A Grand Tour of the Genting Tea Estate

By Eugene Quah

February 2024 FEATURE
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The main building on Genting Tea Estate is more than a century old. It once belonged to Choo Kia Peng. Although he owned the house, he moved after his 11-year-old son, Kok Seng, caught malaria there and died on 9 September 1924. The boy’s name is carved on a rock in the estate, and can still be seen. Barlow bought the property in 1971, and has lived there ever since. Source: Eric Yeoh Kok Ming (Photographer), Malaya Tribune, 9 September 1924, pg. 8 (Info)

THE GENTING TEA ESTATE is the private residence and research station of Henry Sackville Barlow, who has held several prestigious positions in his long career. Apart from being the Honorary Treasurer of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (MBRAS), he has served as the Honorary Secretary of the Heritage of Malaysia Trust and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Penang-based Uplands School. In his business career, he was a Director of Sime Darby and HSBC.

On 3 September 2023, I, along with fellow members of the MBRAS, was invited to the Genting Tea Estate, which boasts a heritage building, an arboretum and a large collection of moths and butterflies, for a private tour.

Barlow is the Chairman of New Britain Palm Oil Limited. He is seen here wearing the firm’s shirt at his home at Genting Tea Estate, Genting Sempah, Pahang. Left: Entomologist, Sofwan Badrud’din, demonstrating the correct way to hold a live butterfly. He works as a specimen collection manager for Barlow’s butterfly and moth collection, which is one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Right: A tiny portion of Barlow’s collection showing rare blue butterflies. True blue colour is the rarest in nature. The wing scales of these butterflies are shaped in ridges that causes light to bend in such a way that the only wavelength of light it reflects is blue. Source: Eric Yeoh Kok Ming (Photographer)

Barlow's Tropical Paradise

Henry Sackville Barlow is a man of many talents. Educated at Eton College, he went on to earn a masterʼs degree at Trinity College studying German, Russian and Chinese— “all of which I have now forgotten,” he proclaimed. After Cambridge, he was encouraged by his father to get a three-year professional qualification in accountancy. “I hated the training, but it prepared me well for my later career,” he recalled in an interview.

After qualifying as a chartered accountant, he arrived in Malaysia in January 1970, where he was posted for five months to Chersonese Estate, near Taiping. “I had a brief flirtation with the Foreign Office; luckily I did not proceed with it, as I would have hated the constant moving and socialising.” In 1971, the estate came unexpectedly onto the market, and he immediately snatched it up. “My most memorable experience of Malaysia was when I purchased Genting Tea Estate,” he said.

He has been living there ever since.

The House That Kia Peng Built

Choo Kia Peng was a well-respected miner and planter who once served as a Federal Councillor. Born in Taiping on 13 January 1881, he spent 13 years in China before returning to Malaya to continue his education as an over-aged student at St. Xavierʼs Institution, Penang. In 1900, he left for Selangor to work for Loke Yew, a tycoon known for his role in the development of KL, as an English-speaking clerk and bookkeeper. Today, a road in an upscale part of KL is named after him—Tunku Abdul Rahman once lived at No. 1, Jalan Kia Peng.

Genting Tea Estate was passed from Loke to Choo. Later in 1918, the latter built the current bungalow, designed by a Scottish architect who was related to the Russell family who owned Boh Tea, from granite boulders nearby. A newspaper article from 1923 referred to it as Choo Kia Pengʼs “bungalow near Ginting Simpah”.

Choo experimented with tea planting there in the 1930s, leading to its name. The chemist and lepidopterist, Charles de Worms, who visited the estate in August 1972 just after Barlow acquired it, said the property was then “approached by a grassy track and consisted of a large mansion surrounded by the remains of what were once the tea ridges”.

Photos of the north side of the main living room taken almost 90 years apart. The photo on the top depicts a visit by members of the Kuala Lumpur Chinese Students’ Literary Association in July 1932. The Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle claims the building to be Choo Kia Peng’s bungalow as early as 1924. Barlow said he retained the original frosted glass on the top section of the windows. Source: The Straits Times Eric (left photo), Eric Yeoh Kok Ming (right photo)

Garden of Trees

After giving us a detailed history of the estate, Barlow took us on a tour of the arboretum. Over the decades, Barlow had planted an entire rainforest comprising 190 species of trees—it is the largest private arboretum in the country, bested only by the government-owned Forest Research Institute (FRIM). The 38ha estate contains an impressive 135 of 161 species of dipterocarp trees found in Malaysia.

As we city folk struggled to find our footing on the gravelly dirt path, Barlow, who is just shy of 80, led the tour with a long stick, walking surefootedly and briskly among his beloved trees. Mr. Hok, the house manager, and Sofwan Badrud’din, an entomologist who works for Barlow, also came along with large butterfly nets to collect samples. Sofwan, who is from Kedah, lives full-time on the estate and only leaves once a week to get groceries.

“Is anyone here from Ipoh?” asked Barlow, as he stopped by a large tree. When no one among us responded, he proceeded to inform us that it was called an Ipoh tree.

“What can you tell me about the Ipoh tree?” he quizzed.

“The sap from the tree is toxic,” someone answered.

Barlow nodded approvingly and went on to explain how the Orang Asli used the latex to poison their darts. Occasionally, he would stop by yet another tree along the route and share with us his encyclopaedic botanical knowledge. The arboretum is meant to be a seed bank “for those wishing or needing to reforest land with indigenous tree species”. He has hopes for the estate to become a training and education hub for the South-East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership.

Entomologist, Sofwan Badrud’din, demonstrating the correct way to hold a live butterfly. He works as a specimen collection manager for Barlow’s butterfly and moth collection, which is one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Right: A tiny portion of Barlow’s collection showing rare blue butterflies. True blue colour is the rarest in nature. The wing scales of these butterflies are shaped in ridges that causes light to bend in such a way that the only wavelength of light it reflects is blue. Source: Eric Yeoh Kok Ming (Photographer)

Moths and Butterflies

At around noon, we finally trekked our way back to the main living room, exhausted. Lunch was a simple salad of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes and hard-boiled egg with some bread, cheese and Irish butter. I pleasantly took in the Spartan meal and the understated elegance of the buildingʼs decor as a reflection of Barlowʼs unpretentious nature.

The author and birdwatcher, Ashwin Kalai Chelvan, from the Selangor Branch of the Malaysian Nature Society, walking up to Henry Barlow’s bungalow located more than 600m above sea level. Source: Eric Yeoh Kok Ming (Photographer)

After lunch, Sofwan brought out numerous frames of mounted moths and butterflies from the custom-made cabinets holding them. The collection includes an astounding 4,759 species of moths and 630 species of butterflies, almost 60% of the known species found in Peninsular Malaysia—Barlow is also a noted lepidopterist and has one of the largest private collections of butterflies and moths in Southeast Asia. A species of moth, Diarsia barlowi, and a few others are named after him.

Sofwan deftly picked up a live butterfly and demonstrated to us the correct way to handle these delicate specimens. He also explained to his attentive audience the highlights of the collection—the culmination of half a centuryʼs worth of fieldwork by his boss and other visiting entomologists. Barlow would occasionally interject to describe some of the mounted butterflies and moths on display and answer questions from his curious guests.

Barlow showing members of the MBRAS around his private arboretum where dipterocarp trees are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes. Seen from right to left: Janet Pillai (cultural researcher), Hok Kim Loong (house manager/botanist) and Barlow. Source: Eric Yeoh Kok Ming (Photographer)

By mid-afternoon, the clouds have started to darken and the sky began to drizzle. The visitors one by one expressed their gratitude and bid farewell to Barlow. We left the estate, more knowledgeable about butterflies and trees, and very grateful to have visited this hidden jewel in the Pahang highlands.

Barlow tastefully restored the derelict bungalow in the early 1970s and has stayed there ever since. The “main living room of the house, facing east, operated as a massive daytime trap when windows at the northern end were opened. Butterflies were captured on the windows at the southern end”. —Barlow and Sofwan Badrud’din (2021). Source: Eric Yeoh Kok Ming (Photographer)

  • [1] The Malayan Agricultural Journal (1930), Vol-xviii 1920, pg.12
  • [2] British Resident’s Office Pahang (1939)., “Application from Mr. Choo Kia Peng for 800 acres at Ginting Sempah, Bentong, For Cultivation Of Tea”, Arkib Negara, Identifier Number: 1857/0534980W
  • [3] Charles George Maurice de Worms (1973), “The Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation”, Volume 85, 1973. pg.208
  • [4] Henry Sackville Barlow, speech given on 3 September 2023 to members of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • [5] Jeremy Daniel Holloway (1983), “The Moths of Borneo: Family Noctuidae, trifine subfamilies Noctuinae, Heliothinae, Hadeninae, Acronictinae, Amphipyrinae, Agaristinae”, pg. 73
  • [6] Leong Hon Yeun (2022), “Citizen Conservationists: These People Are Helping To Regrow Rainforests”, The Star, 15 March 2022
  • [7] Malaya Tribune (1924), “Death of Choo Kok Seng”, 9 September 1924, pg. 8
  • [8] Peter Moss (2017), “Genting Tea Estate”, Accessed on 30 December 2023: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzQX_2Bxy5s, Video.
  • [9] Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle (1923), “Delegates visit the F.M.S.”., 10 September 1923, pg. 5
  • [10] Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle (1932), “Possibilities for Tea Growing in Malaya”, 1 March 1932, pg. 6
  • [11] Sofwan Badrud’din & Henry Sackville Barlow (2021), “Lepidoptera Collecting in Malaysia: The Genting Tea Estate Experience”, Malayan Nature Journal, Special Edition 2021.
  • [12] Sofwan Badrud’din, Personal communication between Sofwan Badrud’din and Ashwin Kalai Chelvan on 28 December 2023.
  • [13] The Star (2019), “Rising to world recognition”, The Star, 1 February 2019
  • [14] The Straits Times (1932), “Visit by member of the KL Chinese Students’ Literary Association to Ginting Simpah”, 17 July 1932, pg. 13
  • [15] RIMBA (1922), Bygone Selangor; A Souvenir, pg. 22-23
  • [16] Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin Muhriz (2012), “Abiding Times 2 - Insight Into the Minds of Malaysia’s Thinking Youth”, pg.150
  • [17] University of Cambridge (2021), “Interview with Dato’ Henry Barlow conducted by Chander Velu and Rob Glew”, Interview.
  • [18] Yip Yoke Teng (2014), “Swanky street with a humble name”, The Star, 12 September 2014.
Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher and writer who is working on a book tentatively called “Illustrated Guide to the North Coast of Penang”. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad.