But readers should look at the first book on the company -- The Royal Selangor Story: Born and Bred in Pewter Dust by Chen May Yee, who is the great-grand-daughter of the founder of the business in 1885 -- for a more complete account of the fascinating business and history.
Despite the long history of the business, the company has curiously remained privately owned. Maybe it doesn't need public capital to expand in the global arena.
New Straits Times
Catching up with: First family of pewter
By Wilson Henry
The Royal Selangor Pewter story is not just about a successful Malaysian enterprise that went global. It is also the story of an immigrant Hakka family from tin-mining Kuala Lumpur whose fortunes were determined by the pewtersmith patriarchs and their dream to keep the business alive. Packed tour buses arrive daily at the Royal Selangor headquarters in Setapak Jaya, Kuala Lumpur with eager tourists from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia.
They are piqued by Malaysia’s famous pewter brand, Royal Selangor.
A common remark is that Royal Selangor’s story is closely linked with Malaysia’s social and economic transformation that began in the tin mines.
Inside a dramatic glass and steel-clad building that also houses a museum, visitors are reminded of the Royal Selangor story that grew from a modest shophouse operation to an international brand.
In the museum, multi-lingual guides begin the tour at the large panel where a black-and-white photograph of an old Hakka man with wire-rimmed spectacles hangs.
The steady gaze of Yong Koon Seong tells an amazing story of a city’s beginnings, the tin industry and of a pewtersmith and his family.
If the visitors are fortunate, Datin Chen Mun Kuen nee Yong, the 64-year-old granddaughter of Yong Koon Seong, would pop in and enquire if they need any assistance (her grandfather subsequently shortened his name to Yong Koon).
The Yong family story began at the time when Kuala Lumpur was already a state capital.
It was in late 1885 that the founding father of Royal Selangor, Yong Koon, sailed from the southeastern Chinese port of Shantou in Guangdong province to Malaya.
He was 15 years old then. Three years before sailing to Nanyang (as Southeast Asia was known in the Chinese world), Yong Koon was already an apprentice pewtersmith in Shantou.
"I don’t remember much of my grandfather," says Mun Kuen in meticulous English picked up from the Pudu English Girls school in Kuala Lumpur. "But what I do remember is my grandfather being fiercely proud of his Hakka origins.
"He would scold his grandchildren if we spoke another dialect, saying Hakka people must speak Hakka, otherwise you are a foreign devil!
"We spoke English, Malay and Cantonese instead."
Mun Kuen recalls how her grandfather’s story was handed down to the grandchildren by her father, Yong Peng Kai.
After landing in Malaya, Yong Koon joined his two brothers, Chin Seong and Wai Seong, in the newly established tin mining town.
"He left neither diaries nor letters," says Mun Kuen.
Besides early photographs, there are also Yong Koon’s tools and a pewter melon teapot he designed in the museum.
"There is an interesting story behind the melon pot," says Mun Kuen, while holding it to be photographed. "We call it the lucky melon-shaped teapot.
"When bombs were being dropped during the Second World War, hungry villagers in Kajang were scrambling for rice in a godown.
"One of the villagers, Ah Ham, ran in during the bombing. Instead of picking up the rice bags, he saw a melon-shaped teapot on the ground.
"As he bent to pick it up,shrapnel whizzed over his head.
"Ah Ham was convinced the teapot saved his life.
"In the 70s, Ah Ham sent his teapot to a pewter factory for cleaning. Someone immediately recognised the Ngeok Foh touchmark (Yong Koon’s handiwork) at the base.
"Today, the teapot is part of the museum collection and has since inspired a new range of melon teapots."
In 2003, Mun Kuen’s daughter, Chen May Yee, who studied journalism in Columbia University and is now based in the United States, put together the family story in a coffee table book — The Royal Selangor Story.
Harvard Business School’s John A. Davis promptly referred to the story as "a model family business story".
May Yee’s story traces the pewter business to a shophouse in 23, Cross Street (the present Jalan Silang).
Yong Koon and his tinsmith brothers made a variety of simple household items at Cross Street, from pails to gutters and weighing scales, and selling pewter incense burners, joss stick holders and candlestands for the altars of Chinese prospectors.
As his pewter business flourished, Yong Koon returned to China to bring back a bride, Loh Pat.
They had sons Peng Pow, Peng Sin, Peng Kai and Peng Seong who were, according to Peng Kai, "born and bred in Pewter dust" since the family worked and stayed in the shophouse in Pudu.
"Yong Koon would not have gone far without his formidable wife, Loh Pat, by his side," writes May Yee.
Loh Pat was described as a "no-nonsense Hakka woman" who saved enough money to buy their own shophouse at 219, Pudu Road, where Malayan Pewter was established.
Yong Koon and his sons later went separate ways because of differences over how the business should be run.
From the split, three other pewter companies — Tiger, Lion and Selangor — emerged.
The eldest son remained with Malayan Pewter until it was taken over by Peng Seong. The struggling company folded in 1950.
Before this, Peng Sin, Peng Kai and Peng Seong had set up Tiger Pewter at the original premises after parting with their eldest brother.
Within a year,Tiger folded but was revived as Selangor Pewter. While the other two brothers branched into other businesses, Peng Kai, the third son, focused on pewter and established its name.
In 1952, the patriarch Yong Koon passed away, aged 81.
Peng Kai had by then married Guay Soh Eng, a Hokkien and this is the branch of the family that has kept Yong Koon’s pewter business alive.
Peng Kai once remarked to his friend, retired Singapore police officer Sun Sai Lum, that Soh Eng was his right arm.
"She was the stablising factor, very calm and very level headed. He was the highly stressed worrier," recalls Sai Lum.
Their eldest son, Poh Sin, was born in 1939, daughter Mun Ha in 1941, Mun Kuen in 1942 and youngest son Poh Kon in 1945.
Subsequently, they moved operations from Pudu to the present factory in Setapak.
Peng Kai "worked alongside his employees, sweating in his Pagoda-brand white cotton vest, always paying his staff promptly and never raising his voice".
One employee, Hoo Wee Meng, remembers: "It was not unusual for a Chinese businessman to scold and use foul language. But Peng Kai treated us like family. I worshipped him."
Once pewter became an item of fascination for tourists, it spawned a variety of decorative items.
The company’s royal link is a story which Mun Kuen relates with fondness.
"The late Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah was in Australia when he entered a store and was asked respectfully where he came from.
"He replied ‘Selangor’ and the store assistant gave a look of recognition by saying ‘Selangor Pewter’.
"The Sultan was impressed that pewter was making his state famous. On his return, he decided that the company should have royal status, which he conferred in 1979."
Today, the younger generation such as Chris Yong, Andrew Yong, Sun May Foon, Chen Tien Yue, Yong Yoon Li, Yong Yoon Kit are involved in the family business in various capacities.
"They are taking it to another level," says Mun Kuen.
It was the third generation of the Yongs led by Datuk Yong Poh Kon and Yong Poh Shin who took Yong Koon and Peng Kai’s vision further by going global.
As May Yee says: "The enterprise has sprouted wings."
Along the way, Royal Selangor acquired Canadian Seagull Pewter, Englefields, a 350-year-old London company, and set up Selberan, a jewellery company.
Royal Selangor also went into silver with the acquisition of Comyns, the London company of silversmiths whose designs date back to the 17th century.
Today, the company exports to more than 20 countries and has retail stores in London, Toronto, Melbourne, Tokyo, Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
If Yong Koon was alive today, he would be proud that his humble business has grown into a giant.