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. Second in the series, great grandson of Yap Hin, Ken Yap Kim Chuan, shares with us his knowledge about the man.
Yap Hin, commemorated through Lorong Yap Hin and Bangunan Yap Hin, was the founder of Kwong Thye Loy, a timber company that supplied timber for all the Federated Malay States (FMS) Railways sleepers. He became the first Malayan Chinese in the FMS to travel first class.
Can you share with us a little of the history of who Yap Hin was?
Yap Choon Chiang, otherwise known as Yap Hin, was a timber merchant of Hakka descent. His father’s name was Yap Cheong Lai. Yap Hin came to Kuala Lumpur from Dongguan, Guangdong Province in China in the late 1800s.
Initially, he worked as a tin mine coolie and a member of the Kuala Lumpur security force for 10 years before starting a timber company, specialising in hand-cut railway sleepers. The timber his company used was sourced from Seremban. At the time, there were only two timber companies that supplied timber for all the wooden sleepers of the railway tracks being built in Malaya by the British.
On one occasion, Yap Hin was overpaid, but he was an ethical man who sought to notify the British chief engineer of the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR) of the oversight. It must have been a substantial amount because the chief engineer was so impressed by his honesty that from then on, he bought timber exclusively from Yap Hin, and at full price.
Yap Hin was also given a free travel pass – a little red flag with which he could wave down any train – on all train routes and became the first Malayan Chinese in the FMS to travel first class. His only son Yap Kon Fah was the second to enjoy the privilege.
What kind of stories did your family share about him?
One tale is about Yap Hin’s first marriage. Once a year, he would return to China to great pomp, with lion dances, feasting and festivities. Eventually, he persuaded two male relatives to return to Malaya with him, and they sought a suitable wife for him, befitting his station in life.
Their hunt took them to a Malacca Peranakan household, where it was reported a fortuitous match awaited. However, members of the household played a cruel trick on them: They were shown the prospective candidate alongside her younger and prettier sister from far off, and seemingly pointed to the latter.
And so, the plain-looking Khoo An Neo, a Malacca Peranakan woman, came to Kuala Lumpur to be married to the unsuspecting Yap Hin who did not find out until the wedding night, when the bride’s veil was finally lifted. Shocked at this betrayal of good faith and trust, he refused to consummate the marriage.
His two male relatives won him over. It’s just as well that they did, or else Khoo An Neo would not have blessed him with his male heir, Yap Kon Fah. Indeed, she lived up to the astrological match and brought good fortune to the family.
What can you tell us about the history of the Yap Hin Building?
The Yap Hin Building, which comprises 11 shophouses along Jalan Pasar, was built by Yap Kon Fah in honour of his father. Each child, including his two daughters, adopted children, daughters-in-law, and eldest grandsons, at the time was given a share.
The Chinese name of the building was Kwong Thye Loy, to reflect the ancestral home and timber factory. Construction began on 1 November 1954 and was completed sometime before my parents were wed on 28 January 1956, as their wedding photos were taken at White House Studio. The studio was the third shop from the corner of the Yap Hin Building, which was run by the husband of my elder maternal aunt, Foong Swee Keng.
Star Cinema was constructed at the end of the Yap Hin Building, which was opened by Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on 6 July 1957. It is now a digital mall. Just down the road from Star Cinema was a freshwater spring that never ran dry, even during the driest drought seasons. It has since been paved over and now serves as a main thoroughfare into the bustling commercial area with numerous eateries.
After Yap Kon Fah’s death, along the road behind Pasar Road (as it was known then) – Lorong Yap Hin – was built a row of shophouses, for the eldest sons of Yap Kon Fah’s children. One plot was donated to the Toong Onn Association, where they built their headquarters. Lorong Yap Hin stands on land previously owned by the Yap family. The government bought it over to be turned into a road for a modest sum, so they compensated for it by naming it after my great grandfather.
Also read: Spotlight on Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman