Monday, November 27, 2006

Eu Tong Sen and His Mansions

Last week, Damian wrote into RTHK 3's Naked Lunch programme, asking the excellent Sarah Passmore to forward a question to me. Here was his question about Eu Tong Sen, the famous prewar Chinese medicine tycoon:

Just wondering what Dave could find out about the houses of Eu Tong-sen? He built three primary residences: Eucliffe Castle in Repulse Bay; Euston on Bonham Road; and Sirmio in Tai Po. I'm just curious as to where Sirmio was in Tai Po, as all his houses have been demolished (Eucliffe is now a housing development, and Euston is now Euston Court). I'd also like to be able to find any photos of Sirmio if possible...perhaps Dave can point me in the right direction?

Damian, I shall tell you what I can of Eu Tong Sen's houses, which is not a great deal, but also of the man behind the buildings. I'm afraid Sermio, being Eu Tong Sen's 'getaway' villa residence in the New Territories, was the building least written about, and I have very little information about it. Sermio was named for an ancient village (today called Sermione) on a promontory on the shores of Lake Garda, in northern Italy - I'd imagine Mr. Eu must have visited and kept the name for the villa for that reason. I suspect though that since it was on the approach to Tai Po, with a view of Tolo Harbour, the villa was perched somewhere along the old Tai Po road where Chinese University stands today. Many of Hong Kong's older money bought homes in that area - the surviving ones though are largely to the left of the roundabout when you come up the road from the Shatin racecourse area. Someone else may be able to give you a more exact address!

As for Eu Tong Sen, he was quite the character. He was a cosmopolitan man of the world, a connoiseur of the Western good life. By the time he moved to Hong Kong circa 1930, he had already ensured his family's fortune. Born in 1877 in Perak, in Penang, he inherited his father's Chinese medicine business, which was called the Yan Sang medical shop. It was felt that these remedies could be a strong substitute for the opium which many poor Chinese laborers resorted to for their aches and pains. They did rather well, and opened branches in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Seremban in the early 1900s, and then Hong Kong in 1909, and Singapore the following year. Shops on the mainland also followed. Basically, he created a very early example of a southeast Asian business empire catering to the overseas Chinese.

What is interesting though, is that although Eu Yan Sang (which is what Mr. Eu renamed the company to indicate that it was a family business that should be run by future generations of Eus) is the only remaining visible part of that empire, and was what the man was most famous for, it seems that most of his money was made by other means. Before the 1890s, the family business actually made a good deal more money out of tax farming, which it undertook on behalf of the Sultans of Malaya under British auspices. Later in the 20th century, the network of shops throughout the Chinese diaspora in Asia put Mr. Eu's business in a great position to handle remittances, and was one of the greatest handlers of such money before World War II, much as Western Union works today for the Filipina helpers in Hong Kong. It was only after World War II, when war and revolution had changed the dynamics of the Chinese networks throughout Asia, that it was Eu Yan Sang that carried the empire for Eu Tong Sen's descendants.

But what of his houses, you may ask? As you point out, Mr. Eu had built three palatial houses in Hong Kong throughout the lean decade of the 1930s in Hong Kong. Euston on Bonham Road; Eucliffe, on the northern side of Repulse Bay, and Sirmio in Tai Po. Local historian Jason Wordie in his excellent 'Streets of Hong Kong' book points out the rumor that Eu Tong Sen was told that he would not die as long as he kept building houses. It nevertheless did not stop him from dying in 1941, on the eve of the Japanese Invasion.

However, I have a feeling that whoever the fortuneteller was, he was animated by a practical consideration for Mr. Eu's health - he had 5 official wives with him in Hong Kong, an unknown number of concubines, and at least 34 official children. So he was as prolific in his offspring as he was with his engineering works! Not only did he need to house the product of his loins and the women that delivered them, he also probably needed to maintain multiple residences to keep outbreaks of discord from rearing their ugly heads. The fortune teller, therefore, probably thought this might help Mr. Eu to keep building. The fissures that must have existed while he was alive broke into the open after his death, with family squabbles that continued with lawsuits all the way until 1996. That was the year that several cousins, whose grandfather and/or great-grandfather was Mr. Eu, chose to buy out the business of Eu Yan Sang from outside investors (that had bought the separate bits from older generation family members) and consolidate operations in Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere.

An interesting bit of trivia is that the statue that is supposed to represent John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the VC recipient, according again to the redoubtable Mr. Wordie, was actually a statue of a World War I soldier that stood in the gardens of Eucliffe. He was donated to the Hong Kong government by the family after the war when they sold the Eucliffe site, and he underwent a transformation to become Mr. Osborn. Perhaps it is fitting though, for he was also a young sailor that was present at the Battle of Jutland in World War I.

The war connection is also grimly fitting because of the Japanese outrage that occurred on the site of the Eucliffe mansion during the desperate fighting between Allied and Japanese forces around the Repulse Bay area in the days before Christmas, when the East and West Brigades were effectively split in two. Allow me to end with this quote from Tony Banham, in his labor of love, Not the Slightest Chance:
“The prisoners were taken to Eucliffe, a Chinese millionaire’s castle on the north shore of Repulse Bay. Having been beaten up by rifle butts, their hands were tightly bound behind their backs and they were prodded forward with bayonets to the edge of the cliff. They were then forced to sit facing the sea with their feet dangling over the edge. “We knew that we were going to be shot because on top of the bank were pools of blood and at the bottom of the cliff there were dozens of bodies,” stated Company Sergeant Major Hamlon of the Royal Rifles at the post-war War Crimes Trial. “It was evident that they had been shot on top of the cliff and fallen down. Then a firing squad came forward and we were all shot. Owing to the fact that I turned my head to the left as I was being fired at, the bullet passed through my neck and came out of my right cheek. I did not lose consciousness and the force of the bullet hitting me knocked me free from the others and I rolled down the cliff.” He lay at the cliff’s foot bleeding all day until dark when he moved “a mess of blood” into a dank cave where he remained shivering as Japanese sentries patrolled above. Later 54 bodies were found in the area. Many had been shot, others bayoneted to death and the rest beheaded."
This grisly episode may explain why the Repulse Bay area (and apparently also even Euston Court) are said to be haunted...though I know nothing of that!


Private Beach said...

I don't know if it's correct, but I've been told that Sirmio stood on the site of Fortune Garden at 72 Ting Kok Road, on the road out to Bride's Pool, beyond the Industrial Estate and the former landfill site which now houses a golf driving range. Can anyone confirm this?

Unknown said...

Private Beach

You are correct, the old Sirmio resemblance a medieval castle stood on the site where Fortune Garden at Ting Kok Road.

jefferyseow said...

Perak and Penang are both states in Malaysia. Perak is not in Penang or vice versa. Eu Tong Seng was born on Penang island, which was part of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, making him a British Subject. He was a tin miner so a lot of his and his family's business concerns would have been in Perak. He sometimes made use of the offices / business premises of his "sworn" brother Chung Thye Phin.

DocNo said...


Allan Eu

derek.sloan said...

My Uncle Chuckie Sloan who had been service manager of Gillman motors for many years told me that there were three castles and that Mr Eu had wanted to build one but was not allowed to have sufficient ground to build one large castle. That is why he ended up building three.I only remember the names of Euston an Eucliff which I seem to remember were at Repulse bay and in Mid Levels. I thought that the other one was out in the New Territories somewhere. I don't know if that is correct but it is what he told me back in the 50's/60's

DocNo said...

Eucliff, Bonham Rd. and the third one is in Tai Po.

chi ching said...

Yes correct in Ting Kok Road. I visited the place in early 80's the castle was still standing. The one in Bonham Road had lift in it,

Eu Tong Sen also had castles/mansions in Penang, Ipoh, Gopeng, KL, Singapore and Cameron Highland. The ones in KL, Ipoh and CH are still standing. The Singapore one was demolished in 1970's It had a gold room and a silver room where all the furnishing and ornaments were made from the respective metals.

His first wife lived in KL, a lady with bound feet.

chi ching said...

Yes correct in Ting Kok Road. I visited the place in early 80's the castle was still standing. The one in Bonham Road had lift in it.

Eu Tong Sen also had castles/mansions in Penang, Ipoh, Gopeng, KL, Singapore and Cameron Highland. The ones in KL, Ipoh and CH are still standing. The Singapore one was demolished in 1970's. If I remember correctly, it was in Mt. Sophia. It had a gold room and a silver room where all the furnishing and ornaments were made from the respective metals.

His first wife lived in KL, a lady with bound feet.

eatsee said...

a website containing all three photos of eucliffe, euston and sirmio

macondo said...

fantastic photos of old HK! thanks! thank you also to others for your comments...