The Oei Tiong Ham Concern (OTHC) is probably the most well-known Overseas Chinese conglomerate in colonial Asia. It was surely the largest and most powerful. In this paper I will discuss some of the most salient features that led to the conglomerate’s rise to prominence. The focus will be on: (1) Oei Tiong Ham’s defiance of racial hierarchies and ethnic segmentation in Dutch colonial society, and his exemplary role in the modernist movement of Java’s young Chinese, (2) the strategic marriage alliances of the Oei family which enabled it to control the Chinese Councils and the Chinese Chambers of Commerce in colonial Java, as well as gain access to the political and economic centers of the British empire and the Chinese Republic, (3) the strategic alliances with Dutch lawyers-entrepreneurs in Semarang through which Oei Tiong Ham was able to build up his sugar empire, and lastly (4) the strategic alliances with Japanese business interests before and during Japan’s war-time occupation of colonial Southeast Asia.
By focusing on the social and cultural strategies of one of the most prominent Overseas Chinese capitalists in prewar Asia, the paper aims to show that national(ist) historiographies and Western (post)colonial categorizations of trade, ethnicity, and power in Asia’s business world are generally flawed and have little explanatory value when it comes to understanding the dynamics and encounters between business elites of the various colonial empires.