For 30 years, historian Lee Guan Kin, 'lived' off and on with three fascinating figures from Singapore's history:
Dr Lim Boon Keng (1869-1957), lawyer Song Ong Siang (1871-1941), and classical Chinese scholar Khoo Seok Wan (1874-1941).
Her extensive research has culminated in a 400-page scholarly tome in Chinese bringing back to life these dramatically different personalities whom she describes as 'the earliest examples of Singapore's intellectual elite'.
At the same time she evokes the tumultuous era in which they lived at the turn of the last century when they were torn between two forces.
One was Britain, which held sway over them as colonial subjects and the other was China, which tugged at their heartstrings and loyalties.
Influencing the philosophical and social debates of the day were Utilitarianism, Evangelism and Social Darwinism from Britain.
Juxtaposed against them were the influences from China: the Self-Strengthening Movement (1860-1870), which was its first attempt at modernisation; the Hundred Days of Reform (1898) initiated by the Qing emperor Guangxu; and the revolution led by Dr Sun Yat Sen (1911).
Entitled Responding To Eastern And Western Cultures In Singapore: A Comparative Study Of Khoo Seok Wan, Lim Boon Keng And Song Ong Siang, this book explores the different responses of the three to the push and pull between the two cultures, and the impact on their sense of identity.
Dr Lee, 51, an assistant professor at Nanyang Techological University's Centre of Chinese Language and Culture, sees the three as valid, representative models of the Chinese community even today.
They help the reader to understand not only the early Singapore society of their time but also the forces that are still shaping the Chinese community now.
Romantic And Tragic
Of the three, Mr Khoo was the most romantic and tragic figure.
A classically-trained China-born scholar holding the lofty rank of Ju Ren (winner of the provincial test of scholars), he remained culturally and politically loyal to China all his life, although he was involved in the social reform movement here through his friend, Dr Lim.
A hot-headed supporter of the Reform Movement in China in his youth, he was a well-known newspaper man, accomplished poet, a generous friend and patron, but an indifferent businessman.
He went through his vast inheritance left by his rice tycoon father in 10 short years, backing the reform movements in China and Singapore led by Mr Kang Youwei and Dr Lim respectively.
He squandered the rest on courtesans and other pursuits of a gentleman of leisure.
He died a poor man, suffering from leprosy and living on the generosity of friends and the meagre wages earned as a lowly clerk at the Teochew clan association, of which he was once a leader.
Not knowing English, he was confined to the Chinese-speaking society of new immigrants in which the only yardstick for success was commercial.
Dr Lim and Mr Song, on the other hand, were Babas from the Straits-Chinese community.
Both were Queen's scholars; Dr Lim was the first.
The latter, educated at the University of Edinburgh, became a medical doctor while Mr Song attended Downing College of Cambridge University where he was its first Chinese graduate.
However, the two, who were born within two years of each other, and were close friends in their early years, took divergent paths in their later years.
Bridging East And West
DR LIM, a third-generation Straits-Chinese whose family relocated here from Penang, was a brilliant man of boundless energy who juggled half a dozen roles with little effort: medical doctor, member of the local legislative council, social reformer, leader of the local Confucian and Chinese language movements.
Although he learnt Chinese as an adult, he acquired a passion for his roots and interest in Chinese politics which, curiously, did not diminish his loyalty to Britain or pride as a 'King's Chinese'.
He attended Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations (1887) in England with great pride and enthusiasm and wrote a long celebratory article for the Diamond Jubilee 10 years later.
But he also expended much energy helping China's prominent reform movement leader Kang, together with Mr Khoo, when Mr Kang was briefly in exile in Singapore.
Later, he helped Dr Sun Yat-sen by interceding with the colonial government in Singapore when the Chinese leader was here raising funds and recruiting supporters.
Mr Khoo detested Dr Sun for being a crass revolutionary.
When the call came to serve in China, Dr Lim did not hesitate, leaving Singapore in 1921 to spend 16 years as the first president of Xiamen University, which was founded by his friend Tan Kah Kee, the Singapore tycoon and educationist.
Dr Lim accomplished much for China and Singapore. Here he co-founded the Singapore Chinese Girls' School with his friend Song in 1899, to improve the education of Straits-Chinese women.
His other friend Khoo contributed $3,000, half of the cost.
He sought to revitalise the Straits-Chinese community by founding the local Confucianist movement and launching a Learn Chinese campaign.
He also condemned the smoking of opium in the Chinese community.
A Lifelong Anglophile
Mr Song, a fourth-generation Straits Chinese whose family came from Malacca, lacked Dr Lim's flamboyance.
He was a steadfast, even-tempered lawyer, a devout church leader and family man.
He was also a lifelong anglophile - as glimpsed from his book, One Hundred Years' History Of The Chinese In Singapore in which he expressed deep gratitude for the prosperity the British had brought to Singapore and proclaimed his loyalty to the Empire.
Focusing his considerable energy in Singapore, he nurtured and promoted women's education and served his church.
Later, after Dr Lim left for China, he took up Dr Lim's former seat in the legislative council, advancing local rights and interests.
His loyalty and service to the crown later earned him a knighthood from the British Empire, the first Chinese to be so honoured.
TO DR LEE, the three represented the three 'types' of intellectuals of their time. What's more, she believes they still make valid representatives today.
'The models had stayed true in time,' she argues.
'There may no longer be rivalry between the Straits Chinese and the Chinese immigrants, and the push and pull had ceased between China and Britain.
'But America has taken over Britain's place after the war, and the old division in the Chinese community was passed on from the Straits Chinese to the English-educated, and from the Chinese immigrants first to the Chinese-educated, and later, somewhat diluted, to the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school students.'
On this stage, various cultural affinities, if no longer political loyalties, are still playing tug of war, she observes.
Of the three, Dr Lim, at home in both the East and West - the earliest example of a member of the bilingual cross-cultural elite - had been the most accomplished and had found the biggest stage to showcase his considerable talent. This, she notes, remains true today.
Although she does not draw a direct comparison in the book, she notes parallels in the lives of Dr Lim and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew: their Baba background, their learning Chinese as an adult, launching a Confucian movement and starting a Speak Chinese (Mandarin) Campaign.
The book, which was originally written as her doctoral thesis at Hongkong University, is published jointly by Global Publishing Inc and the Chinese department of the National University of Singapore.
Professor Wang Gungwu, the retired vice-chancellor of Hongkong University and now the director of the East Asian Institute here, was her thesis adviser.
He praises the book as 'an outstanding original' in the preface.
The book may be too scholarly and detailed to make for a good, popular read. But for local history buffs eager to know a fascinating, earlier chapter of Singapore, reading it will be well worth the effort.
It retails at $22 and can be found in Kinokuniya Bookstore and the Chinese bookstores in the Bras Basah Complex area.
The pull of two worlds
Chinese Singaporeans have always had to contend with issues of loyalty and culture.
THE independence of Singapore and the birth of a Singapore identity have diluted the earlier rivalry between the Straits Chinese and the Chinese immigrants who came here later.
But the division within the Chinese community did not disappear and has continued around language and cultural issues to this day, says Dr Lee Guan Kin.
This is because Singapore is still caught between the push and pull of the cultures of East and West, which continues unabated.
Dr Lee's new book, Responding To Eastern And Western Cultures In Singapore: A Comparative Study Of Khoo Seok Wan, Lim Boon Keng And Song Ong Siang, explores the different responses of the three historical figures in terms of self-identity, cultural affinity and loyalty.
Among the three, Mr Khoo Seok Wan, the China-born, classically-trained Chinese scholar, answered the pull of his cultural roots, and identified with China, politically and culturally.
Mr Song Ong Siang and Dr Lim Boon Keng were both Singapore-born Straits Chinese who were educated overseas as Queen's scholars.
But Dr Lim rediscovered his cultural roots in China while Mr Song did not.
As a result, Dr Lim responded to the call of both China and Britain, bridging the Chinese and British worlds like no Singaporean before him could.
He was honoured in both worlds, and found a far bigger stage than either Mr Khoo, the Chinese scholar, or Mr Song, who had identified with the British as a King's Chinese, and remained detached from all affairs in China.
Their different responses, Dr Lee notes, are still representative of the different attitudes among the Chinese Singaporeans of today.
Nor did the rules of the game alter all that much, she points out.
The Chinese-educated today, like the immigrants of old, still seek their success primarily in the business world.
The language of administration has remained English, and political power, whether in colonial times or in independent Singapore, remains in the hands of an English-educated elite.
The division between the Straits Chinese and the Chinese immigrants, she says, was succeeded by that between the English-educated and the Chinese-educated.
In the early days, Mr Khoo was held up as the model by the majority of the Chinese intellectual community.
Later, the Song model gained in strength, Dr Lee observes, as new immigrants from China stopped coming in 1949 and the Chinese-medium education system ceased to exist in 1987.
But now the Lim model, which has always existed in small numbers, is on the rise because of the bilingual education system and the Speak Mandarin Campaign.
China's rise has also prompted new interest in the language and culture.
The Khoo model, long in retreat, is now on the rebound, she says. Since China and Singapore established diplomatic relations in 1990, increasing numbers of Chinese nationals have been arriving on the island.
So the strength of the different models may wax or wane but the models themselves remain relevant.
Looking to the future, she sees both the Song and Khoo-type monolingual groups moving towards the bilingual group in the centre, and predicts:
'The Lim model will quickly become the mainstream group among the Chinese community here in the 21st century, and history will be my witness.'