A GLOBAL ISLAND STAYS AUTHENTIC BY KEEPING ITS HERITAGE ARCHITECTURE ALIVE
George Town, in the state of Penang, has always been seen as Malaysia’s second city after Kuala Lumpur. Laid back, easygoing and charming, it is a sleepy backwater but with all modern conveniences. With high standards at affordable costs of living, Penang has evolved as an expatriate’s insider tip.
Penang has a little bit of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, but with much less stress, pollution and traffic jams. Employment Conditions Abroad Ltd (ECA International) ranks George Town the eighth most liveable Asian location in 2012, and it was 40th in its 2011 list of most expensive Asian cities for expatriates. A city’s liveability is judged according to its climate, air quality, educational facilities, shopping, healthcare, dining, security, housing affordability, social network, leisure amenities, infrastructure, political stability and personal safety.
New high-rises in Penang boast sea and mountain views. Much attention, however, has been directed to 19th- and 20th-century colonial architecture, which has helped make George Town a UNESCO heritage site along with the southern Malaysia port city of Malacca. Within George Town, UNESCO designated a 259-hectare heritage area that contains 3,800 pre-war shophouses, according to George Town World Heritage Inc (GTWHI). (A 2010 study by University Sains Malaysia researchers Lim Yoke Mui and Lee Lik Meng noted a total of some 10,000 pre-war buildings in George Town, dating from 1850 to 1930.)
It is for this reason that the value of pre-war shophouses in George Town has soared since 2008. The study found that the transaction prices for such properties within the George Town heritage area reached RM2.5 million in 2009, compared to less than RM1 million the previous year. Buyers are investors from Penang and Kuala Lumpur, as well as many expatriates. One draw for foreigners is the island’s charm. Another is the Malaysian government’s Malaysia My Second Home programme, which grants eligible foreigners renewable 10-year Social Visit Passes. Foreigners under this programme may buy any number of residences in Malaysia at the minimum price set for foreign property purchases in an area.
One foreigner smitten by Penang is Englishwoman Sandie Lenton, who first visited the area in 1997. It took Lenton and her husband a while to decide to relocate, as they then lived and worked in the Philippines. The short flight from the Philippines to Malaysia clinched the deal. Lenton has a number of different business interests and now splits her time between Penang, London and Spain.
She recalls how she ended up buying her shop lot at Armenian Street in George Town: “I was strolling and admiring the lovely colonial shophouses. I felt so relaxed and at ease that I suddenly exclaimed loudly, ‘I want a property on this road!’”.
Lenton purchased an 1860s shop lot 18 months later. She restored it to its original condition and added modern conveniences. “My main concern was to get rid of the ghastly ‘modernisation’ that was haphazardly slapped onto the décor. Previous owners thought they were keeping up with the times by painting over the original, beautiful wood and piling concrete over the air well floors! I had to strip multiple layers of paint to reach the original wood. The air well area had been concreted over so I stripped that off and luckily the original granite blocks were still there.”
She did not tear down any walls or install new ones. She did remove some flimsy wall partitions — installed by previous owners — which unattractively bisected the arched window in front of the house. Lenton also added Western design elements to fuse with Oriental themes, such as glass walls to improve security and allow natural light to stream in, and Balinese doors. Some of Lenton’s favourite nooks in the shophouse are the air wells, while the shape of the windows in the living room makes reading and afternoon tea enjoyable.
The No.25 Merchant House in China Street is a rare, three-bay 1846 shophouse originally owned by a Chinese merchant. It caught the attention of Rebecca and David Wilkinson. With a built-up area of 10,000 sq ft, it has two floors, six halls and 12 rooms. Old murals decorate the house, and the façade is embellished with porcelain cutwork made of broken pieces of valuable, imported chinaware — evidence of the original owner’s wealth. Soya sauce fermentation jars are remnants from the property’s later use as a soya sauce factory. “It was like an archaeological dig, which paid off in the long term,” says Rebecca. Owing to budget constraints, the Wilkinsons retained much of the original walls, woodwork and terracotta flooring.
Restoring a shophouse is not the only major expense, though. Once you live in a restored or preserved, centuries-old building, it is difficult to avoid substantial maintenance costs. In George Town, there are organisations that give grants for the preservation of heritage buildings. One such is Think City, whose programme prioritises projects on buildings for public use; however, private projects may be approved. Its latest batch of approved grants totalled RM1,680,393 for 28 projects. Rules apply, such as progress monitoring, cost reporting, and repayment of the loan if the recipient sells his property within 10 years.
The GTWHI regularly conducts a heritage clinic for those who wish to restore their properties. Non-profit organisations like the Penang Heritage Trust, Badan Warisan and the Cultural Heritage Action Team offer education programmes and consultancy services. But some problems require more than a wad of cash or homeowner education. Architect Laurence Loh, known for his restoration of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion with the signature blue façade, knows too well the problem of finding good craftsmen, artisans and restorers.
“There are few professionals versed in conservation methodology, placing heavy demand on those who are already in practice,” says Loh. His dilemma is similar to Lenton’s, who said: “The main challenge was finding workmen who could deliver quality work on time and with pride.”
“Sadly, the heritage buildings lose out as you end up with poorly supervised and badly executed conservation work with inadequate documentation and systematic recording,” laments Loh. His firm takes the high road in its heritage projects. He insists money is not the sole criterion: “All the projects we undertake are equally important and meaningful as we do not work on commercial terms alone. We believe the finished project must add value.”
The spectacular Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a testimony to Loh’s oeuvre. Built in 1892 and restored in the 1990s, it won the UNESCO award in 2000. This indigo-blue shophouse with grand proportions and indoor Chinese courtyards was the residence of Cheong Fatt Tze, known in his time as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’ and the ‘JP Morgan of China’.
Of Hakka descent, he married into a wealthy family and parlayed the fortune to greater heights. Feng shui masters were summoned to create the sprawling mansion with 38 rooms, five granite-paved courtyards, seven staircases and 220 windows. Cheong is long gone but his name, fame and home continue to burnish his heritage. His house is featured in the 1993 Oscar winning movie Indochine and is now open to the public.
So are most of George Town’s attractions, like City Hall, Fort Cornwallis, Khoo Kongsi, Peranakan Mansion and Queen Victoria Clock Tower.