Restoring the Lustre of the Pearl of the Orient

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In recent months there has been much local media discussion of whether Penang can still justly claim to be the Pearl of the Orient. The discussion hinges on a number of issues, including the condition of the island’s beaches, traffic congestion, threats to the integrity of Penang Hill, urban decay, and heritage conservation. Heritage conservation, however, is particularly significant, as it is tied to Penang’s identity of place and community. The survival of Penang’s outstanding architectural heritage, exemplified by George Town’s magnificent former homes of the rich and famous as well as its unmatched collection of pre-war shop houses, will be a key factor in determining whether the Pearl retains its allure.

Although many of the old mansions have fallen into disrepair or have disappeared altogether in the face of dubious progress, a significant number remain. The best known is the UNESCO award-winning Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Leith Street. Lovingly restored by its new owners Laurence Loh and his wife Loh-Lim Lin Lee and opened as a boutique hotel (or exclusive guest house), the Blue House recalls the bygone era of the Straits Settlements, when Leith Street was known as “Hakka Millionaires’ Row,” lined with the splendid houses of Cheong Fatt Tze and his Hakka friends. The tale of Cheong Fatt Tze is typical of the rags-toriches story of Chinese migrants who rose to the top through hard work and business acumen. While the Blue House is built in the traditional Chinese courtyard style incorporating Western influences, some of the other Leith Street houses were more Western in design, earning them the sobriquet ang mo lau (foreign house) among Penang’s dominant Hokkien community. Examples are the mansions now housing the Cathay Hotel and the Equator Art School on Leith Street.

An excellent example of the heritage conservation principle of adaptive re-use is a former seaside villa now named The Mansion, a short walk along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (formerly Northam Road) from the E & O Hotel. Built in 1926 in the Italianate style by Leong Yin Kean, the son of a tin miner, the house is one of the most beautiful in Penang. Until a few years ago, however, it was in a decrepit state, used as a centre for motor-bikers. Since then, it has been restored to its former grandeur by its new owners, Escoy Holding Berhad, whose director Datuk Nazir Ariff recognised the building’s heritage value as well as its commercial potential. Escoy’s company offices are upstairs, while a restaurant for fine dining occupies the ground floor. Every detail of the original building has been restored inside and out, including its beautiful Italian mosaic decorations

Northam Road was another Millionaires Row in the 1920s and 1930s with elegant mansions along the seafront. Only a handful remain, notably Homestead and Woodville, which are well maintained, while others like Soonstead are in a state of advanced decay. Until this year, Homestead was the home of the descendants of banker Yeap Chor Ee. By the terms of his will, the mansion is to serve as an educational institution when the family moves out later this year. Tragically, one of the most imposing villas on Northam Road, the former Shih Chung School at 11 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, is in danger of imminent collapse. Saved by public outcry from being developed as a columbarium, this magnificent Anglo-Chinese mansion built in the 1880s was once known as the Chinese Residency before serving as a hotel (and later a school). Unfortunately, its roof has gone and part of its façade reportedly fell in a recent earthquake. Heritage conservationists hope it is not too late to save this historic building for future generations of Penangites.

Another outstanding Northam Road mansion, on the corner of Jalan Pangkor, is nineteenth-century Hardwicke Hall, the former home of prominent lawyer Lim Cheng Ean, the first Chinese magistrate in the Straits Settlements. Currently occupied by a restaurant and a wine shop, Hardwicke has lost its surrounding lawns and tennis court and sits rather forlornly at the base of multi-storey Northam Tower.

Sadly, only two mansions survive on Gurney Drive – the art deco Peak View and the picturesque Loke Villa with its row of upper-storey chik-blinds. Peak View, its name recalling pre-haze days when distant Kedah Peak (Gunung Jerai) was regularly seen from Penang, is dwarfed by neighbouring hotel and condominium towers. The Loke Villa sits in bucolic splendour on expansive lawns beside the ten-acre grounds of Uplands School, which occupies the elegant heritage buildings of the former St. Joseph’s Novitiate, dating from the 1920s. The Loke Villa was built in 1924 in the arts-and-craft style of the period, and has been saved from neglect by its owners’ decision to rent it to an expatriate family. All buildings, however – including the condominiums, hotels, and seafood restaurants – that line Gurney Drive are threatened with the loss of their sea view by the prospect of an offshore land reclamation project for a controversial toll highway. Moreover, with the departure of Uplands School in 2006 following acquisition of the property by a developer from the previous owners, the Loke Villa may soon lose the company of the historic St. Joseph’s Novitiate buildings.

Not all of George Town’s elegant houses were owned by Chinese. At 20 Penang Road is the charming Ku Din Ku Meh Residence, a Straits Eclectic-style double storey house, once the home of Tengku Baharuddin bin Tunku Meh, a nineteenth-century official of the Sultan of Kedah. Another outstandingly restored Straits Eclectic-style Muslim house dating from the mid-nineteenth century is the Syed Alatas Mansion at 128 Armenian Street in George Town’s heritage core. Syed Alatas was a prominent Muslim trader and community leader.

Finally, no survey of Penang’s stately homes would be complete without reference to Suffolk House, described by Malaysian architect-historian Chen Voon Fee as “Penang’s first great mansion.” A classic Anglo-Indian garden house of Georgian style, Suffolk House was built for Penang founder Francis Light and on his death was left to his wife Martina Rozells. The subject of several nineteenth century paintings, it served as residence for Penang’s early Governors. Rescued from near ruin in recent years, Suffolk House has been the focus of a restoration campaign receiving support from the Malaysian and Penang governments as well as a significant financial contribution from the HSBC. The successful conservation of this historic house will restore to Penang an important symbol of its past, adding bright lustre to the Pearl of the Orient.

Source: The Expat June 2005 edition
This article was edited for
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