A Penang Comprador: “There Was Always Carlsberg beer in the House”

By Anne Tan

May 2024 FEATURE
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With his family, the Penang comprador is formally framed in front of the colonial-style villa located at No.1, Ayer Rajah Road. The family was likely photographed during celebrations for the Lunar New Year and the photo dates from around c.1940-1941. (I can accurately date this because my future husband, the small boy standing in front of his father, was around four or five at the time). All the children were wearing Western-style clothes unlike the parents, she in a sarong and blouse and he, in merchant attire. His grandmother, Yeoh Hung Neo (originally from Fujian province in China), wore a recognisably traditional Chinese garb and with distinctive bound feet. Even though her feet were bound, she still chased after them as children, though rather unsuccessfully according to my husband! Their clothing reveals a subtle shift in cultural norms.

TAN HENG SOON (1894-1962), a Straits-born Baba, was a comprador for the Danish East Asiatic Company, a prestigious European company established in 1897 by H.N. Andersen with extensive operations in Southeast Asia. The company, where Tan served from 1930 to 1953, operated at No.3, Weld Quay in George Town, Penang.

The word “comprador” is derived from the Portuguese word for “buyer”, i.e., employed as an agent by European houses. A comprador was characterised by a proficiency in English, possessing of business connections, displaying personal trust and playing a special role as mediator. These bicultural middlemen were social leaders, cosmopolitan and their children were Western educated. As such, they fulfilled the role of critical agents in the colonial enterprise. Penang’s colonial society was very cosmopolitan with the strategic advantage of being on the route of the larger Western shipping lines.

Who was this Peranakan comprador, who, together with his large family, called Lone Pine in Batu Ferringhi, home? Dear reader, in seeking to answer this question, permit me to let you in on a little secret: This is the family I married into, and researching the history of my father-in-law, a comprador for the Danish East Asiatic Company, grew from a fascination with the connections between Europe and a Peranakan family in Penang.

I have been able to source stunning EAC travel posters, from the 1930s and 40s, modernist in design, which visually evoke the allure and promise of the trading routes plied by the company’s ships. Travel to far distant places is imaged in the following example. A company ship, probably the Selandia or the Jutlandia, sailing across the sea. Large junks are positioned in front of the ship and a mountain rears up in the background, suggestive of destinations. These posters were used in promotional material such as brochures. (Source: Permission granted by Asia House.dk)

Over the years as I informally did my research, my late husband, the second youngest of Tan Heng Soon’s 10 children, would often share memories of his father’s role as comprador, going to school in the large family car with a driver, the shipping and teak interests of the company, and the added detail that, “There was always Carlsberg beer in the house.” Indeed, the EAC were the sole importers of the Denmark’s Carlsberg beer, according to an advertisement in Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle on 12 June 1934.

Tan Heng Soon and his large family lived at Lone Pine throughout the 1930s until the Japanese occupation prompted them to move further inland. Hearing rumours that the Japanese would invade Malaya by sea and were raping young girls, he sold his Lone Pine home to an Australian doctor. Fearing for the safety of his three young daughters, he bought the house at No.1, Ayer Rajah Road (renamed Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman) and they moved closer to town; the house is now the Thai Embassy.

Positioned on Weld Quay, the EAC office was a hub in this mercantile precinct. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Langdon)

Family memories of Lone Pine were blissful, with the sea forming a backdrop for their many activities, water sports and escapades. The property remains a spiritual home to the Tans. The ashes of six of Tan Heng Soon’s children have been scattered at sea opposite Lone Pine—most recently in November 2023, when the youngest, Robert, passed. (Robert was born at Lone Pine in 1938). Meanwhile, Tan Heng Soon and his wife, Khoo Gaik Eong, are interred in the columbarium beneath the Reclining Buddha in the Thai Buddhist Temple at Lorong Burma, Pulau Tikus.

The family can be seen as a microcosm of that hybridity known as Peranakan. The migratory route which began in China, then moved south and would continue to ripple transnationally with my husband and a few of his siblings migrating to Australia and the UK. Successive generations have continued the migration trail and may be found in Europe, the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Ireland and Indonesia.

  • [1] Tan, A. (2021) Travels in Siam and Laos: a lost photo album. ScandAsia, November 9,2021.
  • [2] Tan, A. (2023) Travels in Siam: Teak Exploration and Photography.
  • [3] ScandAsia, July 20, 2023.
  • [4] Thitibordin, A.(2016) Control and Prosperity: The Teak Business in Siam 1880’s -1932. Unpublished thesis.
Anne Tan

is a retired academic (Deakin University, Melbourne) with a publishing history both internal and external. She has published articles on East Asiatic Company’s teak explorations in Siam and Laos at the beginning of the 20th century and has recently completed documenting a photo album recording an intrepid teak journey conducted by both East Asiatic Company personnel and an affiliated company, L’Est Asiatique Francaise. Anne has travelled to Penang from Australia more times than she can count and considers Penang her second home.