Chee Kwee Kin: the Chee patriarch and a Fuzhou odyssey

As I trudged the path of duty, visiting and paying respect to my elders during the first day of Chinese New Year, I uncovered an unlikely treasure. It was at the main Chee gathering at Kasai Road, at the home of Chee Siew Kee, the sole surviving uncle at age 98.  My cousin David Chee, who was a  missions official in the USA, mentioned that he had done some research on the Chee family roots. He had put down the fruit of his research in English in a blog called the Fuzhou Odyssey. He was effectively bilingual and had access to the Chinese source materials, like clan records. Back home from visits, and with an interest I never had when I was younger, I read the detailed blog posts which set the story of my paternal grandfather in its historical context. If there had been footnotes I would have thought this was some kind of research paper.

I will summarize the story of my paternal grandfather, Chee Kwee Kin, in a letter addressed to my sons and daughter:

DEAR JOSHUA, MATTHEW & ELAINE,

You have an interesting family line: one you can thank God for, one you can be proud of, one that can help you understand yourself. Of course your spiritual lineage that goes back to father Abraham is far more important. However, you were brought into this world through this human lineage and there is a design in that too.

Your paternal great-grandfather was Chee Kwee Kin, a Chinese scholar and a Qing government official. He was politically a reformist with personal acquaintance with well-known China reformist of his time, Kang Yu-wei. For a time he taught at Chang-chien Shan’s Ho-lin Anglo Chinese School at Foochow. In 1893, he emigrated to Singapore with his family to fill a position as editor of Le Pao, a daily newspaper. He later filled similar positions in two other newpapers: the Thien Nan Chin Pao, Penang Ri Bao, and in his writings he strenuously resisted the intrusion of foreign imperialism. He was a China nationalist in his editorial slant. While serving as editor he survived an assassination attempt on his life.

Your great-grandfather ran a business by the Singapore river and founded the Singapore Foochow Business Association.  He also founded the Foochow Labourer’s Association, for labourers to gather, obtain help in their work, and in buying property.

He was involved in charitable work. He practiced medicine (TCM), “healing lots of people and upholding the ethics of the profession” (according to a locally published book). In 1909, he sent money to China to help build a school. He also organized fund-raising to alleviate suffering from flood and fires in China(1931) and in Sibu(1931), Sarawak.

Like most Chinese he was a great believer in education. He foresaw that the future of his country of exile was tied with an education in English and ensured his children had a western education, and even sent some of his sons overseas, three of whom studied Western medicine. He made sure his daughters were educated too. However, as in the practice of a Chinese scholar, he hired tutors to school all his children in the Chinese classics.

As to his personality, he was generally a serious person, but on occasion had been seen teasing grandmother with the singing of Chinese opera verse. He loved Peking Chinese opera.

His loyalty was unquestionably to China, and he did not fail to dedicate himself to his people living in Nanyang. When he died, his body was shipped back to Foochow to be buried.

I still find it hard to believe my grandfather was so Chinese Chinese. Two generations later and his descendants ( maybe I should just speak for myself here) have become unrecognizably and irreversibly “banana”(yellow on the outside but white on the inside: look Chinese but dominated by Western values). My grandfather was a Chinese scholar, but I know only a smattering of Mandarin, and much less about Chinese literature and history. He was a proud Confucianist and a China loyalist. I am neither, though being Chinese in Singapore means being lightly marinated in Confucianist values like respect of elders, teachers and emperor (LKY). I am a cultural apostate and my grandfather will rise from the grave if he knew how far I have strayed from the Chinese spring. Maybe he should have sent his sons to Chinese High School instead of the ACS.

Among your relatives are many teachers, doctors, civil servants, businessmen and those who love to write (like me) and those in vocational Christian service and politics. It seems that Chee Kwee Kin has cast his shadow of influence over his later generations, even seeming to have a bearing on his descendant’s choice of occupations. This is something interesting for you to think about:  nature and nurture, as it applies in family lineage.

I still puzzle over Chee Kwee Kin’s personal faith. Was he a Christian or just open to Christianity? Why was he teaching in ACS in Foochow? I had thought my grandfather was from Sibu, the “Sarawak Foochow”,  an assumption I derived from where the clan records are kept and from hearsay. Where does that fit in? There are puzzles yet to be resolved and as in all family history, discerning verifiable facts from misty memory and recollection is an arduous ongoing task. That task will become yours when you are older. It will be easier for you though, when it comes to telling your children about me because this blog gives you access not just to my outward activities but also some of my opinions, personality, beliefs and feelings. 🙂

WITH LOVE, DAD

15 thoughts on “Chee Kwee Kin: the Chee patriarch and a Fuzhou odyssey”

  1. to know that we did not build Rome but are in many ways treading the path well-traversed.

    And in because many others have walked this road, we have it relatively easier. Thank god, thank god.

    A story comes to mind:
    On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them,

    ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over.

    We travel easier because others have graciously opened up the way, and I believe god definitely has a hand in all these.

    Gong xi fa chai blogpastor. Share you pride in your illustrious ancestor.

    Steven Sim

  2. and unfortunately you have no facebook so i really have absolutely no way of contacting you! why elaine why! to think i asked you about this before.

    P.S: Sorry Elaine’s dad for spamming. This is an extremely exhilarating moment for me.

      1. SERIOUSLY! That’s great! Really! I sent her a message on skype yesterday to bug her. Haha, thanks! I’ll add her right now! 😀

  3. Hi Uncle Kenny!
    I think we probably met during CNY this year. Interestingly enough, I was wondering about the exact same thing! =) Was searching around online and I found your blog. Just in case, you’re not really sure who I am, I’m Chee Kwong Weng (Chris)’s eldest daughter. =) I met Joshua in Campus Crusade while in uni and we totally didn’t realised we were cousins until the semester after.

  4. Hi Dara,

    Yes I know who you are. You are one of those described above as “in vocational Christian service”.

    You know, I used to stay over with your dad, Ah Weng, and had many fun times with him, though he was younger than me.

    I played with your dad. You served with my son in SCCC!!

  5. Foochow are strong christian, your grandpa may be a Christian by teaching in ACS, Foochow. In those day, not many Chinese are studying in missionary schools, unless they are open to the west or Christian. Watchman Nee is a Foochow, many Foochow in Sarawak and Stiawan in Perak are Methodist Christian. They even have a museum on Foochow in Sitiawan Methodist Church.

    1. Sorry Robin there are no updates here. Unlikely to be. Maybe you may want to look at other sites that trace the Fuzhou odyssey, how the Nanyang got into SE Asia.

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