PETALING JAYA: Not many give a second thought to the man whose name is lettered on “Jalan Boo Bee”, an old road bordered by Jalan Kota and Jalan Panggung Wayang, in Taiping. Fewer still know about the man’s vast contributions to both Taiping and the country.
Ng Boo Bee was one of the economic pioneers of the nation, a mining tycoon with a heart. So important a man was he that whenever he made a trip from, say, Taiping to Penang, it received a mention in the local newspapers.
There was a time when Boo Bee owned more than half of Taiping town and provided considerable employment to residents, especially at his tin mine in Kamunting, a short distance from Taiping.
He is credited with helping in the construction of the early railway lines in the country and in the reconstruction of Taiping town after a major fire razed all the then wooden houses with attap roofs.
Boo Bee was one of the mining kings, if not ‘the’ mining king, and his Kamunting mine was described in an official 1905 report as “the largest open-cast and best worked mine in the Federated Malay States”.
No wonder then that the Straits Settlement’s governor-general Sir John Anderson travelled by special train right up to Boo Bee’s Kamunting mine for a visit on July 24, 1904.
Boo Bee was one of the earliest investors in property, of which he had plenty in Taiping, Penang, Ipoh and Teluk Anson (Teluk Intan now).
Recollecting family history, Ng Teng Hin, 77, said his great grandfather went from China to Medan before moving to Penang in the 1880s. After a short stint in Penang, the eldest of three boys to Ng Koh Sung and U Choot Kwah, settled in Taiping, becoming a railway contractor.
“He established a sawmill along the road from Taiping to Batu Kurau, borrowing from chettiars to fund his business,” said Teng Hin, the son of Ng Say Choon and grandson of Ng Ann Tang, one of Boo Bee’s sons.
Boo Bee also established a brick-making factory and began supplying sleepers and bricks to the railway authorities. Teng Hin said Boo Bee was involved in the construction of the country’s first railway line from Taiping to Port Weld in 1885.
“But the bulk of his money came from mining. He brought workers from Lam Wah, Fujien, his native place in China and at one time had almost 5,000 people working at his Kamunting mine. He had mines in Kampar, Ipoh and Teluk Anson too.”
Boo Bee was involved in the brewing and sale of toddy and alcohol, the sale of opium and the running of gambling operations – all of which were legal at that time – in Perak and Selangor.
He also won government tenders, in partnership with others, to collect taxes on behalf of the British government in what was then known as “revenue farming” in Perak, Selangor and Pahang.
Boo Bee was one of the first few justices of the peace in Malaya, being made a JP in 1920, a year before he died.
“He owned properties in Penang and Perak, especially in Taiping and Teluk Anson. I am told that at one time, he owned more than half the properties in Taiping,” Teng Hin said.
Records show that Boo Bee divided his properties into three portions: one-third to his wife Ewe Keoh Neoh, one-third to his second eldest son (as the eldest had died) and the balance to the rest of his 11 children. Ewe’s share alone included more than 100 properties in Taiping.
However, after Boo Bee’s death in 1921, most of the properties were sold off by his descendants.
It must be noted that all of Boo Bee’s children – eight boys and three girls – were adopted. He did not have any biological children. This was confirmed by Teng Hin.
One of the properties which remains is 81, Jalan Kota. This is where Teng Hin, a chartered accountant, runs his business.
According to Teng Hin, Taiping town was razed by fire twice and the second time it happened, in the 1880s, Boo Bee not only supplied most of the material but was also involved in the actual reconstruction work.
“Earlier, Taiping had grown randomly but after the second fire, the British planned the construction of the town. That is why you’ll find that the houses that were built then, and which are still standing, are similar in design. The roads were made wider and the centre of town was today’s market square.”
Boo Bee gave freely to welfare and education causes.
He donated large tracts of land for use as cemeteries to bury workers who died in Malaya – far away from home in China. The land for the Hokkien cemetery in Taiping was donated by him, as were cemetery plots in Padang Rengas, Kuala Kangsar, Ipoh and Penang, Teng Hin’s wife Ong Bok Kin chipped in.
“The Hua Lian High School was built by him on land that he donated. He brought in teachers from China to teach here. He gave a lot of money to charity. He helped establish Chinese schools and donated the land on which the Taiping Hokkien Association building stands today.
“He even donated money and constructed schools in China. He made two visits to China, the second to attend his father’s funeral,” said Bok Kin.
Boo Bee also donated a large sum of money for the construction of the famous Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.
It was no wonder then that given his prominence and charity work, Boo Bee’s funeral procession was about two miles long. Boo Bee died on Sept 24, 1921 after a long illness but it was only on Nov 13 that he was buried at the Hokkien cemetery – after 50 days of observing the wake.
The Straits Echo of Nov 14, 1921 reported: “The attendance was the largest ever seen at a Chinese funeral in Taiping in which the whole of British Malaya was strongly represented. No less than two thousand Chinese followed the procession.”
Among the many messages of condolence was one by the chief secretary to the government of the Federated Malay States W George Maxwell who said: “As you know, he was a very old friend of mine, and I had a very high regard for him. I feel sure that his memory will live long in Taiping.”
It appears that Maxwell was wrong as hardly anyone today remembers Boo Bee.
Perhaps it’s time to give the man who played a key role in not just Taiping’s development but in the emergence of Malaya’s economy the recognition he deserves as Taiping prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its establishment next year.
The writer can be contacted at [email protected]