THE MANSION’S PROMINENT OWNERS
George Town’s Co Founder and
The Man Who Built The Mansion
Whereas most history books on Penang begin with the figure of the controversial British subject Francis Light, Koh Lay Huan—who would become the second most important man in Penang, and construct the East Indies Mansion— predates Light’s arrival in the region.
Millionaire Philanthropist and
Tin Mining Innovator
In 1846, the ownership of the mansion transferred to Chung Keng Kwee, a business titan in his own right who would come to single-handedly control most of Perak’s tin industry— a raw material that was the key driver of economic development in Malaya.
Today, there are two streets in George Town named after Chung Keng Kwee— Lebuh Ah Quee and Lebuh Keng Kwee— giving us some indication of the significance of his legacy. Beyond his contributions to economic development, Chung was a philanthropist and played a key role in uniting the warring factions within the Chinese community, even establishing the first school that accepted students from all Chinese dialect groups. Simply put, it is thanks to him that the Chinese migrants began to have access to education for their children.
In a deed dated 1872, it is stated that Ong Boon Keng, acquired the rights to this property from Chung Keng Kwee. A successful merchant, Ong Boon Keng was well connected to the dominating merchant traders known as the ‘Big 5′. He was responsible for collecting import and export duties as well as the gambling and opium monopolies in Asahan, Sumatra. No 25 remained the Ong’s family ancestral home for 40 years before being sold by tender.
THE MANSION’S NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
In the late 1990s, the mansion had fallen into the ownership of the Great Eastern Life Insurance Company. In the year 2000, they decided to demolish it to make way for modern office buildings. This decision may seem surprising today, but this was a whole eight years before George Town was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008. It was only after this status was granted that a more widespread appreciation of heritage preservation began to emerge. The status also came with consequential architectural restrictions within the George Town heritage zone.
Returning then to that fateful day in 2000, the engines of bulldozers whirred outside No. 25 China Street as they prepared to tear down this dilapidated 200-year-old structure. But in a dramatic turn of events, and just in the nick of time, the Penang Heritage Trust, heralded by some of the most knowledgeable individuals on George Town’s history, swooped in and halted the bulldozers in their tracks. They defended the historical importance of the mansion and obtained an immediate stop work order. Any delay would have relegated this mansion to the annals of forgotten history.
In 2005, David and Rebecca Wilkinson purchased the now roofless property, which had been left derelict. With the help of heritage experts and skilled craftspeople, they began restoring it to its former glory in 2008. The restoration process of No. 25 China Street was a labor of love that took two years to complete. Along with restoring the original architectural features, they also adapted the mansion for modern living, laying new plumbing, electrical wiring, waterproofing and air-conditioning28. Their efforts to restore the mansion has been cited as “a model restoration” by the George Town World Heritage Incorporated, the state-sponsored body tasked with safeguarding George Town’s Unesco Heritage status.
THE MANSION’S PRESENT & FUTURE
The current owner of No. 25 China Street, Mr. Wong, was mesmerized when he toured the mansion while it was still the home of the Wilkinsons. To him, the homeliness of the mansion was like a window into a past world seeping in history and culture.
As someone of overseas Chinese heritage, the visit sparked a curiosity into his own ancestry, and he began to avidly learn about George Town’s entrepôt history.
“It is important to understand this moment in history because the trajectory of many of our families’ lives were impacted by this era. As Chinese immigrants, you see how the story evolved differently for others who left China around the same time. Some headed east, others went west” Mr. Wong said.
His own ancestors left Southern China for America around the same time as the early Chinese immigrants to Penang. But what struck Mr. Wong in his travels to George Town was how familiar some of the old Chinese cultural features were and how they had an uncanny resemblance to his grandparents’ customs and practices he experienced as a child in the United States.
When No. 25 was up for sale, he began to research the mansion’s history and was deeply inspired by the resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit of its former owners, especially Koh Lay Huan and Chung Keng Kwee. These men were leaders in difficult times and were able to collaborate across ethnic boundaries, weaving the multicultural fabric of George Town that is so unique today.
The more he learned about the mansion, the more he felt a strong desire to preserve it as a unique gateway between the past and the future, and to open it up as a boutique hotel so that growing numbers of people can experience the enchantment that he himself felt when he first visited:
“I hope that those who come to stay here will feel a little of that moment in history that represented a turning point in the history of the world. The mansion was built before the fall of the last dynasty of China, and was bound the birth of the era of globalization that has left a mark on the whole world. Penang played an important role in the crossroads linking the East and the West.”
Unlike the more opulent mansions of George Town, No. 25 China Street speaks to the humble origins of the Chinese community in Penang, characterized by courage, creativity, hard work and resilience.
As Penang seeks to stake its place in the world’s evolving future, we hope that the No. 25 China Street—now the East Indies Mansion—will stand the test of a time as a testament to the core qualities that make Penang truly unique: authenticity, cultural diversity, global-mindedness, entrepreneurship and constant evolution.