Heritage Gems

Singapore's last Teochew mansion standing

A view of the roofs encircling the courtyard, featuring terracotta tiles and roof ridges decorated with paintings. The house is an example of traditional Teochew architecture, of which the almost-straight roof ridges are a defining feature.
A view of the roofs encircling the courtyard, featuring terracotta tiles and roof ridges decorated with paintings. The house is an example of traditional Teochew architecture, of which the almost-straight roof ridges are a defining feature.PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

From places of worship to educational institutions and the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the latest in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

Completed in 1885, the last remaining Teochew mansion in Singapore looks almost identical today to when it was lived in by the prominent merchant Tan Yeok Nee and his family.

Despite having been through the war; used as a warehouse for the Cockpit Hotel, which used to be next door; a school; a rail master's home; and as the Salvation Army headquarters, the house still retains most of its original features.

While some features have been added or altered by the various occupants, the house remains, as a whole, strikingly similar to the original. According to the National Heritage Board's webpage on the house, the House of Tan Yeok Nee is an example of traditional Teochew architecture, of which the almost-straight roof ridges are a defining feature.

Precisely restored, the 125-year-old house retains its original roof ridges, carved walls and ceiling art.

Dr Liu Thai Ker, director of RSP Architects, the firm responsible for the house's $12 million restoration in 2000, said: "We had to go to (great) lengths to ensure the house is as close to its original as possible. For example, the curvature of the roof ridges is so subtle that it is impossible for modern craftsmen to recreate it, so we had to remove and store them while we restored the rest of the house, and replace them after."


To preserve the original design of the house, including the roof ridges, Teochew craftsmen from China were hired for the restoration in 2000. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

He also said that to ensure there was no deviation, the firm had to hire Teochew craftsmen from China. Even the wood stain, stone and roof tiles had to be specially sourced to ensure the restoration was identical to the original house.

The 29,900 sq ft mansion is covered in symbolism and auspicious imagery. Using traditional methods such as jian nian (porcelain inlay), ni suo (clay moulding) and wood carving, the interior and exterior ornamentation is unique and a symbol of Chinese tradition and heritage.


The interior and exterior design of the mansion involves using traditional methods such as jian nian (porcelain inlay), ni suo (clay moulding) and wood carving. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The house was gazetted in 1974 and is one of Singapore's National Heritage Gems.

Dr Liu said the house is an exact replica of another house in China, owned and built by the same man.

The owner, Tan Yeok Nee, a textile, spice and opium tycoon, wanted to build a home in Singapore reminiscent of his home town.


The waiting lounge overlooking the courtyard at TCM facility Ming Yi Guan, which is the Teochew mansion's current tenant. Previous occupants of the Penang Road building include the Chicago Booth Business School and the Salvation Army. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

According to the National Library Board's e-resources, Tan fled his home town of Jin Sha village in Chaozhou, China, in disgrace, having gambled away money for his mother's funeral. Ashamed, and eager for a new start, the enterprising youth arrived in Pahang in 1844.

He left for Singapore after paying his debts. In Singapore, Tan sold textiles in Telok Blangah daily. The honest merchant was popular among the residents. One of his regular customers was Temenggong Ibrahim of Johor, whose young son, Abu Bakar, soon befriended Tan.


PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

In the mid-19th century, the Temenggong started the kang-chu (port owners) system to attract enterprising Chinese to promote growth in the then underdeveloped territory, Johor. Under this system, certain merchants were appointed as kang-chu, a position which gave them jurisdiction and rights over certain rivers and their banks.

Tan moved to Johor in 1853. With another Teochew merchant, he obtained kang-chu rights for a tributary of the Johor River, where he began cultivating pepper and gambier.

Abu Bakar succeeded his father in 1862. In September 1863, Tan obtained four additional kang-chu rights within a week. Tan also became involved in opium and alcohol farms. In 1868, Tan's old friend Abu Bakar gained the title of maharaja, or great ruler. He appointed Tan as Major China of Johor, the highest-ranking Chinese official in his government, and as one of two Chinese members in the state council.

In 1875, Tan returned to Singapore, giving up all his land and titles in Johor. His former high rank in Johor is reflected at the house. Over the main entrance, a stone slate bearing Chinese characters that loosely translate to "minister mentor" in English can be spotted.

The architectural elements of the house tell their own story.

Mr John Tanny, the principal architect who oversaw the restoration, pointed out, for instance, that the house has a side entrance which allows a person to get in without having to cross the main section of the property. He said this probably meant that the owner had concubines or multiple wives. 


Over the main entrance of the House of Tan Yeok Nee is a stone slate bearing Chinese characters that loosely translate to "minister mentor" in English, a sign reflecting the high rank in Johor the 19th-century Chinese merchant attained. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Tan, who died in 1902 aged 75, had five sons who all died before him. His eight grandsons - including Tan Chin Boon, Tan Chin Teat, Tan Chin Yeow and Tan Chin Hean - inherited his properties and were well known within the Teochew community. The Tan family lived in the house from 1885 till 1902.

While some features have been added or altered by the various occupants, the House of Tan Yeok Nee remains, as a whole, strikingly similar to the original. Precisely restored, the 125-year-old house retains its original roof ridges, carved walls and ceiling art.

Discreet modifications made by later tenants also add to the house's story. The Salvation Army, which used the house from 1938 until 1991 and was the house's longest tenant, left behind a set of Gothic-style windows in the main hall. According to Mr Tanny, these are constructed in a style that is characteristically Christian.

The most recent tenant, the Chicago Booth Business School, commissioned a concealed auditorium that can seat up to a hundred students.

Today, the beautiful mansion still stands at its Penang Road location and is home to a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) facility, Ming Yi Guan, which has been operating there since June this year.


Traditional Chinese medicine facility, Ming Yi Guan, has been operating at the mansion since June this year. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The splendour and heritage of the space is not lost on the current users. One of the practitioners, Dr Huang Yu Hua, said in Mandarin: "Just like TCM, the house has precious cultural value - rooted in history and heritage - worthy of preservation.

"It is a symbol of tradition."

Ms Nansee Ng, a business consultant in her 60s, calls herself a fan of the house. Having been intrigued by the house since the 1980s, Ms Ng has seen the house occupied by a few of its tenants.

Recalling its years as the Salvation Army headquarters, Ms Ng said: "It was gloomy and did not have this level of upkeep. It looked and felt old.

"When the school came in, it changed and took on a East-meets- West type of feel. And now as a TCM clinic - a tranquil escape from the bustle of the road right outside it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore's last Teochew mansion standing'. Print Edition | Subscribe