Wong Ah Fook - an eminent Johor pioneer

Jalan Wong Ah Fook is a familiar main road in Johor Baru but who was Wong Ah Fook?
                                                          
Wong Ah Fook, an eminent
pioneer in Johor
Wong was a key personality in Johor history who had close links with the Johor sultan and established himself in building construction before gaining success as an influential entrepreneur.  As a carpenter-turned-builder, Wong is credited for building the magnificent Istana Besar or Grand Palace, Istana Zahariah, Balai Zahariah and the Johor Baru Prison, among other shops and buildings.

Wong Fook Kee, better known as Wong Ah Fook or simply Wong Fook, came from a distinguished Taishan family in Yanjincun.  At that time, the warring struggle for land and resources between the Cantonese and Hakka around the Pearl Delta, made it difficult for Wong to improve his future.  So in 1854, 17-year old Wong left home to seek his fortune in a distant land.

Thousands of Chinese immigrants or singkeh, desperate for a better life, arrived in Nanyang or Southern Seas, in the 19th century.  Wong suffered the same fears and anxieties, the same hopes and aspirations as other immigrants, but he survived while many perished.  Every immigrant was to find his own path to wealth and while Wong had courage and fortitude, he was also a genius in turning opportunities into profits.

Wong was not a coolie or a merchant and with only a basic education, he was also neither ignorant nor uninformed.  When Wong chose to be apprenticed to a man in the woodworking business, his future livelihood was literally in his hands.  His ability to turn his carpentry skills into a construction business proved that he also had good entrepreneurial skills.

Facade of the Grand Palace with a view of the stairs
which leads directly into the throne room
He then obtained the benevolent patronage of Hoo Ah Kay, a fellow Cantonese nicknamed, Whampoa, who had a successful business as a ships’ chandler.  Whampoa who spoke English well, moved confidently in European social circles and it was he who introduced Wong to Temenggong Sri Maharaja Abu Bakar, a Johor ruler who was open to all Chinese and had plans to start a wave of modern development.

By then Wong had earned a reputation as the building contractor who completed two warehouses for Paterson & Simons, one of the European companies that developed out of an older firm founded by William Whemys Ker in 1828.  Among the first Europeans to set up business in Singapore, Ker was a friend and business associate of the Temenggongs of Johor, who had warehouses at Havelock Road, by the Singapore River.

Wong later met the Maharaja’s consort, Maharani Fatimah, the former Wong Ah Gew, also a Cantonese.  The Maharaja had such a high regard for her that he named the Muar district, Bandar Maharani, in her honour and when he attained the title of Sultan in 1885, she was bestowed the title of Sultanah.  Traditionally, Chinese who share the same surname are regarded as being related to each other and Sultanah Fatimah addressed Wong as “older brother” and treated him as her kinsman.

Besides Chinese immigrants who arrived to open up Johor for the cultivation of pepper and gambier in the kangchu system, Europeans and wealthy Arabs came to invest here.  When James Meldrum saw the resources from the Johor jungles, he established the first European enterprise here in a steam sawmill on the left bank of Sungai Segget in 1860.

The building which houses the
Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery at Jalan Siu Nam
was once the Cantonese clan house
The Maharaja appointed a European architect to draw up plans to build a grand palace and entrusted the task of building to Wong in 1864.  He was still a young man and receiving such a major contract – the biggest construction job in its day – proved that Wong had progressed to the point where he could read complex architectural plans and carry out technical instructions.

Building materials were brought in from various sources: ceramic tiles from Europe, marble from Italy, roof tiles from China, granite from Pulau Ubin and fired bricks from Singapore while fine hardwood timber from the Johor jungles was supplied by Meldrum’s sawmill.  Construction was almost complete when the Maharaja instructed Wong to buy soft furnishings like silks, brocade, damasks and fine linen, for the palace from China.

Wong, then 28 years old, felt it was time to take a wife so he also planned to return to his village for this.  All the wedding arrangements were made with the family of his bride-to-be, but on his way home, he saw the devastation of war and how the dead laid where they had fallen.  When Wong reached home, he made a decision to postpone his wedding and used the money he had saved up to bury the dead.

Datin Patricia Lim with some of the
books she authored
With his future father-in-law’s consent, the wedding was postponed to a more auspicious date.  Wong bought land dubbed the Wan’an Cemetery, and gave the dead proper burials.  Wong then returned to Johor to complete the Istana Besar on schedule and on New Year’s Day 1866, it was officially opened.

After saving enough money, he returned to Taishan to marry his bride, Chew Yew, and brought her to Singapore.  In 1870, their eldest son, Siu Nam, was born.

In 1892, Sultan Abu Bakar granted substantial blocks of land to Wong Ah Fook and Lim Ah Siang.  Lim’s land was at Stulang while Wong’s land was called Jiu Soon Kang where his workshop was set up on Jalan Meldrum, the road leading to the steam sawmill. 

Three parallel roads adjacent to Jalan Meldrum were named after his older sons, Siu Nam, Siu Koon and Siu Chin.  This area became known as Kampong Ah Fook.  For 40 years, Wong was president of the Johor Baru Kwong Siew Wai Kuan, the Cantonese clan association with its clan house at Jalan Siu Nam.  This building now houses the Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery.

Further insights into Wong and his contributions to Johor’s early development is recorded in Wong Ah Fook - Immigrant, Builder and Entrepreneur (Times Editions 2002) and Johor – Local History, Local Landscapes 1855 to 1957 (Straits Times Press 2009), books by professional historian, Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, the great-grand-daughter of Wong Ah Fook.

A version of this was published in the May 2016 issue of The Iskandarian

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