Penang Heritage Buildings

by Audrey Lim, Dec 8, 2002 | Destinations: Malaysia / Penang

It is not an unknown fact that development can sometimes rob a country off its traditions and heritage. With development, old buildings are torn down, new ones are built. Old little windy lanes are slowly being replaced by huge highways that cut across the country, moving from north to south. Many efforts are being made to ensure that a little part of our history remains untouched. Amidst the tall buildings that are rapidly mushrooming around us, we still see quaint little buildings that stand proudly till this very day...

If there is a place that strives to maintain its buildings, this place would be Penang Island, the Pearl of the Orient. Modernized in many ways, yet you can still see old buildings scattered amongst new ones.

State Assembly and Court Buildings

Of one such building deserving special mention is the State Assembly and Court Buildings. Located along the sea front of the Esplanade, this is also where the Town Hall and City Hall are found. This beautiful old building's architecture takes over the look of the awesome temples during the days of olden Greece. It has classical gables-like structure supported by white colonnades. Initially, the building was meant to be a Police Recorders' Court, but in later years, it became the Magistrate's Court. An administrative block was added to the overall structure in 1890 by the justice department, whilst the court buildings for the Supreme Court came about in 1905.

One can also see a James Richardson Logan memorial in the grounds of the building. The stately memorial was built by funds raised from the public. It was done in memory and gratitude of this brilliant journalist who is the founder of the Journal of the Indian Archipelago & Eastern Asia. He was also the editor of the Pinang Gazette.

At the far end of the row is the social spot for the area's European society. The Town Hall is a building with an assembly hall, a stage, and ballroom with adjoining supper rooms. Nicknamed Ang Mo Kong Kuan by the Straits Chinese, the name literally means European Club. As for the City Hall, it is the building that is found closer to the sea and is the larger structure too. An impressive Victorian-styled public architecture building, City Hall was opened in 1903. Within its walls are the stunning timber-paneled Council Chambers that are still being used till this very day. If there is a place for elegant social and civic events, it would be at the City Hall and Town Hall.

Sam Poh Kong Temple

Another well-known structure that is rich in heritage and culture is the Sam Poh Kong Temple. The temple was built in dedication to Admiral Cheng Ho or Sam Poh Kong, which is a seafaring legend.

The legend spoke of Admiral Cheng Ho's encounter with a fish, locally known as ikan talang. One day, this fish accidentally jumped aboard the admiral's ship as he was sailing the South Seas. Gasping for breath and about to die, the poor fish lay flopping on the floor of the ship until the kind admiral held it firmly in his hand and returned it to the safety of the sea. Just before he let the fish off, he noticed that the side of the fish's body had been imprinted with that of his five fingers from the firm grip...

Later on, further into the same journey, the Admiral's ship had a leak and with a fierce storm coming, Cheng Ho and his brave crew knew that their time is near. However, just when they were about to give up, that same fish with the markings of Cheng Ho's fingers swam up to their ship and using his body, stopped up the hold and safely brought everyone to shore. To this very day, it is said that all ikan talang bears the mark of Admiral Cheng Ho.

Legend aside, the beautiful Sam Poh Kong Temple structure emits an air of peacefulness and tranquility, while the building is constructed partly out to the sea. You can find the Sam Poh Kong Temple at Batu Maung, near the Fisheries Department. You will see it sitting next to a harbor. This harbor has a wooden walkway that links the temple to the docking bays for boats. Here, the air is fresh and the water is clear, and within the grounds are the footprint and a large statue of the great Admiral.

According to stories of the place, there is no urn placed in front of Admiral Cheng Ho's statue as he was not regarded as a saint. Therefore, he was not prayed to. Other wonderful structures at this temple are the two "guardians". With their eyes looking out to sea are two well carved and crafted mystical Chinese lions. The area surrounding them is both dreamlike and peaceful. There is also a lovely waterfall that cascades to a pond of koi fish located underneath a large cluster of shady bamboo. Visitors to the temple will appreciate the lovely landscaped gardens of this little temple.

Kapitan Keling Mosque

From Chinese temple, we move on to a South Indian Muslim masjid (mosque). The Kapitan Keling Mosque is not just an ordinary place, but it is the place where the Muslim community upholds their faith and belief in the great Prophet Muhammad. The Masjid Kapitan Keling came about in the year 1801, when the land was granted to them by the East India Company.

The name of this wonderful building was taken from the Kapitan Kelings, people who were appointed leaders of the South Indian community by the British. Given the title of "Captain", these people finding English difficult to pronounce, started calling their leaders as kapitan. Therefore, the Kapitan Kelings (or Captains of the Kelings) came about. It was also this same group of people who worked very hard to raise the funds to build the Kapitan Keling Mosque. With the funds generated, materials and skilled builders can be shipped from their home country to build what is to be their very first permanent mosque.

Without a doubt, this is the most renowned mosque in Penang. With a history dating more than 200 years old, this mosque was initially nothing more than an old rectangular shaped building with a slopping roof on all sides and surrounded by a stone bench. It was not until about a hundred years later that the colonial government set up the Mohammedan and Hindu Endowment Board. The purpose of this board was to supervise the administration of trust lands. With this change, the mosque began work on a facelift. Soon, it was greatly enlarged to a grand Moghul styled mosque, complete with towering turrets and onion-shaped domes.

While the design is lovely, yet it was found to be rather impractical and work was set to redo the roofing along with other major renovations, including doubling the height of the central prayer hall. This was done some time around the 1930s. With this major transformation, the mosque finally achieved its present splendor. Since then, the Indian Muslim community had never stop worshiping at this wonderful mosque and together, they share a 200 year old history with people of all backgrounds, be it newspaper vendors, textile merchants, money-changers, jewelers or restaurateurs.

Suffolk House

Before Francis Light became the great sea faring captain who founded Penang, he was nothing more than just a regular country trader who sail the seas of India and the Straits of Malacca. This... is his love story.

It was at this stage in time that Sir Francis Light fell in love with Martina Rozells and she soon became his wife and the love of his life. With a wife and a young family of five children, Francis Light built a home for them all and he named it the Suffolk House. The Suffolk House was built in memory of his childhood days in England and the home is a replica of it. It was said that Martina could not speak English, but she is a pretty woman and the couple were happy together.

William Light, their son, grew up became as adventurous as the father. The founder of Adelaide, William was also the one who did the so-called first "town planning" for Adelaide and it proves to be a success right up till today. When Francis Light died from malaria, he had already safeguarded his family's interest when he willed the home and the surrounding lands to them.

While it remained as Martina's home for as long as she stayed there, the place soon became the home of the governor for about a hundred years. Under the hands of Governor Phillips, Suffolk House remained elegant and dignified. When the reign ended, the home was bought over by a planter and later, owner by the Methodist Church and was turned into the canteen for the Methodist School. For the last 35 years, it has been waiting to be restored and now, the PHT (Penang Heritage Trust) has taken a special interest on it and has been hard at work trying to raise the public's awareness of the place and the need to restore it. Unfortunately, despite efforts, the public remained cold and it was said that Suffolk House will never see beauty again...

* * * * *