Oei Tiong Ham (1866-1924) was undoubtedly the wealthiest and most powerful man ever to live in Semarang. He was a Chinese businessman and founder of the Oei Tiong Ham Company. On his death he left behind an inheritance of 200 million guilders
In later years the Oei Tiong Ham Company comprised: the Trading Company Kian Gwan, the Oei Tiong Ham Sugar Development Company Ltd, the Oei Tiong Ham Banking Company Ltd, which controlled the Randoesari Building Company and the Hiap Eng Moh Steamship Company Ltd
Oei Tjie Sien, Oei Tiong Ham's father, had lain the foundation for this industrial empire in 1858. In this year Oei Tjie Sien started selling Chinese bowls and other household goods as a 'klontong' a market vendor.
He had come to Semarang for political reasons. He had been in imperial service in the province of Fukien in China and had had to flee his homeland post-haste, leaving his wife and first child behind. As he had not been able to take any possessions with him he had to start from scratch.
Oei Tjie Sien had had a good education in China, this was quite exceptional as most migrant workers in these days could hardly read or write. There were great opportunities as in these days Semarang was a booming industrial city. The Chinese were the tradesmen and Oei Tjie Sien had exceptional trade talents. He began trading in incense and gambir, an ingredient in betelnut chewing. His business was flourishing and he soon made a fortune of 3 million guilders. On 1 March 1863 he started the trading company: Kian Gwan: 'source of prosperity for everyone'.
Oei Tjie Sien remarried Tjan Bien No, the daughter of a Chinese merchant in Semarang. They had two sons, Tiong Ham and Tiong Bing. Tiong Bing had no special commercial talents and was given land an property. Tiong Ham was appointed successor for Kian Gwan Trading Company.
In 1890 Oei Tiong Ham took over his father's business. So far the Kian Gwan Company had mainly traded in rubber, kapok, tapioca and coffee but now Oei Tiong Ham started specialising in sugar. In 1894 he bought five sugar refineries, one of them was Redjo Agoeng near the city of Madiun. He modernised them and appointed, often Dutch, highly qualified managers.
It was most controversial in the Chinese business world to appoint 'outsiders' However, it soon appeared that appointing people for their qualifications and not for family ties brought the company prosperity. Soon the refineries produced 100,000 tons of sugar per year.
Oei Tiong Ham realised that he should spread his risks and invested part of the profit in a completely different industry: the Randoesarie Building Company. In later years it was to become one of the most important and influential building companies in Java.
The Randoesarie Company constructed and rented accommodation mainly for indigenous workers whereas another building company Grond & Huizen Company, with branch offices in London and Singapore, managed other property in the Dutch Indies and the Straits settlements.
Oei Tiong Ham was an opium farmer in Semarang, Surabaya, Solo an Yogyakarta. This is very lucrative business. An opium farmer leased rights to collect taxes on behalf of the government. Between 1890 and 1904 he made a profit of 18 million guilders.
Oei Tiong Ham's private life was equally ambitious. He married Goei Bing Nio, daughter of a wealthy Semarang family. They had two daughters. He had seven concubines and another eleven daughters and thirteen sons. His youngest son was born in Singapore in 1924.
In 1921 Oei Tiong Ham had moved to Singapore. There were two reasons for him leaving Semarang:
By the Dutch law of succession he should have divided his Trade Emporium among all rightful claimants.
During the 1914 -1918 war he had made war profit by speculating on the sugar market and he was levied taxes.
Oei Tiong Ham was oriented towards the west but never learned to speak Dutch. In 1889 he was one of the first to be given permission to cut his Chinese plait of hair and to wear western apparel. In 1898 he was appointed Captain of the Chinese, but two years later he was discharged at his own request because of his much demanding business life. In 1901 he became honorary major of the Chinese.
Oei Tjie Sien, Oei Tiong Ham's father died in 1900 and had strictly adhered to the Chinese way of living. However, from an early age he had invested in property. He had bought the Semongan estate, south west of Semarang, together with the Penggiling house and the famous Sam Po Kong temple. In 1880 the government granted him permission to live at his estate. In those days it was not a matter-of-course for Chinese people to live outside China town. Oei Tjie Sien opened the temple for the general public, before it could only be entered if an entrance had been paid.
Oei Tiong Ham was also granted permission to live outside China town. He settled on Gergadji, a 19th century neighbourhood at the foot of the hill. His father had bought here a villa from the bankrupt Chinese businessman Ho.
Oei Tiong Ham moved into this villa together with his seventh concubine, Ho's daughter. This huge villa in neo-classical style was surrounded by vast grounds with a menagerie of exotic animals. Here he entertained members of Asian and European Royal Houses.
Oei Tiong Ham died in Singapore in 1924. He was buried in Semarang at his Penggiling estate, according to his wish. He had appointed his two sons, Oei Tjong Swan and Oei Tjing Hauw as his successors for the Kian Gwan company. Oei Tjong Swan withrew, but Oei Tjung Hauw continued the business. In 1927 he electrified the sugar refinery Redjo Agoeng, which now became a model of modern management. He commisioned the well-known Semarang architect Liem Bwan Tjie to build new headquarters at Hoogendorpstraat now Jl Kepodang. The interior was admired because of its opulent, marble decorations.
Until the Second World War Kian Gwan Company flourished. After the transfer of sovereignty the management gradually transferred capital to oversees branches.Thus anticipating the escalation of the political and economic crisis in the fifties.
Finally, what was left of the Indonesian branch of the company was nationalised in 1961
Translate by Marianne van Rees Vellinga.
(Source: Brommer, B., Semarang Beeld van een stad, Asia Maior, Purmerend, 1995, page 19.)