Monday, November 28, 2011


Penang has many lovely old homes like this one.
Just back from a lovely weekend in Penang. I was there to attend the 3rd annual Wawasan Open University (WOU) Tutors Convention. What I love about Penang besides the hawker food and the friendly people are the old mansions that dot the island. Many of them have been converted into up-market restaurants or nursing homes. I wonder if the back story to this is a decline in family fortune and thus the need to sell off the property. A pity.

My first sight of WOU left me gaping in wonder and awe. How could this be a university? It looked more like a family mansion belonging to some rich towkay (Chinese tycoon).

A closer look at the statue in front of the building confirmed this. Named 'Homestead', it was home to the family of Yeap Chor Ee who lived here till 2006 when it was bequeathed to the Wawasan Education Foundation (WEF). Chairman of WEF is Datuk Seri Stephen Yeap, eldest grandson of Yeap Chor Ee. For more of the building's history, click here.
The majestic Homestead in the foreground. The blue exterior of the new extension spoils
the postcard-perfect beauty of the old colonial mansion.
Marble floor and stairs leading up to the first floor that houses the Chancellor's
and Vice-Chancellor's offices. Notice the two statuettes flanking the stairs.
Looking down on the lobby from the top of the stairs.
Leather armchairs and sofa that visitors can sink into.

Top: (left) one of the carpeted corridors and (right) an ornate door knocker on the front door. Above: The back of the university faces the beach. Students and visitors can enjoy
the scenery and cool sea breeze at one of these garden corners.
As I explored the interior of Homestead, I was immediately reminded of Le Coq D'or or Bok House named after its owner Chua Cheng Bok. Built in 1929, the mansion was converted into a French restaurant in 1958. I remember going there for dinner in the 1980s. Unfortunately, despite strong protests from Badan Warisan Malaysia (The Heritage of Malaysia Trust), the building was demolished in 2006 to make way for a 60-storey mixed development project.

Le Coq D'or as I remember it before it was demolished in 2006.

It was heart-breaking to see the bulldozers tearing down the mansion stone by stone,
wall by wall till there was nothing left to remind us of its heydays when people
would flock here for fine dining.
Loke Mansion is another colonial building that boasts a colourful chequered past. Built in 1860, it was the home of a rich Chinese merchant, Cheow Ah Yeok. When he fell on hard times, he sold the house to Loke Yew. Loke Yew’s son, the cinema magnate Datuk Loke Wan Tho, was born there. The family stayed on till the 1930s. In 1942 during the Japanese Occupation, the building was used by the Japanese forces as one of its headquarters.

Loke Mansion now houses the offices of a law firm. Let's hope the bulldozers will never
tear down this building.
In 1945 when the Japanese left, it was turned into a school and in 1948 into a police training centre during the Communist Emergency. In 1970 it became the Samad Art Gallery. It reverted to an educational institution in the 1990s when the LimKokWing School took over. Today the law firm of Cheang and Ariff occupies the premises. To read more, click here.

Badan Warisan Malaysia is on a mission to ensure the survival of our built heritage.
It's always sad to read that places you used to visit in your younger days are now just memories of the past. Many of these places have rich stories to tell. Old buildings especially those that occupy prime land will inevitably end up earmarked as sites for new high-rise condominiums or office blocks. Unless the voices of protest are loud enough to be heard, developers will continue with their relentless march to demolish old buildings and replace them with the new in the name of progress.

Update: By coincidence, the Straits Times of Singapore came up with a report today (29 Nov) entitled "URA explains its conservation policy" in which the Urban Redevelopment Authority clarifies its guidelines for conserving privately-owned properties. Owners must observe these guidelines or they are liable to be fined up to S$200,000 and jail terms of up to a year or both.

Source: Straits Times
The entire building must be retained and restored, and only the interior can be restored. One excellent example is Boat Quay. Better known as Clarke Quay, this commercial complex comprises 231 buildings that have been converted into mostly restaurants and bars.

Since 1989, the URA has conserved 7,091 buildings, but only about half have been restored to standards set for those areas. The rest remain on-going projects.

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