The Peranakan Jeweller

William Tien

With the owner of
Kedai Emas Kwong Leong
William Tien, 71

Conversation on
28 February, 2020

Kedai Emas Kwong Leong
33 Jalan Kee Ann
06-283 4649

Operating Hours:
9am - 6pm
(except Sundays)

My mother is a sort of Peranakan, because she was adopted by Peranakan.

My father came from Guangdong, China. My father learned all of this from my grand uncle in China. That time the Nyonyas were very rich. Heeren Street people. You got to take your table and go to their house. They have all the intans and they sit beside you and you have to do the job in front of them. Those days I wasn’t born yet.

Those days the intan were very nice, all in different sizes. Now nobody makes it. The old people die off, the young people don’t want to learn. Making kerongsang: some goldsmiths are scared to touch it, afraid to damage it. It’s old antiques and considered vintage.

So, they asked your father to go to their house and do the job?
Yes. That was in the early 1900s. He’s in heaven now. Those days they didn’t have machinery. They had to knock on the stones. And the workmanship back then was cheap.

Where did they get the stones?
From the salesmen, and I heard they bought it from the Jews. After the Japanese War, I think most of the intan was taken away by the foreigners. It’s very common lah when war is over, they take everything back home. It’s normal. I would do the same thing. It’s war, there’s no law you see.

So, you know how to work with intan?
Yes, I learned from my father.

Don’t you want to pass the craftsmanship and intan techniques on to the next generation?
It’s not that I don’t want to, nobody wants to learn. And they have no patience nowadays. When I was an apprentice in a workshop in Singapore, I was paid 20 dollars per month. I was 17 years old. At that age you can eat a lot. And 20 dollars per month is not enough for a young man to eat. We would keep the leftover vegetables and the rice, heat it up and eat it. I think the youngsters today would never experience this sort of thing. When I told my father, he told me that his experience was worse in China. To drink water he had to walk to the well and drink it by the roadside. Now no more. Nowadays you are born with a wooden spoon, our time not even a spoon.

“That time the Nyonyas were very rich, Heeren Street people. You take your table and go to their house. They sit beside you and you have to do the job in front of them”

You were born in this place?
I was born in Melaka, Banda Kaba.
Did your father buy this place?
No lah, rented it. Until now. No money to buy.

Kwong Leong, whose name is it?
Kwong Leong was my father’s name for this shop. Leong is my younger brother’s name, I’m Kwong.

After you retire, will your children follow in this business?
No, they are not interested. You must know that everything is not permanent in this world. My father needed a lot of patience with me because when I was younger, I was a rascal. So, you must take care of your father and mother when they are still alive. Look now, who’s taking care of them: the rascal!

Mostly the gold you get from the suppliers? From the salesmen, Penang, KL, Singapore?
Singapore gets it from Malaysia because the labour is cheap.

And Malaysian gold is good?
Now the government is very strict. Last time I got an English pound, a Malay pound. Now it’s standardised.

Do you still sell 999 gold?
No, for that you need to use a lot of capital. I don’t sell that because I don’t have the capital to keep the stock. Got to clear off the old goods.

How do you compare your business from those days and now?
Very bad. But let me say this: in life when you reach a certain age, you have to be content. When there’s no business, take it easy. I don’t want to stress myself. Always pray to God to live a healthy life. At this time I need that.

What’s the logbook hanging beside the door?
That’s a logbook for the policeman. The police guys walk around all the goldsmith shops, to check if anything suspicious.

Do you need to pay for all of that service from the police?
No. We are the taxpayers. It’s ok lah, they are doing a good job.
During the festive season do a lot of people still come to buy gold?
Nowadays is not like our father’s or grandfather’s time.

And mostly your customers are Malays?
Malays lah. They are richer now. They like to buy gold lah. Not like the Chinaman, buy properties. And when they die the children enjoy it. That’s the Chinaman style.

So,the Peranakan still sends you their jewellery to repair?
Now not many anymore lah.
So, you still do the batu lah?
Not much lah. Last time yes. Now my eyesight is very bad. Old age. And one more thing, when my father came here to Malaysia from China, my grand uncle brought him here. He told me stories of how they suffered. The people here bullied them. You ‘Cina gek’, you come from China. Their life was very hard back then.

“I heard they bought the stones from the Jews. After the Japanese War, I think most of the intan was taken away by the foreigners”

Are you Hakka?
Ya, how come you know?

Why do mostly goldsmiths have Onn for their name?
It depends on your race or your clan, normally it’s because you can say something nice lah, I have a cousin who owns a medicine shop, he uses “Onn” also. I have few relatives doing business and they use the word “onn”.

We notice many goldsmiths use Onn for their shop.
Haha, I don’t know what is actually the meaning of Onn. Maybe they like the word “Onn”, some people put “glitter” or “bright”. Normally goldsmiths follow practice. If this fellow is a Chinaman, he will follow the old way to put up the signboard. For my shop, because of my brother and me, he is Kwong and I’m Leong, both of us share the business. Now, I am running alone, another couple of years I will retire. A lot of stress, I can’t take it.

Why stress?
If I have a lot of workers, then no stress. I’m doing this business with myself, I can’t afford it because my business is not great, this is just a family business. Now with my age, if I can do, I do. I don’t want to stress myself for this age. Some people my age already go for makan angin, I’m still here, have to work. I have relatives overseas who ask me to visit, I still can’t afford it. Only when it’s my daughter’s convocation, I got no choice and must attend lah so I closed my shop for 10-11 days.

How has your business changed over the years?
Those days business was easier to do. Now most customers are educated. all the shops around, more choices. Now the youngsters like fashion, unless you update your goods lah.

Gold design also has fashion?
Yes, the 3 types of [gold] colours, also the designs. My business, they all more like the traditional design. That is the gold you can sell, unless you got a lot of capital. In the gold line, most of the time is cash. If you have less cash, you buy less goods, less goods, less business. Melaka business is not like in KL, KLl people, they buy things fast, Melaka is a bit difficult lah, like myself I will look good the cheaper. But KL people are different, their mentality is different, they are more modernised. Anyway, Melaka has improved a lot compared to those days.

What is the difference between intan and berlian?
Intan is diamond chips. It’s the same family, the only thing, you can cut into brilliant cut, some they are fancy cut, fancy cut is very expensive, they have fancy colours. The people here only know the white colour.

Who does the cutting?
Now they have a machine, throw the stone they would roll and roll.

How the berlian, the old time berlian?
Actually, it’s brilliant.

Berlian comes from the word brilliant?
Ya, brilliant cut they call it, means the cut like diamond shape. The Malay call it berlian. And they have the fancy cut. Now difficult to sell lah, even the salesman calls me and says “I give you 3 months to pay”. Not to say I take and didn’t want to pay.

How about gold?
Gold, majority is bought by the Malays. If Chinese, they buy and keep. One thing about gold ,if you travel everywhere, people will accept it. Diamonds, where to sell it? Those days, people can afford lah, RM10,000, RM20,000 for one1 stone only. With this one stone, I can buy a lot of gold.