Knowing Kuching: Story Behind Ewe Hai Street - A Young Merchant

Ong Ewe Hai was one of the first Chinese to settle in Sarawak during the Brooke Era. Ong Ewe Hai was just 16 back then, a Singaporean Hokkien.

Ewe Hai had a difficult life at a young age. His father, Ong Khoon Thian, died when he was just seven years old. Ong Khoon Thian migrated from Fujian province, China.

His mother had to bring up a family of six, including Ewe Hai, his two brothers and three sisters. Circumstance forced young Ewe Hai, with little education, to help out the family by doing odd jobs. 

Young Ewe Hai soon became a street smart petty trader. 

Lim Eng Moh, an older mentor, spotted young Ewe Hai talent and enthusiasm, advised Ewe Hai to go to Borneo - a land of "milk and honey". 

With this, both Ewe Hai and Eng Moh set out to Sarawak and began the business of barter-trading with the natives of Sarawak. 

Even at the age of 16, young Ewe Hai quickly gained trust in the Sarawak community as he was honest in his business dealings. He gained the friendship of a local chief in Kuching, and with his reputation, he was granted credit by Singapore companies, propelling his businesses.

Ewe Hai personally went back and forth between Singapore and Sarawak, physically carrying his products. According to the publication of "Ong Tiang Swee of Sarawak 1988", it was an uncomfortable and tiresome time. 

Ong Ewe Hai became a successful businessman from processing to exporting various commodities like gambier and pepper. He also imported textile and other necessities for Kuching. 

Within ten years, he established two firms, Kay Cheang, Ewe Hai & Co in Singapore and Ewe Hai, Moh & Co in Kuching. In 1872, he amalgamated the two firms into Ewe Hai & Co, turning it into one of the leading companies in Sarawak.

Ong Ewe Hai married a Nyonya in Singapore; the Singapore family became successful in their pursuit. Ewe Hai also married another woman, Teo Soo Neo, a Hakka lady from Lundu and started a family in Sarawak. The Sarawak family became leading influencers in Sarawak. 

Ong Ewe Hai's success in the exporting business brought him close to the Brooke family, whose government relied heavily on export taxes. 

Ewe Hai was appointed as Rajah Brooke's Chinese Affair advisor and later "Kapitan China" (translated to the headman of the Chinese Community).

In 1857, Ewe Hai also warned the Brooke government of the dissatisfaction of the Hakkas and the potential uprising in Bau. The Brooke government paid no attention to the warning, which nearly cost the Rajah his life.

Ong Ewe Hai formed the Kuching Hokkien Association in 1871. 

Knowing Kuching: Story Behind Ewe Hai Street - A Young Merchant

Current view of Ewe Hai Street. Image source via kcholdbazaar

One of Ewe Hai's legacies was the construction of a row of 40 two-storey shoplots at the present Ong Ewe Hai Street after the Great Kuching fire of 1884.

Within the next two years of the incident, Ewe Hai and a founding member of the Ghee Soon association, Law Kian Huat, helped rebuild Kuching. 

Knowing Kuching: Story Behind Ewe Hai Street - A Young Merchant

In front of the mansion was a courtyard enclosed by low walls inlaid with jade green glazed ceramic tiles. A Chinese-style horned archway stood at the courtyard entrance, leading down to what is now known as Bishop's Gate and Carpenter Street. Image source via kcholdbazaar

Ewe Hai's house is on the present Bishop's House compound. The house was completed in 1885, overlooking the street where Ewe Hai's shophouses and the Sarawak River some distance ahead.

The street was later named after Ewe Hai. "Ong" was dropped out from the street name to respect the Rajah as "Ong" means King in Hokkien.

Ewe Hai passed away after a short illness on June 9, 1889, at the age of 60 and was buried at his estate behind the Holland Road Railway station in Singapore.


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