The year was 1876.
Leong Fee, a 19-year-old from China, arrived on Malayan shores via an old freight to Penang, then a British stronghold, to seek his fortune. Having worked as a cook for six months on the island, Leong, along with 16 other Chinese immigrants, made their way to Epoh (now Ipoh), a small enclave of Malay huts between thick jungles and Perak’s Kinta River. Here, they were one of the first ‘Chinamen’, prospecting in mines for the ‘gold’ of that era – tin.
Having made it big as a tin miner, he founded the Han Chin Pet Soon Hakka Miners Club in 1893. It became an important social and cultural gathering place for the Hakka Chinese, a home away from home.
After many years, the place was abandoned for some time and left in a dilapidated state, with termites gnawing on the wood and pigeons roosting in its attic. Thankfully, it was bought over by a heritage club and opened as a heritage museum in 2015. Many of its fixtures have been restored, including some of the elegantly curved bay windows which were removed during a small renovation in the 1960s.
Visits are by guided tours (you’re not supposed to roam around on your own). It’s fascinating to hear Leong’s story, which is an extraordinary one of rags to riches, and understand the hardships and perseverance in the face of adversity that drove many Chinese, including my ancestors, to seek better lives far away from home.
The cream coloured exterior is elegant-looking and features beautiful decorated tiles with patterns of roses and peacocks. The colour combinations are vivid and bright.
You’re probably wondering what Han Chin Pet Soo means. While I’m not very sure what Han Chin is (probably just the name given to the building), ‘Pat Sou’ is Hakka for ‘villa’. It somehow got translated to Pet Soo over time.
Upon entering, visitors will be greeted by the main dining area, with a long wooden table laid out as if for a meal with old style mugs, bowls and cutlery. On both sides of the room are elegantly carved wooden chairs, as well as two large mirrors. The floor tiles are original, imported from Europe as was common among the wealthy back then.
There are also portraits of Leong Fee, his son (who took over management of the club after his father died) and other prominent Hakka clansmen along another side of the wall.
From the outside, the building looks deceptively small, but it’s actually very long and extends way out back, with several floors. Moving on to the next area, the guide tells us about the rich tin mining history of the Kinta Valley in Perak, which was full of tin deposits. Some of the more primitive tools used for prospecting include bamboo containers, sampling sieves and magnets.
Tin was used as currency in the 18th century in the form of various animal shapes such as crocodiles, roosters, fish and turtles. There were also coins and other geometric shapes. Must have been a hassle to carry them around !
We cramped ourselves into a tiny room to watch a black and white documentary on the tin mining industry in Malaya, produced by Hollywood (yes, it warranted that much merit!). The docu explained the process of prospecting, traditional (dulang washing) and modern (tin dredge, gravel pump) extraction methods, production and shipping.
In the 1970s, Malaysia was the largest producer of tin, amounting to about 1/3 of the world’s production.
A scene put together showing the tools used in that era, including the gravel pumps which would shoot high energy water jets into a cliff in order to loosen up the soil. The murals are done by local art students.
The kitchen area. Before the advent of gas and electric stoves, people used firewood for cooking by placing them in niches within a stone counter. The fire was ‘controlled’ by a fan to make the flames bigger or smaller.
Some of the old utensils, which are no longer common in modern households – pestle and mortar, tiffin carriers, wooden rice buckets, etc.
The last room on the ground floor has been converted into a ‘town square’, showcasing various tin-related items during the hey-day of the tin-mining era. We came to this exhibit of a mannequin wearing a traditional costume and mum smiles. “Your grandma used to wear this to work everyday,” she tells me wistfully.
Ah Dai, as I called her, was a dulang washer. Despite tin mining companies using modern equipment such as tin dredges and pumps, many Chinese women in the 60s and 70s still did the traditional method of tin extraction, or dulang washing. Using a large circular tray, they would swished soil around, leaving the heavy tin deposits at the bottom. This long and slow process often required them to stand in mine waters all day, bent over almost double. The scarf and hat, as well as the long sleeves, were to protect them from the harsh sun.
Ah Dai would cycle to the mines behind my mum’s old home, and worked from dawn til sunset. On the basket is a dulang washing ‘license’, which allows them to work in a certain area. The tin is often sold to the company owning the mine. It was hard work and didn’t bring in a lot of money, but for many households back then, every bit counted.
Scale used to weigh tin. The bags were heavy !
Fine tin ‘sand’, before they are processed into actual tin products.
The second floor had rooms dedicated to leisure.
Opium was a vice that many Chinese got addicted to. First considered a luxury for the rich, it soon became widespread even among the general population and was a serious problem in China (the Qing Dynasty fought a war with the British, who were importing in opium through their plantations in India. China lost, and were forced to open their ports to trade). When the Chinese diaspora migrated, they brought the practice over to Malaya.
Since those allowed to enter the Hakka Tin Miners Club were rich, the opium room had all the comforts – big wooden beds and cool pillows made from marble (Chinese people slept on hard pillows).
Just like any drug, smoking opium wasn’t a good thing as it caused severe addiction. Often, addicts would spend a large amount of money, time and energy on opium, contracting health problems and wasting their lives away.
Next, we came to the VIP lounge or the Clubhouse, the most exclusive room in the building. Big and airy with whitewashed walls, the room was well lit with tall windows that let in lots of sunlight. Mannequins were posed to reenact scenes of how the rich Hakka tin miners would gather and play gambling games, such as mahjong, gin rummy, poker and more. They would be entertained by singing and dancing girls.
The wealthy dressed in two styles – traditional (right), or Western, emulating the Europeans.
A guessing game involving counting the number of seeds (?). Members of the club would often drink and smoke as they gambled.
On one side of the wall, list of the wealthy and prominent club members. Notice that some of them are in traditional Qing Dynasty costumes.
Did you know that back in the days, you had to have a license to own a TV?
An antique radio.
Of course one can’t run an exclusive clubhouse without some high quality alcohol.
Last but not least, we checked out the top floor, which was considerably smaller than the rest. The area was used for guests who wanted to stay the night. The history of the Hakka people were displayed in an exhibition space. Guests can also try on their costumes.
Our guide explained that the top floor was in disrepair when the building was handed over to the heritage organization to be converted into a museum. Now, the rooms have been reconstructed to resemble the 1930s and 1960s era , with beds, washing basins, mirrors, dressing table and oil lamps.
The Han Chin Pet Soon museum is a must visit for travellers to Ipoh. It’s educational and offers an interesting insight into the lives of Chinese immigrants, their success stories and their contributions to building Ipoh and the country as a whole. 10/10!
Entrance to the museum is free, but visitors must join a guided tour. On less busy days they might allow you to walk-in but to be safe, try booking online at http://www.ipohworld.org.
HAN CHIN PET SOO MUSEUM
3, Jalan Bijeh Timah, 30100 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Phone: +60 5-241 4541
Opening hours: 930AM – 5PM (closed on Monday)