More than a museum

Facade of the JB Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery
at Jalan Siu Nam
During a visit to the JB Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery, Peggy Loh learns more about Johor's early iconic figures

I remember grandma’s stories of her girlhood days when her family lived close to Wong Ah Fook’s extended family in homes built around a pond near Jalan Ah Siang.  When grandma spoke to her cousins, I noticed how she often lapsed into a strange sounding sing-song dialect which I later discovered is Seiyap, a Chinese dialect common among the Cantonese of Taishan origin.  By paying attention to grandma’s historical anecdotes, I slowly pieced together bits and pieces to vaguely understand Who’s Who in the family.  

A wooden staircase that leads to
the Gallery upstairs
I also recall grandma talking about her cousin, Wong Peng Soon, the first Asian to win the All-England title in 1950 with subsequent victories in 1951, 1952 and 1955 and how grandfather trained with him to master the most difficult stroke in badminton – the backhand.  As I gather information about Johor’s Chinese culture and heritage, I learnt more about Johor’s history and the warm relationship between the Chinese and Malay communities in the pioneering era.  My curiosity about the Cantonese community in JB was stirred as I pondered about the connection between a prominent personality like Wong Ah Fook with family members, Wong Peng Soon and Wong Peng Long.

Pioneer Personalities

There is no better way to find out more than to hear it from Dr Cheng Chean Chiang, president of the JB Kwong Siew Wai Kuan or Cantonese clan association, and Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, the great-grand-daughter of Wong Ah Fook who also authored several historical books including, Wong Ah Fook - Immigrant, Builder and Entrepreneur (Times Editions 2002) and Johor – Local History, Local Landscapes 1855 to 1957 (Straits Times Press 2009).  Datin Pat, as she’s fondly called, is a professional historian who gave me further insights into the social life of Chinese immigrants and their role in the development of JB from virtually a jungle into a thriving township. 

Wong Ah Fook founded the
Kwong Siew Wai Kuan in 1878
We met at the JB Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery located in the clan house and as I adjust to the dim interior, my eyes are riveted to an entire wall occupied by a Chinese altar.  Enveloped by the fragrance of burning joss-sticks and with Wong Ah Fook staring at me from his portrait, I feel as if I am in a traditional ancestral hall.  Wong aptly occupies a place of prominence in the Gallery and it is interesting to see twin ancestor portraits of Wong and his wife, Chew Yew, dressed in ceremonial robes or koon phow.  While the costumes look grand, Datin Pat said they were traditional sau yee or funeral clothes that are considered taboo by the Chinese!

She explained that under the Temenggong Ibrahim administration, Chinese planters were invited from Riau and Singapore by the ruler and given permits known as surat sungai to open land in Johor to cultivate pepper and gambier.  The permit holders were kangchu’s or river masters and their plots were named after them as Tan chu kang or Lim chu kang, and some of Johor’s prominent kangchu’s were Tan Kai Soon, Tan Hiok Nee, Lim Ah Siang and Wong Ah Fook.  Kang means “river” in Teochew dialect, while a kangkar is the disembarking point, usually its middle or upper reaches along the river.  In those days, the Chinese had a financial system where they could work without capital and they successfully cultivated large plantations with pepper and gambier as the state’s economic crops that made Johor the world’s largest producer of gambier in the 1880s.

Datin Pat Lim with some of the books
she authored
Wong Ah Fook, the carpenter-turned-builder and successful entrepreneur, is credited for building the magnificent Istana Besar or Grand Palace, Istana Zahariah, Balai Zahariah and the Johor Baru Prison.  A map poster in the Gallery outlines a special land concession granted to Wong for his services to the State and Datin Pat said she had the help of Hj Ismail Nyeh Osman to read the Jawi writing.  

The plot encompasses an area between present-day Jalan Sawmill to the start of Jalan Tun Abdul Razak near Komplex Tun Abdul Razak bordered by the Segget River but the British later reclaimed the land up to Jalan Station.  Traditionally known as Kampung Wong Ah Fook, it has side roads named after Wong’s three oldest sons, Siu Koon, Siu Nam and Siu Chin and was even dubbed as the “Asian Monte Carlo” by English writer, Florence Caddy (1837 – 1923).

Popular pursuits

Ancient musical instruments that
used to play Cantonese music
As Chinese immigrants prospered, Kampung Wong Ah Fook became the centre for leisure and entertainment, with clubs, restaurants, gambling houses, opium dens and brothels – vices that invariably follow immigrants wherever they settled – and secret society activities also flourished.  At that time, gambling houses and opium dens were regarded as forms of investment and sources of much needed revenue in a developing town.  I was told that opium smokers depended on the drug to function as rickshaw pullers or plantation workers and when I saw a collection of opium smoking paraphernalia in the Gallery, it simply attests to how hardworking immigrants were hooked on this habit. 

In this new economy, pawn shops proliferated to meet the needs of immigrants who needed money to support their families and to send back to their homeland.  With irresponsible spending and squandering of hard-earned money, these immigrants often had no alternative but to turn to pawn brokers.  When a large family had a sole breadwinner, this pawn service also helped families to stretch their money for food and new clothes especially during festive seasons.  And when the family had saved sufficient money, they would redeem their valuables from the pawn shop.

Dr Cheng Chean Chiang, president of the JB Kwong
Siew Wai Kuan, initiated the setting up of the Gallery
At one time, the range of ancient musical instruments displayed in the Gallery must have made beautiful music for Cantonese operas but they are now silent.  Dr Cheng commented that with the passing of master musicians, it is likely that there are few people here who know how to play these instruments now. 

During those heydays, a taste of classical music entertainment must have cheered up homesick immigrants and encouraged them to work hard and earn their fortune in Johor Baru, a new land traditionally known by its Chinese name, sun san (Cantonese) or sin sua (Teochew) which means, “New Hill” or “Mountain.” 

Urn used as an incense burner dated 1891, was donated
by Wong Ah Fook's opium company
The Chinese certainly knew how to enjoy their leisure as proven by the priceless collection of old ticket stubs to cinemas like Cathay and Broadway movie theatres and the awe-inspiring Tai Thean Kiew Circus.  In those days, it was a big deal to go for a movie and I remember how my grandparents had regular movie dates at the old Capitol theatre to watch Chinese opera films and I will never forget thrilling to live animals performances in that travelling circus.  Among the collection of vinyl records in the showcase, I was amused to spot copies of opera movies now preserved in CDs and even recognised the lead actor – Yum Kim Fai, a woman whose forte was to act as a man!

Three Great Wongs

A collection of ticket stubs to Cathay and Broadway
theatres and Tai Thean Kiew Circus!
We are familiar with Wong Ah Fook, an icon in Johor history who developed close links with the Johor sultanate and established himself in building construction before gaining success as an influential entrepreneur in agriculture, gambling, banking and land development.  But Datin Pat said along with Wong Ah Fook, two other Wongs – Wong Hee Coo and Dato Wong Shee Fun – should also be recognised for their contribution to the nation in pioneering, education and our independence. 

The first Chinese school in Johor Baru, Yok Choy School, founded by Wong Hee Coo and Luo Yu Sheng of Kwong Siew in 1907, used to occupy the upper floor of the clan house.  This school however, catered exclusively to the Cantonese community so boys from the other dialect groups could not register to study.  In 1911, the Chinese in JB held a celebration procession when the Qing Dynasty in China was overthrown by the revolution led by Dr Sun Yat Sen, and the outstanding performance by the Yok Choy School band caught the attention of the community leaders.

A range of opium smoking equipment, the legacy of
a legal business in early Johor Baru
The leaders were so impressed that they started discussions on the formation of a school that was open to all the Chinese students and in 1913, Wong Hee Coo and Luo, along with Tan Ying Siang and Tay Ah Kit, founded Foon Yew School.  Wong Ah Fook was appointed Head of the School Board with Lim Ah Siang as his deputy while Wong Hee Coo held various important roles in the Board over 40 years. 

He is regarded as the pioneer of Chinese education in JB and for his commitment and contributions to the community, a road adjacent to Jalan Tampoi was named after him.

A banana feeder that dates back to the mid 1880s designed
for use with a teat and a valve on either end, which
allows the bottle to be better cleaned
Datin Pat pointed out that the name, Foon Yew, is maintained in the Seiyap dialect in honour of Wong Ah Fook who was a Cantonese of Taishan origin.  From such humble beginnings, this school has since developed into a renowned educational institution that will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. 

Dato Wong Shee Fun, founder member of the Malayan Chinese Association, was the acknowledged leader of the Chinese community in the 1940s.  At that time, he was also the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the JB Tiong Hua Association and the JB Kwong Siew Wai Kuan.  In the mid 1950s, Dato Wong successfully led a petition to convince Sultan Ibrahim with the idea of Johor as a state within the Federation of Malaya, and for an independent Federation, free from British interference under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman, that paved the way for the nation’s independence.

Rare Relics

Ceremonial items traditionally carried
by the legendary Eight Immortals
from China, circa 1889
Wong Ah Fook was the first president of the JB Kwong Siew Wai Kuan for 40 years with Dr Cheng following closely as the current president for the last 34 years.  Over the years, a vast collection of artifacts was accumulated in the clan house and in 2008 Dr Cheng initiated the setting up of the JB Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery.  Since the Gallery was officially declared open by Johor Menteri Besar Dato’ Abdul Ghani Othman in 2010, there are now plans to expand the Gallery to showcase more exhibits. 

There is a special charm about this Gallery because it is housed in their clan house which occupies a double-story shop-unit, built in 1906, that was donated by Wong Ah Fook.  If the walls could speak, what tales it will tell because this clan house was traditionally the transit point for early immigrants who arrived here to receive help with job placements. 

There was even a hospital upstairs for immigrants to recuperate if they were ill and when they retired, elderly immigrants were welcome to stay.  At their demise, their wake was held in the funeral parlour in the adjacent building. 

A section of the original floor is preserved under the
tiled floor on the ground level of the Gallery
While Datin Pat showed me two hanging glass lamps that were from Wong Ah Fook’s home in Kwangchow, Dr Cheng brought my attention to a stack of large ceramic bowls or phoot, that were once used to serve food to patients in their hospital.  The inscriptions etched into the ancient incense burner said it was donated by Wong Ah Fook’s opium company and in the glass showcase those ceremonial items traditionally carried by the legendary Eight Immortals were once paraded annually in the JB Chingay procession 

Besides the interesting artifacts from trades common among Cantonese merchants like goldsmiths and carpenters, the Gallery also has a place of honour for grand-uncles Wong Peng Soon and Wong Peng Long, the sons of grandma’s aunts – Mak Kwi Tong and her older sister, Mak Pek Ngiew, who were married to Wong Kwong Yam, Wong Ah Fook’s nephew.

Fast Facts

The Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery, located at No. 24 Jalan Siu Nam, Johor Baru, is open daily from 9am to 5pm and closed on Monday.  Entrance fee is RM5 for adults and RM2 for children and students.  For enquiries and group tours, contact Tel/Fax: 607 – 223 3682 or email:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 7 February 2013

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