In 1999, Yeap Thean Eng bought an old townhouse along Jalan Berek (Barrack Road) in Taiping, a quiet town in the state of Perak, known for several ‘firsts’ in Malaysia.
Little did he realise that he had bought a ‘tin mine’ of sorts – the home-cum-office of the Kapitan China, Chung Keng Quee, which was built in 1884.
The title ‘Kapitan’ was given to the chief of the community during the days when the British ruled Malaya in the 1800s, up until the nation gained independence in 1957.
“I was not into heritage at the time (when he bought the first shop lot),” admitted Yeap.
“My family bought the unit next door, five to six years later. We only realised its heritage value in 2005.”
Born in 1821 in Xinchun Wei, Zengcheng district in Guangdong, China, Chung arrived in Penang in 1841 before making his way to Perak. His father and brother had already established themselves in business and trading and the young Chung joined them in their quest.
“Chung had used this as his home and office where he runs the tin mining business. This is because the train station was nearby and it was easy to gather the tin and send it to Port Weld (Kuala Sepetang) to be shipped off. Taiping, in the 1800s, was the leader in tin mining and that’s how Chung made his fortune.”
In addition to the first museum, prison, and magistrate’s courts, the nation’s first railway line was between Taiping and Port Weld. Such was the importance of the town that in 1877, Taiping was made the administrative capital of Perak. It was only in 1937 that Ipoh was named the Silver State’s new capital.
Not only was Chung a tin magnate, but at the age of 40, he was named the dragonhead of the Hai San Secret Society – an influential triad that dominated Taiping and Penang.
The Hai San were notoriously known for their fights against an opposing triad group, Gee Hin, which eventually led to the Larut Wars between 1861 and 1873.
Over the decades, Chung’s residence was split into two units. One, is now Yinn’s Patisserie, while the other is home to Bee Poh Arts Co., an interior design company that sells and refurbishes old, wooden furniture.
The Kapitan’s home is part of the Taiping Heritage Trail.
Having discovered the beauty of the past and the importance of his townhouse, Yeap started indulging in history. Today, he is the president of the Taiping Heritage Society and plans to restore the units to their original state, as the town celebrates its 150th anniversary next year.
“The exterior facade is pretty much similar to what it was in 1884,” said Yeap, while pointing to an enlarged image of the home, captured a century ago.
“While the interior at the eatery is similar to what it looked like originally, with the same wooden flooring and stairs, the interior of the unit next door has been renovated. I had tiled up the floor and got the plaster ceiling done, oblivious to its historical value.
“Now I plan to remove all those modern fittings and find the right wood and other materials to construct the interior of the home, as it was, originally. It is certainly going to be a pricey affair, but it will be worthwhile,” he added.
Yeap did not discount the possibility of seeking assistance from non-governmental organisations or historical societies that believe in preserving heritage. He highlighted Think City’s role in providing grants to preserve historical sites.
Think City, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Bhd, in 2022, selected 23 applicants for its Cultural Economy Catalytic Grants Programme. The initial areas of focus for the programme included Lenggong, Kuala Kangsar, and Taiping, in Perak.
“I truly hope to get some form of funding to help in this cause. This building is part of Taiping, and the nation’s history. It would be nice to do it up and ensure that future generations get to see what the architecture in Taiping was like in 1880s,” Yeap added.