Chew Boon Lay

Singapore Infopedia

by Sathisan, Dinesh


Chew Boon Lay (b. 1851 or 1852, Changchow, China–d. 2 June, 1933, Singapore) was one of Singapore’s early pioneers. He bought large tracts of land in Jurong on which he cultivated pepper and gambier, and later rubber. He also founded the Ho Ho Biscuit Factory.1 The Boon Lay housing estate and its Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station are also named after him.2

Early life
Chew was born to a poor peasant family in the small village of Tong Loon Seah, Kuan Khow (present-day Changchow), off Amoy, China, in 1851 or 1852. His father died when he was 13 or 14 years old. When Chew was in his late teens, his mother passed away, and he left for Bangkok, Thailand to join an uncle who owned a sundry shop and some land. An older brother had joined this uncle years before. For the next three years, Chew was a slave to his uncle – a plight he never expected to be in when he accepted his uncle’s offer of help. Chew had to attend to household chores besides also tending to customers at the sundry shop until it closed in the evening.

On one occasion, Chew’s uncle accused him of stealing 600 ticals that had been kept under a mattress. Although Chew pleaded innocence, his uncle was determined to hand him over to the police. Desperate for a way out, Chew decided to try his luck in the Wah Whay lottery (a game with 36 characters, for which the winning stake was 30 times the amount of the stake) the following day. He borrowed one tical from his aunt with hopes of winning 30 ticals in the morning lottery session, and thereafter use the winnings to get another 900 ticals in the evening lottery. He eventually did win 900 ticals. He used the winnings to pay back his aunt the one tical and the 600 ticals from his uncle, the latter for an offence he did not commit. His uncle wanted the rest of his winnings, claiming that Chew’s elder brother (who had died by that time) owed him 400 ticals. The debt was not known to Chew previously and he did not succumb to his uncle’s demands. He decided to leave his uncle’s household, taking nothing with him except his remaining 299 ticals.4

After leaving his uncle’s sundry shop, Chew worked as a crew member as well as a clerk on board a Chinese junk that engaged in trading between Bangkok and Singapore. In addition to his salary, he was later given a small cargo space, which he used to conduct his personal trade in consumer goods. He subsequently purchased an old junk with his earnings and travelled from Bangkok to Singapore. Overtime, his business network expanded and his barter trade flourished.5

Chew arrived in Singapore in the 1870s. He started a soap manufacturing business, and subsequently a biscuit factory in 1898. Taking the name of Ho Ho Biscuit Factory, Chew’s biscuit business contributed to his early fortune. Around 1931, Chew established a branch of Ho Ho in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), and this branch was managed by his eighth son, Chew Hock Hin. Chew also established a brick-making factory at Pulau Tekong around 1912, but sold it off shortly when he noticed the high mortality rate of his workers.6

Seeing value in land ownership, Chew bought acres of marshland and mosquito-infested jungle in Jurong and cleared them for gambier and pepper plantations. The gambier industry, however, declined in the early 1900s. Chew then turned to cultivating rubber as it was in great demand. Chew also set aside an orchard in his Jurong estate to cultivate papayasdurians and mangosteens, among other fruits.

In the late 1940s and ’50s, the colonial government in Singapore acquired large portions of land in Jurong that belonged to Chew. This led to the growth of Boon Lay village, which had a population of 422 people by the early 1960s. None of Chew’s estate remains in the ownership of the family in the present day.8

It was said that one of Chew’s sons, Chew Hock Seng, requested to preserve his father’s name, Boon Lay, when the government acquired the land.9 Today, some roads in Jurong, a Housing and Development Board estate, an MRT station and various schools are named after him.10 A type of soil was also named after him.11 

Chew married Ong Cheng Neo (1864–1942), a Peranakan from Malacca. While Chew spoke Amoy Hokkien to his children, his wife spoke a patois of Malay with Hokkien words, though she picked up Amoy Hokkien quickly. Chew was Confucian, and practised rites and rituals that were based on Confucian values.12 

Chew had eight sons and four daughters. As the family grew, so did its residences. The family lived at Oxley Road, and then Hillside Drive, before eventually moving to a compound on Devonshire Road that comprised four adjoining houses. There was one large house, known as the tau choo (meaning “big house” in Hokkien), which was the main unit for the patriarch and the eldest son’s family, and three smaller houses for the rest of the sons and their families. Other than his business, Chew’s time was spent with his family. He had no social life beyond the family, and this is perhaps the reason he was relatively unknown in the community.13

Chew passed away on 2 June 1933 and was buried at Bukit Brown Cemetery. He left behind six sons, three daughters, 52 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren at his point of death. In 2002, his descendants published a book that detailed the patriarch’s life and a family tree of over 700 descendants.14

Wife: Ong Cheng Neo.
Sons: Hock Seng, Hock Ann, Hock Hye, Hock San, Hock Chye, Hock Lee, Hock Leong, Hock Hin. 
Daughters: Gek Neo, Siew Neo, Kim Neo, Gin Neo.15

Dinesh Sathisan

1. Chew Boon Lay, Chew Kheng Chuan and Evelyn Chew, Chew Boon Lay: A Family Traces Its History (Singapore: The Compiler, 2002), 10, 24–29, 48. (Call no. RSING 929.2095957 CHE)

2. Gregory Leow, “Boon Lay the Road, Boon Lay the Man,” New Paper, 6 June 2005, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 10–12.
4. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 13–17.
5. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 18, 24.
6. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 24, 32, 41, 44.
7. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 24–29.
8. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 30; Victor R Savage and Brenda Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 44. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
9. Boon Lay Citizens Consultative Committee, Boon Lay: The Town, The People (Singapore: Boon Lay Citizens Consultative Committee, 2002), 12. (Call no. RSING q959.57 BOO-[HIS])
10. Leow, “Boon Lay the Road, Boon Lay the Man.” 
11. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 30.
12. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 44, 198.
13. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 46–47.
14. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 48; “Funeral Announcement,” Straits Times, 6 June 1933, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Leow, “Boon Lay the Road, Boon Lay the Man.” 
15. Chew, Chew and Chew, A Family Traces Its History, 198–99.

The information in this article is valid as of August 2023 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

Ong Pang Boon


Ong Pang Boon (b. 28 March 1929, Kuala Lumpur, Malaya–) was a politician and a prominent member of the People’s Action Party (PAP). He was appointed the minister for home affairs in the first cabinet of Singapore following the party’s victory in the 1959 Legislative Assembly general election. Ong went...

Jek Yeun Thong


Jek Yeun Thong (b. 1930, Singapore–d. 2018, Singapore) was a former politician who held the ministerial portfolios of labour, culture as well as science and technology. He was one of the first-generation leaders of the People’s Action Party (PAP)....

Ong Teng Cheong


Ong Teng Cheong (b. 22 January 1936, Singapore–d. 8 February 2002, Singapore) was the fifth president of Singapore and the first to be elected into office. He was sworn in as president on 1 September 1993. An architect by training, Ong served as a People’s Action Party (PAP) member of...

Tony Tan Keng Yam


Tony Tan Keng Yam (Dr) (b. 7 February 1940, Singapore–) was the seventh president of Singapore (2011–17). After a career in banking, he entered into politics in 1979 and served as a minister in the cabinet, holding at various times the portfolios of education, defence, finance, health, and trade and...

Singapore Association of Trade Unions


After the split in the People’s Action Party (PAP) that led to its left wing setting up the Barisan Socialis, the Singapore Trades Union Congress (TUC) also split into two rival factions: the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU). In the years following...

Goh Chok Tong


Goh Chok Tong (b. 20 May 1941, Singapore–) was Singapore’s second prime minister (PM), serving in the office from 28 November 1990 to 11 August 2004. Goh first entered politics as a People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate in the 1976 general election. He was elected as Member of Parliament (MP)...

Singapore's presidents


Between 1959 and 1965, Singapore’s head of state was known as the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Malay for “Head of State”).The post was created to replace the governor as head of state when Singapore attained self-governing status under British rule. When Singapore became an independent nation on 9 August 1965, the...

Industrial Relations Ordinance and Industrial Arbitration Court


The Industrial Relations Ordinance, 1960, was a piece of legislation that sought to regulate relations between employers and employees in Singapore at a time when the country was embarking on an economic makeover following the institution of self-government in 1959. The ordinance contained rules on collective bargaining, conciliation and arbitration...

Sir Robert Black


Robert Brown Black (Sir) (b. 3 June 1906, Edinburgh, Scotland–d. 29 October 1999, Reading, England), also known as Robin, was the governor and commander-in-chief of Singapore from 1955 to 1957. An early dispute with the chief minister led to the governor’s powers being curbed, but during his term of governance...

Cabinet 2001


Cabinet 2001 was announced by Goh Chok Tong, then prime minister of Singapore, on 17 November 2001. The swearing-in ceremony was held on 23 November 2001 in the presence of S. R. Nathan, then president of Singapore, at the State Room in The Istana. It was the last cabinet under...