LOCATED at Jalan Tan Sri William Tan in Kuching is a rambling house that stands majestically atop a hill. Named Chan Villa, it is a remnant of the glorious past of the Chan Clan.
Chan Villa was built around the early 20th century. It was bought over by Chan Boon Tho and since then, has been owned by the Chan family. It is one of the few old aristocratic Chinese houses that still remain in the city. Many have been demolished with the passage of time.
“We have done numerous renovations to this house,” said Chan KS, who shares the Villa with his siblings.
The old house needed renovations and repairs but the costs of restoring it to its past
glory would be exorbitant, he added.
At one time, some 30 people lived in this over 80 years old house. It was filled with gaiety, festivity and laughter.
Now it stands silent — its walls holding years of family secrets and memories.
How long can the house stay as it is now remains uncertain because its occupants have their own plans and intentions.
However, the Villa’s trimmings, though worn out by time, continue to attest to its grandiose past.
It has a half-moon front yard with concrete steps leading to the sprawling lawn on each side. Two small wells are located in yard and according to KS Chan, these were for water storage.
There is also a concrete armchair meant for relaxation (with a cup of tea) in the evening.
Another residential relic
Another uninhibited rambling house is located behind the KMC flats, Jalan Padungan. It used to belong to Chan Choo Nio who married one Lau Yeang Yew.
Since their passing, the house had changed many hands. The burial ground of its former master and mistress is still there — at the back of the house.
These are the only two concrete remnants of the Chan Clan villas. In all, there were five such villas that belonged to the members of the Clan.
Those which had been demolished were Kong Ann Garden at Pending, Chan Chng Villa at Tabuan Road and the former Kuching High School (called Chin Siok Garden) which was gazed to the ground.
Except for Chan Villa, all the other four houses were built by the Chan ancestors.
“The workers were locals but the craftsmen were from Mainland China,” said Dr Chan Lek Lim, a member of Chan Clan.
That probably explains the building’s intricate sculptured Chinese designs and the handiwork untypical of local workers.
Contrary to what many believe, all the houses were designed after the Peranakan influence. There are still many who still believe the houses had strong Chinese influence.
“There are imprints of Chinese influence but if you look closely, these houses were more Peranakan than Chinese,” said Dr Chan, the eldest son of Chan Han Peng, who was the son of Chan Kee Ong.
He has been compiling a book on his family history for four years now.
He said most old Chinese houses back then were enclosed with a concrete wall with only a door for accessibility.
But the houses, built by the Chan Clan, were different as they all featured an air well which again is not a traditional Chinese feature.
“Kong Ann Garden was the only one with total Chinese influence. It was fully enclosed,” he added.
All strategically sited on top of a hill with higher ground at the back serving as the ‘backbone’, these houses had sprawling gardens with some covering about 10 acres.
Positioning of these houses was painstakingly researched, most probably with the help of a geomancer.
How a house is positioned holds great significance to the Chinese who believe in living harmoniously with the five elements of Nature.
Higher ground at the back of a house maybe considered a safety hazard to modern-day architects but to the traditional Chinese, it meant abundant wealth. Situated atop a hill also signified position and prosperity.
It’s small wonder then that the houses of the Chan Clan were positioned as such and coincidentally, the Chan families were one of the better known in Kuching at that time.
These grandiose houses are testimony of the achievements and successes of the Chan Clan in Kuching and invariably, a tribute to Chan Kho, who left Mainland China for the Far East in search of greener pastures.
The Chan Clan started with the arrival of Chan Kho who had the courage to dream and think big. He braved the uncharted waters to a foreign land to start his dynasty.
Chan Kho was just a boy when he set sail to Sarawak — penniless and eking out a living at Main Bazaar as a handy boy. Later, he went to Bau and made a fortune in gold mining.
Chan Kho returned to Kuching and started his own trading company.
His first property was a shop in Carpenter Street, now the Universal Trading. He stayed on the first floor and ran his business on the ground floor.
From a pauper to a successful businessman, Chan Kho was a business mogul in colonial Kuching. Despite his wealth, he did not lead an ostentatious lifestyle. Instead, he was just like what he was when he first stepped on Sarawak soil.
His lifestyle was perpetuated by his many his descendants who also became successful.
He paved the way for his future generations.
Chan Boon Tho, the son of Chan Kho’s eldest son, Chan Kee Hock, bought the Chan Villa while Kee Soon (Chan Kho’s second son) built Chin Siok Garden. His fifth son, Chan Kee Ong, built Chan Chng Villa and his daughter Choo Nio, the house behind the KMC flats.
Though many of the houses have been reduced to rambles now, old timers remember as them “commanding houses.”
Those who had the opportunity to spend time in these houses, hold vivid memory of their unique architecture and gradeur from an age gone by.