Three women's intriguing ties to Java's sugar tycoon, Oei Tiong Ham


Oei Tiong Ham and Hui Lan with her son Wellington Jnr, in Singapore in 1923. Photo: Yao-hua Tan, courtesy Daryl Yeap

When you look up “Sugar King of Asia” online, you’ll undoubtedly come across Malaysian billionaire tycoon Robert Kuok, who made his fortune from sugar. But did you know that there’s another Asian sugar king that predates him?

In As Equals: The Oei Women Of Java, author Daryl Yeap offers a riveting read about Java’s Sugar King of Asia, Oei Tiong Ham, whose vast wealth made him the richest man in Asia at the start of the 20th century.

The book begins in the late 1880s in Semarang, Java, the year that Tiong Ham’s daughter Oei Hui Lan was born – an auspicious year for Tiong Ham, who made his first million that same year.

From there, Yeap tells the compelling story of how Tiong Ham built his empire, and the women who surrounded him. By the time he died in 1924 at the age of 57, Tiong Ham had eight (official) wives, 13 sons and 13 daughters.

As Equals not only tells Tiong Ham’s story, but that of three women in his life, each impactful in her own way – Oei Hui Lan, the second daughter from his first wife; Lucy Hoo, his seventh wife who became the Oei family’s matriarch after his passing; and Ida Oei Yeap, the second daughter from his fifth wife.

The three women could not be any more different from one another – Hui Lan, brought up with a Western education and used to the luxurious lifestyle afforded to her by her father’s fortune; Lucy, sensible and capable, who came from a line of strong women; and Ida, who grew up in a quickly modernising world in the 1920s.

‘I was curious and drawn to the idea of writing about these women – to see how much women participated in history,’ says Penang-based author Yeap, about her new book 'As Equals: The Oei Women Of Java'. Photo: Daryl Yeap ‘I was curious and drawn to the idea of writing about these women – to see how much women participated in history,’ says Penang-based author Yeap, about her new book 'As Equals: The Oei Women Of Java'. Photo: Daryl Yeap

Page by page, Yeap takes readers on a fast-paced narrative through the history of the Oei family, from the outpost of the European empire in South-East Asia, to Belle Epoque Europe, to Nationalist China during the warlord period, all the way to 20th century America, during which all three Oei women broke free from cultural stereotypes and forged their own paths.

From numbers to words

Despite being historical non-fiction, the book manages to pull readers’ attention and keep it thanks to Yeap’s deft storytelling. For example, the book opens with a painfully detailed description of the practice of foot binding – a physical and symbolic representation of the barriers that women in that time faced.

“The book reads more like a story rather than an academic or technical piece of work. It took me quite a bit of time to work out the flow and structure to fit the style. My publisher calls it ‘creative non-fiction’,” says Yeap, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently for a public talk about her new book at the Badan Warisan Heritage Centre.

Though currently an independent researcher based in Penang, Yeap was initially trained as a banking analyst at a credit rating agency. Surprisingly, the skills Yeap picked up in the banking sector proved to be useful as a writer.

“We were required to analyse banks and write reports of recommendations on the health and creditworthiness of the banks. That career honed my writing and research skills,” she shares.

The seeds for As Equals were first planted while Yeap was working on her first book, The King’s Chinese: From Barber To Banker, The Story Of Yeap Chor Ee (World Scientific Publishing, 2019), which told the life story of Yeap’s great-grandfather, Yeap Chor Ee, who – as the book’s title states – started out as a barber and went on to establish his own bank.

“When I was working on my first book, I realised how difficult it was to find information about individual women from primary sources, such as newspapers, legal documents and commercial transactions. Women in the past have always been overlooked because of their passive and ordinary positions in society,” says Yeap.

In her new book, Yeap brings readers the fascinating story of Hui-lan, Ida and Lucy, daughters and wife of Asia's richest man at the turn of the 20th century - Oei Tiong-ham. Photo: World Scientific Publishing In her new book, Yeap brings readers the fascinating story of Hui-lan, Ida and Lucy, daughters and wife of Asia's richest man at the turn of the 20th century - Oei Tiong-ham. Photo: World Scientific Publishing

Another reason may have to do with the laws back then – under common law, a woman, once married, is stripped of her legal rights. She would have to give up control of her property, her income and everything she owned to the husband under a law known as coverture.

“For that reason, I was curious and drawn to the idea of writing about these women – to see how much women participated in history,” adds Yeap.

Although they faced numerous obstacles and limitations, the Oei women persevered: they flew planes, managed Asia’s most opulent estates, charmed the West with their impeccable sense of style and sophistication, and boldly challenged traditional gender roles while navigating through racial tensions prevalent during the era.

A family connection

Just as Yeap was about to finish writing her first book, she happened to meet the last surviving daughter of Oei Tiong Ham – Lovy Tanner.

“My family also has a connection with Tiong Ham and his family through business and marriage – two of Tiong Ham’s daughters (one of them being Ida, whose story is told in the book) were married to sons of Yeap Chor Ee, my great-grandfather, who did business with Tiong Ham. One thing led to another, resulting in As Equals,” reveals Yeap.

Described as “Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace For The Straits Chinese” by Professor Lien-Hang Nguyen of Columbia University, Yeap says that there are two parallel narratives that run through the book: the glamorous and dark sides of modernity.

An image of Lucy Ho and her son, Hervey. Photo: Yao-hua Tan, courtesy Daryl YeapAn image of Lucy Ho and her son, Hervey. Photo: Yao-hua Tan, courtesy Daryl Yeap

“Yes, the women were rich, sophisticated, glamorous and exciting, but on the other hand, their story is also about the dark sides of modernity – about how modern eyes viewed the less developed as backward and primitive,” she says.

During the five years it took to write and publish the book, Yeap learned a lot of surprising things.

“From discriminatory laws such as coverture, to cultural movements such as ‘New Woman’ and the existence of ‘human zoos’, right down to the art of diplomacy,” she shares.

So what can the women of today learn from the Oei women?

“The importance of having a strong sense of individualism,” answers Yeap succinctly.

“Life is just not all about being rich and dressing pretty, but doing something meaningful to establish your own self.”

As Equals: The Oei Women Of Java is available in all good bookstores.

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