Parallel Lives


Remember the Source of the Water "Carps in Pond" - painting by Elizabeth Ong

饮水思源  Remember The Source of the Water

Elizabeth Ong and Emma Lim

By Catherine Lim

In 2002 in London and Scotland, two Singapore couples stationed in the United Kingdom, welcomed new arrivals, both girls. Born four months apart, the Ongs in London named their daughter Elizabeth and she was their second child. The Lims in Scotland named their daughter, Emma and she was their first born

In 2006, after 13 years abroad, the Ongs returned home to Singapore because they felt it was time for their young family to root themselves to their country and they returned to the family home which with their children now houses 4 generations.  Their children, elder brother Alexander to Elizabeth were enrolled in Nanyang Primary School and because they were still very young adapted well.

In 2010, the Lims after 12 years abroad returned home for very much the same reasons, to be with family and reconnect to their homeland. By then Emma had a brother and a sister. Their grandparents had visited them frequently when they were in Scotland and the grandchildren settled down comfortably in Singapore, all under one roof. Emma was able to enroll in Nanyang Primary School.

In 2011 Elizabeth and Emma met for the first time.  They barely spoke in the first term of school but by term two their friendship just took off. Both are in the choir; Emma sings  alto, and Elizabeth second soprano. Their passions are artistic.   Dance lessons for Emma every weekend, and Elizabeth has been talking art lessons since 2007. Their mothers met and play dates were arranged whenever the girls had free moments in their busy schedules of school and extra curricula activities. But mostly the girls just text each other when apart.

As their friendship grew so did their mothers’. It was not long before they realised they had similar experiences of living abroad and coming home. When their husbands came into the picture,  the Ong and Lim families found a deeper connection which reached back into Singapore’s past and found another friendship which their daughters’ echoed.

Elizabeth, is the great great granddaughter of Singapore pioneer and scholar Khoo Seok Wan and Emma is the great great great granddaughter of another luminous pioneer, Lim Boon Keng.

Lim Boon Keng and Khoo Seok Wan

By Ang Yik Han

Source : Archive

One was the dapper son of a rich rice merchant from China, a poet and scholar who sat for the Imperial exams. The other was a local born Western trained doctor, recognised by government and society as one of the leading voices of the Straits Chinese community. Khoo Seok Wan and Lim Boon Keng made an unlikely pair of friends. But the historical and political milieu of their times gave birth to unlikely pairings.
Both men were supporters of the reformist movement in China which sought to re-vitalise the Qing Dynasty. Khoo founded the Thien Nan Shin Bao, a local Chinese newspaper sympathetic to the reformist cause; Lim Boon Keng was its English editor. Subsequently, Lim and his father-in-law took over another Chinese newspaper which also adopted the reformist line.

When Kang Youwei, the leader of the reformists, fled China after the Reform’s failure, Khoo offered him shelter in Singapore and sucour for the cause. With the threat of assassins dispatched by the Qing government hanging over Kang, Lim worked with Khoo and the Straits Settlements authorities to protect him. Kang moved three times during his short stay of five months in Singapore. The first two places were properties belonging to Khoo Seok Wan and the third hideout was none other than Lim Boon Keng’s house.

The two also combined their efforts in education and social reform. They established the Singapore Chinese Girls School with other progressive members of the Chinese community at a time when the proper place of women was at home and female education was look upon with disdain. Half of the funds for the school ($3000) were contributed by Khoo Seok Wan and both men served on the inaugural Board of the school.

Khoo’s role in society was greatly diminished in the years following his bankruptcy. He became destitute and had to scrap a living with his pen. Even then, the friendship continued.

The Ong family has in their  possession a book of calligraphy and original paintings which belonged to Khoo Seok Wan.

The page where Lim Boon Keng's signature is penned (photo Yik Han)

Lim Boon Keng's signature in Khoo Seok Wan's "guestbook" 1927 ( photo Yik Han)

This book bears the signatures of various guests who had the honour of leafing through it, including Lim Boon Keng who visited in February 1927. By then, his full time job was the Chancellor of the Amoy University. Lim’s occasional trips back to Singapore were primarily for the never ending task of raising funds for the University, yet somehow he found time to visit his old friend. This signature is testimony to their enduring friendship.

Post script on Emma and Elizabeth

Emma on her friend, Elizabeth:

Elizabeth is pretty and cute.

Elizabeth is smart, funny and my BFF.

Elizabeth has a kind heart and always helps me when I am in need.

Elizabeth on her friend, Emma:

Emma is my BFF and she is fun and exciting to be with.

She always sticks by me through thick and thin.

Emma is pretty and she is a true friend to me.

Blossoming Friendship "The Rose" - Painting by Elizabeth Ong