Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 October, 2009, 12:00am

Overseas Chinese tycoons are the stuff of legend, and legions of stories - real, fantastic and somewhere in between - have attached themselves down the years to these larger-than-life characters. One of the most colourful was Eu Tong Sen (1877-1941), a Malayan Chinese who, like many others, eventually made his home in Hong Kong.

Heavily involved in the legal opium business in Singapore and Penang, he was charmingly inconsistent, also serving for a time as vice-president of the Anti-Opium Society in Malaya.

Eu Yan Sang, the main family enterprise, dealt in Chinese medicines and remains in operation today. Later he diversified into banking and tin mining. While most profits were re-invested in Malaya some ended up in Hong Kong. Eu eventually moved from Singapore to Hong Kong in 1928, but travelled regularly between both colonies. Eu Tong Sen Street, in the heart of Singapore's Chinatown, was named after him in 1919 in recognition of donations to the British first world war effort.

Chinese tin miners living in Malaya and elsewhere generally repatriated earnings to families in China through reliable Hong Kong agents. Eu managed most remittances, and, in 1920, opened the Lee Wah Bank - the first of the 'Cantonese' banks - in Singapore.

Short, bespectacled and rotund, Eu is probably best known for his houses in Hong Kong, Singapore and Perak. These included a mock-Gothic castle overlooking Repulse Bay called Eucliffe and another mansion named Euston, the hanging gardens of which overlooked Bonham Road. All were permanently under renovation, due to a soothsayer's prediction made after a serious illness that as long as Eu continued to build he would not die. As Eu, Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum and many others have proven, that hallmark Chinese tycoon contradiction - huge wealth and keen business acumen juxtaposed with staggering levels of personal credulity - have added greatly to the colour of life in Hong Kong down the decades.

Sirmio, a schloss-like country home near Tai Po named for an ancient village in northern Italy, was Eu's favourite and he was buried there when - in sheer defiance of his favourite fung shui master - death came calling in 1941. It is unclear exactly where the house stood but it was probably in the area occupied by the Chinese University. Three wives and 25 children diluted his fortune, and the Hong Kong homes were sold off in the 1970s. Eventually demolished, these palaces - like their owner and his foibles - are mostly forgotten today.