The war of words between the powerful Penang government and a Chinese cultural group over a heritage property in George Town’s inner city has grown more intense.
TWO empty tables with plates of food stood out like a sore thumb at the controversial dinner event.
It attracted conversation and media attention and every now and then, press photographers would stop by to take pictures. It seemed like the Penang Chinese Clans Association (PCCA) dinner was being watched for who attended as well as who did not attend.
The 100-table affair was taking place after months of bickering over a heritage building known as “50, Love Lane”
On hindsight, the untouched food and empty chairs were an allegory of the troubled ties between PCCA and the state government.
The two tables were reserved for DAP and PKR representatives. Another seat at the VIP table was reserved for Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng but it also remained empty that evening.
It is unclear why the PKR side had not turned up but the DAP leaders were at a candlelight vigil for their state exco member Phee Boon Poh who had been arrested by the MACC earlier that day.
The dinner, which was taking place following months of dispute over the “50, Love Lane” property, was for its president Dr Chang Wei Lu to explain the issue to its 82 member associations.
However, everyone could see that it was also meant as a show of strength by the clans community, to send a signal that the Chinese clans are united on the issue.
But the show of strength has also widened the rift between PCCA and the state government. Whichever way one looks at it, PCCA’s plan to take ownership of the historical building and turn it into a museum is going nowhere. The association has ended up on the wrong side of the Chief Minister.
“50, Love Lane”, located in the heritage city zone of George Town, is a rundown building that is almost falling apart but it has a rich connection to the life and times of the notorious Ghee Hin triad during the 1800s.
After the British banned secret societies in 1880, the triad leaders placed their properties under trustees. The trustees overseeing “50, Love Lane” have died and left behind unpaid property charges, resulting in the state impounding it.
The clan associations were a big part of early Chinese life and culture and PCCA, which sees itself as the holder of the torch, took it upon itself to recover the property and establish a museum to tell the Ghee Hin story.
PCCA offered to settle the arrears but a state leader sympathetic to the association suggested that the state impound the property and then transfer it to PCCA with the proper land title for a nominal sum of RM1.
But the Chief Minister has decided to go by the book. He has no problem with transferring the title for a nominal sum of RM1 but he has asked PCCA to show legal proof that it is the beneficiary of the property. He has reportedly made the offer a few times. He has also denied he is delaying the issue and said that he wants to go by the law.
“It’s a logical demand because it would set a dangerous precedent if the CM uses his prerogative to sign over the building without legal proof of ownership,” said heritage expert Dr Neil Khor.
That was when things fell apart for the two sides because as Dr Chang put it: “If we had legal papers, there would be no need to go through all those meetings.”
Since then, there has been a war of words between Lim and Dr Chang.
The Hokkiens in Penang have this saying, lu cho gua chay yit, gua cho lu chap goh (you strike me on the first day of the new moon, I will strike back on the 15th day).
In Hokkien it also sounds like, “you do me one, I do you 15”, and that is what has been going on.
The Chinese vernacular media has gone to town with it. They can see that this issue has evolved into something more than just a dispute over a tumbledown building.
For a start, the presence of Chinese community figures at the PCCA dinner surprised observers.
“Selling dinner tables is no big deal in this town, but these people not only showed up, they shared the stage with the man who is fighting the Chief Minister,” said a Penang lawyer.
Those on stage that night included representatives from the Chinese Town Hall, Hokkien Merchant Association, Wushu or martial arts association and Teong Guan which oversees the hungry ghosts festival every year. Several of them also made speeches that night.
Leaders of the Penang opposition parties were also there but none of them were invited to speak.
The Chinese press gave it maximum coverage and the Penang-based Kwong Wah Yit Poh devoted a full page to the event with the dramatic headline: “Bridge between Penang government and people gone”.
Another news headline read: “Chang Wei Lu – Penang government suppresses Chinese associations”.
Dr Chang became quite famous after the “50 Love Lane” issue erupted. But he is certainly the man to watch following the 100-table dinner and especially after the speech he made.
The Chinese thinking class can see that he is not the run-of-the-mill community leader that they are used to. Dr Chang takes his position as the PCCA president very seriously, and he has been able to stand up to the powers-that-be or, as the Penangites would put it, “hu hood”, meaning that he has “b---s”.
Some saw his speech as a testimony that he will not give up on the issue, others thought it also sounded like a declaration of war on the state government.
He explained the controversy, he singled out Tanjung MP Ng Wei Aik who has been at the forefront of attacks against him and, for the second time in a public speech, he acknowledged the leadership of the former government.
He praised the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu as a Chief Minister who worked well with the Chinese associations and credited him for his role in building the Penang Chinese Town Hall. During a speech at a heritage function last month, he had praised Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon for his administration’s role in securing the heritage city status for George Town.
Everyone could see where he was coming from, and there was loud applause when he said: “Can you imagine if Tun Lim Chong Eu had asked the Chinese community to show proof that they were the beneficiary before they could build the Chinese Town Hall?”
Dr Chang, who is also the chairman of the Teoh Kongsi, recalled that during the general election, he and his committee had worn red T-shirts in support of DAP and marched as a delegation to a DAP ceramah.
He closed his speech on a rather political note: “Our association is above politics but we welcome any political party, whether government or opposition to stand with us to recover the property. I am not trying to pressure the government but this issue can be settled if the authorities are sincere and reasonable.
“If the only Chinese Chief Minister in this country cannot accept the people’s opinion and help the Chinese guilds and associations, we are worried for the future of the Chinese. As Chinese, we should think carefully, if we make the wrong decision, it can affect the future of our children. For their sake, we should make the right decision.”
Dr Chang stepped off the stage to a standing ovation as the Hawaii Five-O theme music blasted through the hall. With that, the standoff between PCCA and the state government reached a point of no return.
“He is quite daring, he said things that others did not dare to say. He has set the stage for the issue to go on,” said the above Penang lawyer.
Dr Chang has also become some sort of rallying point for the Penang opposition. Businessman Patrick Ooi, who recently became chairman of a mosquito party known as Penang Front Party, has launched a signature campaign in support of the issue.
“He is on a mission to protect the history and tradition of the Chinese in Penang. We were watching from the sidelines but when it escalated, we could not keep quiet.” said Barisan Nasional state chairman Teng Chang Yeow.
Dr Chang has since called for a public tender on the property. He said PCCA will raise the funds to bid for it.
But the layman reaction out there is quite mixed.
“If you go to the teahouse, there are people who support. There are also people who disagree with him using the clans as a stage to challenge the state. They are worried the community will lose out in an open confrontation. There are also people who do not quite understand the fuss over this old, empty building,” said the Penang lawyer.
The “50, Love Lane” issue is reminiscent of some of the election issues that had derailed the careers of former Penang Chief Ministers. But Lim is still quite unshakeable because the DAP brand is still very strong among the Chinese.
It is near impossible to take on the powers-that-be and win. At the same time, it does not make sense for someone with so much power to quarrel with someone with no power because you may win the battle but not the war.