AN old cast iron chest kept shut with a cumbrous padlock sat undisturbed in the attic of the 206-year-old Cheah Kongsi in Penang for about a century.
Then in 2008, the trustees got a locksmith to open it. They did not find gold and diamonds but if you venerate history, the contents were just as precious.
“We found 650 parchment pieces dating back to 1810. The words on them were written with quill pens in beautiful flowing penmanship,” said clan association chairman Peter Cheah.
These prized documents were title deeds to the clan’s land and property in Penang. There are new deeds now and the fore- fathers must have stashed the old ones in the chest.
There were also 32 building blueprints created in the early 1900s in the chest.
“We commissioned a conservator and a historian to preserve and transcribe the documents,” said Cheah.
“In that process, we realised the association had a duty to protect Penang history.”
Just as Cheah Kongsi was mulling over how to do it, serendipity came their way.
Think City, an urban regeneration body under Khazanah Nasional, launched a grant programme and one of the objectives was to help society protect and develop living heritage, culture and architecture.
“With the grant’s support, we began a heritage management plan,” said Cheah.
The grant from Think City sparked a full-blown restoration project by the kongsi.
All in, Think City and the clan association poured in RM3.8mil for three years.
The ancestral hall, entrance archway, courtyard and lawn have been beautifully restored and there is an interpretation centre for visitors to appreciate the history of the kongsi.
Chinese clan houses in Penang are usually closed except for important festivals and few outsiders have the privilege to step into the ancestral hall.
But Cheah Kongsi had a vision to give people the chance to immerse themselves in an era when clan houses were founts of salvation for Chinese immigrants who sailed to Penang in search of a better future.
Visitors can walked into the ancestral hall today – something they cannot do in most other clan houses – and ogle at the thickly gilded woodcarving and incredible decor.
To help with the maintenance, an entry fee is charged – RM10 for adults, RM5 for children aged three to 12 and RM2 for students.
The public can rent the premises to hold activities at the 30,000sq ft lawn and the clan house’s elaborately embellished conference room which is big enough for 40 people.
“Our clan house is once again serving the community.
“As a Cheah, I feels as if our clan has been given a fresh breath of life and we look forward to our new role in society,” said Cheah.
For more details, visit cheahkongsi.com.my and for more on Think City’s range of grants, visit www.thinkcity.com.my.