Rumah Penang


Not much of this house’s history is known to us, it probably dates from the early 20th century. It was originally located in Jalan Perak, Georgetown, on the island of Penang, and was slated for demolition in 2008; a new structure has since been built on the site.

We bought the house alone for the value of its timber floor, supposedly chengal mas, that being the only item of commercial value in the remaining structure. The house was demolished after documenting it and what could be removed was sent to Rimbun Dahan. Obviously the brick and plaster could not be relocated, but the timber structure of the house was sound and it continues to provide the building framework.

In 2009 it was placed alongside Rumah Uda Manap, the Malay house from Perak, near the eastern boundary of Rimbun Dahan. As with Rumah Uda Manap, a few changes were made in the process of renovating to adapt it for modern use. The steep front steps that originally led immediately to the front door were set forward a few meters to provide more comfortable steps and a generous landing. To finish the steps we used encaustic tiles left over from the Hotel Penaga project and polished granite.

The window glass is original — a pattern of icy sunbursts — except where broken panes had to be replaced with new “kampong glass”. The flooring wood was stripped of many layers of paint to reveal the warm glow of chengal, but unfortunately a good part of the floor that we had “paid for” had disappeared in the move; where the colour changes in the back corridor is where it ran out and we had to substitute new wood.

Like many colonial houses, it only has two bedrooms with attached bathrooms at the back, previously stepping down to the toilet and bathing area. In the renovation the attached bathrooms have been modernized and are now on the same level.

Originally cooking would have been done in the open area between the main house and the staff accommodation at the rear, but this would not be appropriate today, so part of the living room became the kitchen, more suitable for artists and performers who will use the house.

The wooden circular detail on the outside of the building was not finished with anything special, although it had some sort of aluminium foil attached to flecked plaster when we bought the house, but that obviously was not original. The detail seemed to need some sort of finish, or embellishment, so we ordered marble discs to be inserted, reminiscent of Nyonya black wood furniture with the landscape marble inserts.

The bricks we used are concrete, the cheapest option in Malaysia today, which were then carefully plastered using a technique I had not witnessed before: once the plaster had dried, it was meticulously rubbed down with sandpaper to get the smooth finish characteristic of the old houses and then painted.

The roof must originally have been clay tiles, possibly the Indian tiles that we sourced for Hotel Penaga, but the difficulty of finding them again and getting them to KL pointed towards using secondhand clay tiles sourced in Penang, which certainly sit better than the corrugated asbestos that was on it when we bought it.

The house is furnished with art deco almari, or cabinets, from Surabaya, and Dutch style lamps from Jakarta. The lamp hanging in the entrance loggia was given to us by the late Tan Sri P G Lim; it had been a garden light at her home in Jalan U Thant, Kuala Lumpur, now part of the US Embassy compound.

The house is now used to accommodate artists and performers on residencies.

The family of Dr Lim Poh Thye, who had lived in this house on 37 Perak Road, Penang from the early 1950s to 2006, have provided some information on the house as they knew it, through some passages and photos from a book titled “Book of Memories: Penang” written by Kwee Phaik Lim from the family:

“The architecture of the house was common for houses built from 1930s. Considered a bungalow house, the house was built raised on concrete pillars in case there was flooding due to the heavy torrential tropical rain. Concrete steps led upstairs to the main living area. The main door was secured with collapsible metal doors to allow fresh air to flow in and provide security as well. The main house had wooden flooring throughout, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The bedrooms had large windows with metal rods from top to bottom for security. The windows had wooden frames and glass panels. Under the house was an area enclosed with wire netting for storing extra household furniture. One had to bend down to go through this low space and it was usually covered in cobwebs which once a year the gardener cleared.

Going down seven steps there was a short corridor which led to the kitchen with the servant’s room and bathroom adjoining. The corridor had “Sexe on Trent” clay tiles patterned in maroon, white and blue. The kitchen floor was of red cement with suspended ceiling boards.”

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