Pepper Estate: The Untold Story

By Eugene Quah

September 2022 FEATURE
main image
The public stone bridge over Sungai Balik Batu leading to Pepper Estate was built in 1915 by Mrs. Lim Leng Cheak (nee Tan Say Seang). She was “an ardent Buddhist” and a major donor to the construction of the Kek Lok Si temple and other philanthropic causes.[i] The Pepper Estate village’s built-up area, at 7.7ha, is almost the size of 11 football fields. Photo by: Eddy de Vosse. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUUdQcmJnUE-Ro92UMUwawA
Advertisement

RESIDENTS OF Tanjung Bungah sometimes use, as a shortcut, the well-shaded and narrow winding hill road that snakes around the Guillemard Service Reservoir. This road starts at a fork that is slightly after the Fettes Park junction. Straight ahead is the reservoir road, called Chooi Tee Lor in Hokkien, while to the right is a stone bridge with a sign beside it that says Ladang Lada (“Pepper Estate”). As you go up the reservoir road, you can see through the gaps in the trees, Pepper Estate: a constellation of houses of various designs haphazardly spread across the valley below.

The mostly Hokkien-speaking villagers call it Hor Chio Hooi (胡椒園, Hújiāo yuán), which means pepper garden. Despite its name, there are no pepper gardens to be seen today. The estate was initially owned by Lim Leng Cheak (林寧綽, Lín Níngchuò), who was one of the most important Penang towkays (Chinese business owners) in the 19th century.[1] Although one of Leng Cheak’s businesses did involve the lucrative pepper trade with Sumatra, it is unlikely he ever planted pepper at the estate as large-scale pepper cultivation had ceased in Penang before he was born.[2] His father was Lim It Kim (林乙金, Lín yǐjīn), a “famous planter”[3] and an early Penang settler. If pepper was ever cultivated at the estate, it would have been during his father's time. It Kim died in 1873 and was buried at Pepper Estate,[4] which has since been the family’s private cemetery for 149 years. However, the name “Pepper Estate” only appeared in historical records after the settlement was founded around 1969.[5]

A Long and Winding Road

Leng Cheak died in early 1901. His widow received 8/20th of his fortune. Mrs. Lim Leng Cheak[6] was also widely known by her Hokkien honorific name Tan Say Seang Neo (陳西祥娘, Chén Xīxiáng Niáng)[7] or Mother Tan Say Seang in English. With her immense inherited wealth, Mrs. Lim became one of the most prominent philanthropists in Penang at the turn of the 19th century.

During the 1920s, the family business faltered due to mismanagement and unfavourable market conditions. In June 1925, Mrs. Lim and one of her sons, Eow Hooi,[8] assigned their shares to the second son, Eow Thoon (耀椿, Lín Yàochūn), in a desperate attempt to save their lands from the creditors of the elder son Eow Hong who managed the family business.[9] Mrs. Lim and her other sons also wanted the court to bar the bankrupt elder son from handling the family business.

Left: The founder of the Pepper Estate village, Lim Keng Chuan, seen here as a young man in his 20s. Born in 1897, he was an Old Free and a trustee of the important Poh Hock Seah Temple on Armenian Street.[ii] Right: Lim Leng Cheak’s second son, Eow Thoon, born on 6 December 1886, was also educated at Penang Free School. He became a formidable towkay in his own right as “an accomplished rice miller, rubber planter and manufacturer”, civic leader and inventor of the iconic Penang trishaw.[iii,iv]

Eow Hong retaliated and threatened to take his brothers and mother to court. Eventually, the issue was settled through arbitration[10] in November 1926, with Mrs. Lim ending up as the sole owner of the estate lands.[11] Two years later, she made a legal agreement (called an indenture) with Eow Thoon to transfer her share of 13 pieces of land to him, including Pepper Estate. He was, therefore, effectively the sole owner of the family lands again, albeit with conditions. On 17 September 1930, just two days before her death, Mrs. Lim made a final indenture with Eow Thoon stipulating that the lands, “as far as possible”, be maintained and kept as burial grounds for “the use and benefit of the family and descendants of Lim Leng Cheak”. A resulting express trust was thus created, with Eow Hooi (her other son), Keng Chuan (her eldest grandson) and Seong Wah (Eow Thoon’s son who managed the Odeon cinema) appointed as trustees.[12]

Gentleman Landlord

The village owes its existence to one of the trustees, Keng Chuan, the eldest son of Eow Thoon’s estranged brother, Eow Hong. In 1969, Keng Chuan, as the last surviving trustee, generously “leased out the land to help poor families build houses”. He himself lived at 665-C, Pepper Estate Road 2, while his brother Keng Hor, the former managing editor of the Malaya Tribune newspaper, kept a house a few doors away.[13] Keng Chuan passed away at Pepper Estate on 23 March 1983, aged 86. He was reportedly considered a “true gentleman” [14] by residents as he would walk “around the Estate once a month, calling out ground rent”. If a tenant cannot afford to pay the then M$6 to M$8 nominal monthly rent, he would say “no problem” in Hokkien and “cheerfully move on and not hassle the people”. [15]

In 1996, 13 years after Keng Chuan’s death, the court declared that the express trust[16] created to ensure the lands be kept as burial grounds had ceased to exist and the land would go back to the estate of Lim Eow Thoon.[17] As his uncle was also long dead, the lands, including Pepper Estate, were passed on to Eow Thoon’s remaining heirs. They continued to collect ground rent until suddenly stopping in late 2012. The villagers would later find out that this was an ominous sign that something was amiss.[18]

Left: The elegant 1920s pump and water sampling station near the entrance of Pepper Estate, which is part of the Guillemard Waterworks, is often mistaken for a war relic. James Dollery Fettes, Penang’s first municipal water engineer, was inspired by the same Mughal architectural style as the Taj Mahal.[v] Top Right: Behind a villager’s backyard, there is a derelict military building, probably a generator or guard room that was once part of the now-crumbling artillery Fire Control Post (FCP) at the summit of Mount Erskine. (See feature in Penang Monthly August issue on Mount Erskine).[vi] Bottom Right: The owner of the house[vii] where the war relic is situated explained that in earlier times, before there were skyscrapers, the location had an unobstructed view of the Penang Strait.

Hillside Resting Place

According to early maps[19], before the North Coast Road was built, the shortest way by land to Lembah Permai, which was then David Brown’s Vale of Tempe estate, was via a dirt road that ran through Pepper Estate (then unnamed). This road climbed up to the mountain pass between the reservoir ridge and the southern side of Mount Erskine before steeply descending to the valley below. Tanjung Bungah was in earlier times known in Hokkien as Koè Sua (過山, Guò shān), literally “cross the mountain”. The current reservoir road was only completed in 1929.[20]

Lim Leng Cheak’s grave lies in the shade of a massive tree near the north-westernmost point of Pepper Estate at a spot with a commanding view of the Penang Strait and the mainland. His grave, while substantial, is not very ornate, unlike the ones of many of his contemporaries. Perhaps this was because he died relatively early at age 51, and preparations had not yet been underway for a grand tomb befitting his status.

In early 2022, Rexy Prakash Chacko and I also stumbled upon the unassuming graves of Mrs. Lim and Eow Hooi, about 50m east of Keng Chuan’s former house, while trying to retrace the old road that once led to the signal station on top of Mount Erskine.

The tomb of Lim Leng Cheak, the patriarch of one of the Big Five Hokkien mercantile families, died on 16 February 1901, just three days before Chinese New Year. His tomb has a commanding view of the Penang Strait and is located near the remnants of the old mountain pass, now part of the village called Upper Pepper Estate, that led to the Vale of Tempe (Lembah Permai).

Hillside Village

Today, Pepper Estate consists of approximately 270 houses built within a heart-shaped valley formed by Mount Erskine to the north, the Guillemard Reservoir Ridge to the west and a small hillock, Bukit Lada (Pepper Hill), to the south (now the Puncak Erskine apartments). The village is built over 7.7ha of the 12.2ha estate comprising two parcels of land. There are slightly more than 1,000 residents[21] who are mostly Chinese, with a minority of Indians and a few Eurasian families. [22]

One of the early settlers, the late Choong Tein Chew who passed away in 2017 aged 90, came from China to Malaya after the Second World War seeking greener pastures. He said, “Before Pepper Estate, I stayed in various places but could never find the same kind of comfort as I did when I stumbled upon this place in 1969.” [23]

The late Philip Malcolm Rozario and his family also arrived at Pepper Estate the same year as Choong. He worked as a shroff (an old colonial word for cashier) and was laid off by Bank Negara in 1967. For a while, his family of five children stayed at Kelawei Road until he found out about Pepper Estate. In 2014, Rozario, who was then 88 years old, recalled, “We heard that this estate was coming up and I managed to get permission to build a house. At that time, there were only dirt roads and about 50 houses being built.” He saw some builders erecting a house on a neighbouring plot and asked them to construct his own home for a little more than M$3,000.[24] Another resident who came earlier that year before Rozario, when there were only five other houses around, said her family paid M$6 in ground rent and M$1,000 to build their home.

Leased Grounds, Borrowed Time

On 23 May 2012, the owners of Pepper Estate decided to sell it to Beverly Heights Properties Sdn. Bhd. (“BHP”), and in June 2013, BHP entered a joint venture with Oxley Star Sdn. Bhd., a subsidiary of the Singaporean property company Oxley Holdings Limited, to develop Pepper Estate. Less than a month later, the tranquillity of Pepper Estate village was rudely shattered when the developer demolished three houses.

In late April the following year, eviction notices were served on all the residents. They were reportedly given two weeks to decide whether to accept as compensation either RM25,000 or a discount of RM30,000 for a future low-cost flat (with an undisclosed selling price), failing which they would be taken to court.[25]

The villagers were not squatters but ground tenants paying ground rent and never disputed that BHP owned the land. However, they were taken aback by the abruptness of the eviction notices and the low amount of compensation given to suddenly uproot their lives and lose their homes built using their own money.

The eviction notices rallied the residents to form a pro tem residents’ committee, led by Ann Rozario, the daughter of an early settler mentioned earlier, to seek an amicable and equitable settlement with Beverly Heights Properties. By April 2015, the residents, speaking with one voice, and with the support of their elected representatives and through the diligent efforts of their lawyer Soo Keong Joo, were finally able to come to a compensation agreement with the developer. After many negotiations, BHP finally agreed to give the villagers a two-month notice period and compensate each household with an 800ft2 apartment. Additionally, while waiting for their replacement housing to be completed, the villagers will be given rental assistance.[26][27]

Today, life in the village seems to go on as usual, as it has done for slightly more than half a century. While the state government has noted that, as of 2019, the developer had not submitted any development plans, the village is no doubt living on borrowed time.[28]

Elderly villagers hanging out at the village shrine for a chat. The Chinese lady and the Indian gentleman (who speaks fluent Hokkien) are long-time neighbours who came in 1969 when there were just a handful of houses surrounded by jungle in the newly founded village.
Houses in the village are typically made of bricks and wood with zinc roofs. The bigger house used to be one of the two neighbourhood grocery stores.

Footnotes:

[1] Tan Kim Hong (2007), 檳榔嶼華人史圖錄 (The Chinese in Penang: A Pictorial), pg. 105

[2] Marcus Langdon (2013), ‘The Fourth Presidency of India, 1805-1830”, Volume 1, pg.264

[3] Wong Yee Tuan (2020), “Penang’s Big Five Families and Southern Siam During the Nineteenth Century”, In M.J. Montesano & P. Jory (Eds.), “Thai South and Malay North”, pg. 202

[4] Wu Xiao An (1997), Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 70, No. 2 (273) (1997), pg. 26

[5] The City Council of George Town (1966). Penang Past and Present 1786-1963. The specially commissioned foldout map shows a short unfinished road leading to the unnamed Pepper Estate. However, a 140ft hillock Bukit Lada is shown on the map.

[6] Straits Budget (25 September 1930), “Mrs. Lim Leng Cheak”, pg. 22

[7] Her tombstone spells her name as Tan Say Siang while some court documents refer to her as Tan Tay Seang (probably a mistake).

[8]“Sold His Birthright” (22 October 1927), Malaya Tribune, pg. 10,

[9] Wu Xiao An (2010), “Chinese Business in the Making of a Malay State, 1882-1941, Kedah and Penang”, pg. 163

[10] ibid. pg. 165-166

[11] “Huge Estate Case” (9th November 1926), Malaya Tribune, Published 10 November 1926 , pg. 7

[12] Malayan Law Journal (1969) “Re Lim Leng Cheak, decd; Lim Eow Thoon v Lim Keng Chuan & Anor”, pg. 228

[13] Angela Fernandez, Hamidah Atan (18 June 1987), “Please Mister Postman!”, New Straits Times. Lim Keng Hor complained about receiving mail late. His address was written as 665-A Pepper Hill off Fettes Rd. instead of 665-A, Pepper Estate Road 2. This suggests that the settlement’s naming may be related in some way to the nearby Bukit Lada (Pepper Hill).

[14] As related by a resident, who calls himself Micheal, to Anil Netto on his blog (12th July 2013). Accessed https://anilnetto.com/society/housing/pepper-estate-a-resident-explains/#comment-152537 on 20 May 2022.

[15] Interview with two early settlers (who declined to have their names published) at the Tua Pek Kong shrine on Pepper Estate Road. They recalled Keng Chuan, who was well-liked in the village, personally collecting ground rent. They also showed me his former house. Interview conducted around 10:30pm on 26 April 2022.

[16] A legal arrangement in which a person controls another’s assets with explicit instructions from the settlor (person setting up the trust) on how the property is to be held. Source: Cambridge Dictionary (2022)

[17] High Court of Penang, Order dated January 9, 1996 pursuant to Originating Summons No. 24-758-1995.

[18] David Wee Eng Siew sebagai Pentadbir Harta Pusaka Lim Eang Tee, si mati v Lim Lean Seng & Anor (Wasi-wasi dan Pengamanah-Pengamanah Harta Pusaka Lim Eow Thoon, si mati) (2013), Civil Appeal No. 02-92-11/2012(P), Federal Court Of Malaysia.

[19] W. Fletcher (1820) “’Plan of Prince of Wales’ Island and the Territories ceded thereto on the Opposite Shore”. Map.

[20] The City Council of George Town (1966), “Penang, Past and Present, 1786-1963: A Historical Account of the City of George Town Since 1786”, pg. 64.

[21] Benjamin Tiang Soon Lian (personal communication, 27th April 2022), Chairman, “Majlis Pengurusan Komuniti Kampung (MBKK) Ladang Lada.

[22] “Penang seeks more fund for fire prevention”, 14th August 2000, pg.7. The article estimated the population in 2000 back then. Today the population has halved.

[23] Cavina Lim (2013), “Pepper Estate means a lot to octogenarian and family”, The Star, Community News

[24] “Only memories soon for Pepper Estate pioneers” (1 July 2014), EdgeProp, Accessed https://www.edgeprop.my/content/only-memories-soon-pepper-estate-pioneers on 20 May 2022.

[25] Anil Netto (2014), “Pepper Estate residents receive eviction notices”, Accessed on 29 April 2022 : https://anilnetto.com/economy/development-issues/pepper-estate-residents-receive-eviction-notices/.

[26] Interview with Ann Rozario who led the pro tem residents’ committee that negotiated the settlement with the new landowners. Conducted on 23 April 2022.

[27] Kwong Wah Yit Poh (2015), “获赔偿公寓单位及补贴搬迁费等, 槟胡椒园九成居民称庆”, “90% of Pepper Estate Resident Celebrated Compensation for Apartment Units”, Published 25 November 2015.

[28] 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.


`