Category Archives: Penang’s History, My Story

The first low-cost high-rise flats built in the country were in Penang

Big complex: There are nine blocks spread over 16.7ha with 3,888 units

Big complex: There are nine blocks spread over 16.7ha with 3,888 units

THE Rifle Range Flats is one of the most densely populated areas in Penang.

Penangites can tell you if you choose to park your car near the flats in the evening, the chances of your car being blocked by other cars is almost 100%.

The likelihood is that the unsuspecting motorist would never be able to get his stuck vehicle out.

The best way would be to return in the morning when the other cars have left.

That’s how sardine-packed the area is.

The almost non-existent parking bays at the flats is simply because the architects of the country’s first high-rise, low cost flats never imagined that the dwellers would be able to afford a car as low-wage earners.

They probably never believed that the living standards of Penangites living at the mostly single-room flats, would improve.

According to blogger Lim Thian Leong, there are nine blocks of 17-storey buildings within an area of 16.7ha, with every floor consisting of 20 units of single bedrooms and four two bedroom units.

With a total of 3,888 units within the flats, the average size of a unit is merely 340 sq ft!

It is not unusual for the rest of the family members to sleep in the living room while the parents take up the only room in the flat.

Because of its high density, the flats remain a politician’s delight, or nightmare, depending on the crowds you can command come election time.

Almost all the big guns (pun intended) show up at Rifle Range during the last leg of the campaign.

Rifle Range Road or Jalan Padang Tembak is one of the main roads connecting Air Itam and George Town.

Popularly known as pak cheng poh, in Hokkein, is so named because the area used to be a shooting range, according to writer-photographer Timothy Lye.

“It was once an open space used as a shooting range by the police and the military.

“The namesake shooting range located next to the Batu Gantong Cemetery made way for the low-cost flats,” he wrote.

The flats were built by the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu when the then opposition Gerakan party swept into power in 1969.

Through the Penang Development Corporation, the Rifle Range flats, designed by a German firm, was built.

Faced with the problems of housing needs for the poor, more flats were then constructed in other areas.

When he took over Penang, unemployment was running at 16% but he created plenty of jobs through the setting up of the Penang Free Trade Zone in Bayan Lepas.

But according to Farouk Gulsara, in his blog posting, in 1964, the national Ministry of Housing and Local Government had already identified two pilot projects in order to try out the industrialised building or prefabrication system (known as IBS).

The first of these projects was in Kuala Lumpur along Jalan Tun Razak (Jalan Pekeliling).

The second pilot project was set in Penang, consisting the construction of six blocks of 17-storey flats and three blocks of 18-storey flats comprising 3,699 units and 66 shop lots along Rifle Range Road.

“The project in Penang was awarded to Hochtief/Chee Seng using the French Estiot System and took 27 months to complete, inclusive of the time taken in setting up the precast factories.

“When Rifle Range Flats were completed in the early 1970s, they were the tallest buildings in Penang.

“None of the units were big ‑ on average they were approximately 36 sq m for intermediate one bedroom units and 38.7 sq m. for two bedroom end units.

“Nonetheless, they provided housing for many hardcore poor. “

The Rifle Range Flats area where Dr Lim chose as a site for the construction of the buildings was not the more preferred choice for residence.

Located next to the Batu Gantong cemetery, it is said that the ground where the flats now stands used to be the burial plot for the mass burying of those massacred by the Japanese during the Occupation.

As a child growing up in nearby Jalan Kampung Melayu, I used to cycle to the flats to meet up with friends.

Even in the late 1970s, there were still cow herds along Boundary Road, which I had to cycle past to reach Rifle Range.

News reports of residents jumping to their death, or more precisely, committing suicide, were regular and when I finally joined The Star as a reporter in the 1980s, the suicides still did not stop, with residents often bringing up stories of those who were buried underneath!

The suicides there were the subject of a book by anthropologist Jean Elizabeth De Bernardi The Way That Lives in the Hearts: Chinese Popular Spirits and Mediums where a medium purportedly claimed that the spirits had to take away 16 lives although at the time of research, there were already 20 victims.

Her cynical research assistant concluded that it was more likely that the victims had taken their lives because they had no work or money.

But less talked about is actually the large number of hawkers and coffeeshops, located at the ground floors of the flats.

There is also a wet market nearby.

As a child, my brother Wong Chun Fong, and I would to go the market every Saturday morning to buy the economy fried bee hoon and the Penang style pan cake, ban chang kuih, made from flour and sprinkled with sugar and groundnuts.

Nothing much has really changed in Rifle Range Flats today.

There would likely be new occupants, as those who have fared better in their lives moved out.

It has remained crowded with a host of social problems from drugs, thefts to gangsterism but the majority of the people are law-abiding, helpful and friendly people.

Despite the density of the area, Rifle Range has remained home to thousands and thousands of Penangites.

Visionary head of great school remembered

In remembrance: A residential neighbourhood, located just next to the school, has been rightly named Taman David Chen in his honour.

In remembrance: A residential neighbourhood, located just next to the school, has been rightly named Taman David Chen in his honour.

THE screaming headline on the front page of The Straits Times on Feb 5, 1952 was “Gunman Kills Principal of Chung Ling”.

It was no ordinary murder because the victim in question was David Chen Chong Ern, the principal of the country’s biggest and most famous Chinese school, the Chung Ling High School.

Chen, who hailed from Suzhou, China, and a graduate of the prestigious University of Nanking, was at that time also the president of the Federation of Chinese Teachers Association.

He was shot dead at Macalister Road in front of the Penang Chinese School Teachers Association, where he was about to chair a meeting.

The assailant shot Chen in the head before he could even alight from his car with his other colleagues.

The Straits Times, Feb 5, 1952 (pg1)
Shocking: The  article on Chen’smurder published in The Straits Times on Feb 5, 1952. — News clipping image from The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Chen had travelled to Malaya in 1930 to join Chung Ling High School, founded by supporters of the Kuomintang party, but his anti-communist views irked members of the Communist Party of Malaya, especially his stand in education.

In his dissertation, “Chinese-ness in Malaysian Chinese Education Discourse: The Case of Chung Ling High School”, Jin Pei Goh wrote that the school was influenced by the Chinese nationalist movement in China.

The fate of the school, the academician wrote, was connected to the turbulent years of the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese civil war in 1927-1945 and the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

During the troubled years of the Emergency, Chen was the third Chung Ling teacher to be killed.

In 1949, a teacher, Boey Eng Eng, was shot dead in front of his house at Kek Chuan Lane, off Chulia Street and in 1951, Chan Chong Yuk, who was the school’s acting principal, was killed on his way to his Kampong Kolam home.

Those were the years of living dangerously, where Chinese community leaders, teachers and police officers who were deemed to go against the CPM were high on the hit list.

In the case of Chen, there are those who believed in the conspiracy theory that the British intelligence service was responsible for his murder. Apparently, they were uncomfortable with his push for Chinese education while the British preferred the mission schools, where English was the medium of instruction.

A year after Chen’s killing, two persons were charged for his murder. They were Lee Khuan Koa and Chan Kwong Siew, both 22 years old, but ironically, the news was just a filler or a simple short news story on page 4.

In 1954, The Straits Times reported on a ceremony that was held to commemorate the assassination of Chen.

(Brief caption): PIC FOR WONG CHUN WAI. Chung Ling high School Memorial monument. //CHAN BOON KAI/THE STAR/(14th NOV 2013 )
Tribute to teachers: The memorial is to commemorate the death of former teachers and students of CLHS who were killed during the Japanese Occupation in Malaya for sending monetary and other contributions to China during Japan’s all-out invasion against China in 1937

In the article, it reported that three men were involved in the shooting. One was said to have committed suicide when cornered, another “fatally wounded trying to avoid recapture after a gaol break” and the third man convicted in Malacca in 1953 and hanged.

According to an article written by Timothy Tye of Penang Travel Tips, Chung Ling School, as it was originally known, was founded by supporters of Chinese nationalist Dr Sun Yat Sen, among them Tan Sin Cheng, Khoo Beng Cheang, Chu Yeo Aik, Khaw Seng Lee and Lim Joo Teik.

The school, he wrote, was originally located at 18, Malay Street and in 1918, Chung Ling School moved to occupy 65, Macalister Road, which was the Penang Philomatic Union and is today the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall housing the Penang Sun Yat Sen Centre.

Chung Ling School, which has produced some of the best Malaysian personalities today, finally settled at its present location in Jalan Air Itam in 1923.

The school was once a hotbed of activism against the Japanese during the Occupation, where the idealistic teachers and students suffered harsh treatment from the Japanese forces for their refusal to switch from Chinese to Japanese studies.

During the difficult years, many were executed. They paid a heavy price for their patriotism, buoyed by the events in China.

In fact, Chen, who helmed the school for 20 years, escaped to Cameron Highlands where he posed as a vegetable farmer.

Today, the school has continued to be in the limelight for producing top scorers in public examinations.

(Brief caption): PIC FOR WONG CHUN WAI. David Chen Chong Ern painting. //CHAN BOON KAI/THE STAR/(14th NOV 2013 )

Great contributor: A painting ofChen that is featured in Chung Ling High School’s magazine.

It has produced some of the best known alumni including former Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, former Senate president Tan Sri Michael Chen, former Nanyang University vice-chancellor Dr Wu Teh Yao, former Singapore minister Lee Khoon Choy and controversial financier Jho Low.

A residential neighbourhood, located just next to the school, has been rightly named Taman David Chen in his honour.

Chen is likely to be known by students of the school but he is non-existent in the history books on Penang. For the English-educated, he is also likely to be an unfamiliar name.

But Chen surely deserves a place in the history of Penang for his contributions of over two decades to one of the best schools in the region.

For all the complexities of the school’s history and its teachers, Taman David Chen is known among foodies for a simple dish – its popular “economy fried bee hoon” – which attracts large crowds to the stall every morning.

The stall is located just opposite the Kampung Baru wet market and is known to most residents in Air Itam.

Further down the road is my family home, in Jalan Kampung Melayu, off the main thoroughfare of Jalan Air Itam.

Readers Write

L.L. Loh-Lim and L. Loh write: Thank you for your article on Cheong Fatt Tze last week. It was much appreciated. In particular, we appreciate your comments that this legendary figure in the early development of Penang — and indeed of the region — has been entirely left out of our history books.

His stunning philantrophy and critical contributions and visions in the development of the state have had scant official acknowledgement. Except for Jalan Cheong Fatt Tze, removed in the development of Komtar and hastily replaced with Carnavon Street when the Teoh Kongsi pressured the Penang Municipal Council (MPPP), no one has ever highlighted the significance of the man, before the restoration of his home in Leith Street.

Besides building the first Chinese school in South-East Asia in Penang and helping Sun Yat Sen overthrow the Manchus, Cheong Fatt Tze aka Chang Pi-Shih aka Thio Tiaw Siat donated extensively to schools, hospitals, temples and all worthy charities of the day.

Among other things, he was:

●the main donor of the Kek Lok Si (where his larger-than-life statue sits in a room apart from the statues of the lesser donors);

● one of the main donors of the Penang Free School (the donors plaque is on the wall of the current State Museum);

● the main donor of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for destitute women, setting up a trust for the premises, to be used by non-profit
organisations (currently also being used by the State Museum in Macalister Road);

● the founder of the Teoh Kongsi; and

● Vice-Consul for China in Penang and Consul-General in Singapore

In 1916, British and Dutch authorities had ordered flags to be flown at half mast on the death of this exemplar of hard work and vision, and yet, like you, we students of St Xavier’s were given neither knowledge of the man nor the mansion in Leith Street.

It was reputed to be his favourite home because it was where his favourite wife No. 7 resided and where his last son was born when he
was aged 74.

In 1989, the mansion came on the market upon the death of this son.

The Kek Lok Si Temple, a tourist attraction.
Tourist attraction: Cheong was the main donor to the Kek Lok Si Temple


Potential buyers were all developers, and conservation consciousness as well as regulations were non-existent. The Mansion was certainly in danger of demolition followed by some minor fine and slap on the wrist for the perpetrator.

Perhaps the spirit of Cheong Fatt Tze sought out protectors? It was certainly against public opinion of the day to conserve on such valuable land and to undertake a restoration of international best practice standards.

We are very gratified that today, the Blue Mansion (testifying to its original indigo colour) is acknowledged as among the 10 greatest mansions in the world (Lonely Planet 2011).

It has set benchmark standards of conservation, having won Unesco’s Most Excellent Project Award in 2000 and most importantly, it has bought time for George Town at its most critical point at the turn of the century.

Today, museums and interpretation tours for visitors and site visits for school children ensure that oral history is given life and the early contributions of our forefathers are forever remembered. Indeed, as you called him, “Penang’s Greatest Mogul”, offers us continuing lessons in hard work, vision and globalthinking.

Penang’s greatest mogul

The Cheong Fatt Tze mansion won Unesco's 'Most Excellent' Heritage Conservation Award in 2000. - filepic

The Cheong Fatt Tze mansion won Unesco's 'Most Excellent' Heritage Conservation Award in 2000. – filepic

From harbouring revolutionaries to founding schools, Cheong Fatt  Tze made his mark on history.

THE Cheong Fatt Tze mansion sits opposite my alma mater, the St Xavier’s Institution.

For more than 10 years, I had to walk past the building every time I went to school and I never knew about its historical significance.

Neither did anyone tell me about its once legendary owner.

It was never in the history books that I had to study in school.

None of the school teachers even mentioned him. They probably did not know too.

No one taught me that Cheong built the first Chinese school in South-East Asia in Penang and that it was the first such school – sanctioned by the Qing Dynasty, complete with royal seals – outside China.

Neither could I find in my textbook that Cheong Fatt Tze – despite being a highly decorated official of the Manchu imperial palace – also secretly financed the work of Dr Sun Yat Sen, the Father of Modern China, who was in exile in Penang, presumably because he was disgusted with the corrupt practices of the palace.

But it’s better late than never.

Thanks to the Unesco World Heritage status accorded on Georgetown, Penang, in 2008, there is now a revival in the state for its glorious legacy and a desire to find out more about the early fathers of Penang who built the state to what it is today.

The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, located at Leith Street, has become a must-stop for tourists.

But for a long time, it was rundown and almost derelict.

It was never the Blue Mansion, as it is dubbed today, when I was a student at the SXI.

In fact, it looked haunted and most of us, worried by its imposing but frightening look, stayed away.

We instead remembered the state’s first real disco called Unit One, located at the basement of a hotel, just behind the mansion.

The other hotel next door used to bring in Thailand’s “tiger shows,” which essentially showed women performing various sexual acts in a somewhat acrobatic manner.

As students in a school located in an entertainment area and near a beach front, we certainly had the best exposure to the real world.

I can bet that most students in other states never had such experiences. Well, we grew up faster for sure.

But for me, the real education of Cheong Fatt Tze only came in my adult years.

Penangites surely need to know one of the most influential personalities of the 20th century in old Malaya better, now that they appreciate the true value of the protected heritage building.

He was born in 1840 in Dabu, Guangdong Province in China, where he grew up working as a cowherd in a backward, poverty-stricken Hakka village.

It was a time when civil war had broken out in China.

Like many, Cheong Fatt Tze migrated to South-East Asia, hopeful for a change in fortune.

He started as a water-carrier and then became a shopkeeper in Jakarta, Indonesia.

After his marriage, he started a trading company with the help of his father-in-law.

Through hard work and perseverance, he soon expanded his business to Medan, the nearest Indonesian city to Penang, where he traded agricultural products such as rubber, coffee and tea. Soon after, he bought a bank.

In 1886, he expanded to Penang and ran a lucrative business with the three ships he owned which plied between Penang and Medan.

The Chinese community in both towns to this day use identical hokkien.

Dubbed the “Rockefeller of the East”, he occasionally resided in Penang, so it made sense for him to own the mansion in Leith Street, which has 38 rooms, five granite-paved courtyards, seven staircases and 220 windows. It even had horse stables.

He also built a row of houses opposite the mansion for his army of servants.

The mansion has won several awards, including Unesco’s “Most Excellent” Heritage Conservation Award in 2000.

It has also been used as a location for various films.

In 1890, in recognition of his hard work and contributions, Cheong was appointed the Chinese Consul, to be based in Penang.

He was accorded the status of a first class Mandarin by the Manchu government and also served as economic advisor to the Empress Dowager.

According to reports, in 1899, he was summoned to China twice by the Emperor of China, where he was asked to present a national development plan.

He was subsequently appointed Minister for Agriculture, Industries, Roads and Mines for the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.

But he also contributed much to Penang.

In 1904, he established the first Chinese school in Southeast Asia, the Chung Hwa Confucian School in Penang, which was founded in 1904, and has today become a premier school in the state.

It is now located at Green Lane, now called Jalan Masjid Negeri.

It is the only overseas Chinese school to be sanctioned by the Qing Dynasty Government of China then, which officially presented it with royal seals bearing the school’s name through its consulate because of its founder, Cheong Fatt Tze.

The original site of the Chung Hwa school was at the Penang Chinese Town Hall – opposite The Star office – at Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling or Pitt Street. It later moved to Maxwell Road, now Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leong.

Older Penangites would remember that the school was located next to Paramount cinema, which has since been demolished.

Cheong also provided shelter and financial backing for Sun Yat Sen, the Father of Modern China, when the latter was in exile in Penang for six months in 1910.

Sun used 120, Armenian Street (now converted to be the Sun Yat Sen Museum) as his base to plot his 1911 Revolution.

While in Penang, he enrolled his daughters to study at the St George’s Girls School.

Sun also founded the Kwong Wah Jit Poh, one of the oldest Chinese newspapers in the world.

The masthead of the newspaper, still in use today, was written by Sun himself.

The mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze, who made Penang his base, certainly had plenty of room for his eight wives and six sons.

Cheong died in Indonesia in 1916.

The former Hong Kong Street, which is off Carnarvon Street, has been aptly renamed Cheong Fatt Tze Road in recognition of his contributions to Penang. Interestingly, this road is just a short walk to Armenian Street.

Certainly, if you have a good grasp of history, walking in this part of the heritage zone will be quite an experience.

Legendary plague fighter

DR WU Lien Teh is certainly one of the most distinguished Penangites of all time. He was the first medical student of Chinese descent to study at the University of Cambridge and also the first Malaysian Chinese to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

The Penang Free School (PFS) student, who was born in Penang in 1879, must be the only Malaysian to ever be nominated for that prestigious award.

His father was an immigrant from China while his mother was a second-generation resident of Malaya.

His brilliance was already clear when he studied at the PFS, where he won the Queen’s Scholarship in Singapore at the age of 17, earning him a place at the Emmanuel College in Cambridge in 1896.

Remarkable man: Dr Wu, aged 77, in a photo taken in Cambridge, England, in 1956.

According to an article in the Penang Monthly by Koh King Kee, Dr Wu completed his medical degree two years ahead of requirement, and won all possible prizes and scholarships in a class of 135 students.

“He pursued a postgraduate study of malaria at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and bacteriology at the Hygiene Institute of Halle in Germany and the Institute Pasteur in Paris. He was the first student of Chinese decent to graduate with an MD from Cambridge University,” Koh wrote.

But after graduating, Dr Wu found that even his abilities worked against him in the colonial system. There was a two-tier medical system in the British colonies, where only British nationals could hold the highest position of fully qualified medical officers or specialists, according to reports.

But that did not deter him as he went on to become a scientist and an anti-opium advocate. He spent the first four years of his medical career at the Institute of Medical Research, researching beri-beri, which causes the body system to break down as a result of deficiency in Vitamin B.

Wu Lien Teh and his wife (Cambridge University)
Cambridge days: Dr Wu and his wife. – Photo courtesy of http:/ /

Dr Wu was also very vocal on social issues and founded the Anti-Opium Association in Penang, which pitted him against powerful forces – the British colonists who approved the distribution of opium and triad-linked Chinese tycoons.

He was soon framed by these connections, leading to a search and subsequent discovery of a mere one ounce of tincture of opium in his clinic, according to a posting in Wikipedia.

It was quickly regarded as illegal, although he was a fully qualified medical doctor who had used the drug to treat opium patients.

Dr Wu’s prosecution and appeal rejection attracted worldwide publicity, including an invitation from the Chinese Government
in Peking to take up the post of Vice-Director of the Imperial Army medical College in Tianjin.

Left with little options, Dr Wu travelled to Harbin, on the instruction of the Foreign Office in Beijing, to investigate an unknown disease which killed over 60,000 people in north-eastern China, which turned out to be a bubonic outbreak.

He poured himself into the research work, bringing together scientists from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Russia and Mexico in a race against time to fight the disease.

Dr Wu was the first president of the China Medical Association (1916–1920), where he set up more than 20 hospitals, and directed the National Quarantine Service (1931–1937). To the Chinese, he was regarded as the father of modern medicine.

ipteh6...Harbin Hospital, completed in 1925, with Dr Wu Lien-teh, the Hospital Director, in the foreground./reproduced by Lew Yong Kan/ip/28-12-01/foong thim leng
Research in China: Dr Wu travelled to China to investigate an unknown disease. This picture shows him (foreground) at the Harbin Hospital.

But his career as a scientist was cut short by the war in 1937 when the Japanese attacked China.

In fact, his villa in Shanghai was bombed by the Japanese.

He returned to Malaya where he opened a clinic in Ipoh at Brewster Road – which has been renamed Jalan Sultan Idris Shah.

His social work continued where he collected donations for the setting up of the Perak Library, now the Tun Razak Library, in Ipoh.

Koh wrote that despite keeping “a low-profile civilian life”, there were moments of drama in his life. During the Japanese occupation, Dr Wu was kidnapped by Communist guerillas and released only after a ransom of 7,000 dollars was paid.

“Two months later, it was the Japanese’s turn to arrest him on suspicion of supporting anti-Japanese forces. He was eventually cleared of the charge after a Japanese officer who was his patient testified to his innocence.”

He practised medicine until the age of 80 and like all Penangites, the state was his forever home.

He bought a house in Chor Sin Kheng Road in Air Itam, Penang, for his retirement and died on Jan 20, 1960, aged 81, after he suffered a stroke.

ipteh3...Dr Wu Lien-teh in his plague laboratory, Harbin, China, 1911./reproduced by lew yong kan/28-12-01/ip/foong thim leng
Dedicated : Dr Wu performing tests in his laboratory in Harbin, China, in 1911.

According to Koh, Wu’s death was mourned by the international medical community, and The Times London commented on Jan 27, 1960: “By his death, the world of medicine has lost a heroic and almost legendary figure and the world at large one of whom it is far more indebted to than it knows.”

Dr Wu was accorded no less than 20 honorary degrees from renowned academic institutions, including PhDs from Johns Hopkins University, Hong Kong University and the Imperial University of Japan.

A road in Ipoh Garden South has been named after Dr Wu. In Penang, too, a private road named Taman Wu Lien Teh is located near the Penang Free School. One of the school houses is Wu Lien Teh which bears the colour green.

I decided to ask our reporter in Penang to check out if residents of Taman Wu Lien Teh knew the history behind the name of their road.

However, residents living in the 21 houses in the area know little about Dr Wu or his contribution to the society.

Quah Chun Hua, 61, a ship broker staying in nearby Jalan Cheeseman (another PFS icon) said he could not recall anything about Dr Wu.

“But I remember he was a scientist and that he did complete his early education in Penang Free School,” said Quah, who has been staying there for 21 years now.

Muhammad Haniffa Abdullah, 50, a security guard, said he had never even heard about Dr Wu.

He said only the elderly could remember him and most residents here had moved in not too long ago.

Early this year, the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society was set up with a website ( detailing the life and contributions of the doctor, surgeon, scholar and author.

Society president Datuk Anwar Fazal said the Penang Institute, which was formerly known as the Socio-Economic and Environ-mental Research Institute (SERI), would be hosting an international conference on global health next year.

The conference will be closely linked to Dr Wu’s work in fighting plague, focusing on the burden of infectious diseases such as AIDS/HIV, and water-borne infections.

Writer Quah Seng Sun, also an Old Free, best summed it up by describing Dr Wu as “a Penang-born who saved the world. He had the world at his feet but then he chose to return here to private medical practice and live out the rest of his life in relative obscurity. He was a real Anak Pulau Pinang, a real Son of the Penang Free School.”

Earliest Malay settlement in Penang

Changing landscape: The original Kampung Batu Uban is overshadowed by new condominiums and apartments being built in the area.

Changing landscape: The original Kampung Batu Uban is overshadowed by new condominiums and apartments being built in the area.

ANYONE driving towards the Bayan Lepas International Airport is unlikely to miss the Batu Uban village but most of us would probably not even give it a second look.

But Batu Uban is a treasure trove of history with possibly one of the best stories to tell of early Penang.

The traditional Malay village is regarded as one of the earliest settlements in Penang before the arrival of Captain Francis Light.

It is also the home of the state’s oldest mosque, Masjid Jamek Batu Uban, built in 1734.

The mosque is said to have begun as a surau, or prayer hall, erected by Haji Mohammed Saleh, popularly known as Nakhoda nan Intan bin Tuanku Patis nan Sabatang, a Muslim leader from Kampung Bodi in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra.

Kampung Bodi, Pagaruyung and Sungai Tarab are reportedly in the Minangkabau province and are associated with early Penang and Batu Uban.

The great man's geandson: This is a drawing from the book by John Anderson (1826) Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823. The person sitting fourth from left is, was Datuk Muda Husin, the Datuk Bogak Batubara Tanah Datar, the grand son of Datuk Jenaton. Dato  Muda Husin is the closest that we can get of the image of Datuk Jenaton. - Pix and caption courtesy of Prof A. Murad Merican, Universiti Teknologi Petronas professor and Penang Malay Historical and Heritage Society deputy president
The great man’s grandson: This is a drawing from the book by John Anderson (1826) Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823. The person sitting fourth from left is, was Datuk Muda Husin, the Datuk Bogak Batubara Tanah Datar, the grand son of Datuk Jenaton. Husin is the closest that we can get of the image of Datuk Jenaton. – Pix and caption courtesy of Prof A. Murad Merican.

Haji Mohammed Saleh and his followers arrived in Penang, which was then still densely covered in jungle, and built a settlement by the coast, to be inhabited mostly by fishermen.

It was named Batu Uban, meaning “grey hair rock”, after a sea boulder in the vicinity which had some dried grass clinging onto it, which seemed to resemble white hair.

But Batu Uban was founded by a Minangkabau trader-warrior, Datuk Jenaton Raha Labu, who had business interests on both sides of the Straits of Malacca.

In return for having thwarted a Siamese invasion, the then ruler of Kedah, Sultan Muhammad Jiwa Zainal Abidin, granted Jenaton a one-hundred acre site in Batu Uban.

Jenaton and his 90-odd followers from Batu Bara in North Sumatra, cultivated land in what is now known as Bukit Batu Uban.

House of worship: Masjid Jamek Batu Uban is the oldest mosque in Penang.
State’s oldest mosque: Masjid Jamek Batu Uban weas built in 1734.

This is where Minden is now, the site of the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

In June 2013, more than 200 descendants of Jenaton flew in from different parts of the country and Indonesia to attend the sixth Jenaton family gathering in Penang.

The event brought together members of six generations of the Jenaton family, with some coming from the original hometown of Batu Bara.

Jenaton, who was a trader and plantation owner, had three wives and six children. His descendants now number more than 5,000.

Datuk Jenaton Family Gathering committee head Abdul Halim Ahmad said the event had been held every few years since 2002 to commemorate Jenaton, and to give his descendants a chance to mingle and get to know the extended family, the newest additions and the latest updates.

According to Dr Ahmad Murad Merican, a sixth-generation member of the family, the family lineage started from Pagar Ruyong and Bukit Tinggi in Indonesia.

“Jenaton was a Minangkabau court prince and a chieftain in Batu Bara, Sumatra, before leaving for Penang in early 1749,” he said, adding that prior to that, Jenaton frequently travelled between Penang, Kedah and Batu Bara for trading activities.

Dr Ahmad Murad said Jenaton can be counted as one of the earliest settlers in Penang after being awarded the land by the Sultan of Kedah.

“The land was a gift from the Sultan for Jenaton’s help in strategising Kedah’s war against the Achenese and the Bugis back then,” he said.

Progeny's home: 86 Armenian Street, Penang. This house belonged to Aishah binti Abdullah, the  grand daughter of Datuk Jenaton in the late 1800 who married Che¿ Din Kelang or Jamaluddin, a wealthy trader and property owner from Kelang. - Pix and caption courtesy of Prof A. Murad Merican,  Universiti Teknologi Petronas professor and Penang Malay Historical and Heritage Society deputy president.
Progeny’s home : 86 Armenian Street, Penang. This house belonged to Aishah binti Abdullah, the grand daughter of Jenaton in the late 1800 who married Che’ Din Kelang or Jamaluddin, a wealthy trader and property owner from Kelang. — Courtesy of Dr Ahmad Murad Merican

The Star quoted Dr Ahmad as saying that the land encompassed Batu Uban, Minden Heights and Bukit Gelugor, where Jenaton ventured into farming and trading by planting coconuts and sugar cane.

As a committee member of the Penang Malay History and Heritage Society (Pewa­ris), Dr Ahmad also spoke about latest developments tied to the Jenaton family.

“We have written a letter to the Penang Islamic Religious Council (MAIPP) to allow us to preserve Jenaton’s burial site in Persiaran Changkat Minden as a heritage site,” he said.

The Jenaton family history is closely linked to our nation’s history with notable descendants such as brothers Aziz and Yusof Ishak, who founded Utusan Melayu in 1939.

Yusof was also the first president of Singapore while his other brother Rahim served as Singapore’s Minister of State under Lee Kuan Yew. Rahim was also ambassador to Indonesia.

Other notable descendants are the late Supreme Court (now Federal Court) judge Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman Pawanteh and the distinguished career diplomat Tan Sri Razali Ismail.

Razali made an impact at the United Nations when he headed the Malaysian delegation in 1989 and 1990 during which time he also served as chairman of the UN Security Council. From 1996 to 1997, he became the president of the United Nations General Assembly.

The Batu Uban of today is also the site of a number of high-rise residential properties such as Sunny Ville, Villa Sri Kenanga, E-Park and N-Park.

And as Dr Murad correctly said the “village is now squeezed by land reclamation and the coastal highway, and the construction of apartments and condominiums. No one cares about history and heritage unless it has commercial value.”

But the story of Batu Uban must be remembered and recognised so that the legacy of Jenaton and the others who settled and built up the vibrant coastal settlement is recognised and honoured.

Foo Tye Sin a rarity among Penang elites

Foo: He was one of the three Chinese  commissioners appointed by the British to sit on the inquiry board to look into the 1867 Penang Riots.— filepi

Foo: He was one of the three Chinese commissioners appointed by the British to sit on the inquiry board to look into the 1867 Penang Riots.— filepi

FOO Tye Sin was a remarkable man. The Chinese community leader was a Justice of Peace, businessman, tin miner and mediator who played major roles mostly reserved for leaders who had migrated from China and made it big in Penang.

But Foo was local-born and English educated. Even more unusual, he studied at both St Xavier’s Institution and Penang Free School, the two biggest rival schools in the state.

Tye Sin Street, popularly known to Penangites as “Si Tiau Lor”, meaning “Fourth Street” in Hokkien, is named after him. Interestingly enough, Tye Sin Street is within the working class neighbourhood of the Seven Street Precinct which I wrote about in an earlier column. (“Iconic streets locally known by numbers”, The Star, April 13).

The precinct was initially considered for inclusion within George Town’s World Heritage Site, but it did not fall within the zone, which is a shame as there is much history surrounding the area.

Tye Sin Street stands out in this precinct because it is the only Chinese name among the seven streets and another two which were also added on later.

Brief caption: Tye Sin Street in Penang.  (Charles Mariasoosay - 09/10/2013)
Modern-day Tye Sin street: Tye Sin Street, popularly known to Penangites as Si Tiau Lor, meaning ‘Fourth Street’ in Hokkien, is named after Foo.

The streets in order of numbers are: Magazine Road, Noordin Street, Presgrave Street, Tye Sin Street, McCallum Street, Katz Street, Cecil Street, Herriot Street and Sandilands Street.

Tye Sin Street runs from Jalan Gurdwara (formerly Brick Kiln Road).to Jalan CY Choy (formerly Bridge Street).

According to reports, Foo was a Hakka born in a pepper estate in Bayan Lepas, Penang.

He started his early education with a private Chinese teacher before continuing at Penang Free School and later, the St Xavier’s Institution.

It is certainly most unusual for Foo to have studied in both schools as the rivalry between the two premier schools, which provided boarding for students from other states, was intense.

He was regarded the only non-partisan Chinese at a ceasefire conference called by Lt. Governor Anson at the height of the Larut War for control of the tin mines between the Ghee Hin and the Hai San gangs. Foo was perceived by some to be a Hai San sympathiser.

Foo Tye Sin Mansion, Light Street, Penang
Foo Tye Sin Mansion: The building above was Foo’s home in Light Street. It is one of the first non-European mansions built in 19th century Penang. The magnificent building is now home to a branch of Hong Leong Bank (below). — Picture above taken from Penang Postcard Collection 1899-1930s by Khoo Salma Nasution and Malcolm Wade

Foo was one of three Chinese commissioners appointed by the British to sit on the inquiry board to look into the 1867 Penang Riots.

The Penang Riots rocked the state for nine days which saw heavy street fighting and bloodshed among the secret societies of Penang, chiefly the Cantonese speaking Ghee Hin and Hakka speaking Hai San. It was a fight over the control of business interests involving tin mining, gaming and opium farms.

Along Penang’s Heritage Trail, Cannon Street was so named because of the hole made on the ground by a cannon ball fired into the area at the height of the riots.

According to a report, the fighting was eventually quelled by Sepoys or paid Indian troops, brought in from Singapore by the Governor-General, but by then, hundreds had been killed and scores of houses burned.

A penalty of $5,000 (Straits Settlement Dollars) was levied on each of the secret societies, some of which was later used to finance the building of four police stations to deal with any future trouble, it was reported.

Brief caption: Hong Leong Bank at Light Street in Penang.  (Charles Mariasoosay - 09/10/2013)

Foo made a name for himself within the Penang elites because he was local-born and English educated, a rarity among the local Chinese business community.

He was also one of the founders of the Penang Chinese Town Hall, which was founded in 1883. The present building of the business association, completed in 1983, is located at Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling or formerly known as Pitt Street, next to the iconic Kuan Yin Teng (Temple of the Goddess of Mercy).

In fact, it sits directly opposite the old Star office, where I first started work as a rookie reporter in 1980.

The Penang Chinese Town Hall is also a favourite spot for political parties to hold ceramah during the elections, sometimes, with the crowd spilling onto the road, if it involves DAP politicians.

Just a short walk away from the Penang Chinese Town Hall is the Foo Tye Sin Mansion, located along Light Street.

It is one of the first non-European mansions to be built in 19th century Penang. The magnificent building is now home to a branch of Hong Leong Bank.

Foo Tye Sin, a true Penangite, has gone down in history as one of the biggest names of the state, whose influence also stretched further beyond.

As I was going through The Star’s archives, I came across an interesting article about a book written by a fellow journalist Tony Danker entitled The Cristangs of Tye Sin Street.

Danker wrote about how his family of Portuguese Eurasians, originally from Kuala Lumpur, moved to Penang in 1921.

They first stayed in Green Hall, near the Esplanade, before settling in Tye Sin Street.

“The area was infamous as a gangster haven. But in all the years that we lived there, we were never disturbed by the gangsters,” wrote Danker.

There are many interesting anecdotes about the family, including how his father, Chris, represented the state in football from 1932 to 1941.

He appeared in the 1934 and 1941 Malaya Cup Finals, losing in both to Singapore, and suffering a broken collarbone to end his state career.

Then there was Uncle William who was a good boxer and famed for donating blood. He was much sought after by our neighbours, who gave him money and gifts for his blood.

Stories like this remind us that history is alive if we continue to not only research deep into the past, but also take efforts to trace the links to our present-day generations.

George Town’s first mayor a fiery man

The educator: Ramanathan in his office in 1963. - Photo courtesy of MBS Heritage Centre

The educator: Ramanathan in his office in 1963. – Photo courtesy of MBS Heritage Centre

PENANG, or more specifically George Town, still does not have a mayor or Datuk Bandar although it has long attained the status of a recognised city.

Many towns in Malaysia are eager to seek city status and have to work hard to meet the requirements and standards.

Ironically, there are also those which have attained city status but in reality, are not functioning as cities, in the eyes of many.

Back in 1956, George Town had become the first municipality in the Federation of Malaya to have a fully elected council, with G.H. Goh from the Alliance comprising Umno, MCA and MIC as its first president.

More importantly, on Jan 1, 1957, George Town became a city by a royal charter granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Historic: The land on which the Jalan D.S. Ramanathan passes through was formerly the Ayer Rajah Estate.
Historical significance: The land on which Jalan D.S. Ramanathan passes through was formerly known as the Ayer Rajah Estate.

George Town, in other words, was the first town in the Federation of Malaya to be elevated to a city, and the only city in Malaya/Malaysia until Kuala Lumpur was granted city status in 1972.

The first mayor of George Town was councillor D.S. Ramanathan from the Labour Party of Malaya.

The former teacher, who began his career in Perak, was the president of the National Union of Teachers from 1959 to 1962 as well as vice-president of the Malayan Teachers National Congress from 1961-1962.

During that period, he was also an active member of the National Joint Council of Teachers.

But it was his involvement in politics that Ramanathan made his mark in the state’s historical landscape.

He was a founder member of the Pan Malayan Labour Party and was its first chairman.

Politics at the local level was very vibrant back then.

The people at that time elected over 3,000 representatives to head 37 town councils, 37 town boards, 289 local councils and seven district councils.

George Town was said to be the richest local council with reserves totalling $6.037mil.

Local elections were suspended in 1964 because of the Indonesian Confrontation.

Ramanathan was popular and was elected the mayor of George Town for two terms – 1958 and 1959.

According to a report in The Star by Neil Khor and Khaldun Malik, after elections were suspended, “Ramanathan accused his local council colleagues of corruption and mismanagement” leading to the formation of the Athi Nahappan Commission to study the alleged corruption and inefficiency of local government in Malaysia.

Despite his socialist inclinations and fiery image, Ramanathan was a dedicated Methodist.

After finishing his term as mayor, he was appointed as the headmaster of the Penang Pykett Methodist School.

The old school: Pykett Methodist School as it is today.
The old school: Pykett Methodist School as it is today.

The appointment by the Annual Conference of the Malayan Methodists was reported in the Straits Times issue of Dec 15, 1959.

Ramanathan, who passed away in 1973, was married to Ruth Vanniasingham, who now lives in Kuala Lumpur.

But her family members declined The Star’s request for an interview.

Hailing from a prominent Jaffna- Tamil family, her father, Kanagasa-bapathy Vanniasingham founded the Tamil Methodist Church in Penang.

According to reports, Ruth was the first person in Penang to obtain the Licentiate of the Trinity College of Music in 1936.

She initially taught Penang’s renowned pianist Dennis Lee before he went to the United Kingdom.

Scott Road, a small road off Air Rajah Road, has been renamed in honour of Ramanathan.

Scott Road is said to have been named after James Scott, who was a partner of Francis Light.

The land on which the then Scott Road passes through was formerly the Ayer Rajah Estate which belonged to the Brown Family, which has close ties with the Scotts, according to reports.

Although Ramanathan has been described as “an erstwhile socialist challenging the colonial and federal authorities for the most downtrodden people in the country, and stood side by side with Lim Kean Siew and other socialists” the politicking from within the ranks made him quit the socialist platform.

With various allegations hurled against him, Ramanathan resigned from the LPM to become an independent councillor and subsequently an Alliance councillor, representing the MIC.

The principal: Ramanathan (front, third from right) with the other members of the Penang Pykett Methodist School board.

Not surprisingly, the Left has not spoken highly of him, and has refused to accord him the kind of respect given to other socialist comrades.

When Scott Road was renamed in his honour, it sparked off controversy and the road sign was defaced on numerous occasions.

One reader wrote in to The Star, at the height of the controversy, to say that if any road should be renamed in his honour, it should be Pykett Road, since he was the headmaster of the school there.

Some said the residents, who are mostly affluent, did not like being linked to someone with a socialist background.

Others claim the controversy was ignited by his former socialist comrades.

But a compromise seems to have been struck, ending the standoff, with the city authorities putting both the names of Ramanathan and Scott on the roadsign now.

As a student, then in my secondary years, I spent a fair bit of time playing football with my school mates at the open field at the then Scott Road.

Although I lived in Ayer Itam, which was far away from the area, it did not stop me from cycling all the way to Scott Road, where many of my friends were living nearby in Pulau Tikus for our games.

My years as a Boy Scout also led me to spend my time there, carrying out my patrol (or team) activities there.

While his politics were contentious, Ramanathan has surely left his mark as a school principal with many of his former students posting fond memories of him on the Internet.

In fact, he was also credited for his pioneering efforts to set up a university in Penang.

The idea of a university in Penang was first mooted by him in 1959 in the State Assembly and later crystalised when he was nominated chairman of the Penang University Project committee.

The Universiti Sains Malaysia opened in 1969 and is today one of the leading tertiary institutions of learning in Malaysia.

Ramanathan will certainly be remembered for his contributions as a mayor, politician, teacher, unionist and educationist.

Powerful ties that bind two nations

Well-connected: Kittiratt Na-Ranong launching the House of Ranong signboard at the Esplanade in May. The deputy prime minister and finance minister for Thailand is a direct descendant of Sim Bee’s older brother, Sim Kong.

Well-connected: Kittiratt Na-Ranong launching the House of Ranong signboard at the Esplanade in May. The deputy prime minister and finance minister for Thailand is a direct descendant of Sim Bee’s older brother, Sim Kong.

THE distance between Penang and Hatyai, the southern Thai city, is just 183km, and it only takes about three hours to get there if you drive. Weekend getaways for shopping and other things are very much a part of life for many Penangites.

And if one wishes to head to Phuket, it would just be another two hours or so. That’s how close Penang is to these two southern Thailand towns.

Captain Francis Light, who founded Penang in 1786, had established his headquarters in Salang, near Phuket, about 10 years earlier. It was also in Phuket that he met his Eurasian wife, Martha Rozells.

As early as 1771, he had tried to convince his superiors to take up the Sultan of Kedah’s offer of Penang in return for British protection, but his letter was largely ignored.

Statue of Khaw Sim Bee in Phuket
Held in high regard : The statue of Khaw Sim Bee that was erected in his honour at Khao Rang hill in Phuket.

Finally in 1786, he got the attention of Sir John MacPherson, the Governor-General, and was able to convince him on the need to secure a British trading post in Penang.

Today, many Penangites have relatives in these two Thai towns with the northern Hokkein dialect, spoken in Penang and Kedah, widely used there.

For many years, the Chinese community in southern Thailand would send their children to study at the Han Chiang High School in Penang so they could pick up Chinese and English.

Today, due to that foresight, the top editors of The Nation, the top English-language newspaper of Thailand, all come from southern Thailand.

One Thai-Chinese businessman who made an impact in Penang was Khaw Sim Bee. A road, which runs from Perak Road to Westlands Road, is named after him.

Khaw was born to a wealthy family in 1857. His father, Khaw Soo Cheang, was the Governor of Ranong, Southern Thailand.

Grand funeral procession: Khaw Sim Bee’s eloborate coffin being carried to the Swettenham Pier at Weld Quay. Sim Bee died on April 10, 1913, a little over a month after he was gunned down by a doctor.

Through these strong connections, Khaw began serving the Siamese government as a royal page and went on to become the Governor of Trang, a southern Thailand province in 1890.

He introduced rubber plantations into the region, which according to many accounts, helped in “increasing the productivity of the impoverished south, winning him favour with the king.”

In May this year, some 300 descendants of Khaw Sim Bee gathered in Penang to commemorate the 100th death anniversary of the man remembered as the ‘Father of Thailand’s Rubber Industry’.

Khaw was influential in south Thailand but it was in Penang that he found his true love when he married a Chinese woman, Lim Seng Kim, and the couple had five sons. But there was more to Khaw’s love life than this, as future events would unveil.

The family left behind two beautiful mansions in Penang, the Asdang House (the current site of Mayfair condominium) and Chakrabongse House in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. Unfortunately, the houses were demolished in 1993 and in the 1970s respectively.

The family also donated the Ranong Ground (where the Dewan Sri Pinang now stands) in Jalan Padang Kota Lama in the late 19th century to the people of Penang for recreational purposes.

The family’s historian Teik Gim, who is a sixth-generation Khaw, gave a presentation on the family’s background during a conference titled “Penang Story Symposium: Khaw Sim Bee na Ranong and Shared History of Malaysia-Thailand Relations: From The Past To Future Cooperation” during the gathering.

He said the family patriach, Khaw Soo Cheang, arrived in Penang in 1810 from Fujian, China, before going to Thailand in 1822, which was a remarkable achievement for an immigrant as he went on to become a governor of Ranong!

He had six sons — Sim Cheng, Sim Kong, Sim Chua, Sim Khim, Sim Teik and Sim Bee.

The Star also quoted Teik Gim as saying that Sim Kong and Sim Bee were the high commissioners of Monthon (country subdivision) Chumphon and Monthon Phuket respectively.

Meanwhile, Sim Khim and Sim Teik were the governors of Kraburi and Langsuan, respectively, carrying the title “Phrayas” while Sim Cheng and Sim Chua were assistant governors of Ranong with the title “Luangs”.

Teik Gim further elaborated on Sim Bee’s achievements, which included being appointed the Governor of Trang in 1890 and sub-sequently the High Commissioner of Monthon Phuket in 1900.

The power link of the Khaws in Thailand seems to have continued even today.

The conference was also attended by Thailand Deputy Minister and Finance Minister Kittiratt Na Ranong, who is a direct descendant of Sim Bee’s older brother, Sim Kong. Kittiratt’s Chinese name is Khaw Cheng Thong.

The 55-year-old Kittiratt is today Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Despite the glorious past of Khaw Sin Bee’s legacy, there is a blot with reports describing him as “a polygamous man and a notorious womaniser.”

This proved to be his undoing, according to a report, as he was killed by a doctor in Trang whose wife he had his eyes on.

The shooting took place on Feb 25, 1913. Also wounded was his nephew, the Governor of Trang.

Khaw Sim Bee and his nephew were rushed to the Penang hospital, but succumbed to their injuries on April 10 and May 2, respectively, the reports said.

But Khaw Sim Bee continued to be held in high regard, particularly by the people of south Thailand, from Ranong to Phuket to Trang.

A statue erected in his honour can be seen at the Khao Rang hill in Phuket.

For this writer, there is a Thai link, too. My brother, Wong Chun Keong, has a lovely Thai wife, Naiyana, whom he met when she came to Penang from Hatyai to study at Han Chiang.

My wife, Florence, still has Thai relatives in southern Thailand from her grandmother’s side.

At Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, it was compulsory for all students to sign up for a foreign language and I signed up for Thai, although it was not quite my first choice.

I had initially set my sights on studying French, Spanish or Korean, regarding them as languages with more economic value. But after a long night, I turned up late for registration and classes for all the more popular languages were fully booked.

As fate would have it, I happily signed up for Thai, enjoying the formal Thai classes. Along the years, I have lost the conversational skills despite my many trips to Thailand each year.

For many Penangites and Kedahans, especially those with family ties that bind, Thailand continues to be just a short distance away by road or by air.

Farlim, the old tai kor’s place

Almost all those in Farlim live in high-rise flats.

Almost all those in Farlim live in high-rise flats.

The township that is home to Air Itam’s high-rise flats is steeped in history.

LOOKING at the skyline of Bandar Baru Air Itam or more popularly known as Farlim among Penangites, with its many high-rise apartments, many among the young would probably have no inkling of the history of this township.

The land where Farlim is located was previously known as Thean Teik Estate, which was named after Khoo Thean Teik.

Thean Teik, literally translated as “heavenly virtue”, was no ordinary person. To the Chinese community, he was a businessman who used his social and clan associations to protect his business links but to the British, he was simply the leader of a notorious triad.

At the age of 34, he established himself as the Big Brother or tai kor of the Khian Teik or Tua Pek Kong secret society.

A typical day at the Thean Teik Estate prior to the 1982 demonstrations.

Historian Dr Wong Yee Tuan wrote in his article “Uncovering the Myths of Two 19th Century Hokkien Business Personalities in the Straits Settlements” that Thean Teik and his younger brother Thean Poh, even formed an alliance with the Red Flag, a Malay-Acehnese secret society.

More interestingly, the alliance was further strengthened when Thean Poh gave his daughter in marriage to Red Flag leader Syed Mohamed Alatas’s son, Syed Sheikh Alatas, as the latter’s second wife.

The friction between the Red Flag/Khian Teik alliance and the White Flag/Ghee Hin alliance eventually erupted into an open gang war, known as the Penang Riots.

As students of history, we would have read of the Hai San-Ghee Hin clashes. Thean Teik was aligned to the Hai San gang.

They mobilised thousands of coolies and started the street fights, the worst in 19th-century British colonial rule, in order to regain control of the opium farms.

Khoo Thean Teik was no ordinary man. To the Chinese community, he was a businessman who used his social and clan associates to protect his business links.

At that time, Thean Teik was also a director of the respectable Khoo Kongsi, the clan house of the Khoos, but that did not stop the authorities from sentencing him to death.

But Thean Teik had enough clout and influence. The British colonial government even feared that his execution would lead to another riot and quickly reduced it to life imprisonment. But he was released after seven years. Another report claimed that his sentence lasted for only 18 months.

Thean Teik made his fortune and prospered by buying up vast tracts of land that came to be known as Thean Teik Estate.

Much of the money came from immigrant labour trading and opium distribution, permitted by the British. In Perak, he was also involved in gaming and pawn-broking, which made him even richer.

He was a chairman of the Penang Chinese Town Hall and a trustee of the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, his family clan temple.

Dissatisfied: About 300 residents protested against Farlim Sdn Bhd's development project in October 1982.
Residents of Thean Teik Estate protesting against Farlim Sdn Bhd’s development project in October 1982.

In fact, due to his invaluable contributions, a large estate in Air Itam owned by the family clan association, where Farlim now stands, was named after him.

A report in the Straits Times weekly (Oct 1, 1890) recorded his death and funeral with great detail.

“He was taken to his burial place last Wednesday with all the pomp and splendour which money could command to make it the grandest funeral yet seen here,” according to the report.

“A general holiday in town enabled crowds of sightseers to swell the multitudes, who gazed at the flags and banners, bands of music, gilded shrines, pigs, goats and accompanying the richly decorated coffin and taking an hour to pass.”

But the violent past and the link to Thean Teik Estate took a different form in 1982, when riots broke out at the Thean Teik Estate as developer Farlim Sdn Bhd began groundwork.

The protest led to the death of Madam Tan Siew Lee and injury of four persons, turning the confrontation into major national news.

The Star front-paged the news on Oct 30, 1982, with the headline “One Dead, 4 Hurt in Brawl” with the report that Tan was shot in the neck by police when they tried to stop a crowd of between 100 and 150 residents from attacking construction workers at the Thean Teik Estate.

The injured included three workers. One was hit by a hoe on the head during the protest in which the crowd was reported to be armed with parang and sticks. Police had to use tear gas to break up the protesters.

Tense moment: Police moving in after firing the tear gas to break up the demonstration in Thean Teik Estate that took place in October 1982.
Police moving in after firing the tear gas to break up the demonstration in Thean Teik Estate.

I was then 21 years old and still studying at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. I knew Thean Teik Estate like the palm of my hand, having used the winding trail connecting Kampung Melayu, where I stayed, to the neighbouring estate countless times.

I was familiar with the many vegetable and chicken farms in the area with its rural setting, which often gave me a sense of isolation.

Gripped by the newspaper reports of the clashes, I had wished I was at the scene to file my reports of the violence at my kampung instead of being stuck at the campus in Bangi, Selangor.

Having had a taste of journalism in 1980, when I briefly worked for The Star in Penang after I finished my Sixth Form, I became addicted to the world of journalism and could not wait to get back to work.

The demonstrations were emotional with some activists attempting to make it look like a fight between the downtrodden peasants and a rich developer, with the police siding the rich. But the reality was land had become scarce by then, and many Penangites were beginning to realise that farms had to eventually make way for flats.

Today, Farlim is home to thousands of people, almost all living in high-rise flats. And many more such buildings are being built.

No one is likely to bother about the link to the past — the connection to a wealthy businessman, of a bygone era, who led a triad and staged a full-scale war in the streets of Penang; and the violent protest just over three decades ago that captured our national attention.

Grand Old Man of Penang

Yeap family home: The Homestead in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang in 1984.

Yeap family home: The Homestead in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang in 1984.

A SERIES on the roads of Penang would not be complete, even considered unjust, without the mention of Jalan Yeap Chor Ee.

Yeap was known as The Grand Old Man of Penang.

His was a classic story of an immigrant who came from China penniless but worked hard to become one of the richest men in Penang of his time.

Stories of what we termed as Old Money would eventually become a memory of the past.

Yeap Chor Ee was a businessman, philanthropist, banker, commodity dealer, land owner, community leader and educationist.

In short, he had his fingers everywhere.

According to a report, he arrived in Penang, off a boat from Nan An, Fujian, China at the mere age of 17, with “little money and big dreams.”

He started his life in George Town, then a bustling port city, as a barber’s assistant.

Older Penangites, in their 80s, still recall his nickname as Thi Thau Ee or Barber Ee.

He was supposedly quite deft with his hands and plaiting the pony tails or towchang of the Chinese immigrants was a specialty.

Centre of education: Yeap's
Centre of education: Yeap’s ‘Homestead’ is now Wawasan Open University.

After five years, the entrepreneur in him saw Yeap working his way up to start his own provisions shop – which he named Ban Hin Lee or a “ten thousand flourishing profits” – at the age of 24.

His business grew from sugar trading to other commodities including rubber, rice, tin, tapioca and coconut oil.

According to one report, it was his association with Java’s sugar king, Oei Tiong Ham, that led him to eventually control a significant share of Malaya’s sugar market.

As a natural fit to his trading business, Yeap set up a financing arm in 1918.

By 1935, the business had grown so big that he incorporated the Ban Hin Lee Bank – the state’s first home grown bank, with its headquarters at Beach Street, the financial district of Penang.

Until today, he remains the only individual in peninsular Malaysia and Singapore to single-handedly fund the setting up of a bank.

He married a local girl, Lee Cheng Kin, and they had two sons, Datuk Yeap Hock Hoe and Yeap Hock Hin.

One for the album: Yeap Chor Ee posing for the camera.
Yeap posing for the camera.

Everyone in Penang knew where they stayed, an elegant mansion called Homestead – at 54, Northam Road – on what was then known as the Millionaires’ Row.

Northam Road, which is called Ang More Lor (White Men’s Road), has been renamed as Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and many of the mansions that belonged to the millionaires back then still stand, although some are now used for commercial purposes.

The area has seen much development over the years, with high-rise buildings coming up, which has taken away much of the grandeur of the past.

Despite his lack of education, Yeap understood the importance of teaching the young to read and write.

He supported institutions and set up several charitable trusts just before his death in 1952 at the age of 85.

By then he was known as The Grand Old Man of Penang.

Today, Homestead has been donated to the Wawasan Education Foundation, which has led to the setting up of the Wawasan Open University, the country’s first private non-profit university.

Educational philanthropist: Yeap, aged 83, in 1950 handing a
Yeap, aged 83, in 1950 handing a “princely gift” of $100,000” to then British Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia Malcolm MacDonald as a donation to University Malaya.

Of course, the Yeap family also owns other properties in the state, including a row of nine shoplots in Penang Street and King Street which have since been converted into the Yeap Chor Ee memorial museum stretching from Penang Street to King Street.

The museum showcases, among others, photographs of the interior decoration of the historical Homestead.

Interestingly enough, the road named after Yeap is nowhere near his points of greatest influence within George Town itself, be it near his residence or the bank he set up.

Instead, Jalan Yeap Chor Ee, named in honour of this great man, is on the other side of the island.

The road connects Green Lane, now called Jalan Masjid Negeri, to Jalan Bukit Gambir and Jalan Lembah.

This quiet neighbourhood link road has since become quite a busy road as traffic continues to grow on this part of the island.

On a personal side, my wife, Teh Tsui Ling, worked at the Ban Hin Lee bank headquarters in Beach Street for 11 years.

She was introduced to me by a colleague, senior editor Lim Cheng Hoe, who used to work with her at the bank.

The first time I saw her was at the nearby Komtar food court.

Heritage building: The old Ban Hin Lee head quarters is now a  CIMB Bank.
The old Ban Hin Lee headquarters is now a CIMB Bank.

My wife continued working with the bank at its Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur branch when we moved down to the Klang Valley after we got married.

Ban Hin Lee Bank merged with Southern Bank in 2000 before SBB was taken over by CIMB in 2006.

Many who worked with the original Ban Hin Lee Bank have fond memories of its very personal approach to banking in line with its founder’s philosophy.

Officers recall visiting clients, many of whom have rags-to-riches stories like Yeap, at a very personal level over a cup of coffee to accompany them to the bank, carrying huge sums of money in paper bags.

In memory: Yeap's statue was unveiled infront of his old house, the
Yeap’s statue was unveiled in front of his old house, the “Homestead” in 2007.

Another interesting snippet about the bank’s headquarters, which is now a heritage building, is that it housed the office of the first Chief Minister of Penang, the late Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee.

For visitors entering Penang via the ferry, this iconic building is one of the first they see as the ferry heads towards the island.

My connection to the Yeap family took an interesting turn recently when The Star refurbished its Penang Star office building in Pitt Street, now called Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.

The 107-year-old heritage building, where I first started work as a rookie reporter, is now home to the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra, comprising the most talented musicians in the state.

And the chairman of the PPO is Datin Seri Irene Yeap, an architect by training, who is the wife of Datuk Seri Stephen Yeap Leong Huat, Yeap’s eldest grandson.

The story of Yeap Chor Ee and his legacy will live on forever in Penang, deservingly for sure.