The two Wongs of Senai

Entrance to the Wong clan house in Senai, Johor
The Indian-Muslim trader who operates his cendol stall by the open carpark where the former Senai wet market was, looked across the busy main road and pointed out that the imposing old building between two rows of old shophouses, was a theatre built by Wong Piang Nam.   

It’s interesting that he was quite knowledgeable and from the inscriptions clearly marked on the fa├žade of the old theatre, we know it was dated 1934 and first known as “Senai Hall” built by “Wong Tack Maw,” the trade name of Wong Piang Nam.  An entertainment centre such as a theatre to stage Chinese opera shows is one of the relics that remain in Senai that gives us a glimpse of how the town was developed into a commercial centre by two pioneers who shared the same surname, Wong.

Inscriptions on the facade of old theatre show that it
was built in 1934 by Wong Tack Maw and called Senai Hall
From the research carried out by scholars in the local Chinese university, a sketchy history has emerged on how the founding fathers built Senai town.  The two Wongs of Senai were Hakka who came from Her Po village in the Guangdong province of China.  Born in 1867, Wong Piang Nam was just aged 17 when he was sold as a migrant worker to work as a tin miner at Belitung Island in Indonesia. 

It was a rags-to-riches story where Wong Piang Nam worked hard to ultimately own his own tin mines and in 1926, he decided to seek his fortune in another land and moved north to Johor in then Malaya where he and his followers settled in Senai.  


Completed with a similar washed granite finishing,
the theatre and two rows of shop-houses were built along
the Senai main road around the same time
At that time, the land around Senai was still undeveloped so his followers cleared the jungles to plant rubber and pineapple that had replaced pepper and gambier as the most important plantation crops in Johor.  Wong, who used the trade name Wong Tack Maw, was a wealthy entrepreneur who owned 1,000 hectares of land in Senai that was cultivated with rubber and pineapple. 

It is believed that he lived in a sprawling mansion built within the Wong Tack Maw plantation while he developed Senai into a commercial centre.  The theatre and two rows of shophouses along the main road may have been the earliest brick buildings constructed in a small town that developed around a network of roads in Lorong 1 and 2 known as the lower street separated by the Senai River, with Lorong 3 and 4 in the high street.  


Stairs to the main door of Jiang Xia Tang
In 1937 a replica of his plantation mansion was built at Lorong 1 and as a benevolent entrepreneur, he later opened this mansion as a shelter for new immigrants who could stay there until they found their footing to settle in a foreign land. 

The Chinese often apply the ancient art of Feng Shui to achieve harmony but nobody knows why Wong Piang Nam decided to name the Wong mansion, Jiang Xia Tang because the word, tang means “hall” as in ancestral halls that honour the departed.  He probably just wanted to have a town house but it is unclear if he ever stayed there and for how long but it is believed that Wong Piang Nam passed away in his plantation mansion in 1940.  When his businesses did not go well, he attributed it to the name of the mansion as unsuitable for a residence and should be used as a public place. 

View of the courtyard in Jiang Xia Tang; Note that the
design of the balcony trellis was inspired by the
Chinese character for shou or longevity
Railway transport via the West Coast Line between Prai in Penang to Johor Baru started in 1909 to facilitate the transfer of agricultural products from various districts like Kluang and Senai to Johor Baru and was sent by ferry across to Singapore.  

It was only after the causeway was completed in 1919 that the first good trains travelled from JB into Singapore in 1923.  The other pioneering Wong of Senai, Wong Ji Song, an entrepreneur in the transport business, prospered the town by transporting mainly rubber and pineapple products to Singapore. 




Inside the Three Mountain Kings Ancient Temple, Senai
After the Second World War, Wong Ji Song established the Johor Jiang Xia Tang Mutual Help Association in 1947 which evolved into the present day South Johor Wong Association which changed its name in 1970 and added members who joined from JB, Kota Tinggi, Kluang and Pontian.  

In 1951, the association proposed to buy Jiang Xia Tang and the sale was formally completed in 1978 with they received the land grant.  These premises are now used as an ancestral hall for the Wong clan and as a clan house for community events and celebrations.

A wooden stage opposite the temple is still in use to
stage Chinese opera during temple festivals
Before WW2, Senai had two Chinese schools – one in the high street and the other in the lower street – but after the war they were merged to form Zhong Zheng Public School which continues to this day as SRJK (C) Senai.  

Since 1946, there was a proposal to build a temple and the town’s fund-raising committee raised a substantial sum but when they saw the need for more classrooms, they decided to donate the sum of RM2000 to the school.  While the school originally planned to build an extension on a plot of land donated by Wong Ji Song near Lorong 4 in the high street, the school committee in return decided to present the land to build the temple and the Three Mountain Kings Ancient Temple was built in 1947.

A raised-roof structure was an architectural design for
better ventilation in shop-houses built in the 1930s
This temple remains a place of worship for the town today and an adjacent hall is used to host special events like weddings while a wooden stage built opposite the temple is still used for Chinese opera shows during temple festivals.  In Senai’s lower street, the structure of the first theatre is still sturdy but it is in a decrepit state, begging to be restored and given a new lease in life. 

The land opposite the theatre was donated by Wong Piang Nam to build the (former) wet market that was once famous for Senai tofu but after the market was demolished, it is used as a public car park where businesses still thrive around it.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 12 Sept 2014

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