If walls could speak

Article by Christina Chin

Typical of architecture of its time, in the 18th century, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion features a mix of features, such as the Scottish cast iron columns and railings that surround an air well furnished in typical upperclass Chinese fashion. -- Photos by GARY CHEN/The Star

Typical of architecture of its time, in the 18th century, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion features a mix of features, such as the Scottish cast iron columns and railings that surround an air well furnished in typical upperclass Chinese fashion. — Photos by GARY CHEN/The Star

We would hear tales of a life lived adventurously, one that was, in the end, celebrated by magnificent architecture.

HERITAGE researcher Tan Yeow Wooi released his book,Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee’s Shen Zhi Jia Shu And Hai Ji Zhan, earlier in the year but the passionate historian still gets excited when he discusses its subject matter, the Shen Zhi Jia Shu (Majestic Hall) and Hai Ji Zhan (Prestigious Mansion) on Church Street in George Town.

Taking us on a tour of the two beautifully restored adjoining heritage buildings (now known collectively as the Pinang Peranakan Mansion), Tan explains that the book examines Chung’s character and cultural legacy through the architectural analysis of his grandest properties.

A tin mining magnet, political and social leader, founder of tin-mining town Taiping in Perak, and a rich philanthropist, Chung stood tall as one of the most influential Chinese figures in northern Malaya during the 19th century.

According to Tan, he emigrated from China in his youth and spent two decades building his empire in Malaya, along the way becoming the head of the Hai San Society. Under him, the Larut Wars broke out in Perak between the Ghee Hin and Hai San rival societies, opening the door to British involvement on the peninsula prior to the colonisation of Malaya.

After the 1874 Pangkor Treaty ended the conflicts, Chung was made Kapitan Cina, an acknowledgement by the British that he was a leader of the Chinese communities in Taiping and Perak.

Known for his enormous fortune, Chung built luxurious houses and stayed mostly in Penang up until his death, Tan says.

 

Cantonese pride

Trained in Taiwan, Tan, 53, is a Penang-based architect specialising in heritage conservation. He has undertaken extensive research on traditional Chinese culture and architecture throughout South-East Asia and is also the author of Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi: The History And Architecture.

“To me, the Khoo Kongsi building is the finest example of Hokkien architecture outside of China and, similarly, the magnificent Shen Zhi Jia Shu is its Cantonese equivalent.

“Chung had properties everywhere, including in other parts of Malaya, his hometown Zengcheng and Guangzhou in China and Hong Kong, but none can compare with the one in George Town, with its intricate details and the skilled labour that went into its construction,” says Tan.

Shen Zhi”, loosely translated to mean cautious, was actually a name Chung had given himself in his younger days to reflect the kind of character he wanted to embody. “Jia Shu” refers to the place as being a family school (literally) but here it is actually a clanhouse and ancestral hall.

 

USE BIG SO DETAILS CAN BE SEEN: The superb stucco sculptures inside the Shen Zhi Jia Shu tell stories of ancient China such as the ¿feast of peaches by the jade pool¿.

 The superb stucco sculptures inside the Shen Zhi Jia Shu (Majestic Hall) tell folk stories of ancient China, such as the ‘feast of peaches by the jade pool’.

“I believe that in South-East Asia, Chung is the only Chinese man to have commissioned a life size bronze statue and memorial plaque for himself so that his descendants and fellow clansman could pay homage to him. In return, he would continue to look out for them from the afterlife.

“He saw himself as a pioneer from the Chung clan and in those days, clans were very important. The Chinese immigrants did not lead individualistic lives. He felt that he had a responsibility to unite and look after the clan because he had attained so much success here,” Tan shares.

Pointing to the mansion’s high gable wall made of green bricks, Tan waxes lyrical about the structure’s solidity, demonstrated in how it has survived a century of punishing tropical weather without needing major repairs – “Look at how it’s still standing proudly!”

High gable walls and the use of green bricks in lieu of red ones are distinguishing traits of Cantonese architecture; other elements include “solemn colours” of darker hues like brown and deep maroon as well as a realistic and detailed style of carvings, and linear designs instead of curves.

The many wooden carvings that adorn the nooks and crannies of the mansion are perhaps among the most valuable, artistically speaking. While bricks and stones are the main materials used in the construction of the ancestral hall, nearly half of it is made of wood.

 

MUST USE: Tan Yeow Wooi explaining the ancestral tablets and Chung's bronze statue inside the Shen Zhi Jia Shu.

 Tan Yeow Wooi explaining the ancestral tablets and Chung’s bronze statue.

The countless carvings on the fascia boards, roof trusses, interior screen doors and furniture are bold, sharp and contoured to make them “pop”.

At least seven of Guangzhou’s top carvers were brought in from China to work on the building and, like the Renaissance greats, they left their mark on the pieces by inscribing their names and that of their workshops.

The superb stucco sculptures on the two gallery walls tell stories of ancient China intertwined with famous folklore and are the most interesting parts of the ancestral hall.

“Perhaps ‘Lord Cao Cao’s grand banquet at Tongquetai’ and ‘feast of peaches by the jade pool’ were some of Chung’s favourite stories,” muses Tan.

“Look at the vibrant colours, detailed craftsmanship and various methods used to make these. It’s intriguing to note that the human figurines are totally different from the typical Cantonese sculptures with oversized heads that are disproportionate to the body,” Tan points out.

While bats hang from the dark timber beam ceiling inside, their colourful stucco counterparts are portrayed in various gravity-defying poses on the roof outside.

 

Despite adjoining each other, Shen Zhi Jia Shu (left) and Hai Ji Zhan are 'as different as heaven and earth' points out Tan.
Despite adjoining each other, Shen Zhi Jia Shu (left) and Hai Ji Zhan are ‘as different as heaven and earth’ points out Tan.

“Bats are auspicious, as the word for them in Mandarin sounds like fu, meaning good luck,” Tan says, explaining that the elaborate dragons, phoenix, flowers and deities on the huge roof ridges show that the property belonged to an extraordinary man.

A 13-panel blackwood mother-of-pearl longevity screen stands in a dark corner of the hall.

To the untrained eye, it is but an antique decoration but Tan says it is of great significance, as it was presented to Chung by a group of officials led by the famous tycoon Cheong Fatt Tze, who was Chung’s junior in rank at the time. “The screen details Chung’s biography, philanthropic acts, good deeds and accomplishments.”

In another corner, a green brick carving mounted on the wall shows how sharp the artisans of that time were. “The way the brick is cut is so precise and clean, it’s amazing,” Tan enthuses.

Other gifts belonging to Chung that are housed in the hall are a root carving of Shou Xing (God of Longevity) riding a deer and two copper vases with dragon handles.

 

Green gem

The Hai Ji Zhan (literally translated to mean Sea Remembrance Store) doubled up as Chung’s company’s headquarters and his official residence.

The massive two-storey mansion was completed in just one year, in time for Chung’s 75th birthday in 1895.

Tan makes an interesting observation: despite the many plots of land he owned, Chung chose the former site of the original Ghee Hin Kongsi headquarters to build his home.

 

MUST USE CAPTION: Luck cast in gold: Bats are auspicious and can be found all over Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee¿s Shen Zhi Jia (or Majestic Hall) in George Town. -- GARY CHEN/The Star

Bats were considered auspicious and can be found in many forms all over structure.

“He wiped out all traces of Ghee Hin there. The Hai Ji Zhan door plaque and a mark on its top left hand corner suggests that Chung’s business was related to the Hai San Society,” Tan explains, and the two societies were arch rivals before Chung gained the upperhand when he was made Kapitan Cina by the British.

The green early eclectic-style bungalow was built to resemble a shophouse – which was exceptionally rare at the time of its construction.

“To have an integrated building that accommodates both a home and business premises indicates that Chung’s lifestyle had been localised.

“As a Kapitan, he needed to deal with people of diverse backgrounds including the British, Indians and Malays resulting in him becoming more open and accepting of diversity and innovation.

“This is reflected in the eclecticism of the architectural and ornamental elements of Hai Ji Zhan,” Tan says, citing as examples Western-style windows etched with flowers and birds, a crystal chandelier, a grand stairway and Scottish cast- iron columns and railings that surround the granite-floored air well.

 

Architecture of social significance

Like his forefathers and contemporaries, Chung held steadfastly to two values: glorifying one’s past and benefiting future generations.

Because of his glowing achievements, he returned to his hometown in China to build houses, repair his ancestors’ graves and construct a school and ancestral hall there – but since Penang was the place where he chose to spend the remaining days of his life, he created a duplicate of what he had built in China on the island here.

Architecture that was of great social significance was the best way to glorify his past and gain greater fortune for future generations. Thus, the sheer scale of the buildings he constructed, the materials used, and the style of the structures, were all symbolic of Chung’s power, economic status and standing in that era, Tan opines.

“It was almost as if he told the artisans and builders, ‘Don’t worry about the budget, just give me the best’.

“Truly, if you look at the architectural details evident in the Shen Zhi Jia Shu and Hai Ji Zhan, you will see that money was not an object.

“He already had everything a struggling Chinese immigrant could want and more, so these buildings were a manifestation of the prosperity he achieved,” says Tan, who spent close to five years researching the buildings and Chung family history.

Despite being adjacent to each other, Shen Zhi Jia Shu and Hai Ji Zhan are as different as heaven and earth, he stresses. The former is typically Chinese while the latter is as Western as it got within the Chinese community at that time.

“To Chung, the ancestral hall was a sacred place so he had to construct it in accordance with what existed on mainland China. Furthermore, the architectural grandeur of Shen Zhi Jia Shu reflects his Chinese title – Mandarin of the Second Rank, which was bestowed upon him by the Chinese emperor during the Qing Dynasty period.

“Hai Ji Zhan is quite the opposite, as it has distinctive Western elements that show the influence of living in British colonial territory.

“Perhaps it was an ode to the British who gave him the Kapitan title,” Tan says, adding that the common architectural element linking both properties are the Victorian cast-iron fencing and crown-topped gate posts.

 

Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee’s Shen Zhi Jia Shu And Hai Ji Zhan (Majestic Hall, Prestigious Mansion) by Tan Yeow Wooi is published by Pinang Peranakan Mansion Sdn Bhd (ISBN: 978-9671069011) and is available from Areca Books (No.120, Armenian Street, George Town; 04-262 0123; arecabooks@gmail.comarecabooks.com).
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion, which has been the site of local and international film shoots, is available for fashion and wedding shoots as well as private gatherings. For more information, visit the website www.pinangperanakanmansion.com.my, e-mail rmhbaba@streamyx.com, or call 04-264 2929.

 

Originally published on The Star OnlineMonday August 12, 2013