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Dr. Lim Boon-keng (1869-1957), “Sage of Singapore”
(Adapted From “Discover Gulangyu”)
Kipling said East and West would never meet, but they did meet in the 2nd president of Xiamen University, Dr. Lin Wenqing, who was called the Sage of Singapore by Chinese and foreigners alike. Xiamen University’s founder, Tan Kak Kee, wrote that Lin was “well versed in Western materialistic sciences and Chinese cultural spirit.”

Educated first in a Hakka temple and then at Raffles Institution, Lin was the first Chinese awarded the Queen’s Scholarship, and earned first class honors in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. But while Westerners admired Lin, the Chinese at Edinburgh spurned him because of his poor written and spoken Mandarin Chinese. According to some sources, English remained his strongest language, and when he gave a speech at Xiamen University in 1926 he had to use an interpreter! But we know that he did master at least Minnan Dialect and Cantonese.

In 1905, Lin set up a private hospital for prostitutes and founded the Anti-Opium Society (ironic, since both his father and China-born grandfa-ther were opium farmers). Lin excelled at business, particularly the rubber industry, shipping and banking, and helped found the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. A pioneer Chinese financier, he partnered with Huang Yizhu to start the Hefeng Bank and Overseas Chinese Bank. West-erners and Chinese alike sought the Sage’s wisdom. He was adviser to the British in the Legislative Council and the Chinese Advisory Board, and at-tended the coronations of King Edward VII in 1902 and King George V in 1911. Lin really showed his colors during World War I when he raised funds for the Prince of Wales relief fund and for war planes, and in 1918 was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

In 1900, Lin helped found the Straits Chinese British Association (of which he was elected president twice). He also started the Chinese “Philo-mathic” Society for the study of Chinese language, Western Music, and Eng-lish literature, and the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. And perhaps be-cause of his own difficulty in mastering Mandarin, he urged that Chinese children be taught in Mandarin, even going so far as to organize Mandarin language classes in his own home.

Lin was president of Xiamen University from 1921 until 1937, but after returning to Singapore he suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese, who tortured his wife to force him into working for them. In 1949, Lin became the first president of the China Society, and supported that work until his death on New Year’s day in 1957. He left 3/5 of his estate, including his Brush Mountain home, to Xiamen University. The estate is run down nowadays, but still holds a special place in the hearts of those grateful for this man who wrought great change in the lives of Chinese both at home and abroad.

                           Dr. Lin in a Foreigner’s Eyes
                              (by Averil Mckenzie, Gulangyu resident, 1920s)

“A year previously, Dr. Lim Boon Keng had been appointed President of the new University of Amoy. A graduate in medicine of Edinburgh University, he no longer practiced, but still lived part of the year in Singapore, where he had once done so, and it was there that we first met him and his wife.

In Kulangsu, they and their family occupied a house delightfully set in a garden on one of the highest points of the island. A few days after our arrival we ate there. The Lim family's friendship endures to this day, so I cannot, with any certainty, recall of what we talked. I remember the catholic collection of English books on the ground floor, cockroach-scraped and silver-fish-nibbled, as all our books became, but all well-used and alive; and above, the billowing of white curtains, high and airily in white light; Mrs. Lim's dark hair and poised grace against white walls, and the agony of a mouthful of chili sauce which I mistook for tomato.

“Dr. Lim was short, square, with large, mild brown eyes, but he was a fighter of astonishing range and vigor. Apart from his continuous battle for Western concepts of hygiene against ignorant and superstitious col-leagues when he was medical adviser to the Minister of the Interior and Inspector-General of the Peking hospital under the Chinese Government, he had championed any number of causes unrelated to his profession. One of these campaigns had been against pigtails. In this he was not alone but we felt that for him, as a Fukienese, it was particularly appropriate be-cause, for more than two hundred years after the defeat of Koxinga and his supporters in 1683, the Fukienese peasants, forced to be 'tartarized' and to wear queues, coiled these symbols of subjection round their heads and hid them under turbans.

“Dr. Lim had traveled both to widen his own and other people's [views]…As a vigorous advocate for the adoption of kuo-yu, he had gone to Java to preach its benefits to the Chinese schools there. He and Mrs. Lim had explored Europe as well as attending the German, French and Italian medical conferences to which he was officially delegated. He was one of the first to urge his country-men in Malaya to plant rubber, and was always ready to pursue new ideas offered by friends or books. 'Reading,' he would say, 'and the cultivation of friends are as a fan to the flame of the mind and make it burn more brightly.' He had what I, as a European, can only call a Latin enthusiasm. It was, I suspect, as much for this comprehending eagerness as for his medical skill, that Sun Yat-sen had chosen him as a private secretary as well as physician. But with all his preoccupations for the future of his countrymen he never undervalued his country's past and her perennial philosophy. He had published various books on Confucianism, and a few years after we met, I was to engrave a frontispiece for his translation of the classic Li Sao [Dr. Lim died at the age of 88, in Singapore, shortly after I wrote this chapter].”


鲁耶尔?吉卜林说,东、西方永远碰不到一块儿。然而,厦门大学的第二任校长林文庆博士却能将这二者融会贯通。中外人士一致推崇他为 “新加坡贤哲”。厦门大学的创始人陈嘉庚评述林文庆时写道:“(他)能通西洋物质之科学兼具中国文化之精神。”



1900年,林文庆参与创立“海峡英籍华人公会”,两次当选为该会主席。他还创办了“华人Chinese Philomatic社团”,开展中文、西方音乐和英国文学等学科的学习活动,还创办了“新加坡华人女子学校”。也许是由于他本人汉语学得不理想,他竭力主张华人应从小开始学习汉语,甚至在自己家里组织汉语学习班。


(《绿姜根》 Averil Mckenzie,1920年代鼓浪屿居民)




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