ONE of Penang’s oldest clanhouses, the Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi will proudly display its rich two-century-old history under a soon-to-commence RM3.5mil restoration project.
Kongsi chairman Cheah Swee Huat said work on the 18-month project would enhance the George Town Unesco World Heritage site and mark a new phase in the Kongsi’s history.
“The land was only purchased in 1828 but the Kongsi was founded in 1810. Construction of this ancestral temple began in 1858 and the building has since been renovated several times.
“We now realise that much of the decorative work undertaken was not true to the clan’s Hokkien origins, hence we are now embarking on this major restoration project to correct and restore the heritage value of this building,” he said during the restoration groundbreaking ceremony recently.
He said the original archway in Armenian Street, which was well over a century old, would be faithfully restored while the administration building would house an interpretation centre and a research archive centre featuring over 500 old documents dating back to the early 1800s.
He said the priceless documents were discovered in an old iron cast safe at the Kongsi recently.
“The discovery was of great significance to the Kongsi as it revealed the social structures of relevant periods in our history. I felt it was important to share these with visitors to the Kongsi,” he said, adding that the interpretation centre would showcase the Kongsi’s rich and unique history in an engaging way.
Architect and cultural historian Tan Yeow Wooi (pic) , who is working on the restoration of the main temple, said the problems with the previous restoration works were the poor quality timber and tiles used for the roof and floors which had caused leaks and flooding upstairs, using cement instead of lime plaster for the walls and installing roof ornaments and carvings that do not belong.
“Missing details like the original painted ‘brick’ design will be added back and poor quality roof ornaments that are culturally and symbolically inaccurate will be replaced.
“Thus, even though tourists may see and think that the current roof decorations are beautiful, they have to be removed to remain true to history,” he said.
Citing an example, he said the paintings of door guardians need to be removed as they were painted on the side entrances instead of the main door.
He said later additions to the prayer pavilion and porch are partly Straits Eclectic in design and would be retained although they were not part of the original structure.
“The architects in the old days had studied abroad and brought the Straits Eclectic ideas back with them when they worked on the Kongsi building.
Tan spent some three months researching and preparing the dilapidation surveys on the Kongsi.
He said the previous restoration work was done by artisans from the Chuan Chew prefecture.
“Chuan Chew and Cheang Chew are two prefectures in China’s Southern Fujian province.
“The Hokkiens in Penang are mainly from the Cheang Chew prefecture but as the artisans hired were from Chuan Chew, the architectural restoration style was inaccurate.
“It does not mean that just because you get artisans from China, your property will be restored accurately - they still need guidance and instructions based on methodological research into the history of the place,” he said.
He said the Chinese artisans engaged for the Cheah Kongsi this time around were very experienced and have worked on the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple of the Penang Teochew Association in Chulia Street which received the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Conservation Award 2006 and the restoration of the Khoo Kongsi.
The Kongsi was among the grant recipients of Think City Sdn Bhd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Federal Government’s investment arm Khazanah Nasional Bhd.
The grant is for urban rejuvenation projects within the George Town World Heritage Site.