Let Them Not Crumble

Seberang Perai’s decaying mansions symbolise the beauty of a glorious, bygone era.

The towns dotting the southern district of Province Wellesley, such as Nibong Tebal, Sungai Bakap and Bukit Tambun, contain within their boundaries an amazing trove of heritage mansions built by Chinese and European entrepreneurs during the colonial period. These still stand imposingly today.

Their aesthetic appeal and extraordinary architecture raise the question: Who were the owners, and why were they built in remote places? To answer this, one should first consider the nineteenth-century geographical and economic landscape of southern Province Wellesley.

History in Brief

Southern Province Wellesley covers an area of 243 sq km, bordered by central Province Wellesley to the north, Kedah to the east and Perak to the south. It is intersected by many waterways, such as Junjung River, Jawi River and Krian River, all flowing from east to west.

The sprawling river systems provide an extensive and low-lying alluvial plain that extends from the coast up to the base of the hill range. The mangrove forest along the shoreline provided an abundant supply of easily obtainable fuel. It was these topographic advantages that offered fertile ground for the cultivation of sugar.1

The early Chinese settlers in Batu Kawan had already established themselves in this cash-crop endeavour by 1796. Sugar was produced there mainly for local consumption in the beginning, and it was only when the commodity was exported in huge volumes of thousands of piculs from the 1830s onwards that the industry gained a firm foothold (see Table 1).

The growth in export was caused by the extension of preferential import duty on sugar in Britain to the Straits Settlements in 1846 – thanks to the high demand in tea-drinking Britain. Between 1721 and 1790 British annual tea imports climbed from one million pounds to 16 million, and then doubled to 36 million in 1816.2 This meant that an average of slightly under 3lb of tea leaves were consumed by every man, woman and child in the UK.3

It was this tea-drinking craze in Britain that prompted not only the Chinese, but also the Europeans, to open up more land in southern Province Wellesley for the cultivation of sugar cane. In fact, almost the entire district was occupied by sugar estates, spurring the establishment of major towns and, in turn, the construction of huge mansions.

Nibong Tebal: Caledonia House (The 99-Door Mansion)

Most sugar estates in Nibong Tebal were managed by the technologically sophisticated Penang Sugar Estates Ltd. Owning six of nine large sugar estates in Province Wellesley, the company was the largest sugar producer in the region, with its owner, Edward Horsman, as the largest plantation owner in the Straits Settlements.4

Transporting sugar cane by boat on the canal.

Unfortunately, Horsman’s fortune took a disastrous turn in 1874 due to growing mismanagement and overdrafts. His subsequent bankruptcy saw his wealthy brother-in-law, Sir John William Ramsden, taking over his plantations.5

The Ramsdens were privileged land owners in England. Sir John was the fifth baronet and manorial lord of the industrial town of Huddersfield, owning thousands of acres of land in Yorkshire and Scotland.6 In Sir John’s hands, Penang Sugar Estates overcame its financial difficulties and expanded into rubber and palm oil. Upon his death in 1914, his son, John Frecheville Ramsden, inherited over 44,000 acres of plantation land in Malaya, inclusive of Caledonia, Victoria and Bryam estates in Nibong Tebal, alongside vast Scottish landholdings.7

Today, a legacy of the Ramsdens stands grandiosely in the middle of Bryam Estate. Caledonia House, better known as the “99- Door Mansion” owing to its manifold doors which span across extensive corridors, may have served as offices for estate managers.8

The landmark is infamous for being the spot where the brutal murder of John St Maur Ramsden, the only son of John Frecheville and heir to the Ramsden fortune, was committed.

In 1948, barely three months after his return to Malaya, John St Maur, who was the managing director of the firm which had then been rebranded as Penang Rubber Estates Ltd, was instantly killed by a shot to the back of his head while walking up the mansion’s staircase.9 Despite numerous speculations linking his assassination to the “communists” – this was during the period of the Emergency – his murder remains unsolved.10

While the mansion was soon abandoned after the tragedy, the firm continued to retain the structure until the early 1960s when it was bought over, together with a portion of the estate, by Ng Swee Ching, a local politician cum businessman.11 The estate was subsequently sold to the Lee family of Perak, who still holds the title to Caledonia House.

Sungai Bakap: Kee Lye Huat’s Mansion

Travelling between Nibong Tebal and Bukit Tambun, one is bound to pass by the old town of Sungai Bakap. Its main street is flanked by old single- and double-storey shophouses, and right in the middle of all this stands an elegant, traditional Chinese style manor.

It has an extensive walled compound that contains a three-bay ancestral hall and six connected terrace-like residential houses. In view of its sheer size, there were probably some 20 to 30-odd family members living at the family estate at one time.

Kee Lye Huat, a Teochew pioneer planter of sugar cane, was the founding patriarch of this grand property. Migrating from his home village in Chenghai District, Guangdong Province, Lye Huat arrived in Penang in 1852/1853 and worked as a labourer in the estate owned by Khaw Loh Hup,12 an established Teochew sugar cane planter. Loh Hup, who was most probably pleased by Lye Huat’s business resourcefulness, had his only daughter, Khaw Bee Gaik, married to him.

After gaining experience in the sugar cane planting business, Lye Huat decided to strike out on his own by setting up Kee Poh Huat Kongsi in Sungai Bakap, with his father-in-law’s financial backing.13 His company acquired a 400-hectare piece of swampland from a French businessman based in Singapore, and worked it in cooperation with his brother-in-law, Khaw Boo Aun.

They managed to transform part of this land into Lye Huat’s first sugar cane estate, named Val-d’Or (Valley of Gold) in French. Further acreages were acquired in time and Val-d’Or Estate stood at 3,200 acres in size by 1890; 600 acres of this were cultivated with sugar cane. Lye Huat’s two sons, Tek Kooi and Tek Phang, helped manage the estate and F. Pulsford was the superintendent engineer.14 It was through this venture that Sungai Bakap developed into a small township.

Investing heavily and successfully in sugar plantations, Lye Huat became a pillar of the community in southern Province Wellesley. Lye Huat was generous with contributions to Chinese public cemeteries and temples in Penang, and in 1890, together with Boo Aun and Tan Kang Hock, he was appointed by the British to represent the Teochew community on the Chinese Advisory Board.15

Two years later, Lye Huat passed away in Sungai Bakap at the age of 58, and his remains were shipped to China for burial. Despite being interred in China, he left a lasting legacy in Sungai Bakap and an indelible mark on the history of Province Wellesley.

Bukit Tambun: Heah Swee Lee’s Ancestral Villa

Another family who profited from the sugar boom was Heah Jin Wooi, one of the leaders of the Penang Teochew Association who pioneered sugar cane planting in Kuala Kurau.16 Jin Wooi constructed a grandiose family mansion in Bukit Tambun, and it was there that his son, Heah Swee Lee, who would subsequently take over his vast 2,000-acre Jin Heng Estate, was born in 1875. Swee Lee, after receiving a traditional Chinese education, assisted his father in the sugar planting and manufacturing business. At the turn of the century, he inherited and subsequently expanded Jin Heng Estate to 4,500 acres. Some of the estate was replanted with rubber and coconut upon the decline of sugar cane, and he employed European managers to oversee it.17

In 1905 he went to Penang Island to set up his own firm, Swee Lee & Co., along Beach Street. Given his knowledge and interest in the rubber industry, Swee Lee equally commanded a directorship in Nellmay Rubber Company, which promoted business partnerships among different ethnic groups. Swee Lee’s ownership of rubber and coconut estates extended beyond Province Wellesley to Taiping and Gunung Semanggol in Perak, and to as far as Kota Tinggi in Johor.18

Heah Swee Lee's ancestral mansion in Bukit Tambun.

Swee Lee also ventured into tin and copra through Khay Hin & Co., and later diversified his business by establishing the Kwong Jin Chan rice milling company together with prominent Penang-based miner and planter, Leong Fee. Having appropriated a contract for par-boiled rice from the authorities, Swee Lee later converted his former estate in Kuala Kurau into a rice factory, employing 300 workers.19

Despite his roots on the mainland, Swee Lee’s social and philanthropic contributions and recognitions were more concentrated on the island and in Perak. Apart from being the first active Chinese member of the Penang Turf Club, Swee Lee served on the Perak State Council from 1896 to 1909 and also held positions in various social and non-governmental organisations like the Po Leung Kuk, Penang Chinese Town Hall, Penang Advisory Board, and the Kwangtung and Tengchow Association Penang. Swee Lee was also an important cofounder (and later president) of the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Perhaps one of Swee Lee’s most notable legacies is Han Chiang Chinese School, which he established in 1919 together with a few leaders of the Penang Teochew Temple.20 He also constructed one of the most luxurious residences in the Straits Settlements, Northam Lodge, along the coastal Northam Road.21

A splendid icon for the Heah family in Penang, the humbly named “lodge” even overshadowed Swee Lee’s own ancestral home in Bukit Tambun, which was gradualy abandoned.

Khaw Boo Aun in Qing official costume.

Khaw Boo Aun’s Family Mansion

A stone’s throw from Heah Swee Lee’s ancestral villa lies Khaw Boo Aun’s family mansion, a three-bay courtyard house with two extended wings at both ends. It was built in southern Chinese eclectic style and also functioned as a shophouse.

Born in Batu Kawan, Boo Aun was the elder son of Khaw Loh Hup, a pioneering sugar planter of southern Province Wellesley. When he first arrived in Batu Kawan, Loh Hup worked as a coolie worker in the sugar plantations. In 1844 he acquired small pieces of land in Batu Kawan to cultivate sugar cane. About a year later, he expanded his venture by acquiring 135 acres of land in Simpang Ampat and in 1852, another 100 acres in Changkat Keladang.22

Besides planting, Loh Hup also established a sugar factory, Chop Hong Hua. With this investment, he became a prominent sugar entrepreneur and built a grand family residence in Bukit Tambun.

In 1866 the patriarch passed away, and Boo Aun took over the family business of cultivating sugar cane which later expanded to Nibong Tebal, Kuala Kurau, Kuala Gula, Trans-Krian and Sungai Bogak. By the 1890s, Boo Aun owned at least 4,800 acres of land and operated the Kau Heng sugar factory in Nibong Tebal and Kau Huat sugar mill in Kuala Kurau, Perak.23

Apart from business, Boo Aun also succeeded his father in the Ghee Hin society as the leader of the Teochew faction. He was actively involved in the Third Larut War (1871-1873) and provided material support to Raja Abdullah by launching boats loaded with fighting men and supplies for his counterpart in Larut. Recognising Boo Aun’s great socioeconomic influence in Province Wellesley and north Perak, the British appointed him a member of the Perak State Council in 1886 and the Penang Chinese Advisory Board in 1890; he served the latter position until 1904.24

Boo Aun was deeply interested in Chinese community affairs and played an important part in leading a few major Chinese associations in providing assistance and welfare to their members. He was the principal director of the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple (the present Penang Teochew Association) and the Kwangtung and Tengchow public cemetery. In 1881 he became one of the 14 founding members of the Penang Chinese Town Hall, which was intended as the apex organisation of all Chinese associations.25

Khaw Boo Aun's family mansion.

Boo Aun was a long-time sufferer of chronic inflammation of the kidneys, and he succumbed to the illness in January 1906 at Bukit Tambun.26 Like his father, his remains were transported to China for interment. The sugar business empire of the Khaw family, which spanned two generations, unequivocally marked an important chapter in the early history of Penang.

Collectively, the aforementioned iconic grand dwellings represent the distinctive architectural appreciation and social values of the rural rich of the time, but more importantly, they tell the story of the global demand for agricultural commodities that profoundly shaped the economy and physical landscape of Province Wellesley.

Among the four mansions, only the Kee family mansion remains well maintained and in liveable condition. The rest are in severely dilapidated states. Will they rise again or be forgotten? Given the historical significance and architectural quality of these mansions, there is good reason to have them restored and preserved as part of Penang's rich history.

1 Newbold, T.J. Political and Statistical Account of British Settlements in the Straits of Malacca, Pinang, Malacca and Singapore. John Murray, London, 1839, p.102.
2 Griffiths, John. Tea: A History of the Drink that Changed the World. André Deutsch, London, 2011, p.19.
3 Ibid. 1lb=0.454kg
4 Lynn Hollen Lees. “International Management in a Free-standing company: The Penang Sugar Estates Ltd and the Malayan Sugar Industry, 1851-1914.” The Business History Review, vol. 81, no. 1 (Spring 2007), pp.26-57.
5 Ibid, p.34.
6 “The Late Sir John Ramsden.” The Straits Times. 19 June 1914, p.11.
7 Lynn Hollen Lees. “International Management in a Free-standing company: The Penang Sugar Estates Ltd and the Malayan Sugar Industry, 1851-1914.” The Business History Review, vol. 81, no. 1 (Spring 2007), p. 35.
8 http://mypenang.gov.my/culture-heritage/mystories/ 93/.
9“Director Killed at Home.” The Straits Times, 10 June 1948, p. 1.
10 “Ramsden inquest finishes.” The Straits Times, 3 September 1948, p. 10.
11 Ibid.
12 Kim Hong, Tan, et al., eds. Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Think City, Penang, MBRAS, Kuala Lumpur, 2013, p.184. Also see Pek Leng, Tan. Land to Till: The Chinese in the Agricultural Economy of Malaysia. Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies, Kuala Lumpur, 2008, p.51.
13 Ibid.
14 The Singapore & Straits Directory for 1893, p.390.
15 Kim Hong, Tan. The Chinese in Penang: A Pictorial History. Areca Books, Penang, 2007, p.126.
16 Kim Hong, Tan, et al., eds. Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Think City, Penang, MBRAS, Kuala Lumpur, 2013, p.82.
17 Ibid.
18 Kam Hing, Lee and Mun Seong, Chow. Biographical Dictionary of the Chinese in Malaysia. Pelanduk Publications, Selangor, 1997, p.51-52.
19 Ibid.
20 Kim Hong, Tan, et al., eds. Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Think City, Penang, MBRAS, Kuala Lumpur, 2013, p.82.
21Kam Hing, Lee and Mun Seong, Chow. Biographical Dictionary of the Chinese in Malaysia. Pelanduk Publications, Selangor, 1997, pp.51-52.
22Kim Hong, Tan, et al., eds. Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Think City, Penang, MBRAS, Kuala Lumpur, 2013, p.90.
23Kim Hong, Tan. “Chinese Sugar Planting and Social Mobility in Nineteenth Century Province Wellesley.” Malaysia in History, no. 24, 1981, p.31.
24C. S. Wong. A Gallery of Chinese Kapitans. Ministry of Culture, Singapore, 1963, p.82.
25Kim Hong, Tan. The Chinese in Penang: A Pictorial History. Areca Books, Penang, 2007, p.69.
26Kim Hong, Tan. The Straits Echo Mail Edition, 12 January 1906, p.34.

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.
Dr Wong Yee Tuan is Fellow and Head of Penang Institute's History and Heritage Programme. He hails from Malim Nawar and has profound research interest in the history of Penang.

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