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Mr William Cowan, Protector Of Chinese
William Cowan came to Ipoh from Taiping to take over the role of Assistant Protector of Chinese in the Ipoh office from a Mr Barnes. His superior was one R G Watson. In his early days in office, unlike Barnes, he was a great support and encouragement to the Reverend Horley in his efforts to keep his Anglo-Chinese School (ACS), Ipoh, on track.
One of his main duties was to monitor the Chinese Secret Societies. In 1887 when the Papan riots took place between the Ghee Hin and Hai San triads which started by a 'brothel skirmish' he was of course involved in the government quelling of the riots and punishing the offenders. A side effect from these riots, which caused a series of fires in Papan, was for his office to organise voluntary Chinese Fire Brigades in every town in Kinta. These were mainly ineffective basic teams using hand pumps and buckets and it was not until 1892 that the first 'Fire Engine' was bought by the Ipoh Council. It arrived in 1893.
Secret Societies remained a problem to the Assistant Protector of Chinese for many years, particularly as all such problems were passed to his office by the police for action and Cowan came up with the proposal to photograph the 'bad hats' and night passes for Chinese. One particular triad called (in English) the "The Three Dot Gang" caused him a considerable number of problems, but more research is needed in this area.
Another role for the Protector's office was to ensure smooth running of the 'Revenue Farms' (Gambling and Opium) which were prone to triad activities like blackmail and extortion.
The Protector also held the responsibility for the registration of Chinese brothels, the owner, the Mamasan and the working girls, and inspecting the premises to maintain laid down standards of hygiene and accommodation. Should a girl cohabitate with a man outside the brothel the Protector could demand a personal bond from the man to ensure the girl was not abducted or sold.
In 1893 the Ipoh Sanitary Board was set up at the instigation of Frank Swettenham and Cowan, still the Assistant Protector, became a member under the Chairmanship of Dr C H Wheeler, the District Surgeon.
The following year the Perak Chinese Maternity Hospital was founded under the guidance of the William Cowan, as Protector, and Dr R M Connolly, the State Surgeon.
One other documented act is his agreement with three missionaries who were contracted to bring Chinese Christians into Kampong Koh from Foochow with the aim of growing rice for the ever-increasing number of immigrant miners from China.
Cowan Street in Ipoh was also named after him.
There is much more fascinating information about the duties of the Protector of Chinese in the book, "Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia's Modern Development."
"Ipoh Remembered" reminds us that":
One detail not visible in that job title 'Protector of Chinese': it was the impoverished Chinese folk who had to be protected, from the depredations of the wealthier Chinese — and the British administration.
No one explained this better than William Cowan himself in a blistering and sustained attack on the government policy of seeking revenue from “gambling farms.” Of course, by the time that sort of gambling was more or less declared illegal in 1912, the government was collecting far more in revenue from its new opium monopoly than it was giving up by abolishing the gambling farms — and lamentably, most of this opium revenue was coming from the poorer segment of the Chinese population.
Another campaign driven by Cowan was for the introduction and enforcement of the “bucket system” of domestic latrines in Ipoh. Believe it or not, there were locals who opposed him …
Anyway, Cowan was genuinely dedicated to the cause of the working class. He was not Perak’s first Protector of Chinese but he was certainly the best. Historians have been able to show that due to his efforts in Ipoh, Chinese workers in Perak, both male and female, were safer, healthier, and less poor than their counterparts elsewhere in the FMS. Perhaps Cowan’s upbringing had something to do with it, but that alone may not explain his talent and his commitment. The man learned and spoke five Chinese dialects and truly seemed to love his work. It was surely no mistake that when Ipoh’s poorer residents needed to address him or speak of him, they called him Kawan (friend).
To read more about the Chinese Protectorate Building, Ipoh, click here.
To read more about Anglo-Chinese School, Ipoh, click here.
To read more about William Cowan’s contract with the missionaries in Kampong Koh, click here.
To read about William Pickering, the First ‘Protector of the Chinese’, click here.
To read more about Ipoh Fire Station and Fire Brigade, click here.
To see more about Ipoh’s Street Names, click here.
To read more about The Perak Maternity Hospital / Association, click here.
To read more about the book ‘Kinta Valley ’, click here.