Wong Ah Fook was born in Yanjingcun, a Chinese village in Taishan county, Guangdong province. Wong Ah Fook hired himself out as a farmer’s boy when his family fell on hard times. He never attended school but he did learn to read and write and also to use the abacus.
In 1854, then age 17, Wong emigrated to Singapore as the result of civil unrest in his hometown. Wong had no money to pay his passage so he indentured himself as a carpenter. After working for a year at nominal wages, Wong was free but he continued to work with his employer and was given a share of the business after a few years.
Wong became a building contractor as it was a only short step from carpentry work. Obtaining the patronage of Hoo Ah Kay (better known as Whampoa, was a successful businessman who had built up a prosperous ship chandlering business and was the supplier and contractor to Her Majesty’s navy), a fellow Cantonese, he was able to secure a major contract in 1863 to build two godowns for Paterson & Simons (acting as the business agent for the Temenggungs of Johor in Singapore). It was Hoo Ah Kay who introduced Wong to his wide circle of friends, including Maharaja Abu Bakar who subsequently became the Sultan of Johor.
He later became a philanthropist and was one of the original founder of the Kwong Wai Siew Chinese Hospital. He was always a ready to subscribe to all charities and left an indelible imprint on the state of Johor. In Malaysia, he built a good number of Johor’s heritage buildings which included the original Istana Besar, the royal palace of the Sultan of Johor. For his past service to the Johor Government, he was awarded the S.M.J. order by the Sultan of Johor. Jalan Wong Ah Fook, one of the busiest street in downtown Johor Bahru, is named after him.
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It was the Kwong Yik Bank that was to become Wong Ah Fook’s most ambitious undertaking and also his proudest achievement. Yet, the venture was to lead to his greatest disaster in his carreer.
Wong Ah Fook, then age 66, started Kwong Yik Bank (Kwong Yik Banking Company for $850,000 in 16 December 1903) and was the largest shareholder. Kwong Yik Bank was the first local bank in Singapore, after an Order in Council authorized the striking of a Straits dollar in 1903. Previous to that, all kinds of currency were in circulation, including money minted in Hong Kong. Kwong Yik Bank aimed at a very broad clientele in the Chinese community, with deposits as low as $5 being accepted. The bank started off to a good start.
In late 1913, a crisis hit Kwong Yik Bank, with rumors and gossips flaring up and spreading like wildfire. And a run on the bank started. On November 22, Kwong Yik announced that it would suspend operations temporarily while its directors attempted to raise the necessary funds. On December 18, 1913, Kwong Yik Bank go into voluntary liquidation. On 21 January 1914, an Order of Court revealed not only weaknesses but also serious irregularities in Kwong Yik’s management and directed that the voluntary winding up.
Wong Ah Fook was a Justice of the Peace for the British Colonial Government.
In early September 1918, Wong contacted influenza (severe Spanish Flu epidemic hit Singapore) and subsequently developed into pneumonia to which he succumbed. Ah Fook died at the age of 82 in his Kampong Java Road home. Wong Ah Fook left surviving him a widow and four sons (Messrs S.K., S.C., S.Q. and S.Y. Wong), four daughters and many grandchildren. He was buried at Peck San Theng Cantonese Cemetery. Two lion sculpture specially imported from Italy protected his grave.