The House on an Island

By Aung Zaw 18 November 2014

YANGON — When the writer and former British civil servant Maurice Collis decided to return to Myanmar in 1937 to visit Shan State in the north, he first stopped in Yangon where he was invited to stay at a “house on an island.”

In his book “Lords of the Sunset,” Mr. Collis described enjoying excellent paintings by famous Myanmar painter U Ba Nyan in a house with porcelain, Persian carpets, bronze drums, a waxed floor and a white poodle. The house was built by the well-known Chinaman Lim Chin Tsong, the author briefly noted.

Lim Chin Tsong was a Chinese tycoon who successfully built a business empire on rubber cultivation, textiles and the oil, rice trading, mineral mining and banking sectors. He was the son of a Chinese Hokkien migrant from Fujian province in China. His father, Lim Soo Hean, came to Yangon in 1861 and began trading rice and selling agricultural products.

Lower Myanmar was then ruled by the British who were preparing to take over the upper part of the country still ruled by King Mindon. In British-ruled Yangon, business was competitive and Lim SooHean soon discovered his main limitation: a poor education. He was unable to communicate in English with foreign merchants—either Indians or Europeans.

He then sent his 16-year-old son, Lim Chin Tsong, to St Paul’s College in Yangon to study but did not live to see his beloved son take over his work and build one of the most successful businesses in Southeast Asia.

At 18-years-old, Lim Chin Tsong assumed his father’s business after Lim Soo Hean passed away in 1885—the year British troops marched into the grand Mandalay Palace and detained the king and queen before sending them into exile. The whole of Myanmar was then under British control.

The young and energetic Lim Chin Tsong began to grow the business empire, buying ocean-going vessels, exporting rice and expanding his shipping business to Singapore, Penang, Hong Kong, Guangdong, and Amoy (now known as Xiamen).

Among businessmen of that era, the Chinese tycoon was regarded as talented and strategically minded, using the trademark “Xie De” to denote many of his business ventures and products.

He soon managed to secure a deal with Burma Oil Corporation (BOC), a large oil company based in the United Kingdom, and was appointed as the exclusive product agent for the region. His involvement in the oil industry saw his wealth flourish and he became one of the richest Chinese tycoons based overseas.

Lim Chin Tsong was flamboyant and showy but he was also known to be generous in his philanthropy projects, donating money to establish schools for students to learn English and to build a hospital for women in Yangon. In 1905, he and his business partners established Anglo-Chinese Boys’ and Girls’ Schools in Yangon. Two years later, he built his own school officially known as the Lim Chin Tsong School.

One is delighted to learn of the Chinese tycoon’s genuine efforts to upgrade education at the time, particularly when many in Myanmar today learn only about the exploitative practices of greedy Chinese businessmen in the country.

The Lim Chin Tsong School, located in downtown Yangon, employed teachers from England on decent salaries and produced many English-trained graduates, some of whom were Chinese students from Hong Kong and Macau pursuing their education in Yangon, according to some historical records.

Lim Chin Tsong also served as a member of the Legislative Council of Myanmar. In 1919, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his fundraising efforts during World War I. He was also a prominent member of the Rangoon Turf Club and the Lim Chin Tsong Polo Cup endured even after his death.

In 1917, Lim Chin Tsong began to build a magnificent and lavish residence in Yangon near Kokkine Road, now Kaba Aye Road. The five-storey structure of red bricks and green tiles was built to resemble the Fu Xiang pavilion in the Yihe Yuan (Summer Palace) of Beijing but in fact, the building featured a blend of Eastern and Western architectural designs. It took more than two years to build at great cost—some reports suggested a figure of around 2 million rupees.

Materials and craftwork for the residence were imported from China and Italian designers, as well as famous British painters, were invited to design the interior. Ernest Procter, an English designer, illustrator, painter and husband to the artist Dod Procter, were among those invited to decorate the residence.

The opulent house was then known as the Lim Chin Tsong Palace and among locals it was called “Chin Chaung Nan Daw” or Chin Chaung palace. There were no records of how many fancy parties were thrown at the palace but when Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, a French statesman, visited Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, in 1920, Lim Chin Tsong was known to have entertained him at the residence.

Lim Chin Tsong’s success hit a speed bump when in 1921 the British government banned the sale of rice, except to India, and soon the market collapsed. Some also suggested that his flamboyant ways caused the BOC to withdraw his exclusive agent rights, which incited him to seek ways to undermine the company.

Suddenly, he was broke. He sold his possessions—even his Rolls Royce cars—and began borrowing money from friends. In his final days, the once rich Chinese tycoon was a broken man. In 1923, three years after the inauguration of the Chin Tsong residence, he passed away.

The palace first went to a Japanese creditor (under Japanese rule in Myanmar from 1941-45, the residence housed the All Burma Broadcasting Station), then to Indian businessman and then to the Myanmar government in 1950 when it was turned into a state guesthouse named Kanbawza Yeiktha.

Currently, the Fine Arts Department under the Ministry of Culture maintains an office and an arts school within the building.

The house that saw Lim Chin Tsong’s downfall, and many ups and downs in the country, has stood throughout the decades. Now children who live in the area play nearby and stray dogs harass the odd curious visitor. Some nervous officials at the Ministry of Culture would not allow visitors to take pictures. Inside the hall and on the second floor, one can no longer see paintings and other decorations that have perhaps been removed. Lim Chin Tsong’s former residence seems ready for a genuine facelift.

Recent news suggests that the Ministry of Culture will grant Chin Tsong Palace heritage status and renovate the building as it approaches its 100th anniversary, Kyaw Nyunt, director of Yangon Region’s Archaeology, National Museum and Library Department, recently told The Irrawaddy.

The late Lim Chin Tsong who made a significant contribution to colonial Myanmar, not least through some outstanding education projects, would be delighted to learn of the recognition.

This article first appeared in the November 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy Magazine.