Family Stories #6: Lee Swee Hin


Lee Swee Hin is the second son of Lee Yew Beng and Chan Saw Kooi. After my own grandfather (Lee Swee Lee, the youngest son) Lee Swee Hin is the next branch of the family that I know the best.

Family Tree Position & Generational Analysis

Lee Swee HIn forms one of five branches of the Lee Yew Beng family tree. According to the Family Tree descendent report, 30 known individuals share Lee Swee Hin as their ancestor:

  • 1st generation (1929 – 1955)
    • 3 sons
    • 5 daughter
  • 2nd generation (1956 – 1991)
    • 8 grandsons
    • 7 granddaughters
  • 3rd generation (1984 – current)
    • 4 great-grandsons
    • 2 great-granddaughters
  • 4th generation (2010 – current)
    • 1 great-great-grandson

Early Life

Lee Swee Hin was the first-born son after his father Lee Yew Beng had taken a second wife, and Swee Hin’s arrival signified Yew Beng’s commitment to his main family that he was developing with local woman Chan Saw Kooi. Swee Hin was born on Sunday 13 May 1906. It was in this same year that the construction work of Penang’s first electric tramway completed and was opened to public use.

1906 according to the Chinese Zodiac, was the Year of the Fire Horse. According to superstition, this combination of animal and elements is generally not favourable for people born in that year. However, such superstitions were not as heavy within the household as the birth of Swee Hin took place well into the year. The educational pathway provided to Swee Hin by his parents saw the adoption of a more Western/English mindset, which is typical of the Peranakan lifestyle.

When Swee Hin was barely two years of age, his younger brother and arguably closest sibling was born – Swee Lee. 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 11~12 years old whilst half-brother Swee Hock was 9 years older. When Swee Hin was 13 the youngest and last sibling for the family was born – a sister Teik Huat.

Family Life in Penang

Swee Hin grew up in Alor Star, Kedah where he met and married local Peranakan woman Cheah Joo Seok, who herself was only five months younger than Swee Hin. At the time of marriage, both were a young 19 years of age; this marriage would last a solid 51 years. Together they moved to the busier Penang/Georgetown – Aboo Sittee Lane (today Lorong Abu Siti) – and raised a close-knit family of four: two sons and two daughters.

In early 1939, Swee Hin was visiting by his brother (Swee Guan) when his eldest son was playing on the staircase banister. The child was sliding down the banister, but fell off at the bottom and hurt himself. As a passing joke, Swee Hin and Joo Seok said, in the presence of Swee Guan, that if they had another son, they would give the child away. Unfortunately, Swee Guan took this idle comment seriously and a heated argument broke out. Mediation between the brothers was achieved by the family Siamese midwife, who suggested that the two brothers consult a priest to determine the unborn child’s future. On reading the future horoscope of the then baby-in-the-womb the priest determined that the baby had to be given away as the second son/older brother, being born in the Year of the Tiger, would “eat” the younger boy who would be born in the Year of the Rabbit. The priest’s advice was accepted and on the birth of the youngest son, Swee Guan came to take the child back to Kedah. The name thus that this youngest son goes by today is a reflection of the naming rights Swee Guan employed, and not Swee Hin.

A final child named “Ah Bouy”, which in English means “Last One”, was born to Swee Hin by Joo Seok who died in infancy (three years old), which was in part caused by the poor dietary conditions of Japanese-occupied Malaya. Cheah Joo Seok was remembered as having to go collect milk and heating it over the stove. This led to the nutrients in it being killed, and Ah Bouy passed away as an infant, suffering from Beriberi. The children grew up in Penang, the three eldest witnessing first hand the occupation forces whilst the youngest would have been somewhat oblivious.

Whilst living in Aboo Sittee Lane, Swee Hin kept in touch with his brothers and sister. Apart from Swee Hock living in East Malaysia/Kuching, all other siblings would celebrate Chinese New Year together. These family occasions would see all the cousins come together, which was particularly good since the cousins were all of similar age. 1931 was a mixed year for the family given the loss of patriarch/grandfather Yew Beng but then birth of 3 grandsons. These grandsons from the three local brothers, had a a brief period between 1931 to 1936 where each CNY family reunion brought them all together. 1936-7 saw another wave of tragedies befall the family, with the loss of Swee Guan’s blood son in 1936 followed a year later by the death of matriarch Chan Saw Kooi. Fortunately, Swee Hin weathered these storms without direct impact. Within the space of ten years, Swee Hin lost both parents, a nephew and brother, and all before the outbreak of war.

Swee Hin worked in Penang as an assistant pharmacist/chemist, operating a dispensary. In September 1936, Swee Hin (also spelt Swee Heen) has passed his pharmacy qualification exam, as recorded in The Straits Times newspaper of 8 September. When World War II arrived in December 1941, the doctor who owned the operation fled and Swee Hin took greater control over the business. The assistance and proximity of his two eldest children (son and daughter) to the pharmacy business rubbed off on them in part – the daughter sought a career as a nurse whilst the son not just learnt the basics of medicine, but gained the opportunity – through the successful income of the business – to study overseas.

Family Life in Singapore

In the late 1940s, Swee Hin started a new life in Singapore with Ooi Siong Ngoh whilst the family of Cheah Joo Seok remained back in Penang. During this period, he arranged for the eldest son to study Pharmacy in Melbourne, Australia. In the early 1950s, Swee Hin lent a helping hand to his youngest brother in the form of accommodating his nephew whilst he found his feet. By the mid 1950s, through Siong Ngoh, two daughters were born in quick succession.

Swee Hin’s later life in Singapore allowed him greater freedom. Even though some of his children came to live overseas – Canada, Australia – the family was still very close, and Swee Hin had ample opportunities where the children brought their families to visit Singapore. Swee Hin also had the opportunity to travel within the region, keeping in touch with his brother Swee Hock in Kuching. Wife Cheah Joo Seok came to stay with their daughter, who remained back in Penang as a nurse whereas the youngest son found his way also to Singapore.

Swee Hin lived another good two decades, seeing his youngest children come of age before passing away at the age of 65 in 1972. Unlike his father before him, thanks in part to the healthier and emerging modern lifestyle of Singapore, Swee Hin lived to see his many of his grandchildren born. His years in Singapore were surrounded not just by his immediate family but also during the same period of the 1950s, the family of Swee Lee joined him in migrating from Penang to Singapore, bringing along nieces and nephews. In a slight blending of cultures, his eldest grandson was given the Chinese name “Swee Hin”. The passing of Swee Hin was such that his youngest daughter was on the cusp of coming into adulthood and because of his passing, her pursuit of a career/job in the airline industry went un-protested.

Initially, Cheah Joo Seok was naturally quite upset at her husband leaving her, but over the subsequent decades, she came to an understanding with the second wife, particularly after the passing of Swee Hin in the 1970s such that the two ladies were able to make peace. The closeness of all siblings across the two sets of mothers is testament to this family unity. Cheah Joo Seok outlived her husband by another two decades and only passed away in June 1994.

Demise & Legacy

At the time of his passing, Lee Swee Hin was survived by:

  • two brothers (one half) and a sister
  • both his wives
  • seven children (the eighth dying in infancy)
  • seven grandchildren

Since 1976 the following family developments took place:

  • his brother and sister passed away within a year of each other in the early 1980s; half-brother lived on for a further 8 years before passing away in 1990
  • one wife survived him by 22 years (passing away in 1994)
  • another seven grandchildren have been born (14 in total as at 2016)
  • six great-grandchildren have been born, seeing the next generation beginning in the 1980s (more will enter this generation in future years)
  • three great-great-grandchildren have been born, all in this current decade of the 2010s

The total legacy of Lee Swee Hin, as at 2016, is 29 (compared to 37 for his younger brother Lee Swee Lee). Whilst LSL may have the current edge, Swee Hin has a much brighter future with ensuring the continued Lee legacy since there are 10 potential future branches yet to develop and extend the next generations of children born a Lee, whereas Lee Swee Lee has one or two at best potentials remaining.