Text by Law Siak Hong
Photographs by Lau Sook Mei
Like many early settlers who left their legacies in old Malaya, the story of Leong Kan (1890-1940) is one of rags-to-riches. While not so many people in Ipoh know of him now, mention the landmark buildings that Leong Kan built and you may strike them by surprise. The buildings of, and associated with Leong Kan are as follows.
1. His residence at No.19, Jalan Bendahara, now the Grand Park Hotel. Built, 1928.
2. Shophouses Nos. 1-17, Jalan Bendahara. Built, 1937. No. 17 was Leong Kan’s office; his name is inscribed on the shop front.
3. The Tong Ngah (Oriental) Hotel at No. 17, 19 & 21, Jalan Mustapha Al-Bakri (Clare Street); now an electrical shop. Built, 1928. Interestingly, when the hotel opened for business its rooftop restaurant served “dim sum”. Both the hotel and the restaurant were operated by Leong Kan.
4. Singapore Cold Storage at Nos. 1, 3 & 5, Jalan Mustapha Al-Bakri (Clare Street). Built by contract by Leong Kan, it is now a McDonald’s hamburger outlet. Built, 1928.
One of the last towkays of Ipoh, Leong Kan @ Leong Yik Meng hailed from Shunde, Guangdong Province. Together with his wife, they had arrived in Malaya penniless. They first settled in the town of Tanjung Rambutan in 1910, where they eked out a living working as labourers in a tin mine. He must have been quite special, rising through the ranks to become a palong contractor. Hard work pays. Impressed with his determination for success, his British employers gave him a sizeable piece of land – that was the turning point in his life.
There is scant recorded history of Leong Kan. As he was an elder and a pioneer of the Perak Shun Tak Wui Kuan, the Shunde (in putonghua; in Cantonese as when it was registered, Shun Tak) clan association, we can begin to piece together his achievements. History is supplemented with memories of his son, who was a 3-year-old toddler when Leong Kan died just before World War Two. His portrait hangs prominently in his clan association, with his wife’s below his.
With the wealth accrued from tin mining, he became a developer in Ipoh, the bustling centre of the tin-rich Kinta Valley. It is a measure of his business acumens, that in 1928, he built not only a large mansion for his family but also two commercial buildings.
He expanded his tin mining business to Malim Nawar. In early 1930s, he started the Leong Kan Hydraulic Mines in Kampong Gedang, Bidor. Water was supplied through pipes measuring 24-inches in diameter. With a business partner, Leong Kan ventured into sawmills. They founded the Kong Soon Cheong Sawmill in Kampar. Later, he was to own another sawmill in Pasir Puteh, Ipoh.
There is a Chinese saying about not forgetting your past and origin. Naturally, like other towkays, Leong Kan invested in real estate and land in China and Hong Kong.
The house that Leong Kan built
Completed in 1928, the stylish mansion sits on 3¾ acres of land in what would have been the edge of town. It is a symmetrical double-storey brick building roofed with Marseilles tiles. With a depth more than twice its width, it featured a fountain in the fore court outside the car porch. It had eleven rooms and a vast covered deck.
Like most houses belonging to the affluent Chinese of the time, the ground floor is paved with caustic tiles. A wooden staircase opens out to a spacious hall with a timber floor, flanked by spacious bedrooms. A smaller staircase leads to a covered deck as well as an annex which provided accommodation for Leong Kan’s extended family. The wooden floor of the deck and the old ceiling fan have survived the ravage of time. The servants’ quarters are located at the back of the annex.
A man of the community
Leong Kan was a pillar of his family, a successful businessman, a philanthropist as well as a community leader in the Shunde clan. His position in Shunde clan was sealed when he generously donated towards the acquisition of clan premises in Jalan Masjid and figured prominently in the consolidation of his association. He was President of the association for thirteen years until his demise.
A firm believer in education, Leong Kan had donated to schools, notably the St Michael’s Institution, Ipoh and Tat Choi Primary School, Tanjung Rambutan. He also contributed to the Futt Yeh Miu, a Chinese temple in Tanjung Rambutan.
Reminiscing the family
Leong Kan did not forget his roots. When he prospered, he brought his brothers and sisters and their families from China to live in his large mansion. Due to the enormity of the house, dinner time was announced by the ringing of the bell, and four tables would be set upon.
Leong Kan had a son and a daughter. His son, CK recalls his family tradition: for every new arrival in the extended family, a maid would be engaged to look after the new-born. The ladies of the house frequently engaged in lengthy mahjong sessions. For schooling children, a chauffeur would send them to and pick them up from school. After school, a tutor came to the house to give extra lessons.
CK remembers the quinine trees in the garden. One of his favourite games was target shooting at the hanging fruits with tin cans. He relishes this with pride, for he was an excellent shot.
Leong Kan died in 1940. Soon after his death, the good life ended when Malaya came under Japanese Occupation. Rice was in shortage; food was scarce. The garden was dug up for the planting of sweet potatoes to supplement their diet.
In 1951, the mansion was sold. The entire family moved into their shophouses next to the mansion. It may indeed be his vision that the family may not live together in the mansion after his death that he had the shophouses built for them.
Every building tells a story
Most of the buildings associated with this remarkable self-made man no longer belong to the family. But as Leong Kan’s legacy, they deserve preservation. Despite many changes of occupancy, his mansion has remained quite authentic. It belongs to a glorious past, a time when family life and contribution to society ruled the day. As for the other buildings, while their facades remain, renovations have obliterated the original interiors.
* Based on interviews with C K Leong and family by Lau Sook Mei.