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Wednesday August 22, 2007

The last Kapitan

Kapitan Cina Yap Kwan Seng’s philanthropic deeds helped lay the foundations of this country and he should be accorded the appropriate recognition in our museums.

A FEW weeks, ago my uncle and his son came to Kuala Lumpur for a visit. They live in Hong Kong and that was their first trip to Malaysia in several years. My uncle said one of the places they were particularly keen to visit was the National Museum (Muzium Negara). He remembered from an earlier visit nearly a decade ago that his grandfather’s photo was in one of the museum’s galleries and he wanted his son to see it.

Naturally, I was delighted. After all, the country is celebrating 50 years of independence and what better time for someone to reconnect with its historical heritage than on its big birthday? Moreover, though I have been to many excellent museums outside the country, I could not remember when I last visited a museum in Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur’s last Kapitan Cina Yap Kwan Seng, dressed in Qing dynasty attire.

I soon found out, however, that the historical galleries were no longer in Muzium Negara but had been moved to the National History Museum, a pleasant cream-coloured building that used to be the old Chartered Bank, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. (The building is adjacent to Padang Merdeka and the Selangor Club building)

As we stepped inside the small museum, we looked forward to re-discovering Malaysia’s pre-colonial past as well as the life and times of the immigrants who, through a mixture of guts, grit and resolve born of desperate circumstances in the 19th and early 20th centuries, played such an important role in Malaya’s economic and social development.

My uncle was eager to see the exhibits on the Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur, the last of whom was his grandfather, Yap Kwan Seng.

Kapitan Yap Kwan Seng’s philanthropic deeds and his many contributions to the birth of Kuala Lumpur are the stuff of history. Among his numerous achievements, perhaps one of the most significant is the founding of the Tung Shin Hospital (originally set up as a charity named Pooi Shin Tong) to provide free medical care for the poor. The expenses were, of course, underwritten by the Kapitan himself, who also co-founded the Tai Wah Ward of the Pauper’s Hospital that became the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital.

His philanthropic deeds extended beyond Malaya and it is said that a year before he died in 1901, he donated the princely sum of ten thousand dollars towards famine relief in India, a gesture which surely qualifies as Malaysia’s first-ever effort at international humanitarian aid.

Kapitan Yap was also a firm believer in education and co-founded one of the leading schools in Malaysia – KL’s Victoria Institution. As a businessman, he foresaw an increased demand for bricks in fast-growing Kuala Lumpur and established a kiln in a district which came to be called Brickfields, a name by which it is still known today.

Kapitan Yap had made his fortune in tin-mining. It is said he had a workforce of 7,000 and owned more tin mines than any of his contemporaries.

The Kapitan died many years before my mother and her brothers were born, but his legacy had a lasting influence on her family, who kept his memory alive by recounting stories of his life.

My mother remembered quite clearly her grandfather’s houses in Kuala Lumpur and Macau. In fact, before the Japanese War, she lived for a short period in the Kapitan’s residence on High Street in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown (which is today known as Jalan Tun H.S. Lee).

She said it was massive, occupying the greater part of the street, with many deep courtyards, and a large garden in front for entertaining guests. Over 50 people, many of whom were servants, lived in the house. The ancestral hall must have been particularly impressive as she recalled it had a grand altar table upon which was placed chunks of crystal, quartz, gold and other precious stones found in the Kapitan’s tin mines.

As my mother attended school in Hong Kong, she spent summer vacations at her grandfather’s mansion in Macau, which was apparently even bigger than the Kuala Lumpur residence. It was, she said, long and deep, with countless rooms, nooks and crannies, and so large that many sections were perpetually dim as they had no access to natural light.

Sadly, although the old colonial powers of Britain, Portugal and Holland were given their respective places in the National History Museum, my uncle and I could not find any references to Yap Kwan Seng or to the other Kapitans who helped lay the foundations of this country.

History museums are repositories of a country’s past, which, among other things, provide valuable insights into the development of a society or a nation. It is anybody’s guess why the Kapitans of old have been omitted from the Museum.

An oversight, perhaps, but for Yap Kwan Seng’s descendants and for the many people who to this day benefit from his good works, his legacy will never be forgotten. It is in this spirit that I dedicate this week’s column to my great-grandfather, the last Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur.

Ziying is taking a break and will return in October. She can be reached at ziyingster@gmail.com


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