Chinese overseas

Indonesia mansion that’s a monument to Chinese tycoon’s integration and industry

Tjong A Fie helped build the city of Medan, and gave it hospitals, schools and places of worship. He also built himself a mansion. Now badly in need of repair, it has been made a museum by his heirs to funds its restoration

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 7:20pm

When Tjong Nyie Mie was a little girl, she and her younger brother would play hide and seek in their palatial family mansion on the main drag in Medan – a cosmopolitan entrepot during Indonesia’s Dutch colonial era dubbed the “Paris of Sumatra”.

Nowadays, Tjong Nyie Mie (also known as Mimi Tjong) is the affable hostess of Tjong A Fie Mansion, which was opened to the public as a tourist attraction in 2009 and is named after her grandfather.

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“It was my brother who decided to turn the house into a museum,” Mimi Tjong, 69, says. “He wanted people to remember my grandfather’s name. Some other family members were against it, but in the end they realised we should do it for my grandfather. We need to remind people of him.”

“Another reason was to help cover maintenance [costs] of the mansion,” she says with a laugh.

Tjong A Fie (pronounced Cheong Ah Fee) was Medan’s most illustrious ethnic Chinese tycoon, who at the peak of his career in the early 20th century owned 23 plantations, 75 per cent of the city’s real estate, several hotels, two banks and the Swatow Railway in Guangdong province, southern China, and had interests in sugar and palm oil factories.

Born in what is today Meizhou in Guangdong, in 1860, Tjong A Fie moved to Medan in 1877 to join his older brother, Tjong Yong Hian, in seeking out business opportunities in the “wild east” frontier town, which was founded on tobacco plantations and “coolie” labour.

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Although they had no money of their own, the two brothers had a powerful connection in Cheong Fatt Tze, a prominent tycoon in Penang, Malaya, who went on to build the “Blue Mansion” in George Town, after which Tjong A Fie Mansion was modelled.

Cheong, who came from the same village as the two Tjong brothers, was not a blood relation but rather a patron. All three were from the Hakka Chinese dialect group.

The Tjong brothers acted as middlemen for the Dutch and European plantation owners who flocked to Medan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, transforming a small village in the jungle into one of the economic powerhouses of the Dutch colony.

The mansion is a symbol of racial harmony, a symbol of the contribution of a Chinese family that could insinuate themselves into the indigenous community.
Soehardi Hartono

The first success story was the Deli Company, set up by Dutch nationals Jacob Nienhuys, Peter William Janssen (this writer’s great-great-grandfather) and Jacob Theodore Cremer. They were pioneers in the tobacco growing industry in the Deli district of North Sumatra, where the rich soil and suitable climate produced a tobacco leaf that became famous in Europe as the outer wrapper of luxury cigars.

A huge labour force was required for the tobacco plantations, which North Sumatra did not have, forcing the planters to recruit Chinese workers from Penang, Singapore and eventually southern China.

“Cremer and the Dutch officials needed people like Tjong A Fie as intermediaries between the government and the Chinese population, to organise food and other things for the plantation workers,” says Dirk Buiskool, a Medan-based Dutch historian and founder of the Hotel Deli River just outside Medan, whose Parisian charm has given way to urban sprawl and heavy traffic.

Until 1918, the government of the Dutch East Indies, as the colony was called, sold to the highest bidders monopolies to provide opium and gambling dens for the coolies. This practice inevitably led to many labourers running up huge debts, forcing them to sign new labour contracts. Tjong A Fie acquired the opium monopoly and made a fortune.

But as his fortune grew, Tjong A Fie displayed a philanthropic streak , helping to build a mosque, Christian church and Buddhist temple in Medan along with hospitals and schools.

He opposed the “penal sanction” that allowed European plantation owners to act as small fiefdoms, handing out punishment to the labourers on their plantations, and pushed for the banning of the rickshaw in Medan, because it was demeaning for the Chinese who manned them, Buiskool says.

Tjong A Fie’s non-discriminatory generosity made him popular, not only among the Chinese, but also the native Indonesians. This earned him respect in the community as a figure of racial harmony.

“His leper hospital was open to everyone,” says Soehardi Hartono, director of Medan-based Hartono Architects and a member of the Sumatra Heritage Trust.

“The native people regarded Tjong A Fie as an important social figure. He built a mosque and did other philanthropic work to such a degree that many Indonesians believed he had converted to Islam.”

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He had not, as is obvious from a visit to the Tjong A Fie Mansion, which includes two elaborate Chinese altars.

Construction of the mansion began in 1890 and was completed in 1895. It was built with classic Chinese features a tiled roof, imposing front gate, a main entrance facing a screen to block out bad luck, and an altar to the Kitchen God – combined with European touches such as the furniture and an impressive ballroom on the second floor. There is a Malay-style room that was used for receiving the Sultan of North Sumatra, who would visit the mansion every Chinese New Year.

Although it was intentionally modelled after George Town’s Blue Mansion – also deemed a classic of Chinese-European-Malay architecture, and now a boutique hotel and museum – the Tjong A Fie Mansion now faces serious preservation challenges. This is partly a consequece of the last will and testament of Tjong, who died in 1921.

He left instructions that the mansion must never be sold, whereas Cheong’swill stipulated that the Blue Mansion could be sold if there were no surviving male descendants.

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This allowed the home to be sold in a rundown state to a Penang architect, who spent US$5 million on a major restoration project. That is not an option for the Tjong A Fie Mansion, although it is desperately in need of repairs.

“It needs a thorough restoration, like the Blue Mansion,” Mimi Tjong says. The museum entrance fee [35,000 rupiah, or US$2.30] barely covers the salaries of the staff, she adds. And unfortunately, the Tjong family fortune has dissipated over the decades.

The mansion’s roof leaks, slowly ruining the wooden ceiling covered with painted murals of flowers and birds. The wooden structure is under constant threat from termites, and the cement walls are damp, making repainting difficult.

In 2014, the US embassy in Jakarta donated funding to partially repair the roof, but it has only covered a third of the costs, and some complain about the quality of the workmanship.

“I don’t think it was good conservation work,” Soehardi says. “They didn’t use any consultants. For the restoration of the Blue Mansion, artisans were hired from southern China to do the renovation work, which was carried out under Unesco [World Heritage] standards.”

I love this house, so I couldn’t let someone else take care of it. I cannot leave this house, but before I die I want this house to be restored. That is my dream.
Mimi Tjong

Soehardi has been acting as an informal heritage adviser to the Tjong family since 1999.

Another alternative for raising funds for the restoration – turning the mansion into a boutique hotel or restaurant – has run into objections from the other surviving descendants, some of whom are opposed to excessively commercialising the property and tarnishing the Tjong A Fie legacy.

That legacy captures the spirit of Medan, which has always been a melting pot of racial groups from different religious and cultural backgrounds who collaborated to make the city a commercial success story.

In the eyes of many historians, Medan is remembered for the abuses inflicted by its Dutch, and other European, plantation owners on the semi-enslaved plantation labourers (first Chinese and thereafter Javanese).

Buiskool has a slightly different take on the evolution of the metropolis, which now has a population of over two million.

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“The plantations were a conflict model [of criminal justice], with the penal sanction and maltreatment of coolies, but then there is also the development of Medan, which you cannot see as a conflict. It was a developing city, and who was developing the city? It was the Dutch, the Sultan of Medan and the Chinese,” he says.

Medan, like Penang and Singapore, became a magnet for Chinese migration in the 19th and 20th centuries, with Chinese arriving primarily as labourers but also as traders and artisans, with some of them going on to become successful businessmen. In 1920, ethnic Chinese accounted for 30 per cent of the population in Medan. The figure today is between 10 per cent and 12 per cent.

Tjong A Fie in some respects embodied that successful integration.

“The mansion is a symbol of racial harmony, a symbol of the contribution of a Chinese family that could insinuate themselves into the indigenous community,” says Soehardi, who is also of Chinese descent.

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But for Mimi Tjong, the house is more about preserving the core of her family. Relatives still gather at the mansion to celebrate Chinese New Year and it remains a nucleus for the dispersed Tjong clan, now living in the US, Europe and in other places in Asia such as Bali, Jakarta, Penang and Singapore.

“I love this house, so I couldn’t let someone else take care of it,” Mimi Tjong says. “I cannot leave this house, but before I die I want this house to be restored. That is my dream.”

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Garuda Indonesia fly between Hong Kong and Medan