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Towkay Leong Fee @ Liang Pi Joo - His Life Story In Brief
Leong Fee, also known as Liang Pi Joo, was born in Mei Xian district, Guangdong Province, China, in 1857, arriving in an old freighter possibly at Fort Point which was at Fort Cornwallis, Penang in 1876 to seek his fortune in Nanyang (the Southern Seas) as Malaya was known to the Chinese. Here he worked, as a cook and hawker for some 6 months before moving to Ipoh the same year. He came by river from Penang, via Teluk Mak Intan (renamed Telun Anson, then Teluk Intan) with 16 other immigrants who it was said were “the only Chinamen in Ipoh” when they arrived at Ipoh’s gathering of atap Malay or Orang Asli huts, between the river and the jungle, in which they then lived. He brought with him the spiritual tablet of the deity Tua Peh Kong and founded the Tai Pak Koong (Tua Pek Kong) or God of Prosperity Temple alongside the Kinta River, to give thanks for their safe arrival, for the journey had been arduous and at times dangerous. This act is believed by some to have provided him with 'Fook' or luck that led to his great success.
While prospecting for tin he initially worked as a clerk, becoming a well-known and successful miner by the late 1880’s with sufficient money from his Ampang (near Ipoh) mine to make a trip back to China. He returned to Ipoh in 1889 and is believed to have been married that year to the daughter of his first Penang boss Cheah Choon Seng. With continuing mining success, he was appointed a member of the newly formed Ipoh Sanitary Board in 1894, alongside Dr C H Wheeler, Chairman, H L Hulbert, Lieutenant H C Metcalfe, W Cowan, The Dato Panglima Kinta Yusuff, Yau Tet Shin and M F Ward, Secretary. He became a member of the Perak State Council the following year and successfully applied to the Government for a piece of land to build a larger temple. It was opened in November 1895. He had definitely become the principal tin miner and towkay in the district. Around that time he erected some of the first brick houses in Leech Street.
In 1896, Leong Fee, together with F J B Dykes, bought a 358-acre piece of land at Tambun to plant coffee. Dykes, trained at the Royal School of Mines, London, had been appointed Government Mining Prospector at Kuala Kangsar in 1893 and later Mining Inspector. This was one of the largest coffee estates in the area and at first looked like it was to be a great success, which it was up to the late 1890’s, but it failed and Dykes with insufficient cash in hand sold out to his partner for $2,000 and returned to government service.
Consequently around 1900 Leong Fee started prospecting for tin on the erstwhile coffee estate and as the signs were good opened his new Tambun mine on 16 August 1902. In 1903, Leong Fee’s Tambun Mine set a world record for a year’s output from a single mine. Its own smelter yielded 2,417 tons of metallic tin (equivalent to 40,550 piculs of metallic tin or 58,000 piculs of tin-ore with a 70% tin content). Initially it was worked in the old-fashioned Chinese shafting system, but Leong Fee soon employed Harry Nutter (a mining engineer) in 1901 (later, Pearse joined Nutter and the firm became Messrs Nutter and Pearse in 1903), to run the mine using modern European methods. Once the richest layers of 'Karang' had been dug out by shafts and tunnels, connecting to and ventilating a huge underground chamber about 7 feet high, the mine turned to open-cast mining. The yield of tin increased dramatically. Dykes as Inspector of Mines must have been kicking himself!
Meanwhile Leong Fee had built himself grand mansions, one in Leith Street, Penang and the other on Tambun Road, Ipoh with a spacious garden planted with every variety of fruit tree. In 1901 he also made a trip to England. While he was there he was elected a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. He was becoming an international name in world circles. Leong Fee @ Liang Pi Joo was undoubtedly the senior Perak Chinese leader of the time. As his personal fortune increased he expanded into rubber estates and property both in Perak and Penang.
Leong Fee worked closely with the other Chinese leaders like Foo Choo Choon and Yau Tet Shin, but particularly closely with the latter with whom he erected a new, brick-built, Chinese Theatre on Panglima and Leech Streets in 1906, replacing his first wooden theatre of 1891, and the Chinese Hotel on Belfield Street.
Leong Fee was appointed to the new Federal Council in 1909 as Unofficial Member to represent the tin mining and rubber planting fraternities. He was the only Chinese, the other local members being Sultans. This was undoubtedly official recognition of his contributions to the country as tin miner and philanthropist. He also played a very significant part in the development of Ipoh.
Not surprisingly as time has gone by there has been some confusion surrounding Leong Fee, his wives and descendants, particularly the numbering of them and which were legal wives and which were concubines but recognised as wives. As far as we can sort out, the following is the situation regarding those known as “wives”:
The principal wife (Tai Por) is followed by subsidiary wives No 1, subsidiary wife No 2, etc who are called “Nai or Lai”. Therefore, the first subsidiary wife is referred to as “Tai Nai or Tai Lai”, the 2nd subsidiary wife is “Yee Lai or Yee Lai”, The third subsidiary wife is “Sam Lai or Sam Nai”.
Leong Fee passed away on 8th April 1912, soon after returning from Japan and Hong Kong, leaving behind four wives, several concubines and numerous broken-hearted sing-song girls that were brought in to entertain the members of the different miners’ clubs, such as the Han Chin Pet Soo, which he had founded in 1893.
Four days before his death, ever the philanthropist, Leong Fee had promised $5,000 towards the new ACS (Anglo-Chinese School) building which his executors duly paid.
The photographs show Leong Fee as a young man (left), probably in Ipoh and later in maturity. They former was taken from “20th Century Impressions of British Malaya”, produced in 1908 by Arnold Wright and H A Cartwright. The latter image is taken from a photograph that hangs in the downstairs room of Han Chin Pet Soo, the Chinese characters marking his gift of the club to the Hakka miners of Ipoh.
The text is an amalgam of information from a variety of sources but in particular “Days Gone By”, by Christine Wu Ramsay, great granddaughter of Leong Fee, ‘Ipoh, When Tin was King” by Ipoh author Dr Ho Tak Ming, Sybil de Roquigny, another great granddaughter of Towkay Leong Fee whose maiden name was Sybil Wong Sui Mei, and other local writers who have contributed oddments over the years.
To read more about The Tai Pak Koong or God of Prosperity Temple, click here.
To read more about how coffee crops failed in Kinta, click here.
To read more about Dato Panglima Kinta Yusuff, click here.
To read more about Towkay Yau Tet Shin, click here.
To read more about Towkay Foo Choo Choon, click here.
To see photographs and a brief history of Han Chin Pet Soo, click here.
To read more about the Anglo-Chinese School, Ipoh, click here.