The Many Wives of Oei Tiong Ham

As I finish up a paper on trading minorities in the colonial era, I’ve been doing some extra digging for colorful illustrations of the lives of Chinese businessmen in Java. Cornell’s library is good for that. I came across a biography—nay, a hagiography—of Oei Tiong Ham, the “world’s sugar king” and “richest man from Semarang.” (Raja Gula Dunia, Orang Terkaya Dari Semarang) who died in Singapore in 1924.

Now it turns out that Oei is not really useful for my purposes, but the book is a fun read. It is full of interesting tidbits like “Tiong Ham liked to party” (gemar berpesta), as well as this complete list of his many wives and children.

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Note: this list of 8 wives does not include concubines. The book details that Oei had 18 concubines that he acknowledged, and there were rumors of as many as 50. We also see here that his first wives was the prettiest of the 16 children of an elite Chinese family in Semarang, the Goeis. Alas, this isn’t really a serious source, but I’d be interested to know if the concubines were more likely to be Javanese than Chinese.

UPDATE: How’s this for global history? Oei Tiong Ham’s daughter Oei Hui-lan was the third wife of Wellington Koo, a diplomat from the Republic of China. Their son’s arrival at Columbia in 1942 was important enough to be “Talk of the Town” in the New Yorker!

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