A short history of United Chinese Library (UCL)  – 《同德书报社简史》


“One Man Changed China – Dr. Sun Yat Sen” — these are the words of Singapore’s Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, etched on the surface of a stone stele in the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.


Indeed, not only did Dr Sun transform China’s destiny, he also revolutionized the thinking of overseas Chinese and played an instrumental role in developing a new approach to Chinese education.  Those in Singapore were among the most heavily influenced.


Establishment of United Chinese Library (同德书报社)

In December of 1905, Dr Sun Yat Sen, leader of the Chinese revolution (孫中山先生) came to Singapore and, together with Zhang Yongfu (張永福), Chen Chunan (陳出楠), Lin Yishun (林义順) et al. formed the Singapore branch of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance.  In 1907, Dr Sun began to encourage the establishment of a library to both disseminate revolutionary ideas through newspapers, as well as to recruit youths to join the cause.  Many of the early members were of Teochew ethnicity, comprising the likes of Zhang Yongfu (張永福), Zhao Diaoxi (赵钓溪), Zhang Rennan (張仁南). Led by Dr. Sun, they started to prepare for the establishment of a library.


In the spring of 1910, the library rented the second storey of Wanhe Salt Godown (万和盐栈) at North Boat Quay as its premises, and began its formal establishment process of electing a council, adopting a charter and formally applying for registration.  Registration was approved on 8 August 1911, and therefore the founding date was established to be one year earlier: 8 Aug 1910.


Dr. Sun’s missing of United Chinese Library’s relocation ceremony

On 25 Nov 1911, UCL was relocated to 51 Armenian Street, and a ceremony to commemorate the occasion was planned for 14 December, in consideration of Dr. Sun’s itinerary so that he could attend it.  Unfortunately, his ship suffered a delay, and he missed the relocation ceremony of the library whose establishment was largely initiated by him.


United Chinese Library’s English name

UCL’s original English name was Thong Tek Che Poh Soh (in accordance with Teochew pronunciation).  Subsequently, Dr. Sun named it United Chinese Library.


The signboard which is hung on the front door of UCL bears its Chinese name, in Dr. Sun’s handwriting, was written in 1917 when he was Grand Marshal in Guangzhou.  In an annual general meeting held on 28 April 1998, the Chinese pronunciation in hanyu pinyin was approved to replace the Teochew pronunciation and UCL’s name became United Chinese Library (Tong De Shu Bao She).


A heterogeneous society

Although UCL was established and initially led by a group of Teochew members, revolution-minded people of many other dialect groups including the Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Hainanese, Samkiang (Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Jiangxi) joined over time.  Senior members of different dialect groups mixed well, and UCL soon became a united heterogeneous revolutionary group.  Members of the same dialect group would still converse in their native language among themselves, but in discussions involving bigger and more diverse groups, Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) was commonly used, hence encouraging the use of a common language.


Supporting the unification of China through culture and education

Although UCL was established by the locals as a society, it was in fact an ancillary part of the Revolution League.  Therefore, after the League was reorganized in 1913, the Library’s premises also occasionally served as the headquarters and liaison point for Kuomintang (國民党), Chinese Revolutionary Party (中华革命党), Chinese Nationalist Party (中国國民党), and the Youth League of the Three Principles of the People (三民主义青年团), as well as the headquarters of the St. John’s brigade and the Women’s Society.  UCL’s mission was – through newspapers and publications as well as cultural and education activities –  to publicise and promote the revolutionary cause and patriotism; recruit like-minded comrades and to provide assistance to Dr. Sun in his revolution efforts, as well as to the subsequent Northern Expedition (国民革命军北伐) and the Eight-Year Anti-Japanese War (八年抗战).


The commemoration ceremonies of many Chinese schools and societies were also modelled on UCL’s customs and practices.  Examples include assembly procedures and protocols for Monday mornings; singing the national anthem; and greeting of teacher or guests.


Many of UCL’s leaders were also leaders of other clubs and societies in education and cultural circles, and its rank-and-file members were patriotic youths.  Therefore, UCL was the most effective vehicle and platform for promoting its objectives.


The first public Chinese library

With its new and spacious premises at Armenian Street, UCL worked hard on building up its collection of newspapers, magazines and books, so that the public can benefit from its collection of reading materials.  In doing so, it also truly became a united Chinese library.  At its peak, more than two hundred readers visited United Chinese Library daily.  By 1941, the Library had a collection of about 50,000 books, including many valuable books, painting and calligraphy.  Unfortunately, much were destroyed by the Japanese when they invaded Singapore during the second World War.


Night classes

One of UCL’s main activities was to conduct night-classes in Chinese, to provide tuition to students who had dropped out of school.  UCL also conducted Chinese classes in English for English-educated civil servants and employees of Western corporates.  The classes were popular, and the classrooms were frequently full.  Many who attended such classes eventually became UCL members.  During those days, most clan associations conducted classes in their clan dialect; UCL was distinctive in promoting the use of Putonghua as the medium for teaching.


Education for women

In July of 1910, Dr. Sun encouraged the leadership of UCL and the Revolution League to promote education for women.  This was predicated on his belief that patriotism and education went hand-in-hand.  In response, UCL members Pan Zhaopeng (潘兆鹏), Yu Daizhong (余岱宗) and Zheng Pinting (郑聘庭) established the first girls’ school, Chinese Girls School (中华女学堂), on 15 September 1911.  In June 1917, He Zhongying (何仲英) and Li Liangqi (李亮祺), who subsequently became respectively UCL President and Vice-President, established Nan Hua Girls School (南华女学校).  On 15 Aug in the same year, President Zhang Yongfu (张永福), Chen Chunan (陈楚楠), Vice-President Huang Shaoyan (黄肖岩), Zhuang Xiquan (庄希泉), Yu Peigao (余佩皋) established Nanyang Girls School (南洋女学校).


In support of establishing Chinese secondary schools

UCL regularly raised funds to support Chinese schools by conducting drama and choir performances.  In 1918, UCL’s drama society collaborated with Guo Feng Fantasy Drama Society (国风幻境剧团) on several performances and raised $15,000, in support of Chen Jiageng’s (陈嘉庚) effort to establish The Chinese High School (华侨中学).  In 1938, UCL President Li Zhendian (李振殿)  Lin Jindian (林金殿) supported Lin Wenqing (林文庆) in establishing Chung Cheng High School (中正中学).  All these exemplified UCL’s strong commitment and investment of effort in helping to establish Chinese schools and promoting Chinese culture.


Promoting activities for the youth

In addition, UCL formed many interest groups such as drama society, choir, scouts club, sports clubs.  In particular, the speech team often conducted speeches in the evenings to promote revolution and nationalistic messages to the mass public.  These groups provided the youths with many wholesome and healthy activities.


The first St. John’s Brigade established by a Chinese society

In 1932, UCL established St. John’s Brigade, led by council member Dr. Hu Zhaikun (胡载坤).  This was the first St. John’s brigade established by a Chinese society, and training was conducted in the neighbouring Tao Nan School.  Members of the first batch numbered up to 80, and their tests were assessed by the headquarters in London.  The graduation ceremony was held at the British colonial Governor’s Mansion and certificates were awarded by Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, the Governor of the Straits Settlements.


Refinement of customs and practices

UCL also updated the customs and practices of Chinese weddings and funerals, thereby providing members and fellow Chinese with a more contemporary set of protocols.  In addition, elements of patriotism were incorporated, ensuring that nation-building remained high in the consciousness even during the process of family-formation.


According to UCL’s 25th anniversary publication, in its then-25 years of history, more than 500 couples conducted their weddings under contemporary protocols, including UCL President Lin Bangyan (林邦彦) and Wee Kim Wee (黄金辉), who went on to become President of the Republic of Singapore in 1985.


UCL members

UCL members came from all walks of life.  There were businessmen such as Li Juncheng (李俊承), Li Guangqian (李光前), Zhang Yongfu (张永福), Zhou Xianrui (周献瑞), Chen Yanqian (陈延谦); there were Western- and Chinese-trained doctors, principals and teachers, and there were editors and journalists, students, workers, hawkers and domestic helpers as well.  There were overseas-educated doctorate holders, and there were also illiterate workers.  Most were Chinese-educated, but there were also many English-educated as well as bilingual members.  Within UCL’s diverse membership, everyone was united by the common objective of revolution, and this objective transcended social status and education level.



The British colonial government often restricted UCL’s activities due to various misunderstandings and political factors. In 1922, in order to expedite the unification of China, Dr. Sun accepted communist members into the Kuomintang, in exchange for the Comintern’s assistance. However, these communist members from China made use of the libraries in Malaysia and Singapore as channels to disseminate leaflets promoting communism; instigate strikes at work places and schools; and also to discredit and castigate the colonial government.  In response, the colonial government severely restricted UCL’s activities, and there were rumours that the colonial government was even planning to disband the UCL.  This crisis was only averted when then UCL President He Zhongying (何仲英) met the Chief Secretary of China People Office and pledged his personal assets as guarantee for the good behaviour of UCL members.


In 1927, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party terminated their alliance and became adversaries.


A grand funeral

Dr. Sun passed away on 12 March 1924 in Beijing.  The UCL and many other societies jointly organised a grand funeral, which was attended by more than 80,000 people.  From 1925, UCL established the practice of conducting remembrance ceremonies to mark the birthday and death anniversary of this selfless leader who dedicated his life to saving his nation.


Anti-Japanese army resistance efforts

Since UCL’s founding, it has consistently used occasions such as commemorations and celebrations of events, and public speeches to rally support for highly pertinent causes of the times.  These include Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s, the KMT’s and Chiang Kai Shek’s fight for the unification of China; resistance against Japanese invasion; censure of Zhang Xueliang (张学良), who betrayed the KMT and of Wang Jingwei (汪精卫) who defected to join the Japanese.


In 1939, the UCL also initiated concrete actions, such as encouraging youth members to return to China to join the resistance forces against the Japanese aggressors.  Drivers and chauffeurs returned to China to operate army vehicles. One such youth team leader was Bai Qingquan (白清泉) who subsequently became honorary President of UCL.  All these efforts (especially support for the Eight-Year War, boycott of Japanese goods, censure of traitors) were reported in the newspapers of the day.


Defending Singapore

On 8 December 1941, Japan initiated the Pacific War, and attacked Malaya.  Malaya came under heavy bombardment, and suffered countless casualties.  UCL activated the St. John’s brigade it had trained since 1932 to join Air Raid Precautions unit.


On 1 January 1942, the Japanese army occupied Johor, and commenced its attack on Singapore.  UCL encouraged its members to join the frontline resistance; in addition, UCL assistant secretary Cai Huisheng (蔡煇生) led members in assisting the government in keeping law and order. In 1943, a group of UCL members who had escaped prior to Singapore being occupied (which includes the likes of Lin Mousheng (林谋盛), Zhuang Huiquan (庄惠泉), Chen Chongzhi (陈崇治) and Li Hanguang (李汉光)) returned to Chongqing in China, where they were subsequently sent to Malaya.  Their mission was to collaborate with the 136 Intelligence Unit of the British Southeast Asian Command to gather intelligence on the Japanese in order to support the British counter-attack.  Li Shaomeng (李绍茂), an UCL member who was an alumna of Nanyang Girls High, was responsible for recruiting intelligence personnel at Yunnan, Kunming.


Assisting the British Administration to maintain law and order

On 15 Aug 1945, Japan surrendered.   Prior to the British returning, there was a period of power vacuum, and Singapore fell into a state of severe chaos and strife.  There was looting, conflict between Malays and Chinese, as well as revenge-attacks against Chinese traitors.  In fact, UCL secretary Wu Shenxiu (吴慎修) and his assistance Cai Huisheng (蔡煇生) had intelligence of imminent Japanese surrender even on 13 Aug, and had notified members of UCL and the Three People’s principles Youth League to gather for meeting on 15 Aug.  In the ensuing period prior to the return of the British army, these members traversed across the country on foot, bicycle and trishaw, and toiled tirelessly to help maintain law and order, calm tensions and direct traffic.


UCL members’ love for the nation and fellow citizens was evident to the British Administration, and the latter was keen to continue to engage UCL in helping to maintain law and order.  149 Orchard Road (which subsequently became the address for the post office) was given to the Youth League of the Three Principles of the People for temporary use as its liaison office.


In addition, UCL was invited to provide assistance to maintain order on at least two important occasions: firstly, when Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command arrived in Singapore, en route from the harbour to the Governor Mansion, and secondly, on the 12 September ceremony to mark the acceptance of Japan’s surrender.


Post-was golden period

China was part of the victorious alliance in the World War, and UCL enjoyed its golden period in the immediate aftermath of the war, promptly resuming its activities and enjoying a glorious renaissance.  On 10 October 1945, UCL organised a celebration parade to mark the twin occasions of the Alliance victory in the world war and National Day.  UCL also participated in the organisation public funeral of Lin Mousheng (林某盛), the war hero and martyr.


In the decades that followed, the planning, organisation and manpower for the 10 October national day celebration were all provided by UCL.



Steadfast adherence to its founding principles

However, the UCL members – who were strong supporters of the Nanjing-based Nationalist Party, were dealt a deeply demoralising blow when the Communist Party seized power in China in 1949.


From 1948 to the 1950s, the communists and other left-wing groups exerted their influence within Chinese schools, worker unions and the villages to incite frequent riots and strikes.  The self-government led by Lim Yew Hock (林有福) suppressed these with the police force, putting it in direct opposition with Lee Kuan Yew-led People’s Action Party (“PAP”).  UCL adhered to its founding principles of democracy and freedom.


A cultural society of the Republic of Singapore

The momentous political change in China in 1949 and the progression of Singapore from being a colony to achieving self-governance and eventually becoming an independent republic all marked significant turning points in UCL’s identity.  From 1910 to 1950, UCL devoted all its energy into supporting the China revolution and unification, and resistance against the Japanese aggressors.  From 1951 to 1960, UCL endured its darkest period.  From 1961 onwards, UCL became a cultural society of Singapore, sinking roots in its adopted nation.


Supporting Malaysia

After the split between the People’s Action Party and left-wingers in 1961, Tunku Abdul Rahman began advocating the formation of Malaysia, comprising Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah.  Liberated from left-wing influence by then, the Lee Kuan Yew-led Singapore government openly supported democracy and civil liberty, and keenly supported Tunku’s vision.  UCL had a similar position, and actively encouraged its members to participate in and support meetings related to this objective.  During the celebration ceremony for the formation of the Malaysia Federation 1963, UCL was chosen to be Chairman of the second station in the Stamford Area, and was also responsible for the special edition of a publication commemorating the occasion.  In 1964, UCL was awarded the Malaysia Award by Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first Head of State.  Thus, the UCL and the PAP have come from via different paths to the same destination.


The founding of the Republic of Singapore

The Republic of Singapore was founded on 9 Aug 1965, after separation from Malaysia.  The separation turned out to be positive, since Singapore then had complete liberty to pursue its own policies, especially in the area of economic development.  Singapore needed economic partners in its fight for economic survival and growth, and in 1969, established close trade relations with Taiwan, whose economy had already taken off by then.  UCL was naturally delighted at the close relations and friendship established between the two countries. The prosperity that Singapore now enjoys owes much to Lee Kuan Yew’s vision in pursuing democracy and market economics, as well as his sound management of the country in general.


A new home

In 1985, the government wanted to redevelop the Armenian Street area, and therefore the UCL had to relocate from its home for the past 76 years.  UCL leadership began raising funds, and bought the building at 53 Cantonment Road in 1986.  UCL formally relocated to its new remises on 15 Jan 1987.  With its self-owned premises, UCL was finally liberated from the volatility of the rental market; members and supporters could focus wholeheartedly on developing and organizing its cultural activities.


UCL was established one year before the Republic of China.  In commemoration of its 105th anniversary, UCL spent two and a half years producing a publication (《同德书报社史话》) that details its history.


UCL’s hopes and aspirations

In its next phase of development, UCL has several key objectives: to organize its historical files and pictures, and to make digital copies of them, so as to enhance accessibility to interested students and readers; to collate from other Chinese Libraries, United Leagues and other like-minded groups literature related to independence and nation-building of the various Southeast Asian countries; and to collaborate with other Sun Yat Sen-related groups and institutions across the world to study the philosophies of Dr. Sun, and to jointly organize symposia on related subjects.  These objectives and initiatives will require the investment of financial and human capital, and we look forward to the support of everyone.



Lee Seng Tiong ( writer ) 李成忠 / Scott Cham (translator)湛掀凱