Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Save Penang's Heritage

Sin Chew Jit Poh
28 August 2014


I just received an email with a petition to save Soonstead. What is Soonstead you may ask? Well, it is mansion in Penang. One of the many along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, formerly known as Northam Road also known as Millionaires Row.

For those of you not familiar with Penang, the nickname of the road gives a hint as to the type of domiciles you find there. That stretch of road which connects Gurney Drive and Georgetown was at one time the address of choice for all those wealthy tycoons of Penang.

It is, or used to be when I was a child growing up on the island, one mansion after another. The fronts of the buildings were large lawns and the backs of the houses looked onto the sea. Now there are some hideous modern developments on the road and the character of the place is being chipped away. It appears that Soonstead is going to be next.

The plan is not to totally demolish the building, just parts of it, and then there will be built on the land a high rise luxury hotel. That seems to be the trend in Penang; keep some bits of these old buildings and then build something large and modern around it.

I suppose in the minds of the planners, you are saving heritage (Georgetown is a UNESCO heritage city you see), at the same time making money hand over fist. Sounds nice in theory except that what usually happens is the heritage building is dwarfed by an ugly monstrosity and you get a sort of mutant amalgam. Next time you are in Penang, keep an eye out for these mutants.

I suppose one question that could be raised is why should we care about these old houses commissioned by rich men long dead? For me, the first reason is that these buildings are beautiful. They are aesthetically pleasing and they display workmanship and craft which are long gone. And beautiful buildings need not be old mansions. Simple kampong houses too have their own elegance and loveliness.

The trouble with kampong houses is that they are made of wood and it is virtually impossible to find truly antique houses which are in a state where they can be restored. And this raises another point. Most of our heritage is not built of stone, they are made of wood.

There is a dearth of architectural history in Malaysia because of our building culture (wood) and climate (hot and wet and rot inducing). Therefore, whatever structures we have that can link us to our past should be protected.

Why should they be protected? A pragmatic answer will be that such sights helps to improve the tourist trade. People like to look at old things and learn about history. It is therefore of some amusement to me to see how tourism is dealt with in Melaka. It appears that it is not enough that the town is rich with some incredible architectural specimens that reflect various key stages of our history; there is some sort of pathological drive to make the place a sort of amusement park and market for cheap tourist cack. This distracts from the dignity and history of the town, which is a shame.

However, apart from money, it is important that we preserve and conserve these pieces of our past because they are tactile examples of what we were and from that what we have become. In other words they are part of our identity. In this period of time just before Merdeka day and Malaysia Day, surely we should be reflecting on identity and our heritage is most definitely a part of that. I certainly hope the Penang government will think along these lines as well.

If you think Penang's heritage mansions are worth preserving, sign this petition to Save Soonstead!


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