The Yeo Hiap Seng story
An enduring faith in the Lord
The Soy Sauce Towkay
Authors: Lee Tee Jong, F. T. Liu
Published by Campus Crusade Asia Limited
172 pages, $18
Available at all major bookstores
MENTION “YEO HIAP SENG” to people in Singapore, and most would rightly associate it with soy sauce, beverages and canned curry chicken. But little is known about the person who built up one of Singapore’s most well-known brands – Mr Yeo Thian In, a first-generation Chinese immigrant from Fujian Province, China who arrived on our shores in 1938 with his wife and young sons in tow.
More significantly, through the hardships he endured – the gruelling challenges of the world war, personal tragedies, political and business cycles – Yeo Thian In’s story is one of a deep abiding faith in the Lord and inspiring Christian witness.
It is now told for the first time in a recently published book, The Soy Sauce Towkay, commissioned by his youngest son, the Rev Alfred Yeo, to mark the 25th anniversary of Yeo Thian In’s death in 1985. The book testifies to God’s hand of protection, grace and mercy right through Thian In’s life and legacy.
Bishop Dr Robert Solomon credited the book as “an inspiring story of a man and his family … set amid significant historical events, this story is a great example of God’s grace in human lives”.
Yeo Thian In grew up as the eldest son in a Christian household in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, China. His name, 天恩 means “heavenly grace”. His father, Yeo Keng Lian, was a Presbyterian business entrepreneur, and had first set up the “Hiap Seng Sauce Factory” in 1901, later re-naming it “Yeo Hiap Seng Sauce Factory”.
Before setting up the business, Yeo Keng Lian and his partner were short of funds. Keng Lian then had a dream where a man threw a metal plank for him to bridge a raging sea.
The next morning, Keng Lian went to see his church pastor who lent him the money to make up the shortfall. The lighthouse in the Yeo’s logo was to symbolise his desire for his business to be a shining witness for Jesus Christ.
The “Hiap Seng” in the brand name – 杨 協成 – signifies unity, harmony and success. The old-style Chinese character for “hiap” signifies the unity of Christ – there is a cross, together with “strength” repeated three times. This was the cornerstone of the business – that great success can only be achieved with God’s blessing through unity and harmony in the family.
As the Japanese invasion swept across China in the 1930s, Thian In’s family business was at risk of being seized or destroyed by the advancing Japanese army.
Thian In’s mother – a God-fearing and virtuous woman, Xu Gang Nian – urged him to seek greener pastures abroad. Initially, Thian In refused to leave his ailing mother, but after her death in November 1937, he heeded his mother’s wish, and proceeded to make the gruelling journey by ship with his family to Singapore. On arrival in Singapore, he and his family went to give thanks for their safe passage at Telok Ayer Methodist Church.
Thian In, together with his brothers, Thian Kiew and Thian Seng, worked in close harmony to build up the sauce business in Singapore. One day in January 1942, Alfred Yeo, who was seven years old then, recalls: “I was returning from kindergarten near Outram Road, where my father’s factory was … as usual, I walked back to the factory, where we lived on the second storey … the factory had been reduced to rubble.
Hundreds of soy sauce jars were smashed to smithereens, and there was broken porcelain, glass and twisted metal everywhere. I ran to my mother, crying.”
Japanese planes had dropped a 10-kg bomb on the factory. The bombing turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The jars with processed soy sauce and raw materials of beans, salt and sugar that had been stored at the back of the factory, were intact.
When other soy factories were taken over by the Japanese to be converted into ammunition depots, the Yeo Hiap Seng Sauce factory was left alone as it was such an unsightly mess. Hence, the Yeo factory was the only one that could continue operations and soon, the demand for their soy sauce exceeded supply.
Rosie, the Rev Alfred Yeo’s wife, recalled her mother-in-law telling her about the morning before the factory was bombed: “My mother-in-law, Tai Tin Khim, was a pastor’s daughter and grew up under the tutelage of Western missionaries in Fujian Province. She was a very godly woman and the spiritual pillar of the Yeo household.
On the morning before the bombing, she had a vision – through the planks of the home where Thian In and the family lived (above the factory) – she saw the sky opening up and angels descending from the sky. Soon after, the factory was bombed.
Miraculously, there was no loss of life among the family or the workers. My mother-in-law believed that this was God’s way of reassuring them of His protection.” It is noteworthy that Tin Khim or Mrs Yeo Thian In was a faithful steward of the LCEC of Telok Ayer Methodist Church.
Thian In’s faith in the Lord was tested once again on Feb 24, 1945, just before the end of the Japanese Occupation. The Rev Alfred Yeo recalls: “My two brothers – Chee Yeow Alan and Chee Kian – and I were playing on the veranda in the rented flat we lived in Tiong Bahru.
We were looking at the planes through a pair of binoculars. Chee Yeow Alan and I then decided to go back into the house, while Chee Kian remained on the veranda. Just at that moment, a bunch of small fire bombs hit our veranda. Chee Kian died instantly. I remember my father running in to carry Chee Kian’s burnt body out of the mess. He was devastated. Chee Kian was only 13 then. Despite all this, Thian In continued to hold on to his faith in God.
The book is written in simple and succinct language. It has provided valuable insights into integrating business with our faith. At the same time, it serves as a testimony to God’s grace and mercy in the life of an early Chinese migrant who left behind a legacy that is a household name today.
“This book serves as a testimony to God’s grace and mercy in the life of an early Chinese migrant who left behind a legacy that is a household name today.”
"Life without God is like an unsharpened pencil - it has no point."