Keeping heritage alive in Penang’s historic George Town

By: Daniel Besant - Posted on: August 10, 2016 | Culture & Life

George Town’s charming heritage buildings are being repurposed by a group of Penang citizens devoted to resurrecting the city’s identity

Malaysia is undoubtedly home to some top cultural attractions, with Penang’s George Town high on the list for those seeking an insight into the country’s rich past. Strategically situated along ancient trade routes connecting China, India and Europe, it was established as an entrepôt by the British in the late 1700s, attracting traders and workers from near and far. As well as native Malays, a host of Chinese, Indians, Bugis, Arabs, Armenians, Persians, Siamese, Burmese and Sumatrans all sailed here to try their luck in the prosperous port.

Penang
Step back in time: George Town’s Armenian Street, in the centre of the Unesco-protected ‘core zone’. Photo: supplied

Their legacy is still tangible today, revealed in the architecture of the low-rise hodgepodge of shophouses, temples and markets that make up the streets stretching back from the port area at the northwest tip of Penang Island.

Just one example of this cultural melange can be seen on the street known as Lorong Stewart, where the Kuan Yin Teng Chinese temple is situated, dominating a corner location. It is the oldest and one of the most active religious buildings in the city. As the morning sun highlights the multicoloured dragons perched atop the elegant curves of its red-tiled roof, scores of people buy incense sticks and paper offerings from vendors before paying homage to the spirits. The air is thick with perfumed smoke drifting heavenwards.

Across the road, a heavy-set Brahmin priest chants as he performs a fire ritual in front of a Hindu shrine. A short walk away is the 19th century Anglican church of St George, all whitewash and clean Neoclassical lines. In the other direction lies the Nagore Durgha Sheriff, a green-and-white turreted shrine to a medieval Muslim saint, built in the same period. Within a hundred square metres of this spot, visitors can feast on Hokkien noodles, Chettinad-style banana-leaf thalis and Malay nasi lemak.

Lorong Stewart

Lorong Stewart is positioned within a 109-hectare protected ‘core zone’, recognised by Unesco as a cultural World Heritage Site since 2008. Wrapped around this is a 150-hectare ‘buffer zone’. Under the management of George Town World Heritage Incorporated – a group of state actors, experts and NGOs established in 2010 by the Penang state government – all conservation, renovation and change of buildings’ use is strictly controlled. But it is not just the Unesco listing that has helped preserve George Town. Historic areas were kept intact during the post-war period by rent control laws that ensured landlords had little incentive to develop their properties.

“The physical conservation of a building is only the first step. Its usage will either continue its cultural value or destroy it entirely”

All this means that most of George Town’s structures would still be recognisable to the inhabitants of 50 or 100 years ago, and at least some of their descendents still call the area home, despite a mass exodus once rent control was repealed in 1997, sending rents skyrocketing.

One of those descendents is Christopher Ong, born and bred on these streets, who returned to his birthplace after a career in investment banking. Having discovered a passion for restoring old buildings while in Melbourne, Australia, and notably in Sri Lanka – where his Galle Fort Hotel won the 2007 Unesco Award of Distinction for Heritage Conservation – he has more recently embarked on projects in his hometown.

His most recent is Seven Terraces, an 18-suite luxury boutique hotel set midway down Lorong Stewart. In 2010, along with his business partner, Ong began restoring a row of dilapidated 19th-century Anglo-Chinese shophouses. The buildings that now make up the hotel were crumbling, with anything of value stripped out long before. Roofs and floors were collapsing, and drug addicts took shelter in what was left.

“If you look at the development projects in George Town, most of them were buildings that nobody wanted to buy,” says Ong. “The ones I’ve done were calling out to me. I don’t go out seeking the obvious.”

With renovations completed in 2013, the buildings are an example of what can be achieved with a strong vision – plus a tidy bit of capital. Now stuffed to the gills with Ong’s collection of Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, antiques, its carved wooden doors, patterned tiles and breezy covered walkways give an air of the mercantile opulence of yesteryear.

A history of restoration

Of course, Ong is not the first to restore a building in George Town. One of the earliest restoration projects in the area was undertaken by Penangite Loh-Lim Lin Lee, director of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Lorong Leith. Once home to the eponymous owner, this two-storey courtyard house – all opulent ironwork, decorative coloured tiles and intricately carved wooden partitions – is a paramount example of a successful Chinese merchant’s house and stands as a benchmark of heritage restoration in George Town.

Also known as the Blue Mansion, the lovingly restored building is today open as a museum, hotel and restaurant and won the Award of Excellence at the Unesco Asia-Pacific Conservation 2000 Awards. Conservation efforts began in 1990 and lasted six years. Back then, there were no Unesco-mandated regulations for heritage building restoration, meaning it became a guide for others thinking of taking on such projects. For Loh-Lim, there is firstly a need to understand “the spirit of place”. The physicality of a structure is only one aspect of its value; the other lies in its sense of “being”, she says.

Penang
Bricks and mortar: workers demolish unsafe sections of a 19th century Anglo-Chinese shophouse. Photo: supplied

“The proper physical conservation of a building is only the first step. Its usage will either continue its cultural value or destroy it entirely,” Loh-Lim says. “By this I do not mean that no new uses can be introduced, but it has to be a usage that offers an interpretation of the value of the building.”

Activities at the mansion attempt to interpret the lifestyle of Cheong Fatt Tze and that of his family. And within this, “maintain low-key enjoyment of what was essentially a home where people slept, ate and celebrated life’s events”, as Loh-Lim explains.

While Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is more or less a faithful recreation of the 1880s-built house, and the design of Seven Terraces replaces the former dereliction with a relatively modern – though architecturally respectful – evocation of George Town’s past, the nearby Hin Bus Depot’s current occupants have taken
a different approach.

Built in 1947 in the Art Deco style, the bus station was closed in 1999 and quickly fell into disrepair in the relentless tropical climate. Now it has been reborn as a thriving art space and is one of the key venues for the annual George Town Festival. Much of the original structure has been kept as it was when the present owners took over. The building is mostly roofless; half-crumbling walls remain. Now a tent-like canopy covers a raised wooden platform, perfect for events and performances.

“We value the idea that the space has to have a link to its past without making the space irrelevant to the current generation,” says Tan Shih Thoe, Hin Bus Depot’s director. “This is the definition of heritage and should not be confused with history.”

The way back

As Hin Bus Depot lies outside the Unesco zones, Tan and his team do not have to abide by the wealth of regulations to which those operating within it are beholden. He believes that if they had to follow those rules, they would have had to open as a boutique hotel, café or restaurant to generate enough income to meet the high rents typical in the heritage areas. Tan cites regulations such as the requirement to use black timber trusses for roofs, which are just going to be covered by a ceiling, and out of sight. “A low-cost Zincalume truss would do the job perfectly and with less problems such as warping and termite infestation,” he says. Under these strictures, Tan’s concern is that many old residents and traditional businesses will have to move out of the Unesco-designated area as a result.

And on top of Unesco’s rules about materials, there is a raft of local and federal legislation to abide by, some of it unsuited to building restoration, according to Ong. “When you restore a building and there’s a change of use from a residential building to a hotel, even though it’s a four-bedroom B&B, they consider it to be a redevelopment,” he says. “So they want to apply all the rules and regulations they would for a 50-storey building.”

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New life: the Muntri Grove Hotel, one of entrepreneur Christopher Ong’s hotel projects in George Town. Photo: supplied

For now, though, George Town’s streets are still bulging with architectural delights, as yet unrestored. And despite the increasing number of tourists wandering the streets, ordinary life continues as it has for decades. Not long after sunrise at the Wan Hai Hotel, on the corner of Love Lane and Lorong Stewart, two women sweep and tidy the recessed ground-floor entrance with its curved window frames and attractive double doors set off by florid ironwork. A covered walkway extends behind, and the windows of the five first-floor rooms retain eye-catching shutters to keep the sun’s rays at bay. It is doubtless in need of some TLC, but its structure is redolent of a bygone era of community living and steadfast commerce, something George Town is still effortlessly able to evoke.

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Penang’s Path

Charting a course through the city’s fortunes

The 290-square-kilometre Penang island lies three kilometres off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia. With flat land mostly to the north and east, much of the built-up areas are concentrated there. Beginning with the port settlement of George Town, established in the late 18th century by Captain Francis Light of the British Royal Navy, Penang soon became a flourishing trade hub, attracting settlers from all over the region and beyond. Although its fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, today it has a vibrant economy based on high-tech electronics manufacturing. Despite plenty of modern development, historic areas were preserved in the post-war period by a rent control act that ensured landlords had little incentive to develop their properties. And much of the area may have been demolished and redeveloped had it not been for George Town’s listing as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage City in 2008. The world financial crash of the same year stalled investors’ plans to restore the area’s buildings, but in recent years a number of buildings have been renovated and opened as boutique hotels and restaurants.

Southeast Asia Globe travelled to Penang courtesy of Silk Air