In 1920, Wong Jee Seong (Wong), an immigrant from China, was employed as a bank clerk in Ipoh, earning the princely sum of $28 per month. In those days this was a handsome wage as a full bag of rice only cost 12 cents. A regular attendee at St Michael’s Church in Brewster Road, Ipoh, Wong, his mother, wife (Choong Kee Chin)and family lived happily at 241 Brewster Road in a nice house, rented from the Church. A stable family, well thought of in the community, the house was often full of friends, one of whom was the then Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Perak, Dato’ Panglima Bukit Gantang, a frequent visitor. It was a risk free, stable and comfortable life.
But the tranquility was soon shattered by a friend’s proposal that Wong should enter a partnership with Lee Ah Weng and others to engage in tin mining rather than continuing with his humdrum life with the bank. The proposer ‘guaranteed’ a certain fortune from an unworked hill mine in Selibin, adjacent to the River Parit, near Ipoh. The mine was later named Beatrice after the daughter of the British mining engineer they employed. Wong took the bait and immediately left the secure employment of the bank and invested his meagre savings in the partnership known as the Tong Ying Kongsi. It was a great gamble for a family man.
Initially the profits failed to meet the expectations of the group, but nonetheless there was enough tin to make mining worthwhile and so they persevered. In July 1923 however the gamble paid off in a very big way, for the mine, bored into a limestone hill, had hit what was known as a pipe – a tubular vein of ore running into the hill and close to the surface. This pipe was around 20 feet in diameter and around 850 feet long, producing almost 100% pure tin ore worth a veritable fortune as was the by-product of white arsenic they sold to Australia. It was the jealous European miners who it is said coined the expression, “As rich as the Beatrice Mine” which thereafter, in Ipoh, indicated nothing less than fabulous wealth.
The workers extracted the ore in as large a chunks as they could manage. It was then transported, unwashed, to the Wong home in Brewster Road where Wong’s brother and family lived in a hut in the grounds. Here it was broken up into smaller, manageable, pieces and loaded into canvas bags, which were then sewn up. Again, no washing was required as the ore was so pure. Once a load of bags were ready, they were sold to the Eastern Smelters Company in Belfield Street, where, next door, there was a tin buyers shop who bought the small yields of tin that the part-time ‘dulang washers’ the wives and daughters of Ipoh men, managed to wrench from the Kinta River.
With such a vast quantity of almost pure ore, the partnership became extremely rich and soon Wong joined the band of prosperous ‘Tin Towkays’ of Ipoh. Of course, in the style of the day, such prosperity had to be demonstrated by material wealth and so one of Wong’s first purchases was a Cadillac motor car, believed to be the first Cadillac in Ipoh. Racehorses followed and soon Wong was a member of the newly formed Perak Turf Club (19261) and the proud owner of four racehorses. Of these four, only one name has been recorded for posterity – ‘Soldier Boy’ – which won four consecutive races, quite a feat all those years ago.
Legend has it that the Sultan of Perak, also a racehorse owner wanted to buy ‘Soldier Boy’, but the horse was not for sale. At that time Wong was a leading member of the Club as an original guarantor for setting it up, one of the first members and a successful owner. Our former bank clerk had arrived in style. At the time, the first Chairman of the Club was F Douglas Osbourne, also a prominent name in tin mining circles.
Other demonstrations of wealth soon followed with Wong and wife departing on long holidays to England and Europe in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. Trips to the Chinese homeland followed and life continued to be good for the Wongs and their growing offspring. However, despite their ever increasing wealth, the family never moved from 241 Brewster Road to their own house while Wong was alive. It is true that he tried to buy the old property from the church many times but the house (like ‘Soldier Boy’) was not for sale. A stones throw from the Church, the family were just ‘too comfortable’ in the old house and as regular church-goers it was all too convenient to pop along to the church ‘almost next door’.
But, as they say, ‘all good things come to an end’, for one day in the late 1930’s the mining manger reported a disaster – the lode had petered out. The partnership could not believe such a thing and insisted that the mine should continue. Money started to be lost, but they would not give in, instructing their manager to continue to search the hill in which the original lode had been, but still there was no tin and losses started to build up to a level where racehorses had to be sold and other economies made. But Wong was convinced that tin was there if only it could be located and judging the line on which the lode had run he ordered the River Parit to be dammed and diverted so that they might mine the river bed. No tine was found and the fortune continued to diminish. A second diversion of the river followed with more losses and Wong and family were back to where they had started in 1920 with no car or trappings of wealth. In some ways fortunate for them the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 brought this saga to an end and the family continued to live in their home in Belfield Street until Wong passed on. At that time they moved to a new, smaller home and the story of the Beatrice Lode Mine was complete.
1 Horse racing in Perak actually first started in Taiping in 1886. Taiping being the oldest town in the country, It was then known as the Taiping Turf Club. In 1926, the Perak Turf Club was formed in Ipoh at the site on which it still stands.
Postscript. The details of this tale were kindly provided by the grandson of Wong Jee Seong, Antony Teh, a retired school teacher from St Michael’s Institution.