Relau House – A Sino-Venetian Bungalow That Still Exudes Pride of Its Time and Place

loading Front view of Relau House.

Relau, once an agricultural area in the south-western district of Penang Island, is today a large modern residential estate. Vestiges of its past linger on though, most notably in the almost century-old Relau House. This was built by Chung Thye Phin (鄭大平), a tin mining and planting tycoon.

While lack of care and maintenance has left the manor in a dilapidated state, the structural remnants reveal the signs of the original beauty and grandeur of the house, which once stood imposingly on a small hill.

The most striking feature is the swimming pool, around which the house was built. The pool is surrounded by a series of columns resembling a Roman-style bathhouse, and its opulence and exoticism were perhaps unrivalled in Penang – and maybe even Malaya – at that time.

The Builder of the House

Chung Thye Phin was born into a wealthy business family that had engaged in tin mining and trading in Perak since the early 1830s. His father, Chung Keng Kwee (鄭景貴), had migrated to Malaya in 1841 and was reunited with family members who were already well-established in Perak.1

Keng Kwee, working under his father’s and elder brother’s supervision, learned and mastered tin mining knowledge skills. Later, he moved from Perak to stay in Penang. With his base in Penang, Keng Kwee continued prospecting in Perak and established his own business circa 1858. By 1886, he had become the largest tin mine owner in Larut – his Kwong Lee Mine employed 5,000 coolies and was the largest alluvial tin mine in the world.2

In order to centralise control of his tin mining, real estate and trading businesses, Keng Kwee established Hye Kee Chan at 31, Beach Street. His son, Thye Phin, and son-in-law, Lam Kam Thong, were recruited to hold the positions of manager and attorney of the company.3 By 1900, Keng Kwee had 10 mines throughout Perak, employing 15,000 coolies. When he passed away in December 1901, his assets were valued at £3,000,000.4

As the favourite son and business assistant of his father, Thye Phin inherited the family business and a substantial portion of his father’s estate. Nevertheless, he struck out on his own by establishing Chop Phin Kee, a mining and trading company in Penang, and Chop Phin Kee Chan with two branches in Ipoh and Taiping.5 With these companies, Thye Phin opened a large number of tin mines including the deep shaft mine at Tronoh and hydraulic mines in Ulu Kinta. In partnership with Ho Man and Foo Choong Yit, he formed the first Chinese limited liability company, the Toh Allang Chinese Tin Company in Perak, to deal in tin.6 His other listed concerns included the Tin Trust Ltd and the Kampar River Tin Dredging Company.

Thye Phin also invested in revenue farms, rubber planting, publishing and insurance. It was from all these enterprises that Thye Phin accumulated his wealth. One of the lavish ways for the rich in colonial Penang to spend their money was to build holiday bungalows in their estates or on a hill. In the 1920s, Thye Phin commissioned the firm of Stark and McNeil to build a holiday home in his Sungei Relau Estate in Relau.7

Chung Thye Phin.

The House

The Sungei Relau Estate, comprising about 116¾ acres, was initially planted with coconut and fruit trees. The rubber boom in the first decade of the twentieth century prompted Thye Phin to have about 58 acres of the estate cleared for rubber planting,8 which turned out to be very profitable.

It was most likely the estate’s lush, green tranquillity and a rushing stream within the grounds that made Thye Phin decide to build a holiday home there. The country house was a commodious single-storey building built on a plot of land divided into two lots by the stream. It stood on the larger of the two lots, having an area of about two acres, one rood and 21 poles (1.05 hectares).9

The house, well-constructed with brick walls, Chinese tile roof and coloured cement floor, was not only Chinese in style but was actually more Venetian in character. It was of an unusual design, grouped round a swimming pool measuring 75 feet by 23 feet; nine feet deep at the deep end and two feet deep at the shallow end.10 The pool was uncovered and built of mass concrete, cement rendered. Around it on all four sides were loggias about seven feet wide, which gave access to the different rooms.

The swimming pool.

There was a pantry, a dining room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms on the south side. In the south-east corner was an entrance hall and a 15 foot-wide covered car porch.11 On the east side was a bedroom with no bathroom, but which had a wash-hand basin; and a drawing room. In the north-east corner was an open octagonal pavilion. To the north overlooking the stream was an open veranda 14 feet wide, a spare room, reading room and a bathroom. The kitchen, servants’ room and bathroom occupied the whole west end. This section had a flat concrete roof covered with red Bitumastic felt and could be accessed through narrow timber stairs from the west loggia.

Side view of the house showing the fish pond and garden.

The grounds around the house were planted with selected trees – some firs and others of the flowering variety. The whole layout was properly planned and carried out by a landscape gardener to take advantage of the stream’s beautiful natural setting. The terrace overlooking the stream was about 38 feet wide and was retained by a dry rubble wall extending for a distance of about 170 feet;12 at its edge was a red cement path. In the middle of the terrace was an ornamental cement-rendered lily pool and a four foot-wide flight of concrete steps which led to the stream. Atop it was a reinforced concrete-arched slab bridge that was three feet wide, spanning 32 feet with an ornamental timber balustrade.13

The bridge gave access to the smaller lot of land of one rood and 10 poles (0.13 hectares) on the left side of the stream, where an ornamental smoking house and a picturesque summer house stood. The grounds on this bank had been laid out in a Chinese ornamental manner with rockeries and partly paved paths. The smoking house, which was intended for opium smoking, was constructed of brick with a tiled roof and was two stories in height, each storey having a room measuring about 14 feet by 11 feet, with a veranda five feet wide to the west.14 On the ground floor there was also a lavatory. A steep timber stair only two feet wide connected the two stories.

Waterfall and garden about 200 feet from the house.

The summer house was open on all sides and was constructed of four round brick pillars in Chinese style with an elaborate tiled roof.15 The concrete floor was paved with red cement and the height from it to the asbestos sheet ceiling was seven feet six inches.16 There were sparred timber built-in seats round three sides.

Water to the house and the swimming pool was supplied by a concrete water storage tank with concrete balustrading located at the north-west of the house.17 The tank was originally fed by an open-box concrete pipe from a dam some 13 yards upstream; later on, the water was derived from farther upstream from an adjoining estate.18 There was an open settling tank below this storage tank and an incinerator adapted for the purpose of heating the water.

Relau House today is overgrown with shrubs and trees.

It took a few years for this elegant bungalow to be completed. As a country house of pleasure, Thye Phin most probably used it only on weekends. Nevertheless, the house was adequately and exquisitely furnished: there was solid old-fashioned European furniture in all the rooms; a collection of framed pictures on the walls; and a good stock of crockery and glassware in the pantry.

Two years after Thye Phin’s death in 1935, the house was put up for sale. After a year, it had not been possible to effect the prompt sale of the house because of the prevailing low prices of rubber and tin and an uncertain market condition. As a result, the sale of the house was withdrawn.

Ultimate Fate

Since the house was built in an estate and by a stream, care and upkeep of the building were consistently needed. J.C. Miller, a local experienced architect, was recommended to visit the house once every month or two months, and report if any repairs were required. On March 12, 1939, Miller visited the House and spotted evidence of leaks from the roof at various places, and other minor defects. He suggested the property be put on a care and maintenance basis, otherwise it would quickly deteriorate.

The once-magnificent swimming pool.

By May 1939 the house underwent major repair works to the roof, swimming pool, kitchen quarters, garden house and summer house. This cost approximately $952.00.19 Three months later, Ng Cheok, a contractor, was engaged to carry out general re-decorations, repairs and renewals to the main building. Repairs and renewals to the sanitary and water supply installation as well as to the swimming pool were done by R. Young & Co. Ltd. The total cost of the overhaul was $1,042.25.20

Termites were the main cause of damage to the house, especially to the door and window frames, cupboards and beams. To exterminate the termites, Thomas Cowan & Co., white-ant experts, was engaged by the caretaker, the Presgrave & Matthews, in May 1939;21 the house was then inspected from time to time and kept clean from white ants. By the end of 1941, the house was eventually sold to Chee Swee Seang.22 It is believed that the house was occupied by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. After the war it was abandoned and quickly deteriorated.

Today, Relau House still exists in its ruined state. Despite that, the surrounding high-rise flats fail to overshadow its surviving aesthetic appeal and extraordinary architecture. Unlike most modern houses, Relau House was artistically designed, tastefully laid out and professionally constructed. It epitomizes the socio-cultural and architectural values which once prevailed in colonial high society in Penang. Letting the old bungalow crumble and decay would mean Penang would lose one of the last vestiges of its legacy from that period, which constitutes the rich history in Malaysia.

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.

1Tan Yeow Wooi, Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee’s Shen Zhi Jia Shu and Hai Ji Zhan, Penang: Pinang Peranakan Mansion Sdn. Bhd., 2013, p.19.
2Jeffery Seow, ‘Chung Keng Quee’, in Low Wei Leng et al., Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities of Penang, Penang: Think City and MBRAS, 2013, p.61.
3The Singapore and Straits Directory 1901, p.193.
4Jeffery Seow, ‘Chung Keng Quee’, p.61.
5The Singapore and Straits Directory 1915, p.242.
6Lee Kam Hing and Chow Mun Seong, Biographical Dictionary of the Chinese in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Pelanduk Publications, 1996, p.40.
7Jeffery Seow, op cit, p.61.
8T282/76, Chung Thye Phin, deceased, Sale of Relau Estate.
10Ibid. Another report describes the pool to be 8 feet deep at the deep end, measuring 77 feet long by 27 feet wide.
12Ibid. Another report describes the pool to be 8 feet deep at the deep end, measuring 77 feet long by 27 feet wide.
15T282/41 Trust No. 282. Chung Thye Phin deceased. Sale of Immovable Property in Penang.
16T282/76, Chung Thye Phin, deceased: Sale of Relau Estate.
17T282/76, Chung Thye Phin, deceased: Sale of Relau Estate.
19T282/74. Chung Thye Phin deceased: Correspondence dealing with Relau House.

Related Articles