Family Stories #4: Lim Seng Kim


This is the third biography within the works Family Stories.

Lim Seng Kim is arguably the best known of my great grandparents, having listened to various stories shared by my father about her during the first childhood and teenager years of his life.

Family Tree Position & Generational Analysis

According to the Family tree descendent report, Lim Seng Kim blood has run through 64 documented individuals:

  • 1st generation (1913 – 1920)
    • 2 daughters
  • 2nd generation (1931 – 1954)
    • 4 grandsons
    • 6 granddaughters
  • 3rd generation (1956 – 1986)
    • 8 great-grandsons
    • 11 great-granddaughters
  • 4th generation (1974 – current)
    • 12 great-great-grandsons
    • 8 great-great-granddaughters
  • 5th generation (2003 – current)
    • 7 great-great-great-grandsons
    • 2 great-great-great-granddaughters

The overlap between this descendant report and the first one for Lee Yew Beng is considerable; majority of these individuals are also his descendants. The same comments therefore remain relevant for Lim Seng Kim.

Early Years & Motherhood

The story of Lim Seng Kim begins as a blur; her early childhood is obscure and probably lost to history. Fragments of information can however be gleaned and pieced together to form a picture. She married her first husband in Penang during the 1910s and together, they raised one daughter – Tan Phaik Loon, born 1 January 1913. The marriage was not successful as Paik Loon’s father took her and left Seng Kim for Thailand. It is not clear if Seng Kim had her second and only other daughter by the same husband/man – Phaik Guat. It is understood that given the surname of the elder daughter (my grandmother – Tan) that this is a reflection of her father’s background – he was a Tan. An appreciation of the custom and culture in those days is relevant – women did not assume the name of their husband and would remain known by their birth name for life.

Lim Seng Kim, in the absence of both husband and daughter, became a mistress to local businessman Khoo Heng Pan, a wealthy Penang businessman. In those days, the custom and culture allowed for a mistress living arrangement, particularly for the wealthier men who could afford to maintain the multiple households. In one sense, having a mistress was a status symbol of a man’s ability to provide for many; having a mistress was not viewed as carrying the more moralistic/personal morality that such an arrangement would induce in today’s modern society. Yes, the main wife and family would not like the arrangement, but the reality was that the family unit was generally beholden to the interests of the man as head of the household. Such was the wealth of Khoo Heng Pan that he could provide for Lim Seng Kim and her daughters their own household from within his portfolio of property scattered around Penang. Amongst his business interests, Khoo Heng Pan was known to be the owner of the Windsor Theatre, a well-known landmark of 1920s Penang.

The ancestry of the younger daughter to Seng Kim is uncertain because she came to bear the name Khoo Paik Guat. Whilst this would suggest her father was in fact Khoo Heng Pan, there was also the exception to the main culture and custom that a child/individual could adopt the family name of their generous benefactor. The closeness of younger daughter to Heng Pan helped her later on when he bequeathed an inheritance to her, but not the elder daughter.

Chin Chuey Lifestyle

In the late 1920s, Seng Kim took steps to bring her eldest daughter back to Penang by having her marriage arranged to local boy Lee Swee Lee. This wedding was performed with all the grandeur appropriate to those days – Phaik Loon was dressed up in jewellery and make-up, and formal invitations were issued to family. One copy of this wedding invitation was retained and thus the history preserved – it remains to this day with my aunt; the youngest grand-daughter to Lim Seng Kim.

Youngest daughter Khoo Phaik Guat was married off to Ooi Seng Kee as another arranged marriage. Unfortunately the matchmaker swindled Seng Kim by overstating the alleged wealth of the husband-to-be Seng Kee. Lim Seng Kim sought to keep both her daughters close to her by offering both young couples the shared use of 8 Arratoon Rd, the property provided to her by Khoo Heng Pan. In this way, Seng Kim was able to play the role of matriarch in the custom called “chin chuey”, where-by sons would move into the household of their wives, instead of the other way around. This concept is also documented in a similar book Recollections which I purchased during my 2014 Chinese New Year holiday, written by Tan Tiong Liat.

Initially things worked out but conflict arose between the two brothers-in-law to the extent that Seng Kim had to have a wooden wall erected as a physical partition of the house. Part of the animosity between brothers-in-law included the story that Ooi Seng Kee acted as an informant to the Japanese occupation forces during World War II which led to the other adult males in the family being detained and tortured by the Kempeitai, Japan’s dreaded military police.

One of the interesting side notes on Lim Seng Kim’s daughter who bore the name “Khoo Phaik Guat” is that a searching of online genealogy source produces this page, for an individual known as Lim Phaik Guat… Now, the source of that profile is the same source who loaded up the main family of Khoo Heng Pan. Further, the individual recorded on lived from 1897 through to 1987… I find this incredibly intriguing.

When Khoo Heng Pan died on 19 March 1934, the bulk of his estate remained with the main Khoo family since Lim Seng Kim was only his mistress. That included homes on Penang Hill which favoured grandson Lee Thean Aun was taken to as a toddler. Based on this link, it is highly likely that Grace Dieu was indeed the home my father was taken to in his first years.

It is thought that Lim Seng Kim had a relationship with Heng Pan that spanned at least 10 years. The timing of the birth of her youngest daughter is similar to the other children (sons) of Khoo Heng Pan and given the lack of any evidence visible on the Internet, being able to verify the true parentage and family status of Lim Seng Kim’s later relationship is almost impossible.

Final Years

Lim Seng Kim retained the use of Arratoon Road until her death in 1948, by which time, her oldest daughter Paik Loon had moved out. Seng Kim continued the chin chuey lifestyle, ensuring that all living expenses were paid for out of the wealth she managed on behalf of her daughter.

Living out the Peranakan culture, Lim Seng Kim valued the British colonial education system such that she had ultimately unfulfilled aims to send her eldest grandson to the UK for a college education. Unfortunately, the timing of her death, coupled with the interruption that World War II caused to her grandson meant that this possibility was never realised. Indeed, her closeness to her grandson was also possible due to the wealth extended to Seng Kim ultimately from Khoo Heng Pan.

A lot of the wealth that Lim Seng Kim had received from Khoo Heng Pan was “invested” in generous donations given to the local Buddhist temple, partly motivated by her superstitious beliefs. Other recipients of her wealth during her later years involved investing in beach-front property development. It is believed that the contractor in charge of managing the development exploited the uneducated Seng Kim and drained a substantial amount of the remaining wealth by developing separate property for his own benefit, in parallel to the property handed over to Lim Seng Kim and her the family.

One benefit from her generous donations to the local Buddhist temple was the elaborate funeral that she was given in 1948 when she passed away. It is believed that having been born in the 1890s, she lived a life of over 50 years, which was a respectable age span for people living during that era. By the time of her passing, the majority of her 10 grandchildren had been born and the third generation of great-grandchildren were only years away from beginning their lives.

One key feature of Lim Seng Kim that has been immortalised in one of the few photos of her – the prominent sharp nose which is somewhat unusual for the flat/soft noses that tends to dominate the Chinese/Asian face. This same feature is shared by a number of her grandchildren and will likely continue to surface in future generations.