GEORGE TOWN, March 10 — Kampung Siam: This is where retired Thai Menora performer Noo [email protected] Dee Aroonratana, 91, first learned the traditional dance.
This is also where Thai Menora performances were first staged by his late father, Pa’wan Dee, more than a century ago.
This is where 71-year-old Khoo Kay Swee's grandmother settled after arriving from Phuket, Thailand almost two centuries ago.
This is also the very place where Noor Jahan Shamshudeen's great-grandfather first started the roti canai stall that today is the favoured roti canai stall of locals in Pulau Tikus.
Kampung Siam is not just another village facing eviction but one steeped in age-old Siamese traditions and the long history of the Siamese community that first settled in Penang.
Last month, the villagers' appeal against being evicted by the landowner was overturned and early this month, they started receiving notices to vacate their ancestral homes.
“I remember playing hide and seek here with my friends so many years ago. Today, some of my friends have already passed away but the village remains relatively unchanged,” Khoo said.
The 71-year-old retiree said it is not about the compensation offered but about the memories tied to his home.
“It is my home, it's where my grandmother first came to Penang, it's where I grew up, it's where my children grew up, so how do you compensate for something like that?” he asked.
The villagers first received their eviction notices in April 2014 and when they refused to move out, the landowner applied to the Sessions Court to get them evicted.
The court ruled in favour of the landowner so the villagers appealed to the High Court but on February 24 this year, their appeal was thrown out.
They have lost all legal avenues of staying on in what has been their home for several generations.
“What we can do now is to appeal to the landowner for compassion, to allow these villagers to stay on here because they are the living heritage, the remnants of the Siamese village,” said Pulau Tikus assemblyman Yap Soo Huey.
Yap had tried discussing with the landowner, Five Star Heritage Sdn Bhd, to allow the villagers and the traditional businesses to stay on.
“The landowner is firm on demolishing the whole village and building a five-storey budget hotel with 97 rooms and three shop units,” she said at a press conference at the village today.
Despite being given notices and compensation offers of between RM30,000 and RM75,000, the villagers and existing businesses are reluctant to move out.
“My great grandfather lived here, my grandfather grew up here and even today, my relatives still live above the roti canai stall we've been running for four generations,” said Noor Jahan.
She said it is not about the money but about the history and tradition of their stall where even till today, her grandfather's and father's clients are still their regulars.
“You can ask anyone in Pulau Tikus, who doesn't know the roti canai next to the bus stop? We've been here for so many generations, everyone knows us so if we are to move out, we will lose our customer base,” she said.
Yap said the affected villagers and businesses, consisting of 19 families and 10 shops, knew they had come to the end of the road when it came to appeals and yet they do not want to accept the compensation offered.
“This is not a problem that money can solve because moving out from here will wipe out the Siamese community here and the history will be gone... so they want to continue to live here and have a presence here,” she said.
As a last resort, the villagers are willing to accept the landowner developing the site but asked that they get a space and be allowed to continue living there.
“They don't mind living within the same compound as the budget hotel, they only want to move back to their homes,” she said.
Even for the 10 affected shops, Yap said the owners have been on the site for more than 60 years.
“They are established traditional trades such as newspaper vendors, barber and roti canai stall so it is not easy for them to relocate elsewhere just like that,” she said.
When asked where he will move if the landowner insists on forcing them out, Khoo shrugged sadly.
“I've lost my home, there's nothing I can do... so maybe I'll just apply for state housing to live in,” he said, tearing up at the thought.
Yap said the state government's policy on evictions was that the landowner must come to an amicable agreement with existing residents to relocate them otherwise any planning permission applied will not be approved.
As of now, the planning permission for the budget hotel development on the site is still pending and not approved.
When contacted, George Town World Heritage Inc (GTWHI) general manager Dr Ang Ming Chee said the village by itself was not categorized as a heritage site while the temple next to it is a Category II heritage site.
She said there was no other way to help the villagers since they have exhausted the legal avenue.
“Now, what remains is that they can document and map the village to preserve their memories of the place before it's torn down,” she suggested.