Oei Tiong Ham

Singapore Infopedia


Oei Tiong Ham (b. 19 November 1866, Semarang, Indonesia–d. 6 June 1924, Singapore) was a successful Indonesian Chinese businessman.1 He built the Oei Tiong Ham Concern (OTHC), which was then one of the earliest business empires in Southeast Asia. He was also known as the “Sugar King of Java”.2

Early life
Oei Tiong Ham was born in Indonesia to Oei Tjie Sien. The elder of two sons, he was educated in a Chinese school. In 1885, he joined Kian Gwan Kongsi, a multi-national trading company that his father established in 1863.3

Semarang, Indonesia
With his wealth and business connections, Oei exerted significant influence over the Chinese community in Semarang.4 During that time, many Chinese were legally required to wear the traditional Chinese attire. In November 1889, Oei submitted a request, through his Dutch lawyer Baron C. W. van Heeckren, for permission to be dressed in European fashion. He became the first Chinese in Indonesia to dress in this manner. Subsequently, he was also the first Chinese in Semarang to cut his queue (or towchang, long hair worn in a back braid).5

The visits he received from distinguished guests – such as the King of Siam, and the crown princesses of Denmark and Greece – were a testament to Oei’s reputation and social status.6

Oei Tiong Ham Concern
Oei’s most famous legacy is the Oei Tiong Ham Concern (OTHC). It was the largest conglomerate in the Dutch East Indies in the early 20th century. It began with Kian Gwan Kongsi, which Oei inherited from his father in 1890 and converted to a limited liability company in 1893. The firm’s main business was trade in commodities, such as rubber and coffee. In addition, it operated pawnshops and postal services. It was also involved in logging and the highly lucrative opium trade. Between 1890 and 1904, Oei made a profit of 18 million guilders from the opium trade alone.7

Unlike many Chinese businessmen, Oei relied heavily on written contracts. His main debtors in the 1890s were owners of sugar factories in East Java, who could not repay their loans. With the written contracts, Oei legally acquired the collaterals, including five sugar factories, for the loans he extended. Sugar factories thus became the backbone of OTHC. Widely considered the most successful sugar merchant in the Netherlands East Indies, Oei was nicknamed the “Sugar King of Java”.8

OTHC started to expand rapidly in the 1890s and became a group with a diversified business portfolio by the early 1910s. Its exports included agricultural and forestry products.9 It was the largest ethnic Chinese business conglomerate in pre-war Asia. Oei did not rely on family members to run his business enterprises, but employed talented outsiders, such as ethnic Dutch directors, managers and engineers. Nevertheless, it remained a family business with ownership firmly held by the Oei family.10 To coordinate the finances of his business, he established a bank called N.V. Bankvereniging Oei Tiong Ham.11

After Oei’s death, OTHC continued to grow. However, on 10 July 1961, the Pengadilan Ekonomi (the court for economic crimes) in Indonesia issued a confiscation order on OTHC in Indonesia. The company and its owners were charged with economic crimes against the country.12 According to a government official, these crimes included violating foreign exchange rules for millions of rupiahs.13 OTHC was then nationalised and renamed on 12 October 1964 to PT Radjawalli. However, the overseas subsidiaries remained with the Oei family.14

Life and business in Singapore
In 1920, Oei left Semarang to settle in Singapore. It was suggested that he did so probably because he did not agree with the Dutch succession law. The Dutch civil law gave daughters the right of inheritance. Apparently Oei did not want any of his daughters to inherit his fortune. Another likely reason was that he wanted to avoid paying the 30 percent tax imposed on the excess profits he earned during World War I (1914–18).15 The law required all citizens to report to a Dutch consulate within three months of arrival in a foreign country, or risk having their citizenship revoked. Oei chose not to do so and conveniently had his Dutch citizenship forfeited.16

Oei’s businesses in Singapore included Kian Gwan Kongsi’s branch office established in 1914.17 He was also the chairman of Heap Eng Moh Steamship Company Limited, a Singapore company registered at 22 Telok Ayer Street that he had bought in 1912.18 In 1919, when Overseas Chinese Bank was formed, he was one of the first subscribers to its shares.19

In Singapore, Oei gave generously to many causes, including $150,000 for the construction of a central hall for Raffles College.20 In recognition of his generosity, Oei Tiong Ham Hall at the then-University of Singapore was named after him.21 Other organisations he donated to included the Chinese High School, St Andrew’s Medical Mission and the Japanese Earthquake Relief Fund. He contributed land later used to build Toh Lam School on Armenian Street.22

Wives and children23
Oei had eight official wives, who bore him 13 sons and 13 daughters.24 He was concerned with succession planning and perceived having a son as a valuable business objective. He ultimately appointed nine sons from three wives as his heirs. This practice was allowed under the English law, as he was a British subject in Singapore.25


Daughter (s)

Son (s)

Goei Bing Nio, Oei’s first wife, was hand-picked by his parents

Oei Tjong-lan

Oei Hui-lan, better known as Mrs Wellington Koo


The Khiam Nio

Oei Djoe Nio


The Tjik Nio

Oei Hwan Nio
Oei Oen Nio
Oei Liang Nio
Oei Siok Kiong Nio

Oei Tjong Tee
Oei Tjong Swan
Oei Tjong Yoe
Oei Tjong Tiong
Oei Tjong Liam

Ong Tjiang Tjoe Nio

Oei Siok Kiong Nio

Oei Bien Nio


Ong Mie Hoa Nio

Oei Swat Nio

Oei Tjong Hauw
Oei Tjong Tjiat
Oei Tjong Yan
Oei Tjong Ik

Njoo Swat Ting Nio

Oei Siok Ing Nio


Ho Kiem Hoa Nio (alias Lucy Ho), moved to Singapore with Oei. She lived with him until his death.

Oei Twan Nio

Oei Tjong Le
Oei Tjong Bo
Oei Tjong Hiong
Oei Tjong Tjay

Tan Sien Nio

Oei Siang Nio 


A vast estate
Oei died of a heart attack in 1924 at 59 years old.26 His daughter Oei Hui-lan believed that he was poisoned. Oei’s body was shipped to Semarang for burial in his father’s tomb.27

Of the nine sons who were made Oei’s rightful heirs, only two, Tjong Swan and Tjong Hauw, reached maturity at the time of his death. The other children not selected to be his heirs received substantial amounts of money from his estate, which was estimated to be worth two hundred million guilders.28

Lee Hwee Hoon

1. Leo Suryadinata, Prominent Indonesian Chinese: Biographical Sketches (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015), 75, 194. (Call no. RSING 959.8004951 SUR)
2. Yoshihara Kunio, ed., Oei Tiong Ham Concern: The First Business Empire of Southeast Asia (Kyoto: The Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, 1989), 1. (Call no. RSING q338.092 OEI)
3. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 3, 25; Suryadinata, Prominent Indonesian Chinese, 194.
4. Michael R. Godley, The Mandarin-capitalists from Nanyang: Overseas Chinese Enterprise in the Modernisation of China 1893–1911 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 18–19. (Call no. RSING 309.15103 GOD)
5. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 25, 136–37.
6. Lynn Pan, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora (New York: Kodansha International, 1994), 150. (Call no. RDLK 909.04951 PAN)
7. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 1, 73, 136, 138–39.
8. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 75.
9. “The Years of Expansion and Diversification,” New Nation, 24 August 1971, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 1, 63–64, 112.
11. “The Years of Expansion and Diversification.”
12. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 1, 96–106.
13. “Oei Family Business Is Seized,” Straits Times, 10 February 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 1, 96–106.
15. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 7, 64.
16. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 64.
17. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 141.
18. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 353. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
19. Heidi Dahles and Otto van den Muijzenberg, eds., Capital and Knowledge in Asia: Changing Power Relations (London: Routledge, 2003), 161. (Call no. RSING 338.095 CAP)
20. Godley, Mandarin-capitalists from Nanyang, 19. 
21. “Varsity ceremony to honour ‘Sugar King’,” Straits Times, 23 December 1966, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Mr Oei Tiong Ham Dead,” Malayan Saturday Post, 21 June 1924, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 19–20, 25, 150, 152.
24. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 78.
25. “The Years of Expansion and Diversification.”
26. “Mr Oei Tiong Ham Dead.”
27. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 128, 131, 149, 152.
28. Kunio, Oei Tiong Ham Concern, 79, 137; “The Years of Expansion and Diversification.”

Further resources
Wellington Koo, No Feast Lasts Forever, with Isabella Taves Koo (New York: Quadrangle, 1975). (Call no. R 327.20924 KOO)

Onghokham, The Thugs, the Curtain Thief, and the Sugar Lord: Power, Politics, and Culture in Colonial Java (Jakarta: Metafor, 2003), 205–23. (Call no. RSEA 959.82 ONG)

The information in this article is valid as at 29 March 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

More to Explore

Sophia Cooke


Sophia Cooke (b. 27 February 1814, Hilsborough, Norfolk, England–d. 14 September 1895, Singapore) was an Anglican missionary and teacher who made significant contributions to the Chinese Girls’ School (CGS) – now known as St Margaret’s School. She also started the Sailors’ Rest and the Singapore branch of the Young Women’s...

Clean and Green Week


Launched in November 1990, the Clean and Green Week (CGW) took place for a week in November each year until 2007 when it became a yearlong campaign and was consequently renamed Clean and Green Singapore. The Clean and Green campaign aims to protect and care for the environment by engaging...

New World Park


New World Park was the first of three renowned amusement parks (or the three “worlds”) that wooed Singapore night crowds from the 1920s to the ’60s. Opened on 1 August 1923, the park was located at Jalan Besar. In its heyday, New World Park had open-air cinemas, opera halls, shops...

Nalla Tan


Nallammah Ruth Tan, née Navarednam, popularly known as Nalla Tan (b. 12 May 1923, Ipoh, Malaya–d. 27 March 2012, Singapore), was a doctor, academic and author. She was best known for her advocacy of a diverse range of issues, especially sex and health education, gender equality in employment, women’s rights...

Khoo Cheng Tiong


Khoo Cheng Tiong (???) (b. 1820, Fujian China–d. 1896, Singapore), also known as Khoo Tock Xin (???), was a well-known rice merchant and the president of Thong Chai Medical Institution. ...

Borneo Co. Ltd.


The Borneo Co. Ltd. (BCL) was formed in 1856 to exploit business opportunities in Borneo (Sarawak). It was also active in other parts of Asia. Drawing on its knowledge of the Southeast Asian markets, the company entered the automobile industry in the 1920s, importing and selling cars in Singapore and...

City Biodiversity Index


The City Biodiversity Index, also known as the Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity, measures biodiversity in cities, and highlights how biodiversity conservation efforts can be improved. The idea was proposed by then Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan at the Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention of Biological...

Singapore Indian Association


The Singapore Indian Association was formed in 1923 with its main premises at Short Street. The Association was very active in sports. Cricket and hockey were its fortes in the late 1950s, with many of its members representing Singapore in regional and international competitions. However, its membership and coffers began...

Tan Kah Kee Young Inventors' Award


The Tan Kah Kee Young Inventors’ Award was first established in May 1986 to encourage and promote creativity and innovation in science and technology. The competition is open to Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 36 and below (Open Section) as well as students aged 25 and below (Student Section). In...

Nanyang Siang Pau


The inaugural issue of Nanyang Siang Pau (????), known as the Chinese Daily Journal of Commerce in English at founding, was first published on 6 September 1923. It was established by businessman and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee with the aim of promoting commerce and education. Tan also started the printing...