PETALING JAYA: Positioned in the bustling city centre of George Town, Tek Soon Street honours a key figure in the 19th-century Hokkien community who left an indelible mark on Penang’s history.
Cheah Tek Soon was not only a prominent businessman but also a dedicated educationist, philanthropist, and community leader.
Anwar Fazal, a veteran civil society activist, shares his insight on Cheah and his lasting legacy in the community.
“It’s an interesting legacy of a remarkable man. He was an amazing man who had many facets to his life,” he told FMT.
Among others, Cheah was known for his support of the Methodist Girls School (MGS).
Penang’s famous MGS had its beginnings in Cheah’s household in 1891, when the Christian Methodist mission expanded to Penang from Singapore through efforts to connect with influential Chinese citizens. Cheah’s home was one of these important connections.
For a significant period, Cheah also engaged in revenue farming and, in collaboration with his associates, managed the Penang Opium Farm from 1880 to 1888.
“The opium business played a strong role in the economy of Penang. The colonial government of Penang relied on opium as its principal revenue,” Anwar said.
An example of Cheah’s unwavering leadership was his response to an assault case involving a British officer and a leading member of the community, said Anwar, who served as an assistant secretary in the George Town City Council.
“Unlike the usual approach in which the community, whether Malay, Chinese, or Indian, would address its own issues independently, this incident witnessed a remarkable unity among the communities,” he said.
Cheah was among the community leaders who convened a public meeting presided by Captain Bowers on Sept 21, 1878, in response to the incident.
British inspector C C Newland was found guilty of assaulting Gan Kim Swee, who accepted an apology over the incident.
Raffles by the Sea
In the 1880s, Cheah pioneered the construction of Penang’s first five-storey residence. This architectural marvel, reminiscent of Singapore’s iconic Raffles Hotel, had earned the moniker “Raffles by the Sea” by the 1910s. Today, it is a reminder of a bygone era.
According to Anwar, Raffles by the Sea had a dynamic past, transitioning from a grand mansion to a hotel, and eventually an English school in the 1920s.
“However, during a period of stagnation in Penang’s history, structures like this struggled to find relevance, and some individuals had ideas to make money out of it,” he said.
Anwar said there was a notable conflict between those seeking financial gain and those advocating its preservation. The latter hoped to restore the building and its surroundings into an urban park, but private ownership posed acquisition challenges.
First Chinese insurance company
Cheah was also the founder and a board member of the Penang Khean Guan Insurance Company, which was the first Chinese insurance firm in the Straits Settlements.
“He actively participated in the establishment of insurance companies. This involvement was vital because it provided protection for entrepreneurs who would otherwise face potential devastation,” Anwar said.
Cheah also played a huge role as part of a delegation that met with Governor Sir Frederick Weld to discuss the construction of a quay behind Beach Street in Penang on Aug 27, 1881.
“He played a role as a developer, engaging in construction activities alongside his partners. One of their significant projects involved the development of the Weld Quay area, which initially consisted of a beach.
“The development of Weld Quay was quite a historic moment for Penang’s waterfront,” Anwar said.
Weld Quay refers to the specific area along the eastern coast of Penang Island, facing the Penang Strait, where various developments, buildings, and attractions are located.
Cheah died in 1915 at the age of 63.