After Runnymede, watchdog fears more heritage buildings will suffer same fate

The orange heritage building at 457 Burmah Road. — Picture by K.E. Ooi
The orange heritage building at 457 Burmah Road. — Picture by K.E. Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Feb 20 — Along busy Burmah Road stands a bungalow painted orange with green windows that is slowly falling into disrepair.

Looking at the tired old building surrounded by an overgrowth of trees and plants and partially hidden by metal hoardings, one would never have guessed that this used to be Darbar Hall and a school.

457 Burmah Road may face demolition despite being listed as a Category II heritage building in the George Town World Heritage Incorporated’s (GTWHI) inventory of heritage buildings in Penang.

An old postcard of Darbar Hall. — Picture courtesy of PHT
An old postcard of Darbar Hall. — Picture courtesy of PHT

It is also one of the numerous grand heritage mansions in Penang that is in danger, either due to neglect or development.

Penang Heritage Trust vice-president Khoo Salma said the recent demolition of the buildings on the Runnymede Hotel site showed that there is a need to safeguard these buildings with proper identification, documentation and subsequently, the implementation of the Penang Heritage Enactment.

“Now when something is demolished, people will jump and then soon they forget about it until the next building gets demolished,” she said.

She said having a complete inventory of the heritage buildings in the state is the first step towards safeguarding these buildings.

“If the GTWHI has a completed inventory of all these buildings, it should be made public because there are so many NGOs, including PHT, that can give our input and pinpoint what’s missing from it,” she said.

She also said if the register was completed and the Penang Heritage Enactment was implemented, more protection would be afforded to these buildings.

In the case of 457 Burmah Road, there was an application by the owner to demolish the Straits Eclectic style building several years ago despite it being listed as a Category II heritage building.

Heritage buildings are categorised under Category I or Category II with Category I for buildings, monuments or sites of exceptional interest that have Outstanding Universal Values while Category II is for buildings or sites of special interest that warrant every effort being made to preserve them.

Khoo said there was supposed to be a hearing on the application to demolish 457 Burmah Road but it was cancelled when the owner withdrew the application.

The owner had also submitted applications for planning permission to build two blocks of 29-storey apartments on the land.

She hoped 457 Burmah Road will not suffer the same fate as Sir Stamford Raffles’ house on the Runnymede Hotel site that was demolished during the Chinese New Year holidays.

Seven of the eight buildings on the Runnymede Hotel site were demolished on February 9 with only the three-storey hotel building remaining.

The Governor’s bungalow at Sepoy Lines. — Picture by K.E. Ooi
The Governor’s bungalow at Sepoy Lines. — Picture by K.E. Ooi

One of the buildings demolished used to be the home of Sir Stamford Raffles when he was assistant secretary to the governor of Penang in the early 1800s. The original structure was burnt down but it was rebuilt around the same time the hotel building was constructed.

457 Burmah Road used to be known as Darbar Hall and the then owner is believed to be linked to the Conference of the Malay Rulers. Darbar or durbar refers to the Conference of the Malay Rulers.

Later, the building was used by the La Salle Brothers of the adjoining St Xavier’s Primary School as a boarding house until 1977 when Uplands School moved into the premises. Uplands School moved out in 1987.

Sometime in the 1990s, the building was sold off and at one point, the owner opened a food court called Safari Food Court at the site before it closed down. The building has been left vacant since then.

Other than 457, PHT has also raised concerns over seven important endangered sites which included Runnymede.

“These are endangered sites that we may lose if the state government doesn’t do something to protect these places,” she said.

The old Shih Chung School building. — Picture by K.E. Ooi
The old Shih Chung School building. — Picture by K.E. Ooi

The other six endangered sites listed by PHT on their website are the Governor’s bungalow at Sepoy Lines, Khaw Loh Hup and Khaw Boo Aun’s townhouse at Bukit Tambun on the mainland, Chung Thye Phin Villa at Relau, Udini House at Gelugor, Shih Chung School at Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and the Tanjung Tokong Malay village.

Khoo pointed out that the Governor’s bungalow has been left to fall into ruins while the Khaw townhouse in Bukit Tambun was demolished, leaving only the frontage.

According to PHT, the Governor’s bungalow was first used as the quarters and mess house of the Commanding Officer of the European troops sometime between 1881 and 1897.

After the troops left around 1897, the bungalow was converted into a town residence for the Governor. Sometime during the Second World War, the bungalow was used as the judge’s residence until the late 20th century.

Currently, it has been left vacant and a portion of the bungalow has also collapsed due to neglect.

The Khaw townhouse was one of the earliest brick houses in Bukit Tambun and it is a Chinese townhouse which served as an ancestral hall.

The Chung Thye Phin Villa, Udini House and the old Shih Chung School building have all also been left vacant and in dilapidated condition. The Tanjung Tokong Malay village is facing redevelopment and in a court tussle with the developer, UDA Holdings.

When contacted, GTWHI general manager Dr Ang Ming Chee said GTWI completed inventories of all heritage buildings in Penang.

According to Ang, a total 3,800 buildings are listed in the World Heritage site and 2,500 buildings on the rest of the island except for Penang Hill.

Out of the total 6,300 buildings listed, about three per cent are Category I while the remaining are Category II.

On the mainland, about 1,000 buildings are listed and about 30 per cent are in Category I while the rest are in Category II.

The inventory for the heritage buildings within the Unesco World Heritage site can be accessed by the public on the Penang Heritage website.

“The involved state agencies are preparing the rules and regulations for the Penang Heritage Enactment, before any building is gazetted,” she said when asked about whether all the buildings listed as heritage buildings will be gazetted.

As for the seven endangered sites PHT mentioned, Ang said all the sites are listed as heritage buildings in the GTWHI inventory.

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