The Chinese Recreation Club began with a few young men needing a place to play football.
It stands at the end of Jalan Pangkor. The impressive and imposing building crafted in Victorian fashion has been the site for gatherings and activities organised by Penang’s Chinese community for the past 85 years.
This is Penang’s Chinese Recreation Club (CRC), whose year of birth has generally been mistaken to be 1931. In fact, the CRC came into being four decades before that, in 1890.
Before Merdeka in 1958, it was commonplace for most clubs in British Malaya to admit only Europeans or “Whites”. So what were active locals who were interested in sports to do?
One group of adolescent Chinese regularly gathered at tycoon Foo Tye Sin’s residence at No. 1 Light Street (Hong Leong Finance accommodates the premises today) and played football on the Esplanade field. But that luxury was soon taken from them.
The Penang Recreation Club and the Penang Cricket Club (now known as the Penang Sports Club) came to occupy the field, leaving little room for the Chinese sportsmen.
Left with little choice, they resolved to form a private club of their own. This was in 1892, and the club they formed was housed at Lake Villa, a bungalow that had an extensive pond, located on Peel Avenue.
This marked the birth of the CRC.
The Club Gains Traction
With its popularity increasing, the club decided to procure in 1903 a larger site for the sporting and recreational needs of the Chinese community. Three adjoining pieces of land in the vicinity were acquired, together with a commodious fixture – a wooden bungalow along Jalan Pangkor, known as Eastbourne.
Lim Kek Chuan, first president of the CRC.
This being the first club established in Penang by its Chinese community specifically for its own use, the island’s “Big Five” Hokkien clans readily subscribed the purchase of the land. The new property was then vested under a Deed of Trust with the principal donors as the original trustees, namely Lim Kek Chuan, Lim Eow Hong, Lim Cheng Teik, Khaw Joo Tok, Cheah Choon Seng, Chung Thye Phin, Ho Tiang Wan, Tan Kang Hock and Yeoh Ooi Gark.
The background of these original trustees of the club is worth noting. The majority of them were prominent Straits Chinese and were colonial Penang’s major mercantile personalities. Take Lim Kek Chuan, the club’s first president of the CRC, for instance. He was a tin miner and revenue farmer; he co-founded the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce; and he was of course one of Penang’s prominent businessmen and fin de siècle social figures.
More importantly, most of them graduated from English-medium schools such as Penang Free School and St Xavier’s Institution.
Given their educational background and the period’s orientation towards English culture, it was not strange that the club’s field was named Victoria Green in memory of the long-reigning Queen Victoria. The Eastbourne bungalow then became known as CRC Penang. As a further gesture of loyalty, a bronze statue of the late Queen was later imported from England at a cost of 10,000 Straits Dollars to be placed atop a pedestal donated by Khoo Sian Ewe, J.P. who was vice president of the club in 1933. Its official unveiling was performed by the governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Cecil Clementi. It was a grand occasion and perhaps one highlighting the beginning of a new dawn for the Chinese community.
CRC's tennis and football team, 1901.
Given the club’s Anglophonic founders, English sports like football, tennis and cricket emerged as prominent games. Perhaps one of the club’s most notable achievements was winning the Dewar Shield, which was presented to the Penang Football Association by Sir Thomas R. Dewar for its consistent prominence for five successive years in the league competition (1909-1913).
In the 1920s, members of the club increased by 250, at the subscription of a-dollar-and-ahalf per month. In an era when most clubs were exclusive and affordable only for the elite, CRC opened its doors to the common Chinese sportsman.
By 1929, Eastbourne was found to be in quite bad shape. Then-president Lim Lean Teng launched a fundraising campaign that collected as much as 100,000 Straits Dollars. This sum paved the way for the erection of the Victorian-style clubhouse, officially completed in 1931, that is still standing today. A marble plaque in the middle is inscribed with the names of the donors, of which members of the mercantile community formed the majority.
Now with a new clubhouse, CRC rose as the main sporting ground in Penang, mainly for football matches. This was just prior to the construction of the City Stadium. Apart from sporting activities, the clubhouse also became a well-known venue for Chinese social gatherings, tea dances and even children’s parties.
But all this came to an abrupt halt in December 1941, when the war reached our shores.
Many tales surround the forceful takeover of the club’s premises by Japanese forces. It is said that the then-honorary secretary, Low Hun Leong, was sent forth to type a letter prepared by the Japanese authorities for the Committee’s signature, stating that the Committee had “very great pleasure in allowing the Dai Nippon Government the use of the Club premises for their Broadcasting Station”. And that was how the clubhouse was used during the Japanese occupation.
The unveiling of the Queen Victoria memorial.
The centennial celebration of the club in 1992.
Most of the club’s records, books, papers and photos were destroyed in a “cleansing” bonfire. Its entire perimeter fence also joined the Japanese wartime effort as scrap metal. Interestingly, the statue of the queen was not destroyed and was enclosed with wooden boards with the Japanese flag flown on top. It is said that all the club’s surviving sports trophies, some of them of solid silver, were smuggled out of the premises for safekeeping by Low himself, and were hidden in chicken coops.
It was not until December 1945 that the first post-war committee meeting of the club took place with Khaw Joo Tok, J.P. as the chair. Despite several requests to repossess the club, it was not until August 1952 that the entire premises were returned by the British authorities, who had continued to use it as a broadcasting station after their return.
The place was in disrepair. A rehabilitation committee was established under Lim Khye Seng, and funds were quickly raised. Today, a marble plaque by the stairs leading to the top floor of the clubhouse immortalises the names of the donors of the rehabilitation fund, with renowned Penang tycoon Lim Lean Teng as the highest donor. He donated 10,000 Straits Dollars – an enormous sum at the time.
Sports such as rugby and cricket, which were banned during the Japanese occupation, were played once again. The tradition of sports and recreation continued in CRC with the rise of prominent Chinese sporting personalities like Datin Low Hooi Seah, the first lady member who represented Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst in the history and heritage section of Penang Institute. She believes that one cannot understand the present nor predict the future without a proper reference to the past. She is a proud member of the CRC and serves as the club’s newsletter editor. Malaya in the all-China Olympic Games in 1948; Yeap Cheng Eng, the footballer who was handpicked to represent China in the 1948 World Olympics in Berlin; and prominent Malayan cricketer Eu Cheow Teik. It was also during this era that the wellknown Goon Brothers represented Malaya against the Dutch East Indies in the Inter- Port Tennis Tourney. The club’s renewed prominence in the post-war period even attracted a visit by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru.
This iconic club continues to remain relevant in the 21st century, and its dramatic past captures the Chinese community’s dedication to sports and recreation.
CRC Centenary publication, 1992.
“CRC, The Antiquated Club in the 21st Century” – CRC’s 120th Anniversary Celebration publication.
“History of the Chinese Recreation Club, Penang” by Tan Ah Ee – CRC’s 77th Anniversary Celebration publication.
Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst in the history and heritage section of Penang Institute. She believes that one cannot understand the present nor predict the future without a proper reference to the past. She is a proud member of the CRC and serves as the club’s newsletter editor.