The Man behind the House

by Maganjeet Kaur

Tin, a silvery metal that is non-corrosive and non-toxic, was ideally suited for the food canning industry and its great demand in America and Britain spawned an industry that saw thousands of Chinese coming to Malaya with the hopes of leaving poverty behind. Many died in malarial swamps and many more were exploited by unscrupulous employers and agents. But many millionaires were also born and success stories like Yap Ah Loy and Loke Yew made it into the history books and onto road signs.

Chan Wing was one of the millionaires born in the heydays of the tin mining industry. Reticent in public with a preference to stay in the background, Chan Wing may well have been forgotten if not for the house he built. The Big House, as it was called then, has an interesting history of its own culminating as the abode for kings.

Chan Wing (1933). Taken from the book “From Poor Migrant to Millionaire” by Chan King Nui

Chan Wing’s was a typical rags to riches story. Born to poverty in China in 1873, he was the fourth son among six boys and two girls. With a father that squandered his money, time and energy on opium, it fell on their mother to provide for the family. The family lived at subsistence level and school was a luxury that they could ill-afford.

An opportunity to better their lot came with the arrival of agents to their village with stories about a land called Nanyang and a metal called tin around which tales of great riches were spun. Fourteen year old Chan Wing and his younger brother, Loong, were dispatched to this fabled land with the hopes and dreams of the whole family riding on them.  While Loong would return home a year later ridden with malaria and unable to cope with the harsh working conditions in the tin-mines, Chan Wing would go on to make their wildest dreams come true. But this dream had its roots in tears and sorrow as the only way the family was able to raise the money to send Chan Wing and Loong to Malaya was by selling the youngest son, who was still a babe in arms. Their mother was devastated but did not stand in the way.

On arrival in Malaya, the brothers got jobs at a tin mine in Sungai Besi but Chan Wing would change jobs many times including being a shopkeeper for two of Loke Yew’s shops in Sungai Besi. At the age of 24, he joined forces with four of his clansmen to form a ‘kongsi’ (syndicate) to mine for tin ore next to the tin rich Sungai Besi Mine. A European group and at least two other Chinese kongsi had previously mined on this plot of land with no success.  The kongsi formed by Chan Wing and friends operated for 9 months without finding any ore.  Savings dwindled and hopes plummeted but they dug deeper and their perseverance paid off when Chan Wing saw a darkish patch in one of the boxes of sand that he was washing. The kongsi had struck very big as the place was subsequently found to be littered in tin and the rest, as they say, is history.

With the years of scrimping and saving behind him and money no longer a major concern, Chan Wing’s attention turned to marriage and he requested his mother to find a bride for him. Low Ming Ching, simple, pleasant, timid and barely sixteen, would become the first in a line of wives to come.

Chan Wing would go on to venture into other businesses including banking (he sat on the board of Kwong Yik Bank), rice and rubber.  He became a respected and accepted member in Malayan society and now had an important decision to make – where to make his permanent home.

At the time of Chan Wing’s birth, China was under the rule of the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912). This was not the rule of the majority Han Chinese but the dynasty was founded by the Jurchen Aisin Gioro clan, a Manchu tribe from northeastern China which usurped power from the Ming emperor. The Manchu had a unique hairstyle where the hair on the front of the head until the temples were shaved off every ten days and the rest braided into a long pigtail. This pigtail is also known as a ‘queue’. During the Qing Dynasty, the Manchus imposed this hairstyle on the Han Chinese and cutting off the queue was considered an act of treason. Chan Wing took the decision to live permanently in Malaya and as an act of defiance against the Manchu government, he cut off his queue.

Meanwhile, his family had grown into 8 wives with 21 children living at different locations. Chan Wing bought 13 acres of land and commissioned Swan and Maclaren to design a house that will bring his whole family under one roof and in 1929, the family moved into what would become known as The Big House. It might have been the biggest house in Malaya at that time, but for the family it was not big enough. As his daugher Chan King Nui recalls in her book ‘From Poor Migrant to Millionaire’, although the mothers had a room each, the children had to share rooms – four to a room. The number of children by now had swelled to 25. Chan Wing and his family stayed at the Big House until 1941 when war came to Malaya.

Chan Wing got separated from his family during the war and he stayed out the war in Australia while his family was evacuated to India where his twenty-sixth and last child, a boy, was born. He reunited with his family when they returned to Malaya after the war but was diagnosed with cancer and in spite of the best treatment succumbed to his illness in 1947 at the age of 74.

During the Japanese Occupation (1942 – 1945), the Big House became the residence of the Japanese Governor and after the war, it was commandeered by the British. In 1950, the Selangor state government rented it from the owners and it became the palace of the Sultan of Selangor until 1957 when the federal government bought the property from the owners. It was renovated and extended to become Istana Negara, the official residence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king of Malaysia). In Dec 2011, Istana Negara moved to its new location at Jalan Duta and the Istana Negara Lama, as the property is now called, has been turned over to the Department of Museums, Malaysia.

Most of the information on Chan Wing in this article comes from the book ‘From Poor Migrant to Millionaire’, written by Chan King Nui; one of Chan Wing’s daughters.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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