In conjunction with Merdeka and in the lead up to Malaysia Day, Prestige Malaysia explores historical streets named after important national figures, with tales of their triumphs as shared by their proud descendants. Fourth in the series, great-great-grandson and founder of Just Heavenly Café, Allan Yap, shares his knowledge of the legendary kapitan.
Yap Kwan Seng was a community leader, the fifth and last Chinese kapitan of Kuala Lumpur from 1889 to 1901. In addition to being the founder of Pooi Shin Thong (renamed in 1881 to Tung Shin Hospital), he also built the Tai Wah Ward, the Chak Kai Koong Kon in Jalan Sultan and had a hand in establishing the Victoria Institution.
Today, in honour of his legacy of charity and contributions to the community he served, Jalan Yap Kwan Seng and Lorong Yap Kwan Seng have been named in the kapitan’s honour. Meanwhile, Jalan Sin Chew Kee has been named after his tin mining business.
What do you feel was his most important contribution to society?
Yap Kwan Seng was a philanthropist and a visionary. He founded Pooi Shin Thong (now known as Tung Shin Hospital) to provide medical care to the poor and needy. He also funded the building and is one of the early founders and trustees of Victoria Institution. After the great Kuala Lumpur fires that burnt down much of KL’s business district, he built the first kiln in Brickfields to supply bricks for the rebuilding of Kuala Lumpur city (Bangkok Bank area). These bricks were also supplied to the building of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building.
What kind of stories did your family share about Yap Kwan Seng, and did it give you any clues about his character?
I am afraid I do not have many stories to share. My great grandfather was the 15th son – the youngest son we know of – but little was passed down to later generations in terms of specific stories of his work and character. Having said that, what has been passed down is a mysterious family heritage book of the Yap clan.
Initially we were under the impression that there was only one such book in existence, but after having spoken with other Yap Kwan Seng extended family members, we have discovered the existence of three such books. All of them are Chinese manuscripts, held by different sons of the Yap Kwan Seng family.
These books are indeed a treasure, as some portions of the manuscript are scripted in ancient Chinese. The content of these books details the location, origins and stories of our ancestors. Regrettably, we have yet to encounter a professional that can read and translate the accounts detailed in them.
How did you feel when you first learned that you were connected to such a highly respected community leader?
I was chuffed! Finally, I can stand on a road and scream at people to get off my grandfather’s road (though I have not yet found the opportunity to do so!). Truth be told, I feel proud that my ancestor had such a significant role in the building and establishment of Kuala Lumpur and its history. Many of the structures and institutions which he had a hand in still stand today, more than 12 decades after his passing.
Times have changed: Jalan Yap Kwan Seng is now home to various suites, restaurants and even the Australian High Commission. How do you feel about the overall gentrification of the area?
I have no problems with the gentrification of the area and the development. What I am concerned about is the possibility of roads being renamed, that could risk the erasure of our nation’s history. For example, roads like Jalan Weld, Jalan Swettenham, Jalan Duta and many more – these figures all played a part in our nation’s rich history. The renaming of these roads and areas worries me, as we could lose our history and the reminders of these figures’ importance to the country.
Also read: Spotlight on Jalan Thamboosamy