House that Foo Choong Yit Built

In the early 1950s, it was customary for those living in Menglembu who owned a car, to take a drive to Ipoh after dinner. Tambun Road and Tiger Lane, with their orange street lights, were the favourites.

As a kid, barely 5 years old, I could hardly see anything from the car windows without standing on the seat. It was common during these outings that the residences of my maternal grandmother’s relatives were pointed out to us.  As children, we were reminded which granduncle lived where.

The most memorable sight was the mansion built by my maternal great grandfather, the late Foo Choong Yit, OBE, a prominent tin miner in Kinta Valley then. We were told that the State Government took ownership of the land and building and my maternal great grandmother had to move to Greentown.

I recalled during the old lady’s 80th birthday, in the early 1950s, there was a big tea ceremony where all her sons and daughters and their families would kneel in respect to the great matriarch. In return, each member of the family, especially the great grandchildren, were given a golden heart-shaped memento for longevity.

There were seven grand uncles living in Ipoh and five grand aunties, four in Ipoh and one in Penang. They were the children of Foo Choong Yit.

Back to Foo Choong Yit’s mansion, I could still recall visiting the house (now the Darul Ridzuan Museum) along Jalan Dato Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab. The path leading to the house was lined with mangosteen trees.  At the back of the house were the servants’ quarters. I remember seeing a well inside the mansion. As I climbed the steps leading to the main hall, I could hear a radio playing the popular songs then. I did not know the names of the songs then but could now recall them with the aid of Youtube. My visit was around 1950, and beyond that I have no further recollections of the mansion.

In my after-dinner drives, my grandmother kept reminding us that the mansion was built by her father.  She recounted a story of her father flying to Singapore for a mahjong session with the famous Foo Wen Fu (Singapore’s Tiger Balm Gardens and Tiger Balm fame).

I am keen to know how the patriarch got his OBE (a great honour for a Chinese then) from King George V. Hopefully, some relatives out there could fill me in.

Since the building was sold to the Perak State Government, I have only returned to the mansion twice – once when Perak’s tin mining history was on exhibition and recently on snakes. It was an incredibly big house but I could not recall those associated with it. The only person I saw at the house was my mother’s cousin who was killed in a car accident in Perth in the late 1950s and a lady by the name of “Aunty Choon”.  I was told that she was an adopted daughter of my great grandfather.

I remember the funeral procession of my great grandmother. It was a great send-off with Chinese school students, members of Chinese associations and surviving relatives in attendance. The procession went down Hugh Low Street and up to Brewster Road. It was over a mile long with its retinue of cars and buses in tow.

I visited the house recently, after 60 years, and was amazed by its size. The two air raid shelters built within the compound were an added attraction. They were relics of the Second World War.

I am writing this piece so that my early childhood recollections will be kept in perpetuity.  I hope descendants of the late Foo Choong Yit, OBE, would share some wonderful memories of this great tin miner, who was one of the “Kapitan China” in British-ruled Malaya.

Tony Pun

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