Old Istana Negara opens to the public for the first time

By CHOONG MEK ZHIN
mekzhin@thestar.com.my

Old is gold: Dr Mubarak Chan, the youngest son of the late Chan Wing.

FOR many, walking into the old Istana Negara which opens its doors to the public for the first time today, will make for a thrilling experience. But for a few, it will be almost like greeting an old friend.

For Dr Mubarak Chan Chin Cheung, 79, his life — quite literally — started at the picturesque mansion situated at the top of a gently sloping hill.

“I was born there in 1934, the youngest of 22 siblings. The mansion was a family home especially built by my father who wanted all the family living in the same place,” he said.

The mansion was built by architects Swan and McLaren, whose company is the oldest architectural firm in Singapore to-date and also responsible for the construction of the Jalan Ampang Bok House and Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

It had a number of bedrooms, two libraries, two card rooms, two music rooms, an altar room, a barber room, two kitchens and a large dining hall that was able to fit 10 tables.

“We also had a very large pond at the bottom of the garden and just a little way beyond it, the school house.

“There was also an orchard with plenty of fruit trees,” Chan said, adding that he could even see Batu Caves in the distance from his bedroom window.

Old memories: The Chan family residence featured a large pond at the bottom of the garden that has since been filled in and become part of the large field in the old palace grounds.

The property sat amidst 5.26ha land that stretched down to the Klang River and Chan remembered the lively events that used to be held at the mansion.

“My father usually entertained guests in grand affairs during Chinese New Year when we had lion dances. Special furnishings were brought out and the house would be lit up beautifully,” he said, adding that they often had the Selangor Police contingent band playing as well.

He also remembers a stuffed tiger, some two metres in length, that had a grand position at the bottom of one of the staircases in a glass box, the animal having been shot in one of the Johor rubber plantations owned by his father Chan Wing.

The elder Chan had come from China’s Guangdong province as a destitute during his mid-teens to seek better opportunities in 1889.

He made his fortune when the Hong Fatt Mining Company he founded with a few others became the largest and deepest open-cast tin mine in the world. It is now the site of The Mines Resort City.

This led to other successful ventures including the co-founding of Kuala Lumpur Kwong Yik Bank.

Though technically the last time, Chan stepped foot into the palace grounds was in 1977 to receive the Johan Mangku Negara award, the last time he ever called that place home was in 1941, just before his family had to abandon it when the war came to Malaya.

His family made their escape through various means, eventually ending up in different parts of the globe — his father and one brother in Perth, Australia and the bulk of the family in India. During their absence, the mansion was looted and many things were lost.

Stand tall: A photo of the old Istana Negara in 1945, showing the mansion’s facade with balconies on the second floor and open cupolas on the rooftop.

Eventually it became the official residence of the Japanese Governor of Malaya from 1942 to 1945 and, after the war ended, the British Military Administration used it from 1946 to 1951 as the quarters for its officers above the rank of Brigadier.

Man behind the mansion: The late Chan Wing arrived in Malaya a destitute in his mid-teens and became a success story in tin mining and banking.

“Then from 1952 to 1956, the mansion was rented out to the Selangor state government for 5,000 Straits Dollars and after that, in 1957, our home was sold to the federal government for 1.4mil to be converted into the official residence of the King,” Chan said.

One of the main changes to the property since the days of his family’s residence there was the location of the main gate.

“The entrance now was done during the Japanese Occupation. When my father built the house, the entrance was where the back gate is now. It was considered better feng shui,” he said.

As a palace, the building has undergone several renovations, including one in 1980 to construct the Balairong Seri Utama that was used for the first time during the installation of the seventh king.

Chan laments that people seem to have forgotten the builder of the old palace and not even a single street has been named after him.

“He was even on the board of directors of the Confucian Chinese School along with people like Chan Sow Lin and Loke Chow Kit,” he said, adding that education was a very important point for Chan Wing and 15 family members had gone to study in Cambridge University between 1920 and today, including himself.

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