Family Stories #10: Lee Swee Lee


Lee Swee Lee was my grandfather, and in this next wave of family stories being documented as part of my Family collection, it is fitting that we now reflect on his life.

I never met my grandfather since he passed away when I was not even three months old. He was in Singapore and I was in Melbourne, Australia. Thus, everything written about Lee Swee Lee (LSL) here is based on stories that have been shared with me from my father, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins. At the time of his passing, LSL was 74 years old. His passing in Singapore saw the immediate family gather for his funeral and cremation. His ashes were interred into an urn and placed at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Temple, Singapore. This was done to suit my grandmother, Tan Phaik Loon, who moved in with her youngest daughter. Some 13 years later, in 1995, the urn was transported to Penang by my brother. The final resting place for both my grandparents is in the local Penang temple.

Early Life

My grandfather was born on 31 January 1908 in Alor Star, Kedah, Malaysia. As the youngest of four brothers, LSL was closest in age to his next older brother Lee Swee Hin (LSH) who was only two years old at the birth of LSL. This age gap is one of the most definitive and certain facts of the brothers and the family from this decade. The oldest of the brothers, Lee Swee Guan would have been 9~10 years old whilst half-brother Swee Hock was seven years older.

Very little or accurate information is available about the childhood of LSL. The observations we can make about his childhood was based on his later life and the way he raised his family and children. Whilst he and Swee Hin both remained rooted in Penang in their early years of marriage, their two branches of the family lacked a cohesion such that the children of both brothers had limited awareness and contact of each other. Even though the eldest sons of each brother were born days apart, they did not share a common childhood. My dad and his cousin are now close, but partly at the time, the strong maternal influence of the mother-in-law as the new head of LSL’s immediate family would keep them apart in their initial years.

At the age of 11, LSL finally was relinquished of his role as the youngest in the family with the birth of his sister – Teik Huat. No explanation is available for the considerable gap between the births, which was a more uncommon in those days. Some six years later, LSL would have been witness to his brother’s wedding – his brother being a mere 19 years old. LSL had the uncommon distinction (for those days) of completing his schooling, and thus he sought employment in the town of Sungai Petani, Kedah with the public works department. The township was of similar age to LSL since British administration and development of the town in the southern part of Kedah began in 1909, thanks to the increased mining and rubber plantation economic development.

LSL was arrange married to Tan Phaik Loon (TPL) at the age of 21, some four years after his brother – both boys were a fairly typical age of marriage for the times. The arranged marriages were also a common cultural practice in Penang. The wedding was performed with all the grandeur appropriate to those days – TPL was dressed up in jewellery and make-up, and formal invitations were issued to the two families. One copy of this wedding invitation was been retained and it remains to this day with the youngest daughter.

The Chin Chuey Lifestyle

The first phase of the marriage was in 8 Arratoon Rd, Penang, where the first 3 children were born – two boys and a girl. Through the wealth of the mother-in-law (Lim Seng Kim) as a concubine to a local businessman and tycoon – Khoo Heng Pan, the young couple could live in relative comfort where servants would care and raise the young children. The motivation to work was thus low, but LSL still explored hobbies and various enterprises to keep himself preoccupied.

In adopting this new family lifestyle, LSL relocated from Sungai Petani to the busier Georgetown/Penang. In part, the marriage shifted a lot of the influence to TPL and her family. At Arratoon Rd, the young couple and growing family lived under the headship of Lim Seng Kim. Lim Seng Kim’s immediate family in her sister (and husband) plus the second, younger daughter all lived under the one roof. It was into this environment that my dad and his two siblings were born and grew up. Whilst the first three children were all born in quick succession, each a year apart, a four-year gap exists in between the (then) only daughter and the next child – a third boy. My father is the eldest, and he spent most of his childhood closely followed by his younger brother whilst the sister was raised separately under a more direct influence of the mother. Photographic evidence shows LSL taking the young children to the beach. Some of the earliest memories from my dad include being taken up Penang Hill to the mansion of Khoo Keng Pan. Based on this Flickr photo, Grace Dieu is most likely the place he was taken.

The only price/down-side to the living arrangement and lifestyle was that LSL did not get along with his brother-in-law, Ooi Seng Kee, the husband of TPL’s sister. In this second arranged marriage, the matchmaker swindled LSL’s mother-in-law by overstating the alleged wealth of Seng Kee. The practice whereby the daughters married but the husbands moved in is also documented in a similar book Recollections which I purchased during my 2014 Chinese New Year holiday, written by Tan Tiong Liat. This practice is known as “chin chuey”.

Meticulous record keeping by TPL indicates that a number of miscarriages took place during that four-year gap. It is pure speculation, applying today’s modern understanding, that some source of stress arose during that period of the mid 1930s. 1937 saw the loss of Swee Lee’s mother, and it was in the shadow of her death that a week later, a fourth child was born – another boy. A few short years later, in 1940 tragedy struck the Lee family again this time with LSL having to deal with the murder of his eldest brother.

For both LSL and TPL, the responsibility of raising their children was something they did not initially have to embrace since the family wealth allowed both parents to pursue their own agenda whilst the servants took care of the children. It was in this kind of environment where my father grew up closer to the servant girl who played a direct role in raising the oldest three siblings. The relationship between the second son and LSL was particularly challenging. All three of the oldest children were eager to leave home as quickly as possible, and this was only delayed by the outbreak of World War 2.

Surviving World Wars

During the war years, the entire household had to endure food rationing and the presence of the Japanese occupying forces. The tension between LSL and his brother-in-law continued throughout this period, with one story recollected that the brother-in-law had allegedly reported LSL to the Japanese authorities for hiding goods. When the Japanese raided the Aragon Rd house, they arrested LSL and any other adult men, except the brother-in-law. Arrest was just the start, and the harsh reality was that LSL was tortured and beaten, an agonising experience which traumatised him for life. According to family members, he never really fully recovered from this experience.

Tension within the house got so difficult that 8 Arratoon Rd was physically partitioned in half so both sisters’ families could continue to live with their mother. The rivalry between the adult men was even passed down to the next generation where my father automatically adopted similar attitudes in defence of LSL and against his uncle, the brother-in-law.

To help scrape enough food together for the household, the two senior sons pursued adventurous means to procure sweet potatoes for the family to eat. The story goes that they would steal from the neighbouring farmer, who would try to chase them. The eldest son, being the faster runner would protect his younger and slower brother by running slightly slower than his brother. Instead of keeping together, the boys split up and by initially appearing to be slower, the elder brother would have enticed the farmer to continue chasing him instead of the slower boy. In this way, once the two had split up in their escape route, the older brother would lead the farmer away before speeding off safely. So extreme and daring were their exploits that the older brother stayed out all day to ensure the farmer would not be able to trace them back to next-door when he finally returned.

Shortly after the conclusion of World War 2, around 1945-6, Lim Seng Kim, as the matriarch and mother-in-law decided to end the family feud and helped LSL to move his family out to a newly acquired family property at Perlis Rd, Penang. The main Arratoon Rd house remained the home of the matriarch and her younger daughter’s family.

Family Space in Penang

With the family feud somewhat resolved, and more space for LSL and TPL in their own home at Perlis Road, the couple were soon preparing for another baby – a second daughter. As the family settled down for another decade, the eldest children started to reach adulthood and slowly left home. With the war having disrupted some three years of schooling, the timing was such that in 1948 the eldest son was in the process of completing school when Lim Seng Kim, as the matriarch of the family passed away. Her death, particularly without a written will, prevented my dad from realising his dream to further his studies abroad in the UK. Instead, the inheritance was split between the two families and a significant portion was also donated to the temple.

Instead of studying in the UK, the next best thing for the eldest son was to pursue a career in Singapore, which was the beacon of hope in the Straits Settlements. Leaving in 1950, his departure saw him unable to attend his sister’s wedding where she was married off to a local boy who literally lived down the road. The story here was that the future son-in-law had relocated to Penang from Singapore thanks to his job working as a travel agent for the then Malayan Airlines (later succeeded by split Malaysian Airlines and Singapore Airlines companies). In relocating to Penang, this young man sought accommodation, and through this came to stay at the corner house at the end of Perlis Road. Through family and friend connections, the young travel agent became acquainted with his peers – the children of LSL.

The following year, the second son also tied the knot to his girlfriend and moved out of home. This left the two youngest children at home – one teenage boy with his young sister. LSL and TPL also started to take a more direct responsibility in the child-raising since they no longer had servants to assist with the activities of child-raising. The youngest son also had a difficult relationship with the father, and managed to find his own space by staying with the aunt, and thus had his own freedom from the family home.

As part of exerting more freedom and independence LSL explored various jobs as a way to earn a living. Having studied short-wave radio, he briefly attempted to run a radio-repair business. Another job he embarked upon was to be a moneylender – this venture failed when he struggled to collect and retrieve the money loaned out. The family finances had also suffered due to poor decision making and ignorance on the part of the matriarch – she had allowed a contractor to build her several beach-front homes only to be overcharged. At the end, it was found that the contractor had extracted so much extra from her that he had managed to build a whole other house for himself. The final drain on the family wealth came in the form of extravagant donations that Lim Seng Kim made to the local temple. It only paid off in the form of an extravagant funeral when her time came…

Moving out to Perlis Road enabled LSL and TPL to reconnect with the Lee side of the family, in the form of Swee Hin. It was through this increased contact between brothers that the cousins were properly acquainted. Swee Hin during the late 1940s had also initiated the family migration wave to Singapore, something LSL would follow a decade later. At the end of 1956, after the birth of the youngest daughter, LSL moved home to Barrack Rd, Penang. The birth and more direct involvement in raising the youngest children helped to create a period of relative stability at Barrack Rd. With the older children having moved out of home, it was like a second chance for LSL to be more involved with his family, which he did. The eldest son, having migrated to Singapore to pursue a career as a teacher, was in teacher training college and the two would constantly correspond, frequently on the topic of family migration to Singapore. Whenever the eldest son would visit home in Penang during those days, LSL would have a chance to bond with him over friendly badminton matches on the court that the house came with.

Migration to Singapore

With more and more of the children migrating to Singapore and establishing their immediate families there, the eldest son spearheaded the initiative to bring the family to Singapore. According to the drivers license booklet, whilst LSL last renewed his Malaysian drivers license on 2 May 1959 which was then cancelled by his new Singapore drivers’ license issued on 22 October 1960. Before settling on a permanent Singapore place of residence, the family temporarily stayed at another home in the Katong area. Prior to the final move to Still Road, LSL made numerous trips to Singapore preparing the way, one such trip included attending his eldest son’s wedding. The two youngest daughters of the family were raised in Singapore. In those days, the common route for travel between towns and cities like Penang and Singapore was ship. LSL did not travel alone on the ship either as his nephew, the second eldest son of LSH, travelled together with him. Together, in 1960, they made the voyage to Singapore and LSL had some assistance from his brother. The rest of LSLs family migrated to Singapore travelling by train, which made more sense given the children and luggage. When the family arrived at the railway station both LSL and LSH were waiting to collect them all. The move from Penang to Singapore probably had a bigger impact and impression on the children rather than LSL and his generation of the family. TPL was repeatedly warned by Penang locals that Singaporeans were ruthless and to be careful – this attitude in part developed by the overall environment where Penang was a small town and Singapore the big city.

Whilst staying in Katong, prior to finalising the Still Rd dwelling, the eldest son moved in, together with his wife and first son, thus bring two-generations of family together. In total, at least seven persons lived under the one roof – four adults and three children. During those days, even though the three children spanned two generations, the closeness of age still ensured that they could play together. Unfortunately this period did not last long as father and son ended up quarrelling which ended with the song moving his family out. It was also regrettable that LSL would not achieve reconciliation during his lifetime, partly because the son would later migrate further abroad to Australia. After the parting of ways, LSL settled in his final place of residence – Still Rd.

Throughout the 1950s, the family prospered, with the eldest children giving LSL and TPL many grand-kids. At least seven grand-kids were born throughout the decade, and with LSL residing in Singapore, it was very easy for family reunions to be organised. The eldest daughter would regularly bring her children to visit and for a period, her eldest two children played with the three children living at Still Rd. Whilst living in Singapore, the progress towards a modern society also enabled greater opportunities for travel, not so much for LSL himself, but for visiting family. A number of visits by elder brother Swee Hock from Kuching to Singapore took place, bringing selected grandsons on the trips. Some of my cousins and generational peers from Kuching could recollect the Still Rd family house which some of them got to visit throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including the family dog that LSL had acquired.

While Swee Lee lived at Still Rd, his brother Swee Hin lived two streets away in the Joo Chiat area and the intentional close proximity proved instrumental in bringing together both brothers and their children as cousins. Based on the numerous stories shared, the nature and character of LSL’s second son appears to align more so with his Uncle Swee Hin in that he was always living for the moment, entertaining and living large. The two youngest daughters/children of LSL had a different experience in their upbringing compared to the older siblings, and thus developed a different understanding of their parents.

Both LSL and TPL had to learn survival skills in Singapore unlike the lifestyle they had grown up with in Penang. During the war years, LSL had undertaken radio repair training via correspondence, and through this, he was able to develop a modest living. LSL also had an interest in music and some of his old song sheets have been handed down to myself. TPL acquired basic cooking skills which she learnt over the different periods of her life. It would appear that some of the influence from her mother and early years in Thailand was visible in the use of sugar in her cooking. This, in part, may have contributed to the onset of diabetes in LSL. Towards the final decade+ of LSLs life,  in the 1970s, diabetes really took hold and LSL began to modify his diet. Unfortunately, given the limited information and medical treatments available, LSL ended up starving himself, which contributed to his declining health and quality of life. Unlike today’s modern technology which allows for regular blood sugar level monitoring, primitive and less accurate methods were utilised by LSL. The little information he was given was from his brother who was the first of the brothers to be diagnosed with diabetes. Fortunately, with Swee Hin’s work in the medical/pharmaceutical industry, he was able to educate his younger brother with a basic understanding. It would appear that starting with their father, vulnerability to diabetes is a genetic legacy that all of us Lee’s can or may inherit.

List of Residences

Lee Swee Lee has moved several times in his life:

  1. Alor Star, Kedah, Malaysia: 1908 ~ 1927 (childhood)
  2. Sungai Petani, Kedah, Malaysia: 1927 ~ 1929 (early working life)
  3. Arratoon Rd, George Town, Penang, Malaysia: 1929 ~ 1946 (early family life)
  4. Perlis Rd, George Town, Penang, Malaysia: 1946 ~ 1955 (post war transition)
  5. Barrack Rd, George Town, Penang, Malaysia:1955 ~ 1958
  6. Katong, Singapore: 1958
  7. Still Rd, Singapore: 1958 ~ 1982

These changes in residences is in part documented and supported by one key artefact of Lee See Lee which the family has preserved – his driver’s license book. With each renewal sheet added on top of the previous year’s, the collection becomes a distinct record of where he lived.

Demise & Legacy

Lee Swee Lee outlived his two full-blooded brothers in that they both passed away before his time. In terms of longevity, he also outlived his sister, although she passed away within a year of Swee Lee. The one exception was with Swee Hock, half-brother who lived in Kuching, East Malaysia. Arguably, the easier pace of life in East Malaysia may have contributed to the outstanding longevity of Swee Hock, whereas the stress and hardship that Swee Lee had to bear may have contributed in part to his reasonable lifespan of 74 years. In reality, given the circumstances and declining health, Lee Swee Lee lived a full and complete life.

Lee Swee Lee passed away on 26 August 1982, which coincides with publication of this article publication on the 34-year death anniversary. The local family members gathered to farewell him in a simple Buddhist memorial and cremation service at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See temple in Singapore. For 11 years his widow Tan Phaik Loon survived him, she first moved in with the one youngest daughter who was based in Singapore. When her health declined, TPL agreed to return to Penang to live out her remaining years with the eldest daughter who was based there. In 1993, with the passing of TPL and her remains being physically located in Penang, the children agreed to have both parents’ remains interred together and in 1995, one of the grandsons who frequented both Singapore and Penang assisted in the transfer, bringing the urn with him to Penang.

Lee Swee Lee today lives on as a memory to his children and grandchildren, particularly those who knew him first-hand. He was survived, at the time of passing, by:

  • Tan Phaik Loon, his widow (who would live on for another 11 years as per above)
  • 6 children (one would pass away within 7 years)
  • one sister (who would pass away within a year – 1983)
  • one half-brother (who would live on for another 8 years)
  • 13 grandchildren (8 born a Lee)
  • at least 4 great-grandchildren (at least one born a Lee)

Since 1982, the family has continued to grow:

  • Another grand-daughter born to increase the current number to 14
  • At least another 4 great-grandchildren have been born to date (2016), with more likely in the future (total 8+)
  • All 9 great-great-grandchildren have been born, a generation of the 2000s

In this way, Lee Swee Lee’s total legacy of 37 is proportionate (20%) to the total 191 blood descendants of his father Lee Yew Beng, given he was one of five children. One interesting phenomenon is that from a continuation of the Lee family and name, the Lee Swee Lee branch is clearly in decline since I, a grandson, remain one of the last hopes (two at best) for continuing the Lee family beyond my generation…