Restoring Penang’s Heritage
 
 
Architect Tan Yeow Wooi’s life revolves around conserving and restoring old buildings, especially structures of traditional Chinese architecture.
 
VISITING the office of conservation architect Tan Yeow Wooi, 47, in Penang is a humbling experience for those concerned about the protection and restoration of heritage buildings in Malaysia.
 
Pasted on the walls are a series of photographs showing the streetscape of China Street, just outside his office. On the pictures, old buildings which have been marred by renovations are marked out.
 
“Heritage buildings” are those that are significant to society in terms of history, architecture and culture, says Tan.
 
“Penang is a historically important state. It has the highest number of heritage buildings, compared to other states in Malaysia.
 
“It still has the largest number of old temples, mosques, churches, association buildings, dwellings and pre-war shophouses. However, after the repeal of the Rent Control Act in 2000, numerous pre-war buildings have been renovated or re-built beyond recognition or even demolished.
 
“According to my own survey, in 2006 alone, there were 96 buildings in the city that were either demolished or marred by indiscriminate renovation with 80% of the original structure destroyed.”
 
While many armchair critics only pay lip service to conservation efforts, here is one man who will comb through ancient texts or historical records to trace the origins of an old building under his scrutiny. He will even take charge to re-build and restore the original motifs, plaster mouldings and quaint ceramic ornaments found on ancient buildings. Authenticity and design integrity are important factors in Tan’s desire to help restore a building.
 
On the wall in front of his workspace are detailed architectural drawings of various restoration projects such as the Khoo Kongsi. On another part hang prototype models of Chinese air-vents-turned-wall-lights for another project. They all lend an artistic ambience to his rented shophouse, owned by a Chinese association.
 
True to his character, he renovated the dilapidated double-storey shophouse that is only 3.6m x 24m. Now, it is a testimony of his ingenuity and talent for turning a dump into an attractive and practical office. The restoration costs, borne by the landlord, came to over RM100,000.
 
Says Tan: “The restoration costs of heritage buildings depend on the condition and the extent of artisanal work like wood carving, painting and sculpturing required. Major costs are for material like timber, tiles and traditional paint. Skilled workmen like masons and carpenters from China and India add up to the overall cost.
 
“My areas of expertise include intensive research, planning, design and project documentation.”
 
Tan is on a one-man mission to personally document and convince those in power to restore what’s left of the built-heritage of this country. While he is noted for his meticulous work on buildings of Chinese architecture, he is equally concerned about mosques, Hindu temples and even humble dwellings that are architecturally and historically significant.
 
Explains Tan: “I grew up in Penang and for the past 22 years, I have been interested in heritage buildings and conservation work.
 
“I am concerned about conserving old buildings because more and more culturally important buildings are being damaged with renovation work or demolished without any regard to the history or heritage of the country.
 
“I am concerned about all kinds of old buildings – Malay, Chinese, Indian or Colonial – although I have have a special interest in Chinese architecture. I took up architecture because I was good in art and I love both creative and research work. During my student days in Taiwan, I was most inspired by Professor Lee Chian Lang who lectured on Chinese architecture and conservation work.”
 
Since graduating, Tan has surveyed all of Malaysia, as well as countries in South-East Asia, for heritage buildings with Chinese architecture. And, of course, he has visited China for project research. He can tell you the difference between Fujian, Cantonese and Teochew architecture, while other architects just see them as Chinese.
“In every city or town, there are Chinese heritage buildings worthy of conservation, especially those built by the Chinese communities in the Colonial period which corresponds to the late Qing era of China.”
Endangered heritage buildings, says Tan, can be given legal protection by listing or gazetting them, or for the local and Federal Government to enact heritage zones.
 
“But the best form of protection is to educate the public especially property owners on why such heritage buildings ought not to be destroyed.
 
“The general public should learn to respect and appreciate heritage buildings. They represent the cultural characteristics of a place which give us a sense of identity.”
 
 
 
Source :The Star 27/01/2007 Close Window