Heritage is time’s inheritance, what the past has relinquished to the present, and what value the present bestows upon the future...
Architect Junn Ng was thrilled when her 16-year-old daughter Ch’ng Symn coined the above phrase while they collaborated on their first book together, The Legacy And Heritage Of Loke Chow Kit. The mother-daughter duo had a practical system in place, with mum handling all the research and technicalities, and daughter fine-tuning the language and, ultimately, making the book reader-friendly. And the sweetest part of the deal for the youngster? She got paid in her favourite pop artistes’ albums!
“I was kind of joking about the albums, but I did end up getting them anyway, haha! I got four of them! Seriously, however, not many people my age have the opportunity to write a book, let alone on such an important historical figure. It was this sense of purpose – that I was doing something important – that I really enjoyed,” shares the secondary school student, whose growing up years were spent visiting her mother’s workplace and project sites, gaining valuable experience in architecture and heritage conservation.
Mum, Ng, is a registered architect and conservator who serves as an expert in the architecture and landscape committee of the National Heritage Council. She has earned prominent conservation projects including the Malaysian Parliament House and the Undan Lighthouse (the third lighthouse built in the Straits of Malacca, dating back to 1880). She is also involved in many heritage impact assessment studies and heritage capacity buildings throughout Malaysia and abroad.
“For me, the whole process of working on this book was very rewarding. Because I was new at this (writing and publishing), there were many interesting interactions with various people, including my own daughter. It wasn’t just a monotonous process of writing. We were all learning together along the way,” says Ng during an interview in Petaling Jaya.
“The spirit of heritage is generational. It’s something important that needs to be passed down. And this was very much the case with this book. I was literally putting all this information into Symn’s hands, for her to sieve through and make sense of. I had my daughter late in life, when I was 40, so I felt like I was truly passing on this valuable information – about Chow Kit; about KL and its environment at the turn of the century; about the built heritage and architecture during the British Empire – to a new generation. Symn was born in 2004 and she is Gen Z, after all, that’s a two-generation difference, and we have a lot of different views on things.”
Ng shares that the book took five years to complete, including research time.
“In 2014, I was commissioned by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall to be the heritage consultant for the former PAM Building on Jalan Tangsi (formerly Barrack Road) for the conservation of the Loke Chow Kit’s mansion, Loke Hall. As part of this conservation project, we had to do a lot of historical research and documentation before commencing the restoration work,” she reveals.
Born in George Town, Penang, Ng admits that she didn’t know much about the historical or social culture of the time (the book spans from the 1880s till today) or the many personalities that once populated Kuala Lumpur.
More than a biography
“As time went by and I was doing more and more research, it dawned on me that I really needed to compile all this heritage documentation and take it to the next level, by putting it into book form. I found myself recognising the many parallels of the building I was working on, with my own childhood home in Penang. This further intrigued me and kickstarted a long quest.”
Ask Ng today and she will tell you that her work gave her the opportunity to get to “know” Loke Chow Kit, the man behind the building she was working on.
“To be honest, my research stopped being work and was something I actively looked forward to doing, because I was so in awe of him,” she admits.
“I was doing so much more than just conserving the house. I was discovering his character, and found much of what I was learning to be so relevant to our Malaysian social history and cultural heritage. I was compelled to go further, dig deeper.”
According to Ng, however, the book is not merely a biography. While there are seven chapters, only one has been devoted to Chow Kit’s life. The other chapters explore his various trades and places of residence, as well as trace out the Kuala Lumpur (or Kwala Lumpur as it was known) of yore.
The authors have included over 300 photos from various sources, including some truly vintage snapshots, making this a visual feast for the discerning reader. What’s more is that they have gone the extra mile by including interesting nuggets of information that will help one get a sense of what life was like back then.
“The book is about the tangible and intangible heritage that was once associated with Loke Chow Kit, which is still very relevant today, ” shares Ng, who got her Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture at the University of Oregon, in the United States, and has worked for renowned architectural firms in Kuala Lumpur including Hijjas Kasturi Associates and SA Architects.
“As an architect, I was also very fixated on learning more about architectural details, materials and finishings of the buildings built in those early years, and the history of the sites that were associated with Loke Chow Kit. This led me on a journey to Singapore, and various parts of Malaysia, where he worked and prospered.”
Chow Kit and Harley Davidson
According to Ng, this is the first time a book has been written about the Chinese businessman, so sourcing for information was often an arduous task, but always exciting for her.
“At the end of my research I even discovered that Chow Kit had business dealings with my great grandfather and that really blew my mind!” she says, enthusiastically pointing out interesting photos and clippings that she had managed to find in the course of her research.
“Chow Kit was Straits born, very advanced and very hard working. He was a miner, a merchant, a developer. He was most famous because of Chow Kit & Co, the general store,” she gushes.
“He sold a variety of things here – English bacon in tins, tea, cigars, bicycles ... I elaborate more in the book, of course! Did you know that Chow Kit even brought in Harley Davidson motorcycles to Malaya around 1918? He was the sole distributor then, with agents in Singapore, Ipoh and in Penang. Chin Seng & Co, one of the pioneers who set up a motor garage, belonged to my great grandfather,” she says, proudly revealing the family connection which she discovered at the tail end of her research.
The book also takes a good look at three of Chow Kit’s residences, Loke Hall (his former town mansion), Desswood (the country home, where the Petronas Twin Towers currently stand) and Mon Sejour (his holiday home in Penang Hill).
“Deswood is my favourite of the three. To me it is most intriguing because this is where Chow Kit lived the longest, and where he died. I was able to trace out its map and plan. In the book, I describe it using a lot of educated guesswork and my imagination as it no longer exists. As an architect, and after all my research, I think I have a pretty good idea of what it would have looked like.”
Ng says it was also important for her to share her architectural knowledge with readers.
“We included architectural drawings and significant heritage materials because we wanted readers from all generations to learn the historic building terminology. Today they don’t build like this anymore, but it’s knowledge that shouldn’t be lost.”
The Legacy And Heritage Of Loke Chow Kit is available here.