Missed chances for revitalising Prangin Canal

AS vice-president of the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) and committee member of Penang Forum, I would like to respond to recent allegations made about Penang Forum over the Sia Boey Rejuvenation project.

Dating from 1804, Prangin Canal was the man-made boundary of early George Town. Sungai Prangin, spelt in different ways, appears in many George Town maps and early records. The Malay toponym “Ujong Pasir” surely preceded “Siaboey”, the Hokkien name for this area.

Those of us who grew up in George Town remember how food was available around the clock at the wholesale Siaboey Market, and how the buses were lined up along the big smelly drain called the Prangin Canal. Sadly, Siaboey Market moved out in 2000, around the same time that the inner city was being decanted due to the Control of Rent (Repeal) Act 1997.

Komtar Phase V was derelict for many years. The exposed part of Prangin Canal with its granite walls was left intact at the eastern end, but the section in front of Komtar and Prangin Mall had long been covered over.

One could write a whole book on the rich history of this area, but I would just like to set the picture right about the rejuvenation efforts here.

It is obvious that the historic centre of George Town needs a green lung in addition to Padang Kota. As soon as George Town was listed a World Heritage site under Unesco, a few of us started to think about how to get Komtar Phase 5 earmarked as a park and open space.

George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) was established in 2010 as an agency tasked with managing and monitoring the George Town World Heritage area. Historic plans of old Prangin Canal were shown to the first general manager (now executive director of UN Habitat) who, as a planner, could see the wisdom of turning the area into a park.

She convinced the then chief minister (now finance minister) that if the place was developed as an extension of Komtar, it would be just another development adding to the congestion of the city. On the other hand, if it was converted into a recreational open space, he would be positively remembered for giving George Town a public park.

As the landowner, Penang Development Corporation (PDC) was tasked with bringing the plan to fruition. As members of the GTWHI consultative panel, we were invited to a few meetings and helped to nudge it in the right direction.

“Siaboey Reborn: Penang Heritage Arts District” was launched by the former chief minister in September 2015. This proposal included preserving Prangin Canal as a water feature, restoring and converting the 19th-century Prangin Market building into a hawker food court, rehabilitating the shophouses for food and retail, and adding a potentially world-class art museum.

A storm diversion drain had already been planned as a joint flood mitigation measure by the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and PDC (landowner). A few months into excavation works, rows of neatly arranged granite blocks in peculiar grids were unearthed in October 2015.

PDC immediately engaged the USM Centre for Global Archaeological Research to conduct a scientific study of the discovery. At the same time, George Town historian Marcus Langdon was separately commissioned by PDC to conduct research on the rich history and British engineering of the irrigation system discovered at the site.

Both USM and Langdon’s findings were presented to the former chief minister who was also chairman of PDC. The recommendation was to preserve the artefacts and to include the findings in the new plan for the site. PDC extended USM’s appointment and the archaeological team went on to unearth the canal lock, a basin wall and the footings of a police station. The National Heritage Department was briefed, and the commissioner of Heritage made a site visit in March 2016. With the underground discoveries, the site was enhanced with layers of history.

A few months after launching the Penang Heritage Arts District, the former chief minister had a change of mind, and the area was re-designated as a transport hub for an elevated LRT line and two elevated monorail lines. I was invited for a Heritage Impact Assessment for a proposed transport hub in March 2016, and that was the first I heard of the proposal for the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) which had replaced the Halcrow version.

It was a preliminary plan for a gargantuan Sentral-type multi-storey commercial hub with park-and-ride facilities. It was obvious that such a large development right at the edge of the World Heritage area would obfuscate the vistas, change the morphological landscape and scuttle the opportunity to create the much-needed open space.

So I joined Penang Forum to learn more about the PTMP. The following month, PHT organised a press conference on Prangin Canal. At the press conference, the present GTWHI general manager explained that she would not comment on the transport hub as it was beyond the boundary of the World Heritage area.

Earlier, we had great dreams for the park, about how historic structures could be preserved for new uses, how it would serve the community, and how an ecosystem could be revitalised. Ideally, the project could have been a real river clean-up, starting from upstream, to upgrade Sungai Prangin from “not suitable for body contact” to “suitable for body contact recreational usage”. However, river rehabilitation was not part of the state’s vision from the beginning. The urgent thing now is to save it from being obliterated by the Transport Hub.

As the Penang state government was not receptive to our recommendations, Dr Lim Mah Hui of Penang Forum wrote a letter to Unesco to inform the organisation of this major infrastructure being planned in the vicinity of the George Town World Heritage area.

The National Heritage Department, having earlier endorsed the archaeological works, also took the opportunity to convene a meeting on the future of Prangin Canal. The GTWHI general manager, the head of the state think-tank and a few DAP politicians wrote letters to the press alleging that a pre-emptive strike had been launched against the Penang Transport Council, and accused Penang Forum of backstabbing, betrayal, treachery and even treason.

This was possibly to distract public attention from the real question Unesco was asking – what would be the impact of the Transport Hub on the World Heritage area?

If not for Penang Forum’s timely action, the PTMP Transport Hub would have been built over most of the visible Prangin Canal and potential park area. Penang Forum did not receive any thanks for its intervention but was instead vilified as “anti-Penang”.

The state decided to shift the proposed LRT station to the Jalan Magazine side of the PDC land (currently the car park) without space for monorail stations. Designed in a pseudo heritage architectural style (as shown in the artist’s impression), the LRT station would replace what would have been the biggest privately sponsored art museum in the country. The relocation of the “arts district” upset the art and cultural communities and the dream of an international urban art park turned to dust.

In late 2016, GTWHI took over management of the site from PDC. The Sia Boey Rejuvenation project was launched on March 25, 2018. Compared to the PTMP Transport Hub proposal, the project costing RM7mil is a welcome alternative. The government should certainly be lauded for providing a pleasant amenity for the public.

However, following the initial publicity about a “rehabilitated” Prangin Canal or “river” in some of the first announcements, a few of us felt duty-bound to point out the fact that no river (open system) was rehabilitated in the process. Rather, a section of the Prangin Canal structure (the walls inexplicably topped up with new concrete slabs) had been converted into a pond (closed system) and filled with water while the storm-water drain was merely diverted into a parallel culvert. It just needs to be made clear that this is neither a Singapore River clean-up nor Cheonggyecheon (Seoul).

The public should also realise that due to the misbegotten PTMP Transport Hub proposal, three precious years were lost, the shophouses are further crumbling and the “Sia Boey Rejuvenation” is in fact “Siaboey Reborn, Resurrected” but minus the art museum as the “jewel in the crown”. If Penang Forum is again called “anti-Penang” for pointing out the truth, so be it.



Penang Heritage Trust

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