A Tale of Two Peranakan Families
Humanly and historically speaking, I owe my life to the Methodists. My paternal grandmother, Tan Siok Kim, was an early convert of the Methodist mission in Malacca. Advised by Mrs Emma Shellabear, she started to teach a class at her home. It grew to become the Methodist Girls’ School (MGS), Melaka.1 As she insisted that her husband should be a Christian, the Shellabears played matchmakers and introduced Chew Cheng Yong, an Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) teacher from Singapore, to the Tan family.
On 30 Dec 1905, with William Shellabear officiating, Siok Kim was first baptised and then married to Cheng Yong. Cheng Yong later assisted Dr Shellabear in his translation of the New Testament into Baba Malay.
Siok Kim’s second sister, Swee Loo, married Goh Hood Keng, another ACS teacher, who became the pastor of the Straits Chinese Methodist Church (1912–51), which is now Kampong Kapor Methodist Church (MC). Her third sister, Swee Eng, married ACS alumnus Goh Leng Inn. They were the parents of Dr Goh Keng Swee. They were a Methodist family.
In October 1907, Siok Kim gave birth to a son, Benjamin. Benjamin Chew, my father, was converted at an ACS chapel service when he heard a message by Dr Eli Stanley Jones, an American Methodist missionary to India. He became a medical doctor, a pioneer in treating tuberculosis (TB), as well as a Christian Brethren Bible teacher leading various
interdenominational organisations. He was Chairman of the Singapore Billy Graham Crusade in 1978, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore (EFOS).
Like my father and grandfather, I studied at ACS Coleman Street, before going to ACS Barker Road. My wife Aileen and I attended pre-university classes at ACS Barker Road. Our sons are fourth-generation ACSians, having received their education at ACS Coleman Street, then Barker Road, and Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC). Our daughter studied at MGS and ACJC. We all owe a substantial part of our education to ACS!
I remember hearing two outstanding Methodists preach from the pulpit when I worshipped at Bethesda (Katong). They were the Rev Goh Hood Keng, my granduncle, and Pastor Chan Wah Teck of Bedok MC. Granduncle always began his sermons with the words, “I have chosen for my text…” They and other guest speakers brought us God’s timely messages.
When I became an academic—teaching History at the University of Singapore/NUS for 40 years—I was in contact with the first two Methodist Church in Singapore archivists, Bishop T. R. Doraisamy and Mr Earnest Lau (my former ACS History teacher). It was Bishop Doraisamy who gave me a copy of Shellabear’s autobiographical transcript, which mentions his relationship with my grandparents.
My personal involvement in interdenominational organisations has brought cherished friendships with many Methodists. Through Campus Crusade (now Cru), I got to know the Rev Dr Victor Koh, the Rev Dr Chan Chong Hiok and Dr Harold Robers. Through the Billy Graham Crusade and EFOS, I have enjoyed fellowship with the Rev Dr Alfred Yeo, Dr Khoo Oon Teik, the Rev Dr George Wan, and (more recently) Dr Foo Fung Fong and Dr Calvin Chong.
When St Luke’s Hospital (SLH) was opened in 1996, my church Bethesda (Frankel Estate) and Wesley MC were foundation members. I had already known its first medical director, Dr Eileen Aw, and her husband Swee Eng through the Varsity and the Graduates’ Christian Fellowships. Through SLH, I became acquainted with Mr Indra Jeyaraj, Dr Danny Ng and Miss Tan Bee Ker (Wesleyans) and the Rev Goh Aik Hiang (Queenstown CMC), as well as leaders of Oasis Preaching Point, which uses the SLH Chapel for its services, and Barker Road MC.
My church has had the privilege of hosting Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon in our pulpit for two decades. His ministry and that of other guest speakers link us to the wider Body of Christ in Singapore and around the world. As John Wesley testified, “The world is my parish”!
Our ultimate debt is to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Because of Him, we owe a debt to preach His Gospel and to love others as He loved us (Rom 1:14–17 and 13:8–10). I am also grateful to the Methodists who exemplified and continue to exemplify that love to my family and me.
1Emma Shellabear, “Malacca Girls’ School,” Malaysia Message 15, no. 3 (Dec 1905): 30–31.
Dr Ernest Chew is an Advisory Elder of Bethesda (Frankel Estate) Church, and serves on the Boards of several Christian and other organisations. He taught at the University of Singapore/NUS, where he was Head of the History Department and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He is an Associate Senior Fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.
Photos courtesy of Dr Ernest Chew