In 1793, Sir Francis Light founded George Town, Penang. The town quickly expanded. The Popham Map, dated 1798, shows the layout of the first streets. China Street was one of these. It led from Beach Street which was then the waterfront, up to Pitt Street.
Before the ‘mansions’ of Gurney Drive & Kelawei Road there were the ‘Elite Residences’ on China Street. China Street was so named because it was here that Chinese merchants and traders chose to reside. These elite Chinese Residences, the ‘mansions’ of their time, were situated along the end of China Street, near Beach Street. At China St’s junction with Pitt Street, the Hakka & Cantonese communities built the first, and now the oldest, temple in Penang to the Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin.
The House of Koh Lay Huan
No. 25 China Street was originally the residence of Koh Lay Huan, Penang’s first Kapitan Cina. Kapitan Cina was the title given to leaders of overseas Chinese enclaves in Southeast Asia. It was the largest and finest residence of it’s time. In 1846, the residence was then owned by Chung Keng Kwee, the Kapitan Cina of Perak. Also the leader of the powerful Hai San Society, he controlled 15,000 coolies and most of the tin mines in Larut, Perak.
In a deed dated 1872, it is stated that Ong Boon Keng, acquired the rights to this property from Chung Keng Kwee. A successful merchant, Ong Boon Keng was well connected to the dominating merchant traders known as the ‘Big 5′. He was responsible for collecting import and export duties as well as the gambling and opium monopolies in Asahan, Sumatra. No 25 remained the Ong’s family ancestral home for 40 years before being sold by tender to the Hong Seng Estate’s leader Ha Quing Xiang.
In the 1930’s, having made his fortune building roads in Medan, Sumatra, no 25 was purchased by a wealthy Indian Muslim businessman and philanthropist. Grant family furniture was moved in. However, the house was used mainly as a free hostel for migrant workers from India on their arrival and departure.
No 25 eventually passed into the hands of the Great Eastern Life Insurance Company. In 2000 they planned to demolish the house to build modern new offices, but the Penang Heritage Trust stopped the bulldozers in their tracks by getting an immediate stop work order. The order was granted because of the houses’ historical importance and unique architecture. The house was then left unoccupied for a long time until it was bought by Rebecca and David Wilkinson in 2005. It was saved from destruction and the house, with the help of heritage experts and skilled craftsmen, was then carefully and comprehensively restored to it’s past glory.
Visitors to George Town were constantly requesting entrance and this has led to the decision of the former owners to start a formal tour of the house. The Wilkinsons welcomed the groups into the family home and shared the story of the past owners of this property as well as the restoration process.
No. 25 is located right in the core zone of the Unesco World Heritage Site of George Town. It is sited on the largest plot of land in China Street. Plot size is nearly 600 sq. meters. It is described as a three bay house, because the facade was designed to look like 3 houses or ‘settlements’ along it’s length.
The facade, with its main entrance door set off the 5 foot way, is ornately decorated by traditional broken chinaware mosaic friezes ( ‘chien nein’). Skilfully created by master crasftsmen, traditional scenes are depicted. There are bats, pomegranates, fish, birds, flowers, bamboo and vases, depicting the four seasons. The two most striking panels are one using the original two long tailed Phoenix’s and a central scene showing the 8 immortals.
The interior layout of the house is based on the original Fujian, deep courtyard arrangement. The original granite entrance door lintel leads into a large high ceilinged hall, which is the start of the central axis and the first of the 3 ‘settlements’. Each of the 3 ‘settlements’ are separated by a central open sunken granite courtyard. To the side of the courtyards, balconies provide coveted access along the length of the property. The walls are thick load bearing walls constructed with the brick and lime plaster with a lime wash finish. Timber supports and beams are equally solid and generous in size. The high ceilings and open courtyards provide plenty of natural light and the wood fired terracotta tile floors, natural ventilation, and rising levels of the house provide good Feng Shui.
The sense of space in No 25 is very special. The three ‘settlements’ and large courtyards. allow for a lot to natural light. The grass lawn and garden in the second courtyard is unique. All other traditional houses in the core zone are long and thin and therefore, tend to be darker because of narrower air-wells allow only limited light which is insufficient for a traditional garden.
No. 25 would have been considered a very large mansion for a Chinese Merchant in the 1800’s, with a built up area of about 1000 sq. meters. The house has 6 halls and 12 rooms spread over 2 floors. In total there are 64 pairs of door and window shutters. The many decorative architectural details within the house, the painted murals, and the green ceramic tiles tell us the merchant was wealthy. No. 25 had 2 entrances, the second to the rear of the property, leading in from Loron Chee Em.
The recent restoration took a period of 2 years, restoring the building to its original glory, but subtly adding everything needed for modern living: new plumping and new electrical wiring, The restoration has been cited “as a model of restoration’ by The George Town World Heritage Incorporated, the State body appointed to safeguard George Town’s Unesco Heritage status.
- Koh Lay Huan, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koh_Lay_Huan