THE KAPITAN SYSTEM - XI
By Wu Liu
Sunday Gazette, June 19, 1960
KAPITAN AH QUEE AND HIS FAMILY
Kapitan Ah Quee alias Chung Keng-swee, venerable leader of the Hai Sans in the Larut Wars, had the good fortune to out-wit and outlive So Ah Chiang (killed 1861) and Lee Ah Khun (drowned in 1872), two of Ghee Hin's formidable headmen.
His opponent of the Ghee Hin camp was Chin Ah Yam, later Kapitan Chin Ah Yam, attorney of Ho Ghi-siu (the actual leader of Ghee Hin who always kept himself in the background).
Ah Quee and Ah Yam were the main signatories to the "Engagement" entered into at Pangkor Island by twenty-six Headmen of the Chinese Secret Societies on 20th January, 1874.
On the same day, the Treaty of Pangkor was signed by the Malay chiefs under which Raja Muda Abdullah was recognised as Sultan of Perak. As the Mantri of Larut, an unstable ally of Ah Quee, was not in the good book of Sultan Raja Muda Abdullah, the cause of the Hai Sans seemed hopelessly lost.
The Luckier Winner
Three days afterwards, Ah Quee and Ah Yam were both appointed members of the Pacification Commission headed by Captain S. Dunlop and Messrs. Frank Swettenham and W. A. Pickering, one of whose terms of reference was to arrange for an amicable settlement of the squabbles over the tin mines at Larut.
The wheel of fortune unexpectedly in favourof the Hai Sans when the Commissioners after due investigation and deliberation decided to allocate the mines in Klian Pauh (Taiping) to the Hai Sans and the mines in Klian Bharu (Kamunting) to the Ghee Hins.
As the tin deposits in Klian Pauh were reputed to be superior and rich, the Ghee Hins were extremely dissatisfied.
It was only after the administration of a stern warning by the commissioners (official side) that the Ghee Hins were quietened down but not without great disappointment.
In time, Dame Fortune smiled on Ah Quee, the luckier winner of the Klian Pauh tin-fields.
Ah Quee's Magnanimity
In spite of his riches and the concomitant greatness achieved by him, Kapitan Ah Quee was always magnanimous towards to his less fortunate rival, Kapitan Ah Yam.
Both Kapitan Ah Quee and Kapitan Ah Yam were appointed members of the State Council of Perak which held its first meeting at Kuala Kangsar on 10th September, 1877.
Kapitan Ah Quee's magnanimity is manifestly clear from the Council Minutes of Perak in "Papers on Malay Subjects" by R. J. Wilkinson, F. M. S. Government Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1908.
When in December, 1881, Kapitan Ah Yam applied for a grant of land in Taiping town (Kapitan Ah Quee's sphere of influence) for the erection of a Chinese theatre "for the instruction and amusement of the people" at the Council meeting, it was Ah Quee who supported it, saying that "the people like the idea".
In consequence, the Council agreed to grant a piece of land, 300 feet by 180 feet, on a ten-year lease, free of rent, to Kapitan Ah Yam for his theatre building in the heart of Taiping, subject to certain provisions. (Vide "Papers on Malay Subjects", op. cit., Part IV, p. 30)
Founder of Taiping
Who was this magnanimous public-spirited and loyal Kapitan China of Perak, described by his Chinese biographer as "the Richest Merchant" of his time? (Vide "A Miscellaneous Chronicle of Penang", Kuang Kuo-hsiang, Singapore World Book Company, 1958, p. 108)
According to the Chung family record (See Footnote: A), Chung Keng-kwee alias Ah Quee was born of a hardworking peasant family in the village of Cheng Sheng of the Kwangtung Province. His father, Chung Hsing-fah, had five sons and Ah Quee was the third.
Forced by turbulence in China, good old Chung Hsing-fah migrated abroad to seek new pastures. e was later followed by his second son, Chung Keng-seng. A filial son, Chung eng-kwee tilled the soil of the family plot diligently to support his mother, Madam Lai, and the family.
As, after a lapse of some years, there was no news from his father or second elder brother, Madam Lai sent Chung Keng-kwee abroad to look for them. So in about 1841, Chung Keng-kwee, a brawny youth of 20 with a pair of sharp penetrating eyes, braved the stormy South China Sea in a frail junk for Malaya.
Eventually he found his father and elder brother, then well established in business, in Perak. His elder brother, Chung Keng-seng was so prosperous that he was popularly known as "Lui Kung Seng" and his daughter was subsequently married to the well-known "Mining King" of Perak, Towkay Foo Tse-choon. (Kuang Kou-hisang, ibid, pp. 108-109).
That, in a nutshell, was how Ah Quee first came to Malaya, later, as we have shown, to become the founder and maker of Perak's first famous town of Taiping (which means "Supreme" Peace").
Mandarin Of The 2nd Rank
In those days there were no Malayan citizenship laws, and it was the practice of prosperous immigrant Chinese to return to, or pay a visit to China.
Kapitan Ah Quee, now a man of position and opulence, occasionally visited his home village in China, and, in commemoration of the birthday of his mother, Madam Lai, founded and endowed a big scholarship fund for poor Chinese scholars preparing themselves for the time-honoured civil service examinations.
On sundry other occasions, he also contributed generously to charitable works, including a Flood Relief Fund in Chili and a War Relief Fund arising from the Franco-Annam war under the command of Viceroy Li Hung-chang.
In recognition of his munificence, the Manchu Imperial Government fittingly conferred on him the title of "Mandarin of Second Rank" retrospectively for three generations. Thus Kapitan Chung Keng-kwee, his father, Chung Hsing-fah, and his grandfather, Chung Tung-lin, - the latter two posthumously - became simultaneously Mandarins of the Second Rank - a highly cherished honour in China. (Vide "The Chung Family Record", op. cit., p. 4)
Ah Quee's Last Day
Kapitan Ah Quee died in Penang in 1898, a multi-millionaire, leaving behind very extensive landed property in Penang, Hongkong and Perak.
His memory is perpetuated in Penang by two streets named after him: Keng Kwee Street and Ah Quee Street.
A lesser known but more significant fact is an historic temple built by Kapitan Ah Quee, dedicated exclusively to himself. This temple stands on a portion of land, which constituted the former Ghee Hin headquarters at No. 29 Church Street (now occupied by Messrs. Lim, Lim & Oon, Advocates and Solicitors), Penang.
It is a unique private house of worship, wherein a life-sized bronze statue of the late Kapitan is enthroned. The statue is magnificently attired in a Mandarin robe of the Second Rank, topped with a Manchu Mandarin cap.
Behind this august statue, beyond the wall of the outside, is the backyard of the temple. Here in this backyard once lay the notorious well into which victims of the Ghee n Society were thrown.
Some signs of the levelled parapet of the well were still discernible in 1957 when delegates to the Southeast Asian History Conference, sponsored by Professor C. Northcote Parkinson of the University of Malaya, Singapore, were conducted to the site under guidance of Mr. C. O. Lim and myself.
Chung Thye Phin
Kapitan Ah Quee had nine male issue, the 4th and best known of whom was Chung Thye-phin. (See Footnote: B)
Born in 1876, Thye-phin received his education at the St. Xavier's Penang. Upon leaving school, he was initiated into his father's business.
An enterprising youth with a flair for progress, he later started a number of tin mines of his own, including a deep-shaft mine at Tronoh , adjoining the famous mine of the same name, and the hydraulic mine at Batu Tugoh.
His open-cast mines were operated on the most modern system in his time. He had the distinction of being the first Chinese miner to have introduced the latest appliances on the mines, under the supervision of a European engineer. (Vide "Twentieth Century Impression of British Malaya", op. cit., p. 130)
He also had vast interests in some of the Government farm monopolies. At one time, during the latter part of the first World War, he was among the few who were permitted by the Government to print and issue 10-cent notes for circulation.
Malaya's Last Kapitan
in public life, this worthy descendent of Kapitan Ah Quee was the recipient of a tassled "gold medal" from the Government of Indo China (Annam) for his liberal gifts to the Relief Fund. (Vide "The Chung Family Record", op. cit., pp. 9-12)
He was appointed in March 1918, by Sir Arthur Henderson Young to be a member of the Federal Council of the Federated Malay States during the temporary absence of the Honourable Mr. Eu Tong-sen (Vide K. L. F. M. S. Correspondence Ref: No 3663-1917 dated 20th March 1918).
He also served as a member of the Commission to enquire into and report on the in Mining Industry, for which all the members were thanked by Mr. E. L. Brockman, Chief Secretary, F. M. S., for "the thoroughness with which you have gone into the various and important points raised and the clearness with which the conclusion arrived at regarding them have been recorded". (K. L., F. M. S. Correspondence Ref: No. 508-1919 dated 29th Jan., 1920)
At about this time he was made a Justice of the Peace.
On 24th March 1921, His Highness Iskandar Shah K. C. M. G., the Sultan of Perak, with the advice of Colonel W. J. P. Hume, British Resident, Perak, conferred on him the title of "Kapitan China", in all probability, the last of the Chjinese Kapitans in Malaya.
He was installed by the Sultan of Perak in Kuala Kangsar amidst much traditional pomp and pagentry. His appointment was so popular with the community that he was escorted to Kuala Kangsar by the delegates of more than 70 Chinese organisations from Perak. (Vide "Miscellaneous Chronicles of Penang", Kuang, Kuo-hsiang op. cit., pp. 112-113)
The Man Thye Phin
A widely-travelled Malayan, Kapitan Thye-phin had gone round the world on many a business-cum-pleasure trip.
On one occasion, when he was accompanied by his wife Madam Lee Sau-yeng, to China, he undertook a perilous trip up the scenic gorges of the Yangtze River at Chungking, China, thus earning for himself the disctinction of being the first non-China-born Chinese to have made the venture. It was here that he was enraptured by Nature's inimitable splendour.
A keen sportsman, motoring was one of his hobbies. When Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and the Duchess of Connaught and Princess Patricia paid an official visit to Penang, they were driven by Kapitan Chung Thye-phin
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in his own private car.
And what of Thye-phin the man?
A lover of the good things of life, he lived gaily and luxuriously, so much so that many a legend of his Bohemian mode of living still lingers in the memory of his close contemporaries.
Chung Thye-phin, a Justice of the Peace and the last kapitan China of Perak, died in May 1935.
The memory of this distinguished scion of the Chung family is kept green in Penang by at least two well-known architectural monuments.
Facing the sea at Gurney Drive, Penang, today stands a discoloured but once magnificent mansion. One of the most spectacular buildings of his time, this mansion was conceived and designed by the widely-travelled and resourceful Kapitan.
The mansion is unique because it appears to have been constructed upon a hillock, under which runs a subterranean ground floor with signs of a once well-ventilated and artistic suite of rooms, whereas it was actually built upon a stretch of level sandy beach. Access to this subterranean chamber is made through two long, covert exits facing the sea at Gurney Drive (formerly known as North Beach).
It is a remarkable coincidence, certainly not envisaged by its original founder, that the mansion is now used as a hotel and that within the walls of its subterranean dance-floor, the echo of "Wine, Woman and Song" reverberates to the rancous music of a modern Joget which holds a nocturnal performance therein.
The Famed Swimming Pool
The other architectural monument is the once famous fresh-water private swimming pool built in Relau, the first and the most expensive pool in Penang at that time.
Legend says that the Kapitan was inspired by the artistic canals of Venice and the enchanting ponds and lakes of China when he designed the swimming-pool, which was constructed by Mr. B. H. Ung, the first Chinese architect who introduced reinforced concrete buildings to the community, notably the Ban Hin Lee Bank.
The Survising Descendents
There are surviving altogether ten sons and seven daughters by the three widows of Kapitan Chung Thye-phin. Of these, two sons and two daughters are by his widow, Madam Lee Sau-yeng, a modest English-speaking lady of infinite classical Chinese feminine grace.
Chung Kok-soon, the first son, is a lawyer practicing in Singapore.
Chung kok-heng, a qualified motor engineer, is thriving as a financial agent at China Street Ghaut, Penang.
Mary Chung Yuet-seen one of the two daughters is the wife of Mr. Justice H. T. Ong of the Federation of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
Louise Chung Yuet-kuen, the other daughter, is the wife of Dr. C. H. Yeang, a very successful medical practitioner, who has equally distinguished himself in many other spheres of activities, notably as Patron of Jaycee, Penang, and Organizing Secretary for the Theosophical Society of Malaya and Singaproe.
A. This Chinese family record bears the title "Record of Meritous Deeds of the Chung Family," which Wu Liu had the privilege to consult. It is the property of Mrs. Chung Thye-phin (nee Lee Sau-yeng).
A few hitherto unpublished facts concerning Kapitan Ah Quee and his forbears and a number of copies of interesting documents of historical importance relating to Kapitan Chung Thye-phin are embodied in the pages of this precious small private publication.
B. The name Thye-phin (which rhymes with Taiping) needs clarification. It is a common belief that the town of Taiping (Supreme Peace) was named after Thye-phin or vice versa. This notion is unfounded, for the syllable "Thye" is indicated by a possibility different Chinese character "Ta"(meaning big).
The confusion arises from the fact that the character , "Ta" is pronounced "Thye" (or Tai) in Hakka. In fact, "Thye" is a "generation name" and all the eight brothers of Thye Phin bear the same generation name: Thye Choon, Thye Jin, Thye Jit, Thye Cheong, Thye Yen, Thye Hin, Thye Chiong and Thye Kim.