See Chye Hong

Second woman to be called to the Hong Kong Bar

(aka Lucy See, later Mrs Lucy Chen, 1908 - c.1990?)

Admitted 1926; Called 1930

See Chye Hong, also known as Lucy See, was born in Singapore in 1908. Her father, See Tiong Wah, was a wealthy and prominent member of the local community. Aside from his job as a compradore (Chinese manager) of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation in Singapore, he also served as the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, a local government official and a Justice of the Peace. Lucy See attended school at the French Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, and moved to London in 1925 to go to university. She passed her matriculation exam for London University a year later, and shortly thereafter was admitted to The Inner Temple.

As was the case with Lim Beng Hong and Teo Soon Kim, Lucy See’s family connections enabled her to secure some impressive references. The Chief Justice of the Straits Settlement, the former Chief Manager of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, and the President of the Municipal Commissioners all wrote in support of her application to join The Inner Temple. The latter was particularly fulsome in his praise, stating that:

I have known Miss Lucy See for a number of years, and…I have formed a high opinion of her character. I am convinced that, should she obtain her Call to the Bar, she will maintain the best traditions of her profession.

In September 1926 Lucy See was on the Social Committee of the annual conference of Chinese students in the UK, which was held at Kingsmead College in Selly Oak, near Brimingham. The chair of the Social Committee was Teo Soon Kim (link to biog) another young Singaporean Chinese woman who was already into her third year as a student at The Inner Temple.

See passed her final exams with second-class honours and was called to the Bar early in 1930. She returned to Singapore in February of that year. She was married on 2 August 1930 to Chen Xu, the son of a Chinese general. She joined the Singapore law firm of Messrs. Allen and Gledhill, but only worked there for about six months before moving with her husband to Nanking (now Nanjing), which at that time was the capital of China.

The Chens lived in Nanking until 1937, when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China. Fighting began in July 1937, and within a month Nanking was being hit by Japanese air raids. The trains out of the city were packed, so Mrs Chen took her three children—one of them only seven weeks old—on a steamboat down the Yangtse to Hankow (now part of the city of Wuhan). Hankow was being attacked by Japanese planes as the Chens’ boat arrived; three bombs fell nearby and one even landed on the vessel’s deck, but fortunately did not explode. From there the family boarded a train to Canton (Guangzhou) on the southern Chinese coast. On the day that they arrived safely back in Singapore in September 1937, Lucy Chen was interviewed in the Malaya Tribune. She estimated that three quarters of a million people had fled from Nanking. The train she had taken to Canton had carried about 3,500 people, some of whom, she said, were close to starvation by the end of the 50-hour journey. The Chens were lucky to escape: when Nanking finally fell in December, Japanese troops embarked on a six-week campaign of looting, killing and sexual violence against Chinese civilians and surrendered soldiers which became known as the Rape of Nanking, one of the most infamous war crimes of the 20th century. Estimates of the death toll range from 40,000 to 300,000 people.

Four years later, the threat of invasion forced Lucy Chen to leave Singapore once again. When Japan declared war on Britain in December 1941, she and her children made an arduous journey back to China. They sailed via Penang to Rangoon (Yangon), then endured the 1,000 mile road journey to Yunnan in western China. From there, they travelled to Chungking (Chongqing), China’s provisional capital since the fall of Nanking, where they were reunited with Chen Xu.

After the war, the Chens moved back to Nanking, but yet again Lucy found herself a refugee after only four years. In 1949, the Chinese nationalist government retreated to the island of Taiwan, ceding control of mainland China to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Xu followed the nationalists to Taiwan, while Lucy returned to Singapore, where she was to spend the rest of her life.

Settled for good in the city of her birth, Lucy Chen resumed her long-interrupted career in the law. She was belatedly called to the Bar in Singapore and became the second woman to be called to the Hong Kong Bar. In 1959 she successfully defended the Accountant-General of Singapore, R.F. Sewell, against a charge of breaking into a car. She also appeared in divorce cases.

In a Straits Times article of 12 May 1984, marking the tenth anniversary of the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL), Lucy Chen was one of the senior women barristers described by a SAWL member as being,

admired…for their courtcraft, charming court manners and eloquence…they were all in a class by themselves, models for today’s women lawyers.