Christopher Wong, a KLite like so many of us, did not know that a stately, white building called Loke Mansion existed. The people working in the Medan Tuanku area, where Loke Mansion is located, possess no knowledge of the significance of this venerated relic, and neither did our city’s best navigators, the taxi drivers. Previously, Loke Mansion was mentioned very briefly in Time Out KL when we encountered it during our city walkabouts – we knew it as the former residence of business tycoon and philanthropist Loke Yew; now home to the Cheang & Ariff law firm. But little did we know that we were staring at a breathtaking manifestation of immense wealth and power, and a poignant example of the city’s struggle to safeguard its physical history.
'Will our future generation know who Loke Yew is?'
Loke Mansion, constructed from an amalgam of dissonant yet harmonious architectural styles, wasn’t what you see today. The Chinese moongate and balustrades, the Dutch-style gables with a hint of Moorish splendour, and the Malay window shade designs were once shrouded in foot-high grass, overlooking a muddied compound which had been turned into a carpark. It was a natural flood pond, a breeding ground for mosquitoes as well as a decaying ghost building colonised by drug addicts and the homeless. The decrepitude gave off an uneasy vibe, as if it was readied for another impending high-rise, until Dato’ Loh Siew Cheang – managing partner of the Cheang & Ariff law firm – restored the mansion to its former grandeur in 2006.
Dato’ Loh’s legal office was expanding, and they needed a new place to move into. He chanced upon Loke Mansion during his routine checkups at his cardiologist’s clinic across the road, and after much contemplation, decided to refurbish the building. Christopher, who was a partner at the firm then, was tasked to glean information about Loke Mansion. Months of research drew him further into the fascinating world of Loke Yew – a man with stupendous wealth, a charitable entrepreneur who gave back to the city where he made his fortune. The wealth of information – garnered from a range of sources including the National Archives and conversations with Mr Tang Ah Chai of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (which Loke Yew built) and Dr Lee Kam Hing of University of Malaya’s Malaysia Chinese Research Centre – prompted Christopher to compile these stories, as well as seven years worth of research, into a book. But that, alas, wasn’t the only reason.
The future of Loke Mansion hangs perilously as it has yet to be gazetted as a heritage building, and Cheang & Ariff ’s tenure ends in 2020. ‘The lease that was negotiated was five, plus another eight years. We extended the lease when we met up with the landlord in 2012,’ Christopher says. ‘Loke Mansion was sold to a private entity at a ridiculously low price. The landlords are not truly interested in the building. They’re after the 55, 000 sq ft of prime land the building is sitting on. I fear that the landlords won’t maintain the building and I wanted to create awareness; that’s why I produced this book.’ The significance of the building, if slipped through the cracks of heritage preservation, could very well be another ‘Bok House’ episode again, in which Chua Cheng Bok’s 77-year-old mansion on Jalan Ampang was torn down to make way for W Hotel that’s scheduled to open next year.
Loke Mansion bestows charm to a city obsessed with the exuberance of anything tall and shiny – such study of contrasts is precisely the reason that makes KL much more appealing. ‘I like many parts of the mansion. The Royal Grand Hall that exudes opulence; the painted gate that leads to the house of tin miner Chow Ah Yoke [which Loke Yew bought over and upsized to the now two-storey Loke Mansion spanning 11 acres]… but what I love most were the Qing Dynasty murals on the painted gate,’ Christopher claims. ‘There are three parts to the mural. The ones on both ends were damaged beyond recognition, except for the one in the middle. We couldn’t make out the words and visuals. But out of sheer luck, we came across a newspaper clipping in the New Straits Times circa ’70s that depicted a couple standing right in front of the Painted Gate, with a clear view of the mural. We managed to hire a local artisan from Ipoh, Mun Chee Keong, to restore the mural as close as possible to the way it was. That achievement was one of the most memorable moments I’ve had while working on Loke Mansion.’
Preservation efforts by the government and NGOs in the city such as Badan Warisan is improving steadily as many pre-war buildings have been repurposed into community-based attractions such as pop-up art galleries, event spaces or even homestays rather than being leveled completely. But there’s no denying that instilling cultural awareness, as well as enforcing heritage education, will be an arduous crusade ahead. ‘You see how the government is rampantly renaming our street names? I don’t know what Loke Yew road is going to be called eventually. Will our future generation know who Loke Yew is?’ Christopher goes on to say, ‘Yes, Penang and Melaka are trying to protect their heritage after their Unesco designation. But this [effort] is not across the board in this country. It seems as if conservation is done to conserve only what needs to be conserve, just to promote a certain race or a particular interest group.’
Admittedly, tourism, which has inspired the deluge of malls and hotels in this city, has proven to be a crucial driver of the economy, but a perfunctory, polished tourist scene of the city isn’t what holidaygoers and visitors are here for. And we should begin by protecting one piece of historical landmark at a time, like Loke Mansion. ‘I hope people would read this book and start looking back at their own family tree, about where they came from, and find a sense of pride within themselves knowing what their forefathers did that led to this great city,’ Christopher says.
It’s time to reconcile with our roots.
All proceeds of the book will go towards Medical Camp Awareness Outreach (MACO) and El Putera Trust for the Orang Asli. Email email@example.com to purchase book, RM100.