By Tan Mei Kuan and SeeFoon Chan-Koppen
Opened in 2013, the two-storey Chew Museum is located in a bungalow behind Ban Hoe Seng Auto showroom at Jalan Kampar (Jalan Raja Permaisuri Bainun). The private museum houses the history of Chews and their relatives including the Lims and Yeohs. Tracing the genealogy and family history of this impressive family is like finding yourself in a maze of gigantic proportions.
According to the founder of Chew Museum, Ignatius Chew Eng Lin, the Chews are related to Ipoh’s prominent families of Yeohs (the late Dato’ Yeoh Kian Teik and his daughter Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh) and Lims (the late Dato’ Lim Keng Kay and Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik) by marriage.
Follow along as Ipoh Echo finds interesting snippets among the fascinating records by Ignatius who has a meticulous eye for detail.
A Three-Family History and Contribution to Society
How It All Began
“I began collecting in the 1960s with news clippings on my cousin, Yeoh Saw Kheng as I saw her on the front page of a teen magazine in a singing group comprising three of her friends in Singapore. That triggered my interest. I kept that magazine though she never saw it in her life because, in my moving houses, it was unfortunately lost. The next event was when her father, Professor Yeoh Ghim Seng, became a member of parliament in Singapore. So I started collecting newspaper cuttings as I was in Singapore studying at the time. Then Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik became a minister which prompted me to collect too,” Ignatius Chew recalled.
“Plus, I realised we have a few roads named after our family in Ipoh. I have two grandfather’s roads, not bad right? As people said, you can do anything on your grandfather’s road, isn’t it! I find it quite interesting,” the amiable Chew enthused, grinning from ear to ear.
Other roads named after people listed in the Chew Museum are Chew Boon Juan, Chung Ah Ming, Chung Thye Phin, Khaw Sim Bee, Khong Kam Tak, Khoo Cheow Teong, Khoo Sian Ewe, Lau Pak Khuan, Lim Keng Yaik, Ong Saik, Oh Cheng Keat, Yeoh Cheang Lee and Yeoh Khuan Joo.
Ignatius spent six years studying theology in a seminary in Singapore when he decided that the priesthood was not for him and left for London where he became the only first-class honours graduate in psychology from Brunel University London in 1981. Meeting his sweetheart Pauline Hsu Sau Lang (a Hong Kong girl) who was in the same university, they married and subsequently returned to Ipoh for Ignatius to take up the reigns of Ban Hoe Seng from his father.
“I got these articles written by Dr Ho Tak Ming (doctor extraordinaire with a vast knowledge of local history) which enabled me to put up a very basic museum. Then the relatives heard about it. They came, they saw and they got excited. They supplied me with more information and pictures, especially the ladies of the family. We would take group pictures in the museum too during each visit,” he added. And slowly the Chew Museum grew, in groupings of photos and cuttings from magazines, books and newspapers.
In the extensive family tree, Ignatius Chew is the grandson of Chew Boon Juan, a rich tin miner from the early 1900s who later founded Ban Hoe Seng in 1910, then trading in rice and rubber and later motorcycles in 1947 and cars in 1967.
Today, Ban Hoe Seng (Auto) is one of the longest established authorised Honda dealers in Malaysia (more than 62 years) and owns the first gold-rated GBI (Green Building Index) car showroom in Malaysia offering sales, services and spare parts (3S).
Chew Boon Juan was born in 1875 in China. He came to Malaya in 1892 at the age of 17 to work as a kitchen assistant at a tin mine at Kampung Kepayang, Simpang Pulai. From a humble beginning, Chew Boon Juan was then invited by Charles Alma Baker, Kinta Land Office Contract Surveyor, to be his partner to mine Gunung Lanno in 1903. Owned by Baker, Gunung Lanno was touted as the golden mountain. His venture into tin mining paid off handsomely. The newfound wealth enabled him to diversify into other businesses such as sundry shops, properties, rice wholesaler and rubber exporter.
His two close friends in Ipoh then included Capitan Chung Thye Phin and Eu Tong Sen. Practically being neighbours, they shared and rotated their cooks every three months according to the four seasons in China. His bungalow on a three-acre site in Ipoh at Chamberlain Hulu Road built in 1919 is now Raja Perempuan Primary School.
Chew Boon Juan once said, “I love my brothers. Whatever I have, I also want them to have. We came from a poor background. When I prosper I also want my brothers to prosper as well.”
And prosper they did.
Chew Boon Hong was Boon Juan’s fourth brother and was also the most learned one. He came to Kampung Kepayang in the year 1909 to help manage Boon Juan’s tin mining and other businesses. Deeply involved in social welfare services, he donated generously to schools in Ipoh such as St Michael’s Institution, Anglo Chinese School and Methodist Girls School. He also initiated the establishment of Tao Ye School, Xing Yuan She School and Poi Lam School.
Chew Boon San, the third brother of Boon Juan, came to Malaya after their mother passed away in China. Quiet but faithful, he built a bungalow behind Boon Juan’s off Chamberlain Road which houses the Chew Museum today while another bungalow of his is now the home of The Salvation Army.
Meanwhile, Chew Boon Seong was the eldest of the brothers. He came to Malaya just before the turn of the 20th century from China at the invitation of Boon Juan who asked him to come over to help him run the tin mine and sundry shop business. Living at the Kampung Kepayang house, he opened Ban Hock Long, a company engaging in mining business like open quarries and open cast mines
The history of the Yeohs all began when patriarch Yeoh Khuan Joo from Fujian province in China came to Malaya in 1899. He started working in a textile shop, from where he learnt the trade. Then he started a shop of his own and his memory was so good he was able to remember the cost price of each and every bolt of textile in his shop before quoting the sale price. He didn’t have to refer to the original accounts book. That way he built up his company and with the money, he invested in different trades and built up a fortune for the family.
Found in the museum is a handwritten excerpt by Yeoh Khuan Joo dated in 1941 which states, “In the past few decades, in my business dealings, there were people who did not pay me for rent or goods. On three occasions I was cheated of several thousand dollars. I had been a guarantor for nine persons and was burdened in the amount of tens of thousands of dollars. Each time I suffered a loss, all I could do was to counsel and console myself, transforming a big thing into a small thing and a small thing into nothing.”
It continues, “Consequently, all my life I have had no occasion to quarrel or fight with anyone, nor to get entangled with the courts. Instead, I have desired to live harmoniously with my fellow man, like brothers. I only wish the people of the world could be like me, and not bother the government, or the police department, or the judges.”
“I am now 70 years old. As the saying goes, ‘since ancient times, a person who lives till 70 is rare.’ Sooner or later, I shall be like a candle in the wind. Thus I am recounting some family history to display at home, firstly in the hope that future generations will emulate their ancestors’ virtues of sincerity, honesty and magnanimity and secondly, as a historical record,” it concludes.
His third son, Professor Yeoh Ghim Seng, was the most well-known, becoming Professor of Surgery at the National University of Singapore, Speaker of the Singapore Parliament from 1970 to 1989 (one of the longest-serving Speakers of any parliament in the world) and Acting President of Singapore.
Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh
And the most famously internationally is none other than Ipoh’s own Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh (Yeoh Choo Kheng), internationally acclaimed actress and producer who has starred in nearly 30 films including global hits like “Tomorrow Never Dies”, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Sunshine”, “Mummy 3”, “The Lady” and recently “Crazy Rich Asians”. The star won the Miss Malaysia crown in 1983. Through her films, she has challenged the traditional views of Asian women by creating very strong female roles.
She is the daughter of the late Dato’ Yeoh Kian Teik (grandson of Yeoh Khuan Joo, therefore, the eldest son of the eldest son of the patriarch) and Datin Janet Yeoh.
The first Lim to arrive in Malaya was Lim Seok Lam. He first arrived in Kampar, working in the tin mining industry. His brother, Lim Seok Tan, arrived later, believed in the year 1895 at the age of 24 from the village of Che Ling, Guanqiao town, Fujian province. Seok Tan set up his own business in Tapah. Seok Tan found his fortune in setting up “Chop Teik Seng”, a provision shop located on 46 Station Road in Tapah, a feeder town for Cameron Highlands which was being developed.
Lim Seok Tan became a landlord, owning a good proportion of the shophouses in Tapah, besides a number of rubber estates. Being one of the wealthiest men in town, he established a tradition of distributing ang pows to the patients of the Tapah District Hospital during Chinese New Year.
It is believed that upon having established himself in Tapah, Seok Tan brought his sister, 15-year-old Lim Siew Tong to Malaya around 1900. In 1903, she married Yeoh Khuan Joo.
Yeoh Khuan Joo’s handwritten account describes his wife as, “always been gracious, meticulous, industrious, frugal and skilled at caring for the family and educating our children”.
In the 1930s, Yeoh Khuan Joo’s son, Yeoh Ghim Cheow was married to Chew Gaik Tiew, the daughter of Chew Boon Juan. In the 1940s, Yeoh Khuan Joo’s daughter Monica Yeoh Suan Bee married Chew Choon Kok.
Meanwhile, the eldest son of Lim Seok Tan, Lim Cheng Chuan was elected President of the Royal Ipoh Club in 1959, the first Asian to hold the post.
The notable grandsons of Lim Seok Tan are namely the late Dato’ Lim Keng Kay, the leading industrialist cum developer and the late Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik, the former Energy, Water and Communications Minister and longest-serving political party chief (former Parti Gerakan president).
Bonanza Venture Holdings Sdn Bhd founded by the late Dato’ Lim Keng Kay has a strong track record as an investment holding company through four principal business activities; property development (Kinta Properties), education (Matrix Global Schools, Kinder Labz and Ipoh Learning & Training Institute), hospitality and leisure (Meru Valley Resort) and automotive distribution (Ban Hoe Seng Auto). Forming its corporate social responsibility (CSR) arms are Ipoh Echo, community-based newspaper and ipohWorld, a not-for-profit organisation which saves, records and makes available to the public worldwide, the accurate local history of Ipoh and the Kinta Valley.
It is currently helmed by Dato’ Lim Si Boon, Keng Kay’s son. Si Boon is also the branch chairman of the Malaysian International Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MICCI).
“After visiting this space, most people express their regret of discarding their own collection of photographs as they did not value it then,” Ignatius Chew pointed out.
“All relatives did say one thing: please don’t give this (Chew Museum) up,” he beamed.
“However, as I have no progeny, I am hoping that someone from our huge clan can take up the challenge when I am gone and continue to preserve this legacy of our connection and genealogy for future generations to come. A lot more needs to be done, proper curating incorporating technology perhaps. We have this beautiful space that is perfect for a small museum. At the moment because we don’t have staff, it remains a private one but I would love to see this becoming a space where we can welcome small groups of guests and explain the rich history that the Chew-Yeoh-Lim clans have created,” he concluded.