Thong Chai – A 143 Years History

For those who have watched U-Channel recently, you may have come across the below broadcast;

Yes, it’s Thong Chai Medical Institution first Charity Show on TV. The words “Thong Chai” do ring a bell to many elderly people but how many of us really know the meaning of it and the history of Thong Chai Medical Institution?

First let’s talk about the meaning of the name  “同济” (“Thong Chai”). The name “同济” was derived from the Chinese word “同”, meaning “the same” — same or equal treatment for all. “济” is derived from the word “Ji”, meaning “to help or relieve” the people. Thus  “同济” simply means “benevolent to all”.

As for the history of Thong Chai, some said it was set up in 1867 while some said it was 1892, why? After Raffles founded Singapore in the 19th century, it attracted many people from different parts of the world. Many “overseas Chinese” (maybe now we called them “Foreign Talent”) came to Singapore to work or trade. These overseas Chinese migrants also brought along with them their traditional Chinese medical herbs, and also some Chinese physicians began to settle down in Singapore. By 1860, Singapore population grew to about 80,792 and Chinese accounted for about 61.9% (50,010).

Many of the Chinese immigrants here were poor labourers and did not have much money left for seeking medical treatment when they fell sick. In 1867, two charitable Chinese businessmen from Fujian and Guangdong, Ho Tao-Sheng (何道生), Liang Jiong Tang (粱炯堂) set up the oldest Chinese medicine charitable Chinese medical establishment named “同济医社” (“Thong Chai Medical Society”). They employed two Chinese physicians to give free medical treatment to the poor regardless of race, and collect their free medicine from assigned Chinese medical shops (these assigned medical shops will collect payment from Thong Chai Medical Society).

Maybe many of us are not aware that “同济医社” first rented a shop at Macao Street or Upper Macao Street to be precise  (31 Upper Pickering Street as it is now known as) in 1867;

Credit : Cornell Library

Credit : Ong Chwee Im

Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, the Governor of the Straits Settlement then, heard that Thong Chai was assisting and relieving the poor and sick, he then granted a piece of land totalling 8,380 sq.ft., 3 Wayang Street to 67 New Market Road, to Thong Chai to build its own premises. See the old map below;

Credit : Editions Didier Millet

Note that this Wayang Street has ‘disappeared’ and now renamed as Eu Tong Sen street. The Chinese then raised funds to build the new building for Thong Chai at this new premises. Philanthropist Gan Eng Seng (the founder of Gan Eng Seng School) had been financing the establishment of Thong Chai but his endowment was spent by 1890. At that time, 7 wealthy merchants, popularly known as “七家头” (“7 Heads) of Market Street from Guangdong, namely Zhu Guang Lan (朱广兰), Zhu You Lan (朱有兰), Guang Heng (广恒), Tong De (同德), Luo Ji Sheng (罗奇生),  Luo Zhi Sheng (罗致生) and Fu Lan (朱富兰), pooled their resources together to establish this new two-storey building. 

This Southern China palace design building with three halls, two courtyards and ornamental gables was completed in 1892 and the name “同济医社” (“Thong Chai Medical Society”) was officially changed to “同济医院” (“Thong Chai Medical Institution”).

The front of the building faces what is now Eu Tong Sen Street and the back entrance faces New Market Road. Although the building architecture is of South China design, the roof ridges are not as it is straight instead of curve.

On both sides of the front door, there was a couplet : “同人胞与量,济物圣贤心”.

Credit : National Archives of Singapore, PICAS

These pair of door couplets seem to have disappeared now;

Credit : Kagawara Miss Flora

Once you entered the front courtyard, you may see many many inscribed tablets (匾额) and couplets ( 对联) like : “善与人同”, “东渐西被”, “义行可风”, “谊笃桑梓”, etc., that I do not understand the meaning of it.

Credit : 柯木林

This old 2-storey Thong Chai building was among the first few buildings to be gazetted as a National Monumnet on 6 July 1973 since the formation of the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1971. For the stamps lovers, this old Thong Chai building was featured in the 1984 Singapore National Monuments series of stamps;

Credit : Retrievia

In the past, as the Chinese popluation increased, the number of Chinese clans also grew in numbers. Many public meetings were held at this old Thong Chai building by the Chinese clans and it was also regarded as headquarters for the Chinese guilds. At the inception of Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1906, the Chamber functioned from a room in Thong Chai in Wayang Street.

Let’s take a look at the building in 1963 when Thong Chai was still operating at Wayang Street;

Credit : National Archives of Singapore, PICAS

Note how run-downed the building was (above) after about 71 years since it was built in 1892.

In 1983, there was an exhibition on Chinatown held at the old Thong Chai building;

Credit : National Archives of Singapore, PICAS

In 1990 when it was used by Rising Art and Crafts Pte Ltd;

Credit : National Archives of Singapore, PICAS

Although the old Thong Chai building was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, it has been used commercially after Thong Chai moved to its new premises in Chin Swee Road. From late 1980s to mid-1990s, an arts and crafts centre occupied the building. You can see the red banner in the above photo.

In the late 1990s, the building was used as a wine bar, pub or nightclub and later became a number of restaurants. Tung Lok Group acquired the building in 2000, and operated a restaurant known as Jing and later renamed it as Asian. Both were not as popular as expected and closed down in 2003 due to the outbreak of SARS.

Credit : Poole Associates

The building was left unused for about two years and it was converted into its current use by Forever Living Products Intl in 2005. See below photo in 2006;

and in 2007;

Although in 1960, the management of Thong Chai already planned to rebuild a bigger building on this Wayang Street land, this old building was then gazetted to be preserved in 1963. URA gave the managent an option to purchase a site at Chin Swee Road for the rebuilding of the new building. The new 10-storey building was completed in 1975 and Thong Chai Medical Institution moved into this new building in May 1976.

Credit : Thong Chai Medical Institution

Sometimes I do seek medical help from the Chinese physician, do you? Oh btw I’ve not passed by this new Thong Chai Building at Chin Swee road for a long time, I wonder if it’s still pink in color? Any idea?


What my father wrote;

“Better lose the saddle than the horse”

51 Responses to “Thong Chai – A 143 Years History”

  1. 1 kimology Monday, March 15, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Yes, was a wonderful place to get free treatment and in a convenient location. Also lots of foodstalls nearby – nice, cheap but not so clean, haha.

  2. 2 laokokok Monday, March 15, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Are you refering to the one at Wayang Street or the new one at Chin Swee?

  3. 3 Lam Chun See Monday, March 15, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    I remember accompanying my parents to a Chinese medical clinic somewhere in the Havelock Road area when I was very young. I think it must be this Thong Chai clinic. I remember the bus that we took from Braddell Road reached the end of it route.

  4. 4 kimology Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 10:02 am

    The old one. Some stalls huddled together. If I’n not mistaken, there was a community centre nearby.

  5. 5 Equally Old Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 4:38 am

    Look at the map that you credited Ong Chwee Im.

    Club Street wasn’t even on the map yet. I always thought that it was developed together with its surrounding area, but apperantly, Club Street is at least one step behind its neighours.

    And yes, I remember those food stalls outside the old building. As compare to those stalls at nearby Peoples’ Park, these stalls normally operate till quite late into the evening, supper goer should have a better idea.

  6. 6 laokokok Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 8:04 am

    From Braddell Rd to there by bus must be an extremely long journey! And did you watch the new? After the charity show, the crowd at Thong Chai increased tremendously. Obviously a lot of peope did not know of the free treament and medicine it offers until the publicity of the show.

  7. 7 laokokok Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Thanks Equally Old. If you did not point out, I’m not aware of it too. Yep, where is Club Street then haha…

  8. 8 Equally Old Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Haha, where is Club Street???

    Maybe that could be your next assignment!!!

  9. 9 alex Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Sometimes I wonder if the name came from the term “同舟共濟”.

  10. 10 GasalBoy Saturday, August 14, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Hi Laokokok:

    I heard part of the fund raised from the charity show will be used for expansion of the hall to cater for 1000 patients per day.

  11. 11 needleplant Monday, October 18, 2010 at 10:06 am

    thank you for this long history of a place that i visited since i was young. it a good place to see chinese physicians. you donate what you feel is appropriate and in your capacity.

    the place is still teeming with patients and goodwill…

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