Ancestral home of Tun Tan Cheng Lock, a house of honour

[vc_row][vc_column width="2/3"]Steeped in history: The façade of No. 111, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, ancestral home of Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Tan Siew Sin. Illustration: CHIN KON YIT[/vc_column][vc_column width="1/3"][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The mid-morning heat bore down on us as we drove along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock in Malacca.

Due to the unassuming façade, we nearly missed house No. 111, which looked much like the rest of the adjoining houses along that famous, but narrow road.

A covered porch and double-leaf solid timber doors – adorned with gold-coloured, carved Chinese characters – flanked by double-leaf windows characterise the ground floor’s exterior. Above, three wooden louvred windows seem to stand watch over the street below.

However, the simple frontage does not do justice to the immense culture and history that this house represents.

No. 111, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock is the ancestral home of Tun Tan Cheng Lock’s family, first purchased by Tan Choon Bock, Cheng Lock’s grandfather, in 1875.

Tan in front of her familys ancestral home in Malacca. The double-leaf solid timber doors are adorned with gold-coloured, carved Chinese characters.PHOTO: LOW LAY PHON/The Star
Tan Siok Choo in front of her family's ancestral home in Malacca.

Choon Bock was the grandson of Tan Hay Kwan, the first ancestor to arrive in Malacca between 1771 and 1775.

Cheng Lock was one of the key players in Malaysia’s struggle for Independence and founder of political party MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association).

A photographer, videographer and I were scheduled to meet Tan Siok Choo, Cheng Lock’s granddaughter, who was at the house to perform an ancestral remembrance ceremony to mark the death anniversary of Tan Cheng Juay, youngest brother of Cheng Lock.

She was also there to give us a tour of the 18th-century Baba house and share its rich history and architecture, in conjunction with a book she has written.

The title deed of No. 111, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock dates back to 1799. Strong evidence suggests that the house was first built by the Dutch, but also incorporates various Chinese elements such as the courtyards.

Tan inherited the house in 1994, a few years after her father Tun Tan Siew Sin, Malaysia’s longest serving Finance Minister, passed away in 1988.

Initially Heeren Street, the street on which No. 111 is located was renamed Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock after the patriot passed away on Dec 13, 1960 to recognise his contributions to the country.

SEE MORE: Read: Ancestral Home of Tun Tan Siew Sin

Cheng Lock was born in the house, living there until he got married. His only son, Siew Sin, lived there as a child with his paternal grandparents and two younger sisters, Alice and Agnes. His parents and elder sister Lily lived with his widowed maternal grandmother in another house.

Like most houses built during that time, 111, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock spots a narrow frontage for a reason; during Dutch rule, property taxes were based on the width of each house, resulting in narrow but long units.

Tan explained that in those days, houses were built in pairs for a very practical purpose – that, in times of hardship, the owners could live in one and sell or rent out the other. Today, this other unit, No. 109, belongs to a family friend.

Tun Tan Cheng Lock ancestral home
The hall of filial remembrance, which faces the first courtyard, serves as the spiritual hub of the house.

Inside, No. 111 measures 8.8m (29ft) wide by 60m (197ft) long and 7.6m (25ft) high.

At the front porch, two cyclindrical silk lanterns bear the family’s surname written in Chinese, a common feature with houses in those days.

Inside, the ground floor layout basically comprises three courtyards, two main halls and a dining area, with a few seating areas in between.

Half-moon clay roof tiles supported by wooden tile battens cover the roof of the house while terracota tiles arranged diagonally dominate the floors of almost the entire house. In the upper storey, dark brown timber planks serve as floorboards.

In the first hall, a painting of Guan Yu, better known as Guan Gong, a general during the Han dynasty known for his loyalty and integrity, hangs above two altar tables of different heights. Above the painting is a board inscribed with the Chinese characters yiqi, or spirit of righteousness.

Four porcelain figures of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, rest on the higher table, along with other statues and figurines.

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Rose apple tree at Tun Tan Cheng Lock ancestral home
The jambu air (rose apple or water apple) tree in the third and largest courtyard is significant because it was planted to commemorate the birth of Cheng Lock in 1883.

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study at Tun Tan Cheng Lock ancestral home
Tun Tan Cheng Lock's study, where he used to write his speeches, memoranda and articles.


“In other words, this first altar encapsulates the values that the Tan family cherishes – spirit of righteousness, integrity and loyalty, compassion and mercy,” said the articulate Tan, 63.

The furniture in the first hall, arranged along both sides of the wall, comprises China-imported hong mu, or blackwood chairs with marble backs and seats embellished with mother-of-pearl. Tea tables are interspersed between the chairs. On the left and right walls are two huge Chinese paintings and eight calligraphy scrolls.

As Tan led us further in, the airy and bright first courtyard sent out a welcoming vibe. An open space measuring 4.3m by 4.3m (14ft by 14 ft), the floor of the airwell was traditionally used to collect and drain rainwater through underground pipes to the front of the house according to feng shui principles.

Gesturing to louvred windows on the upper floor, Tan brought our attention to panels bearing reversed swastikas, a Buddhist symbol which, according to the book A Dictionary Of Chinese Symbols, has been used from 700AD to mean wan (meaning ten thousand), symbolising eternity.

An old photo of Cheng Lock when he was 45.
An old photo of Cheng Lock when he was 45.

Providing a rich sense of history are various black and white family photographs and portraits, as well as commendation plaques, placed along the passageway passing the first courtyard.

Tan pointed out her parents’ wedding photo, her favourite picture of Cheng Lock, when he was 45, and a signed portrait of the country’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

An interesting architectural feature to the right of the first courtyard are half-bay areas framed by two arches. These arches are very Western, featuring slim salmon-pink bricks, likely used as ballast on Dutch ships and offloaded in Malacca, replaced by spice cargo.

“So this is one indication that this house was built by the Dutch. But courtyards are definitely very Chinese,” she said.

Behind one of the arches is Cheng Lock’s study, where he used to write his speeches, memorandas and articles. A staunch follower of events in China, he helped raise funds when the Japanese declared war on China.

“Can you see, this is a signed photograph (dated Sept 1939) of the late Taiwan president Chiang Kai Shek,” said Tan, adding in jest. “Although I always say, it would be better if it was Sun Yat Sen!”

NEXT PAGE: The family tree and a video interview with Tan Siok Choo.

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