JALAN Loke Yew remains one of the main arteries in the Klang Valley, just like how its namesake had played a pivotal role in the growth of the capital.
The tycoon’s tremendous success in various businesses spread across Selangor, Perak and other states had also inspired many Malaysians.
His was a typical rags-to-riches tale.
According to an article published in Berita Warisan in 1990, he was a peasant’s son born in Guangdong province, China, and who left home on a sailing ship to Singapore in 1860 when he was merely 11 years old.
His real surname was Wong, before he was sold to the wealthy Loke family when he was young.
However, another version has it that he changed his surname upon arriving in Malaya for better luck.
His first job was at a provision shop in Market Street (now Lebuh Pasar Besar) earning $20 a month. Four years later, the thrifty youngster started his own provision store named Tong Hing Loong (which means “Prosperity in the East”).
The enterprising Loke aimed much higher than that. He travelled to Perak to explore the tin-mining business that led to him losing $60,000 in the first four years until he found a rich tin deposit in Kling Bahru. His wealth grew from there on.
His business ventures were bold and vast, ranging from rubber plantation, tin and coal mining to investments in the early Straits Steamship Company and in the tin-smelting enterprise of Straits Trading, among others.
He was also a reputed philanthropist, contributing generously to the founding of Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur and Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore.
He also received the C.M.G. from the King of England and the honorary degree of Doctor in Philosophy from Hong Kong University.
It was learnt that he contributed $1mil (loan and donation) in 1913 alone to the institution.
One can find traces of Loke Yew in the Klang Valley, but they are not in Jalan Loke Yew.
The Loke Mansion in Jalan Medan Tuanku, now used as a law firm, is a sight to behold.
Another place that tells a lot about this man is his memorial — which houses a bronze statue of him looking resplendent in a graduation robe, the graves of his wife, two children and a daughter-in-law.
I sought the help of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall chief executive officer Tang Ah Chai to take me to the memorial, which is now within the compound of the Defence Ministry’s quarters in Setapak.
It is situated near his now-demolished villa built in his favourite rubber estate. It is also where he contracted malaria and died in 1917.
Tang’s team conducts educational tours to Loke’s memorial and getting there involves a fair bit of walking.
The graves are a majestic sight, fit for a man with his fortune.
In addition, there are an empty four-storey memorial hall, which is peculiarly built, without an access to the upper floors, and a gazebo with a combination of Malay and Chinese architectural styles.
“The design of the grave follows Cantonese tradition. This location has good feng shui as it leans against a hill and overlooks Kuala Lumpur.
“The tombs face East as Loke believed it was lucky for him.
“His and his wife’s tombs have a cascading design,” Tang said, adding that Loke’s descendants were still very rich but had left the country.
Even though the memorial is cleaned monthly, it is not spared from vandalism. Much of the carvings on the tombstone have been damaged, walls defaced and valuables stolen.
There is not much development in Jalan Loke Yew, which connects Jalan Maharaja-lela and Jalan Cheras, except that it has expanded from a two-lane road to a six-lane highway as traffic is congested during peak hours.
Several iconic buildings, including the Tsun Jin High School, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Loke Yew flats and Christian cemetery that have been around for decades stand in one end of the town centre while Viva Home Shopping Centre stands on the other end.
One interesting fact about Jalan Loke Yew is that at dawn, it is the popular hangout for those in the funeral industry due to its proximity to the cemetery.
“At dawn, the coffeeshops here are filled with customers in white shirt and black pants who are in the funeral business,” said coffeeshop operator Kim Ping, 58, who has lived there for 30 years.
The main change in the Loke Yew area is its demography, as a high number of Myanmar refugees and workers have moved in.
Their cleanliness and good manners have made them accepted by the locals.
“If you want to see an interesting sight in Loke Yew, come before work as you can see hordes of Myanmar workers walking towards Sungai Besi, like in a procession,” said Ringo Tee, 60, who enjoys hanging out in the area with his friends.
By the way, there is also a Jalan Loke Yew in Bentong, Pahang, where some of Loke’s businesses were operated.