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Ipoh-born Sinologist: The Late Professor Ho Peng Yoke

By Mei Kuan

The Perak Academy recently hosted a Zoom webinar featuring Tan Sri Andrew Sheng as the speaker who presented on the topic, “The Needham Puzzle and Chinese Modernity: Ho Peng Yoke – The Sinologist from Ipoh”.

Attended by over 60 participants, the online lecture cum talk aimed to explore the search for Chinese modernity and how Malaysians contributed to that discourse.

Andrew Sheng is a former central banker and financial regulator in Asia. A commentator on global finance and an avid reader, he serves as the pro-chancellor of Bristol University, distinguished fellow of Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong and chairman of George Town Institute of Open and Advanced Studies, Wawasan Open University Malaysia.

Andrew paid tribute to the late Professor Ho Peng Yoke (1926 – 2014) who was born in Perak and rose to become the first Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Malaya and the first director of the Needham Research Centre, Cambridge University. 

According to him, Perak produced two of the finest sinologists in the last 50 years, the other being Professor Wang Gungwu who is currently at the National University of Singapore.

“Leading American sinologist, Nathan Sivin, wrote in Peng Yoke’s obituary that he was a polymath, spending his whole life writing on astrology, astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, magic squares, gunpowder and navigation,” he stated, adding that Cantonese-speaking Peng Yoke learnt classical Chinese from his father, Ho Tih Ann. 

Tih Ann, a classical scholar who came to Malaya in 1925, opened the Sze Mu Private School along Yew Tet Shin Street in Ipoh in 1933.

Meanwhile, the Needham Puzzle arose from Cambridge University Press’s monumental seven-volume series of 27 books, “Science and Civilisation in China” on why China did not have her Industrial Revolution ahead of Europe. 

A path-breaking project, the sinologist who initiated and edited the series was the late Joseph Needham (1900-1995), aided by key collaborators such as Peng Yoke.

Exemplifying how Malaysians are involved in a grand narrative, Andrew enthused, “Malaysians should be very proud that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and in our small way, helped in the creation of history.”

He listed some highly-recommended publications for further reading which included “The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom” by Simon Winchester, “Home Is Not Here” by Wang Gungwu and the autobiography of Ho Peng Yoke, “Reminiscence of a Roving Scholar: Science, Humanities and Joseph Needham”.

Present was Chan Kok Keong, the deputy chairman of Perak Academy.

Established in 2002, the Perak Academy is an independent, privately-funded organisation with the primary objective of promoting interest in the state of Perak by encouraging discussion, scholarship and research.

To learn more, visit its website: http://perakacademy.com/

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