Yuan Shikai's calligraphy on century-old plaque of old Singapore pharmacy

Yuan Shikai may be known as more of a military man and the second provisional president of the Republic of China, but he was also an accomplished calligrapher. One of his works is a plaque written for a store called Woi Fung Sheong Tim in Singapore, and after a century, it has been included in the collection of the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery.
Dr Yee Wai Seng wanted the plaque in the gallery’s collection as soon as he came to know of its existence.
Dr Yee Wai Seng wanted the plaque in the gallery’s collection as soon as he came to know of its existence.

(Photos: Long Kwok Hong/SPH Media)

In 2023, Singapore’s Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery received a batch of cultural relics with historical value donated to them by descendants of World War II hero Boey Khye Hong (1896-1942). Among them is a century-old plaque inscribed with the words, “Woi Fung Sheong Tim” (会丰商店), written by Yuan Shikai (1859-1916); the words are elegant with an archaic charm. 

Yuan Shikai is a renowned political and military figure in China’s modern history whose merits and demerits are still very much the subject of study today. Yuan was born to a large family of officials in Xiangcheng county, Henan province. Though Yuan was never a scholar, he was the head of the Beiyang government, and at one point was a Qing dynasty military official, a prime minister of the imperial cabinet, as well as the second provisional president of the Republic of China.

Yuan was versed in poetry, painting and calligraphy; he was a man of culture to a degree.

Towards the end of the Qing dynasty, there was a saying among the masses: “[Qing dynasty official and politician] Zhang Zhidong is educated but has no solutions; Yuan Shikai is uneducated but has solutions." The people saw Yuan as a militant. However, Zhang Boju, a modern Chinese collector, connoisseur and artist, said: “The people saw Xiangcheng [referring to Yuan] as a militant who is not versed in calligraphy; this is not so.”  

An inscribed plaque with the words “Woi Fung Sheong Tim” (会丰商店), engraved by Yuan Shikai.
An inscribed plaque with the words “Woi Fung Sheong Tim” (会丰商店), written by Yuan Shikai.

Yuan was versed in poetry, painting and calligraphy; he was a man of culture to a degree. From 1873 to 1877, Yuan studied hard for four years in Beijing. He once said that in his efforts to distinguish himself, he studied so hard and became so fatigued that he vomited blood.

Amid the cultural environment of the Qing dynasty, to gain position and wealth, one had to be versed in calligraphy, especially in the pavilion style that had to be mastered in order to take examinations — a squarish, sleek, bold and equal-sized font used by officials. Those who studied calligraphy felt that Yuan was highly accomplished in the art form, and was proficient in many fonts; in recent history, only a few people such as calligraphers Shen Yinmo and Qigong could match Yuan’s skill. 

As the heritage gallery is already in possession of a massive portrait of Sun Yat-sen, Yee humorously said that the “father of modern China” and the “traitor” have come to Peck San Theng to reconcile with each other!

Boey family’s connection with Peck San Theng

Dr Yee Wai Seng, vice-director of the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery and an avid fan of cultural relics, cheerfully shared in an interview with Lianhe Zaobao the close ties the Boey family had with Peck San Theng.

He said that during the years of the Tongzhi Emperor’s reign (1856-1875), an ancestor of the Boey family, Boey Nam Sooi, had already sought to purchase Peck San Theng (today's Bishan area) as burial grounds for ancestors from Guangzhou, Huizhou and Zhaoqing. “Later, a member of the Boey family, Mei Suihe (梅遂和), built a road and a large temple in the area, and donated 1,000 dollars, which was a large sum back then.

"Following that, many with the Boey surname donated a lot of money. Peck San Theng used to be wild, undeveloped land, but it slowly developed into the scale it is today. This is the connection between the Boey family and Peck San Theng — the Boey family contributed greatly to Peck San Theng.” 

The words "Republic of China President Yuan Shikai" clearly attributed the inscription to Yuan.
The words "Republic of China President Yuan Shikai" clearly attribute the inscription to Yuan.

Yee revealed that in 2023, he volunteered to help organise the historical documents from the Boey family, and got in touch with descendants of Boey Khye Hong. Boey’s descendants knew of Yee’s efforts in helping to salvage and organise the documents, and donated many cultural relics for safekeeping and display at the heritage gallery, including the century-old Woi Fung Sheong Tim plaque. Yee added: “I believe there aren’t many inscribed plaques written by Yuan Shikai in China or Taiwan, much less in Singapore. Once I came to know of this inscribed plaque, I said I wanted it in the gallery’s collection.”

As the heritage gallery is already in possession of a massive portrait of Sun Yat-sen, Yee humorously said that the “father of modern China” and the “traitor” have come to Peck San Theng to reconcile with each other!

A portrait of Sun Yat-sen in the heritage gallery.
A portrait of Sun Yat-sen that the heritage gallery already possesses.

According to a feature story on ifeng.com (凤凰网), Sun and Yuan first met in 1912. The pair only interacted with each other over the span of four years, until Yuan’s death in 1916. But it was during these four years that the pair experienced a brief period of closeness and harmony, as well as confrontations that turned them into enemies. Various versions of their story have been told in many different ways. But objectively speaking, their conflict actually shaped the subsequent formation of China’s polity. 

Yee also discovered that “Woi Fung Sheong Tim” — the four characters on the plaque — was a store established in the 29th year of Guangxu Emperor’s reign during the Qing dynasty (1903 AD) in Singapore, selling Chinese and Western over-the-counter medicines.

Finally restored

The “Woi Fung Sheong Tim” plaque measures 92 by 317 by 5 cm. Before it was sent to the heritage gallery, it was kept in the residence of the descendants of the Boey family. Due to age and wear and tear, one of the corners was slightly damaged. After asking around, Yee finally found an old master who could repair the piece. He shared that the heritage gallery paid for the costly repair work. 

Yee also discovered that “Woi Fung Sheong Tim” — the four characters on the plaque — was a store established in the 29th year of Guangxu Emperor’s reign during the Qing dynasty (1903 AD) in Singapore, selling Chinese and Western over-the-counter medicines. Its founder Lu Fuchu (卢复初) had great business acumen and a wide social network, and it is unsurprising that he managed to get a legendary political figure like Yuan to write the words on the plaque when he founded the store in 1903.     

A receipt of Woi Fung Sheong Tim.
An old receipt of Woi Fung Sheong Tim.

Yee said, “Getting an inscription from Yuan Shikai at the time would be like getting an endorsement from a famous celebrity now.”

As for how the plaque ended up with the Boey family, it turned out that Boey Khye Hong’s son Boey Poh Kin had taken over and became one of the major shareholders of Woi Fung Sheong Tim in 1953. The store ceased operations in 2003, and the plaque has been kept in the Boey residence ever since.

Born in Taishan, Guangdong, Boey Khye Hong came to Singapore with his father when he was nine years old. He studied at St Joseph’s Institution and also learnt Chinese at a private school and was effectively bilingual. He was held in high esteem for the tireless effort he put into Chinese education and healthcare. During the Japanese occupation of Singapore, he fought against the Japanese and refused to betray his fellow compatriots. In the end, he was tortured and martyred.  

An antique bed left by Boey Khye Hong is also in the heritage gallery at Peck San Theng — it took Yee three days to put it back together. 

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “袁世凯题字匾额 流落民间终得归宿”.

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