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A century ago, this house was built on the banks of the Perak River in Kampong Ngior, Tanjong Blanja, now known as Parit. Little of its history is known, although family tradition suggested that it was built by Maharaja Lela, the assassin of Birch, the British resident of Perak, in 1875. Supposedly Maharaja Lela substituted a slave to be hanged in his stead and went into exile, but later came back and built the house. Coins found under the principal pillars of the house during the restoration, placed there according to custom, are dated around 1901 and indicate that the lapse was too long for this story to be likely.
The more plausible story is that a wealthy migrant from Sumatra, Uda Manap, built the house for his bride, Ngah Porbu, who came from Indonesia in the 1890’s to marry him. She was a wealthy woman who brought with her beautiful textiles, jewelry and household artifacts. As the local custom, or adat, prescribes that property is held by women, the house should rightly be known as Rumah Ngah Porbu. Ngah died in 1946 and left the house to her granddaughter who apparently married a descendant of Maharaja Lela. She died in the ’80s and left the house to her youngest daughter Rohani.
The house was built by Chinese craftsmen from Indonesia, at a time when the Perak River was the main thoroughfare into the hinterland and the village was wealthy from taxing passing barges serving the tin trade. The wooden shingle roof timber can only have come from Sumatra where belian wood is found, but other timbers used in construction would be durable local hard woods, although it is impossible to identify species.
The design is typical of Perak in its form and layout, but its decoration is unique. Carved wall panels and window shutters feature Chinese motifs, dragons, phoenixes and calligraphic characters combined with flowers and birds. The lightness of the carving, necessary because of the extreme hardness of the wood, is enhanced by the brightly coloured lime based paint (kapor) that highlights the decorations.
By the time the house was moved to Rimbun Dahan in 1998, it was derelict. The roof and floors had collapsed and much of the diagonal wall paneling was rotted and broken, but most of the structural members were sound. All timbers, carvings and shutters were numbered and photographed before dismantling.
The rooms behind the “rumah ibu”, or main room, were not worth salvaging, they had been built of inferior materials and lacked the decorative detail of the front. They were measured and documented from the remains, but nothing was relocated from this portion except for some carvings, plain window shutters and a pair of doors.
Restoration and Reconstruction
Wherever possible, old timber was used in the restoration. The floor timbers are from other houses demolished in Perak (note the saw milling marks), but the new belian roof shingles had to be brought from Sarawak.
The present layout follows the original with these modifications:
- The main entrance was moved to the opposite side to suit the new site. The porch roof, which was added later on the original site was roofed in belian shingles rather than the corrugated iron that was on it when Rimbun Dahan acquired it.
- The ceiling shape was changed to follow the roof line, originally it didn’t do so and possibly concealed a hiding place.
- The window shutters were reversed to display the single sided decoration on the outside while they are open during the day, and on the inside at night.
- The selang originally sloped down to the back, leading to a large room and a roofed dapur, or kitchen. In the present house, the selang is flat (the dining room) and leads to the new kitchen, a staircase, and a back bedroom.
- The roofless back veranda was originally another room, but the house was big enough for Rimbun Dahan’s purposes, so the verandah records the original building footprint and levels.
- A pair of doors on the original selang walls led to a lost staircase/ladder, the women’s entrance, those doors have been reused at the ground level entrance.
- A new toilet and shower were added below the new kitchen.
The modern kitchen retains the open shelves propped out beyond the wall typical of the period. Unlike the original, the new house has water and electricity. The light fittings in the main room are from the ’30s and were bought in Malacca, as was the furniture. The light switches are Australian, manufactured for restoration of Federation houses. (Coincidentally, Federation was also in 1901). Two items were found in the derelict house and restored: the tall room divider with drawers and open shelves, and the desk in the smallest room off the rumah ibu, where prints of Birch’s death and the subsequent manhunt for Maharaja Lela (Illustrated London News of the 1870s) are displayed.
The internal carvings did not need repainting and they remain an important example of the quality of the original decoration. The external carvings had lost almost all traces of colour, but enough remained to guide the restoration. The external blue could only be matched by using laundry blueing bags (nila), the traditional colour source. The same blue was used on many old buildings in Penang such as the Cheong Fatt Sze Mansion.
Helen Crawford, the Australian resident artist at Rimbun Dahan during the restoration, designed the new carved panels outside the selang to reflect the house’s new purpose. The motifs are Australian and contemporary: the sulphur crested cockatoo and Sturt’s Desert Pea are well known examples of Australian fauna and flora; the biawak, or monitor lizard, is a current resident of the Rimbun Dahan garden, and grape vines and vegetables acknowledge the present use as a dining room.
The house is used as accommodation for the Rimbun Dahan residency programme for artists and writers. As a guest house for people working in the arts, architecture, sustainable development and conservation, it will be experienced by many people in the century to come.