Leith Street buildings tell tales of their past

Masterpiece: The spiral staircase at the mansion, which nowhouses the Equator Academy of Art.

BASED on “the latest European style” of its time, Leong Fee Mansion, built in 1907 on Leith Street, Penang, has Victorian elements such as cast iron balconies and is distinguished by its imported slate roof. 

However, its interior showcases two enclosed courtyards on each side of a central aisle, which is a testament to Chinese spatial organisation. 

The late Leong Fee was a Hakka tycoon who was also known as Liang Pi Joo. 

He was a friend of Cheong Fatt Tze, a fellow Hakka entrepreneur and business associate, who lived opposite - at the Blue Mansion. 

Leong served as the Qing government's fourth Vice-Consul in Penang from 1902 to 1908. He was also a member of the Perak State Council until his death in 1911. 

He was a wealthy miner, an educational philanthropist and owned tin mines in Tambun, Perak in the 19th century. 

With European engineers, they were among the Chinese mines to introduce open cast mining with electrical machinery. 

His great granddaughter Christine Wu Ramsay's book Days Gone By: Growing Up in Penang tells of the lifestyles and fortunes of four generations of a Hakka family whose presence in Malaya began with the migration of Leong Fee (Kong Tai, to the author) from Guangdong Province in China to Malaya in 1876.  

According to the book, Leong was among the thousands of impoverished labourers that left China at that time seeking a better life or a way to support the families they left behind.  

Leong's rags-to-riches story is typical of that of the many Chinese who were in tin mining and other business interests in Malaya through sheer tenacity and will.  

He also had fook or luck, which was the magic ingredient that made him a millionaire. 

Por Tai, the author's great grandmother and first wife of Leong, was described as “a fierce and imperious woman, the daughter of one millionaire and married to another.  

Tasteful: The reception area of the academy in the mansion.

“A powerful woman in every sense, she controlled Kong Tai's liaisons by selecting his other wives, not only in Malaya but also in China and she also controlled her daughters-in-law.” 

After the war, the Leong Fee Mansion served as St Xavier's Institution for a number of years. The mansion now belongs to the Christian Brothers and is leased to Equator Academy of Art (EAA). 

“We had to spend more than RM500,000 to restore the building. When we first saw it five years ago, the building was in a deplorable state and termite-infested.  

“However, we saw its potential and knew that once restored, its old-world charm would be suitable for an art academy,” said the academy's chief executive officer and principal Chuah Kooi Yong. 

He added that tourists passing by often dropped in to admire the architecture and visited the academy's occasional exhibitions. 

Spotted was Australian tourist Vin McNamara who was with the daughter, Sharon. 

“I love heritage buildings like this. It reminds me of my Victorian house in Melbourne,” he said. 

Heritage: Benggali Mosque at Leith Street.

At the other end of Leith Street is the Benggali Mosque, which is believed, was founded in 1803 on a site granted by the East India Company during George Leith's term as Lieutenant-Governor of Penang. 

Urdu was probably the language used in this mosque, but in later periods the dwindling Urdu-speaking population was overtaken by an increase in the Tamil-speaking one. 

It was built with funds that were raised by the worshippers and officially opened by Malaysia's first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on Dec 26, 1958. 

The Indians from Bengal first came to Penang in the late 18th century as sepoys and convicts, with the East India Company. 

Francis Light also brought along some “Bengal farmers” from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to encourage agricultural enterprise on the island. 

While the early Bengalis hailed from Bengal, the term “Benggali” was soon applied to other northern Indians that travelled overland to Calcutta in West Bengal, which then sailed to Penang. 

Today, the Benggali Mosque has become a base for the Tablighi movement, and the main languages used here are Malay and Tamil. 

The mosque's architecture features metal-framed green-paned windows, giving colour and character to the domed minaret. 

Mosque caretaker Muhammad Yusoff said the mosque held religious meetings on Mondays and religious lectures on Thursdays. 

“We have worshippers coming from as far as Pakistan, India, Thailand and Indonesia,” he added. 

Perfume trader Abu Bakar Hashim plies his wares at the mosque on Fridays. 

“I sell non-alcoholic miniature perfumes imported from Pakistan and India. 

“My other items include religious books for young children and prayer beads,” he said, adding that he also sleeps in the mosque, as he does not have a home.