devotion to Madam Chua was apparent when she died of a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 75. He attended the funeral at Mount Vernon Crematorium, and was clearly upset.
Mr Tan recalled: “One of Mr Lee’s brothers told him not to cry. Then he gave him some money and told him to go home.”
Despite the support he received from Madam Chua, Mr Koh was unsuccessful in his business dealings.
“He was too easy-going,” said Mr Tan, who recalled how Mr Koh would often be seen relaxing in the evenings at the neighbourhood coffee shop or on grass patches. He drank a little but did not smoke.
It was at Mr Ding Chin Hock’s father’s coffee shop, at 37 Maude Road, that Mr Koh bet with his friends that he could get into No. 38 Oxley Road after they wouldn’t believe that he was a regular visitor to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s home.
“Teong Koo really stood out to me because of his relationship to the Lee family,” said Mr Ding, 66, a retired accounts clerk. Mr Koh had a wife and three sons in China, and he sent money home regularly.
Eldest son Ko Ming Chiu, 67, remembers meeting his father for the first time in 1960, when he was 13 years old.
“He was so tall and well-built, just like my grandmother,” said Mr Ko in a telephone interview from Hong Kong.
In 1970, Mr Koh sent 8,500 renminbi for the family to upgrade from an old, small house to a bigger, newer one.
He visited every few years and would bring gifts such as watches, notebooks, woollen clothing and bicycles, said Mr Ko.
“My father said it was difficult to make money with a rickshaw or trishaw – especially when it rained,” he said.
Mr Koh moved back to China in 1986. He made his last trip to Singapore in 1987, when he took his eldest son and granddaughter Jenny to see Mr Lee’s second brother, the late Mr Dennis Lee. But none of the Lees knew about that visit.
Mr Koh died in China in 1998 at the age of 86, survived by three sons and nine grandchildren. His wife Sit Chu Song died in 2000 at the age of 80.
No one heard Mr Koh’s voice again until June 5 this year, when his grandsons George and Ken learnt during a visit to Singapore that he had recorded an oral history interview in 1981.
The brothers listened to a recording during a dinner organised by Dr Lee Suan Yew and heard Mr Koh describe his life as a rickshaw puller in 1930s Singapore.
At one point, Mr Koh let out a hoarse chuckle and his grandson Ken, 33, a businessman, exclaimed: “He always laughed like that! My father will cry when he hears this.”
Mr George Ko, 39, a customer service manager, added: “I had always known that my grandfather was close to the Lee family, but to me, these were just stories. Now, I want to know more about my grandfather’s life in Singapore.”
Pull of the past
Mr George Ko, 39, and his brother Ken, 33, listening to a recording of their late grandfather Koh Teong Koo's oral history interview, together with former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's youngest brother Dr Lee Suan Yew (second from left), 80, and Mr Ding Chin Hock (right), 66, at the Bukit Room of Singapore Island Country Club on June 5.
The 1981 interview with the former rickshaw puller was conducted in the Hock Chia dialect.
Mr Koh used to take the Lee siblings to school by rickshaw in the 1930s and 1940s, and is credited with saving Mr Lee Kuan Yew's life during World War II.
The Lees lost touch with Mr Koh after he returned to China in 1986. He died in 1998.
After almost 30 years, the Lees were reunited with Mr Koh's family earlier this year with the help of Dr Lee Suan Yew's patient Mr Ding and his distant cousin Tan Ah Mok, 84.
Mr Tan, who is from the village next to Mr Koh's in Fujian province, located the rickshaw puller's family last year and learnt that two of his three sons had moved to Hong Kong.
In March this year, Dr Lee and his family were on holiday in Hong Kong when they met Mr Koh's eldest son Ko Ming Chiu, 67, his wife, Sit Yuk Ming, 63, and their sons George and Ken.
Earlier this month, George and Ken visited Singapore and caught glimpses of their grandfather's life here.
One highlight was going to see the former prime minister's home at 38 Oxley Road. Their grandfather visited the Lees there regularly over the years, helping out as a gardener and general handyman.
This article was first published on June 29, 2014.
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