The continuing saga of 50 Love Lane
The drama over a crumbling building in the heritage heart of George Town has come to resemble a Hokkien soap opera, with groups ranging from Chinese clans to a defunct triad laying claim to the property.
THE superstitious Chinese would probably say that the heritage property known as 50 Love Lane has bad feng shui.
There is still no compromise in sight for the building, which has been an object of a bitter dispute between the state government and the Penang Chinese Clans Association (PCCA).
However, the issue has taken an intriguing twist – another Chinese group emerged this week to lay claim to the property which once belonged to the Ghee Hin secret society that dominated Chinese life in Penang during the colonial era.
The group, led by two Datuks from Penang, claimed to be descendants of the Ghee Hin triad.
Their appearance raised eyebrows among many Penang Chinese because people generally do not come out to announce that they have ties with triads even if the triad is now defunct.
Anyway, no one was going to dispute their claim especially given that they arrived for the press conference with an escort of about 30 men who looked like the sort you would not want to mess with.
The spokesman, Datuk Teoh Kooi Sneah, said he had been following the impasse over 50 Love Lane and his group felt a “historical obligation” to claim the property.
Teoh is a former state assemblyman while Datuk Chin Poh Chai, a wealthy contractor, watched on.
The group was also accompanied by two DAP politicians Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi and Tanjung MP Ng Wei Aik.
“They approached us expressing interest. They are agreeable to the state government’s condition to go by the legal process and they want to take a nonconfrontational approach. It is up to them to take it further,” said Ooi.
What all this means is that PCCA is no longer the sole claimant to 50 Love Lane. The “Ghee Hin group” is now a rival claimant and if they are indeed descendants of the triad society, then they have a stronger case than the PCCA.
PCCA’s claim was made on the premise that it is the umbrella body for some 82 clan associations in Penang. The clans were a big part of early Chinese life and culture and although their influence has faded, PCCA sees itself as the holder of the torch. It manages another Ghee Hinrelated property known as Meng Eng Soo Ancestral Hall along Rope Walk and when Dr Chang Wei Lu became the PCCA president several years ago, he was tasked to recover the Love Lane property and turn it into a museum on Ghee Hin story.
But this seemingly civicminded effort has somehow turned into a very public fallout with the state government.
The Chinese vernacular press has reported every blow exchanged by the two sides and no one can quite explain how things went so disastrously wrong between PCCA and the state government.
It is quite unlikely that PCCA is ever going to get the property.
Prior to the appearance of the “Ghee Hin group”, a man had also emerged to claim that he was a descendant of a trustee of 50 Love Lane.
All of this is widely seen as politicallyengineered efforts to stonewall PCCA, to show the association that there are others who have more right to claim the property.
Legally speaking, all of them have no right to 50 Love Lane, which was held by a board of trustees. The last trustee died years ago without leaving any instruction and the property is now held by the state.
The antics over this issue have not impressed the Chinese chattering class or the teahouse community. They regard the emergence of the “Ghee Hin group” as a joke. A Chinese lawyer from Penang called it a “circus”.
For instance, when one of the reporters at the press conference asked the group for proof of their Ghee Hin ties, they indicated that it had to be kept a secret.
Moreover, it is public knowledge that Teoh and Dr Chang do not get along. Teoh lost the chairmanship of the Teoh Clan Association to Dr Chang.
There was also a bit of drama at the “Ghee Hin group” press conference when local businessman Datuk Patrick Ooi gatecrashed the event.
Those guarding the door tried to stop him but Tan, the Datuk who had been silent throughout the event, signalled for Ooi to be let in, saying, “he is our brother”.
Ooi, who has had his own fallouts with the state government, came with a purpose. He told the “Ghee Hin group” that their aim should be to unite rather than be used by politicians to divide the community.
He also posed a cryptic question to the group: “Do you agree that the direct descendants of Khoo Boo Aun are the ones with the real right to claim the property?”
Everyone, including the two Datuks, nodded in agreement because Khoo Boo Aun is apparently the first tai kor (big brother or leader) of the Ghee Hin triad.
Ooi came with two Chinese men but before he could introduce them, someone in the delegation called out in a fierce tone, “time to eat,” and everyone trooped out for lunch.
Ooi, who was dressed like a Mafia boss in a red opennecked shirt and black suit, played it coy about the identity of the two men but hinted that the men were the fifth generation of the original Ghee Hin tai kor.
If that is true, the 50 Love Lane issue is about to take another unexpected turn. Will the two men, who are brothers, be joining the expanding field of claimants to 50 Love Lane?
“Be patient; wait and see,” said Ooi.
They are agreeable to the state government’s condition to go by the legal process and they want to take a non-confrontational approach. It is up to them to take it further.