Features

Published: Thursday September 4, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday September 5, 2014 MYT 12:49:37 PM

The Star Pitt St, a building with a past and a future

The Star's retired regional associate editor Anna Cheah sitting where her desk used to be in The Star Pitt St office in George Town, Penang.

The Star's retired regional associate editor Anna Cheah sitting where her desk used to be in The Star Pitt St office in George Town, Penang.

Built in 1906, The Star Pitt St has a storied past, with many more chapters to be written ahead.

The Star Pitt St is a reporter’s second home. And that's why any journalist who's done time there will feel a pang of nostalgia when they return. In the hallowed halls of this venerable building, innumerable dilemmas, events and incidents were received and transmitted to the public. There was no Internet then, so before the streets went wild over something important, journalists at the old Star building would go wild first.

“This was where I sat!” says retired journalist Anna Cheah, 67, while standing in a spot in front of an art gallery wall. Cheah joined The Star in 1977 – The Star started in 1971 – and rose up the ranks from feature writer to sub-editor to chief sub-editor to regional associate editor, before she threw in the towel (and before labour law made her retire) at age 60.

The Star started poor,” she recounts while walking through the first floor where the Newsdesk was located over 20 years ago but is now an art exhibition space.

“We sat on coffee shop chairs to type out our stories. Many of the chairs were broken, and some reporters resorted to tying the good chairs to their tables with raffia string to deter colleagues from pinching them. We worked so hard to make the paper a success, and now I feel so happy to see this building being used for the promotion of arts and culture,” Cheah says, choked up with emotion.

Cheah getting a xylophone lesson from professional musician Tan Su Yin.
Cheah getting a xylophone lesson from professional musician Tan Su Yin.

Walking to the back window to look down on Queen Street, Cheah recalls the times when robbers appeared in the early morning and terrorised the circulation guys in front of vendors who came to collect bales of the morning paper.

“A chief cashier resigned because she couldn’t stand the risk of being held at knife point anymore. Every time we were robbed, all of us worried that our salaries would be late. We struggled with our circulation, and we struggled to find stories that people wanted to read.”

On her walk down memory lane, Cheah chanced upon a group of youths practising on three types of xylophones in the auditorium of the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra on the top floor, which was formerly an administrative office.

“There is an auditorium here?” she asks incredulously, and spends several minutes plinking away on the musical instruments while chatting with the musicians. Smiling, she declares that she will return often to attend the frequent musical performances that are now held here.

The Starâ¿TMs headquarters back in the 1970s was a three-storey building in Pitt Street (renamed Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling), George Town, Penang. It was a grand building with an old-fashioned lift, which was fitted with grilles. Fully restored, The Star Pitt St. now has a
The Star Pitt St building towered over the pre-war houses when it was built in 1906. (Below) The building as it is today, where it houses a resource centre, exhibition space, book store and the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra. There’s also a small office for reporters to file their stories.
Then and now: The Star Pitt St building towered over all the pre-war houses when it was built in 1906. (Inset) The building now houses a resource centre and exhibition space, bookstore and the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra. There's also a small office for reporters to file their stories.

The Star Pitt Street wasn't always a frenzied newspaper office. This building has once seen other action. Take a good look at the flooring at the first floor where the Editorial Department once was. Little squares of thick glass perforate the red and green cement, a sign of opulence and distinction in colonial times.

The three-storey high building had towered over the little pre-war houses when it was built in 1906 with 48,767 Straits Dollars, a hefty sum back then. The building’s colonial eminence was required because it was first built to house the Straits Settlement’s biggest money earner, the Opium and Spirit Farm Offices (OSFO).

Writer Khoo Salma Nasution, in her book Streets Of George Town Penang, wrote that the “farms” didn't refer to fields of opium or other intoxicants but rather a system of government tenders that regulated the businesses of narcotics, tobacco, booze and gambling.

The Star Pitt St, back when horse buggies and bullock carts trundled along the road, was the venue where powerful Chinese families parleyed with the British government for the production and sale of proscribed goods. Khoo wrote that OSFO had generated about half of the annual government revenue of the Straits Settlement.

There was a godown and dispensary for cooked opium and also samsu (potent rice and sugar liquor). These intoxicants were available over-the-counter at the Queen Street side of the building.

Penang blogger Raymond Boon described the neighbourhood: “Bullock carts would carry the opium to dens all over Penang. Imagine all the activity at Queen Street over opium each day.”

Writer Damian Harper in his book Malaysia, Singapore And Brunei wrote: “It was a dangerous, rough place, notorious for its brothels and gambling dens, all run by Chinese secret societies.”

This building was also the first Honda showroom in Malaysia, back when the late Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew brought the Honda Cup motorbikes into the country.

Fully restored, The Star Pitt St now houses a book store on the ground floor, a resource centre and exhibition space on the first, and the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra on the top floor. Journalists still work here though. Ending her personal tour, Cheah drops by the carpeted Newsdesk, tucked away in a corner on the ground floor, complete with a good-sized pantry stocked with coffee and comfort food.

The Star now operates from its northern hub in Bayan Lepas, but reporters handling George Town assignments still use this place to file their stories. However, they don't sit in coffee shop chairs anymore. “It’s so beautiful now. You journalists today are so lucky,” Cheah says with a smile.

The Star Pitt St in George Town, Penang will open to the public from noon onwards on Sept 6. Visit fb.com/TheStarPittStreet for more details and event dates.

Tags / Keywords: Property, pitt street

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