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Crafting 135 Years of History

Women have always played crucial roles in crafting the 135-year history of the Royal Selangor brand, whether or not their menfolk were entirely aware or indeed appreciative.

Arriving in Malaya in 1885, Yong Koon’s early years were not easy ones. It took over a decade before he was able to go back to China to marry Loh Pat, returning alone to Malaya soon after, and nearly another before the next journey home, this time to bring his wife and their first child with him to Kuala Lumpur.

A charcoal of Loh Pat (1880-1936), based on the only known photographic image of her

By all accounts a formidable wife with sharper business sense than her husband’s, Loh Pat’s diligence, thrift and nose for opportunity resulted in the accumulation of a cache of gold rings, without which her young family could not have made the purchase of 219 Pudu Road as a shophouse of their own.

Yong Koon’s third son and successor Peng Kai made an equally fortuitous match when he married Guay Soh Eng in 1938. When, after the war, they secured a retail space on Kuala Lumpur’s busiest shopping street Batu Road, it was Soh Eng who managed the front of house, selling products her husband made in the Pudu Road workshop. She single-handedly served customers, maintained the premises and kept the books, as well as an eye on any number of her four children poring over homework out the back. Peng Kai had no hesitation in declaring, “My wife is my right arm.

 

Soh Eng (1918-1995) and Peng Kai (1915-1990), love-struck teenagers in all but age

Whilst she shared her mother-in-law’s strong work ethic, Soh Eng’s defining attribute was her irrepressible joie de vivre. On occasion, the Pudu factory floor would become class for instructions in the rumba, cha-cha and other dances in fashion. Her family’s bedrock, and emotional anchor not only to kin, she was and continues to be affectionately referred to as ‘Auntie’ by all who knew her and her infectious laugh.

Some say industriousness is a trait ingrained in the Chinese. If so, it was certainly true of Soh Eng’s children, all of whom would work for their parents as soon as they were able. Bookended by their brothers, academically accomplished, and convivial to a fault, sisters Mun Ha and Mun Kuen brought to the family concern what today would easily be recognised as intangibles or ‘soft power’.

 

Mun Ha (b. 1941) and Mun Kuen (1942-2019), with brothers Poh Kon (b. 1945) and Poh Shin (b. 1939), in a family portrait from 1957

As well as assuming bookkeeping responsibilities, Mun Ha’s deft way with people, and with customers in particular, led to her being the most involved of her siblings in the retail aspects of the business. In Mun Kuen, this same characteristic resulted not only in her becoming the de facto face of the brand, hosting guests, celebrities, dignitaries and royalty both domestic and international, her disposition made her the heart of family and firm like her mother before her.

Soh Eng’s daughters weren’t the only women instrumental in Royal Selangor’s evolution. At 21, her niece Boon Lay became the first with formal creative training to design for the brand, bringing structure to a previously ad hoc process. She gave a much-needed modernity to its products, and a professional aesthetic to its marketing collateral, essential at a time when the brand was taking early steps into the far more sophisticated international arena.

 

Guay Boon Lay (b. 1951) introduced a contemporary design sensibility to the brand

Some of Boon Lay’s designs from her start in 1972 remain in production and popularity, testament to her considered eye and sense of refinement. Today’s 40-strong design department, a far cry from her one-woman rooftop studio, is the legacy of Boon Lay and her late husband Anders Quistgaard.

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