Hong Seng Estate: The Urban Kampung by the Hill

By Eugene Quah

May 2022 FEATURE
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The road to the Estate with a stone bridge over a small stream and the ancestral hall can be seen in an 1893 map that predates the village. The built-up area is approximately the size of 16 football fields. Composite photo was created by Eugene Quah from drone footage courtesy of Eddy De Vosse. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUUdQcmJnUE-Ro92UMUwawA
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JALAN MOUNT ERSKINE, the busy thoroughfare beyond the western-most end of Jalan Burmah, cuts through vast tracks of Chinese cemeteries and links together the suburbs of Pulau Tikus and Tanjung Bungah. North of this stretch of road, just before the Bagan Jermal River, is a cross junction with a signboard by a byroad to the left, welcoming visitors to Hong Seng Estate, and in an array of languages.

Hong Seng Estate, perched on the slopes of a rather unremarkable-looking hill, was founded in 1803 by a businessman from Amoy (Xiàmén), Oh Chong Leng (胡宗宁, Hú Zōngníng). He bought a piece of land at the foot of that hill, which we now know as Mount Erskine[1] or Pek Hoon Sua “White Cloud Mountain” in Hokkien[2] and there toiled to grow coconuts, rubber trees, mangosteens, durians and flowers. By 1876, more than 20 hectares had been cultivated with coconut trees,[3] and the Estate came to be known as Hong Seng Hooi (丰盛园, Fēngshèng yuán), or the “Garden of Plenty”.

The Estate covers 25 hectares of land in total, with the village taking up around 11.5 hectares and two more reserved as burial grounds for the Oh clan. In 1896, Oh’s son, Oh Yean Heng (胡淵衡, Hú Yuānhéng), began leasing out plots of land in the Estate; and by the late 1960s, terms similar to the neighbouring Pepper Estate were observed by its new settlers, i.e. a monthly rental of RM40 per land plot. The settlers erected houses on the land, and depending on the square footage of the properties, today continue to pay no more than RM70 per month in rent. The present court-appointed Hong Seng Estate trustees have been administering the affairs of the Estate since the 1980s.[4]

Read also: On Urbanity and Wealth, and the Future of the Countryside

A demographic survey in 2019 found an estimated 3,000 residents living there, in 523 houses.[5] Half are Indians, while the rest are Chinese, plus a few Malay and Eurasian families. The village fans out northwest towards the hill slopes from the Estate’s entrance and is 60 metres above sea level.

Hong Seng Estate is nestled at the foothills of Mount Olivia and is surrounded by extensive cemeteries on all other sides. The hill was originally called Mount Erskine. However, Thomas Stamford Raffles, who later founded Singapore, leased the peak to build a “small but commodious”[6] bungalow and later renamed it after his wife in 1809.[7]

Nermala Shanmugam, a community leader and the unofficial kampung historian, believes her great-grandmother, Perambai Ammal (Perambai Lady), to be the first person to have settled in the village at the turn of the 19th century. She hailed from the Perambalur district in Tamil Nadu. Her family owned over 200 cows, and would sell the milk and cow dung (used as fertilisers) to the nearby villages in Tanjung Tokong and Bagan Jermal. Some older Indian residents still refer to the village as Kampung Perambai (கம்பங் பெரம்பை, Kampaṅ perampai).[8]

To some others, Hong Seng Estate is known as “Cowboy Village”, in reference to the cattle herders who for over a century have tended their cattle there. Traditional cattle herding is still practised today. Pigs were reared there as well, at least until the 1990s, by people like Ah Pian and his family, who were the next family to settle in the village. Arriving soon after was a Malay woman by the name of Kak Kechil.

Left: A cattle herder’s house. Right: Shallini, who is studying to be a nurse, shows her family’s herd of cows which is tended to by her brothers. The village was first settled by Indian cattle herders at the turn of the 19th century.

Peacefully Resting “Neighbours”

In a rojak seller’s front yard sits a large grave. This is a common sight in the village, where houses are built around or sometimes, even incorporating the graves of the Oh clan as part of the property’s overall design. The villagers are unperturbed by the graves; long-time resident, Wong Yin Yik remarks on how the residents have grown accustomed to their presence and how the graves are “just a part of our lives.” Older residents recall that as children, they had used an old, large grave at a nearby hillock, which would occasionally fill up with rainwater, as a swimming pool of sorts.[9]

Left: Mrs Macallum shows a grave from the 1950s belonging to a member of the Oh clan in her garden. This is the childhood home of the popular hip-hop and rap artiste Rabbit Mac (Charles John Macallum)[10]. Right: The Macallum’s neighbour also hosts a Chinese grave in their garden, a common sight throughout the kampung.

Oh Chong Leng died on July 7, 1856 and his grave is still immaculately kept to this day. The ancestral hall of the Oh clan (胡氏禰祠, Hú shì mí cí), House No. 682, used to host the wakes of the departed. Mourners holding vigil would be served freshly cooked meals from a nearby building which has since been converted to a traditional sauce factory that produces the famous “Heng Lee” brand soya sauce prized by Penangites.

Left: Mr. Lee (standing), who collects ground rent for the trustees and oversees the estate, prepares the ancestral hall and waits for the Oh family members to come to pay their respects. Right: Mr. Oh Theam Hock (seated), a fifth-generation descendant of Oh Chong Leng, graciously allowed me to take a photo of the interior of the Oh Clan Ancestral Hall (Oh Si Ni Su in Hokkien). The hall is closed to the public and is only open for a day to clan members during the Ching Ming Festival (清明节, Qīngmíng jié).

Muhibah Spirit

The village’s multiculturalism is reflected in the different places of worship on its grounds. There is the Sri Aathi Muneeswarar (Holy Supreme Munīswara) Temple at the village entrance, and shrines in honour of Tua Pek Kong (大伯公, Dàbó Gōng) are dotted around the village. There is also a Catholic chapel, the St. Joseph’s Chapel, established there as late as in 1971.[11]

The main Hindu, Chinese and Catholic places of worship are located near each other. Veloo, the village headman, is married to a Chinese woman and speaks fluent Penang Hokkien. In a 2019 interview, he explained that whenever events were held at the Hindu temple, the Chinese would make donations or participate in the religious ceremonies, and vice versa. “There is no cultural barrier at all.”[12]

Elemental Threats

The snug layout of the village coupled with its numerous partially wooden houses mean that the threat of house fires is never far from villagers’ minds. There have been many such incidences throughout the years, with fatalities involved.[13] Rather curiously too, although built on a slope, some parts of the village are prone to flooding. Assemblyman Chris Lee explains that this is because some houses “were built on top of a makeshift underwater tunnel that covered the natural stream.”[14] Landslides from heavy rains in the past have also caused damage to properties. Several flood mitigation works have been carried out in the area in recent years.

Fork in the Road

The junction at the settlement’s entrance used to serve as the focal point of social and economic life for the village. Villagers would “shop at the small outdoor market" there and "exchange gossip over a cup of kopi-o.” This junction, the stone bridge leading to it and the ancestral hall predate the village.[15]

In 2015, the village was at a different kind of juncture when it was speculated to be earmarked for development.[16] The neighbouring Pepper Estate had already been sold off to a developer in 2013. But the estate trustees[17]and state government[18] have since stressed otherwise. So, for now at least, the residents of Hong Seng Estate can breathe easy and continue with their unique way of life.

Footnotes:

[1] The hill was unnamed in 1803. John James Erskine did not arrive in Penang until 1805. The history of the naming of Mount Erskine is rather complicated and will be "addressed" in an upcoming article.

[2] Jimmy Oh Soo Chong, “Hong Seng Estate (Since 1803)”, ca. 2010, Unpublished article by a member of the Hong Seng Estate Board of Trustees.

[3] Wong Yee Tuan (2015), “Penang Chinese Commerce in the 19th Century”, Table 2.4 Coconut Estates of the Big Five and Their Associates.

[4] “In the High Court of Malaya in Penang, Originating Summons No. 403 of 1980” (29 Dec 1980), New Straits Times, pg. 20, Advertisement placed by Oh Chong Seng as required by the court order.

[5] Nermala Govindan (October 2019), “Profil MBKK Ladang Hong Seng 2019”, “Majlis Pengurusan Komuniti Kampung (MBKK) Ladang Hong Seng”, Certified by Wong Yin Yik (Chairman).

[6] Sjovald Cunyngham Brown (June 1989), “Mount Olivia”, Warisan Vol.2 No.2, Penang Heritage Trust, pg. 8

[7] Victoria Glendinning (2012), “Raffles: And the Golden Opportunity”, pg. 82

[8] Interviews with Mrs. Nermala Shanmugam (née Govindan), Former secretary of the Ladang Hong Seng MBKK. Conducted on 18 and 26 March 2022.

[9] Kuah Li Feng, Tang Yeok Khang et al. (2018) “Mount Erskine and Bagan Jermal Kampung Stories”, Pusat Khidmat ADUN Pulau Tikus.

[10] S. Indra Sathiabalan (25 June 2020), “Hip-hoppin’ to it”, The Sun Daily, Accessed 30 March 2022 : https://www.thesundaily.my/style-life/hiphoppin to-it-XX2624880

[11] Priscilla Dielenberg (14 April 2006), “A Church to call their own”, The Star : Community

[12] Liu Wenshi (2019),  “义山环绕 与墓为邻“丰盛园”百无禁” Surrounded by righteous mountains and adjacent to the tombs,  “Hong Seng Estate has no taboos”, Sin Chew Daily (1 October 2019)

[13] “Penang seeks more funds for fire-prevention”(14 August 2000), New Straits Times, pg. 7

[14] “Flood woes in Hong Seng Estate resolved” (3 December 2019), Buletin Mutiara, Accessed on 30 March 2022 : https://www.buletinmutiara.com/flood-woes-in-hong-seng-estate-resolved/

[15] F.W. Kelly, “PI Mukim 18 Sheet 6”, Scale 4 ch-1”,  ca. 1891-1893.  Jabatan Ukur dan Pemetaan Malaysia (JUPEM),  Kelly Maps Collection

[16] Trisha Nanda Gopal (19 September 2015), “Plan to develop ancestral land”, The Star : Metro News

[17] “Plan to develop estate faces hitch” (9 October 2015), The Star : Metro News

[18] Penang State Legislative Assembly Hansard (November 2019), Chief Minister’s written reply to the Kebun Bunga assemblyman, pg. 142

Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher who is working on a book about Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad while on a hiatus from designing software.


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