2016 hasn’t been great for Penang’s heritage. On 9 February, a number of buildings at the Runnymede site on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah were demolished.1 While families across the island were tucking into Chinese New Year lunches, a demolition crew was picking away at the remains of George Town’s colonial past. The demolition was controversial for two main reasons: firstly, among the buildings destroyed was a bungalow associated with Sir Stamford Raffles, widely regarded as Singapore’s founding father; that the demolition was carried out during a significant public holiday also raised eyebrows.

Less than two weeks later, villagers in the nearby Kampung Siam began preparing to leave after the High Court threw out their appeal to remain in their ancestral homes.2 The historic village will soon give way to new development. The two incidents, though not directly related, reveal how Penang’s rich heritage — both tangible and intangible — is under considerable pressure from development. And the outcomes at both sites give cause for concern about the future of this island’s historic legacy.

The house that Raffles built

A great deal of Penang’s charm comes from its built environment. This tangible heritage, among the best-preserved in Southeast Asia, is part of the reason the city was accorded World Heritage Status by UNESCO.

The Runnymede buildings, situated just outside the UNESCO World Heritage Site, are of considerable significance. While the site’s grandest building is the famous art deco hotel, the ancillary structures were not without historical or architectural merit.

Of particular significance was the bungalow: Runnymede House. This is the building after which the site is named. It’s a name heavy with ancient meaning: students of history will remember the original Runnymede — a watery English meadow just outside Windsor — as the place where King John signed Magna Carta in 1215. This historic treaty limited the arbitrary rule of English Kings and guaranteed that no freeman could be imprisoned or punished except by due legal process. While feudalism didn’t end with Magna Carta, it was a crucial first step on the long road to a constitutional system and the rule of law.

When Raffles, that quintessential colonialist, built a home for himself and his wife in Penang in 1808, he imported the storied name of this English meadow — along with all the baggage of Empire, with its ills and misled ideals. From the new Runnymede on Penang’s genteel Northam Road, Raffles would pen important historical documents of his own. According to an article published in The Straits Times in 1928, many ‘letters dealing with the founding of Singapore were dated from Runnymede House.’3

While Runnymede House was rebuilt after a fire in 1903, according to local architectural conservator Tan Yeow Wooi, the bricks found at the demolition site suggest that substantial portions of the original 1808 building had survived until 2016. In particular, the use of slender clay bricks with tanah merah (red soil) paste as mortar suggests early colonial construction; by the Edwardian era, larger bricks and lime mortar would become standard.4

The twentieth century would see the name ‘Runnymede’ become synonymous with hospitality. The hotel building — the only part of the site to survive the wrecking ball — was constructed some time during the 1920s or 30s. In its heydey, it even gave the famous E&O Hotel a run for its money.

Hotel guests would be replaced by soldiers in the 1940s. Runnymede became an ad hoc naval and military base during the Second World War. The latter half of the twentieth century would continue these martial associations. In 1986, the site was acquired by the Ministry of Defence, who used the buildings until 2000.5 Since then, Runnymede has languished, becoming increasingly derelict over time. This year’s demolition brought an abrupt end to the quiet decay of these once grand buildings.

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the legality of the demolition, the repeated extension of planning permissions on the site, and all the things that conspired for these historic buildings to be overlooked by city authorities. I won’t go into any of that. For me, the take-away message from Runnymede is that a building with a significant history is worth less in twenty-first-century Penang than planning permissions for the ‘construction of one 61-storey apartment block, a 31-storey hotel block, [and] a 12-storey commercial and office block.’

Another part of the Runnymede saga worth noting are the repeated denials from municipal authorities that the house was associated with Raffles.6 This comes despite considerable evidence to the contrary; indeed, the site was listed in earlier council inventories as ‘untouchable’ partly for these historical associations.7 It seems something has been lost in translation here.

I’ve written before about the need for a comprehensive heritage inventory in Penang, and for the municipal council and state heritage bodies to be empowered through clear policies and powers of enforcement. I’m afraid that this situation hasn’t changed since I started writing about heritage in 2014 — without clear heritage policy, more important historic buildings will be consigned to just that: history.

The heritage of hearth and home

But Penang wasn’t awarded World Heritage Status for its buildings alone. A big part of that listing was its ‘intangible’ heritage — the human traces of its multicultural trading past. This was a port town that once attracted people from all over the world: from Achehnese to Armenians, Britons to Burmese, Japanese and Jewish people. All these communities have left their mark on the former port town, which was once one of the great entrepôts of Asia.

Kampung Siam was home to one such community. While the Siamese have a long history in this part of the world, this particular village dates to 1845, when the land was bequeathed by the East India Company to the local Siamese and Burmese communities.8 Centred around the distinctive roofline of the local Wat , villagers continued Siamese traditions like Menora dancing, embodying history through their way of life. The wooden houses may not seem like much, but Kampung Siam was a community in the truest sense of the word.

While the land was said to be granted to the community ‘in perpetuity’, a dispute emerged when some of the village trustees sold part of the land to a developer. And in 2014, this developer began to exercise its right to build on that land. After a protracted legal battle, the villagers have exhausted all avenues to stay. And so they must go.

In their place — you guessed it — a hotel and offices. Or, more precisely,’a budget hotel comprising 97 rooms and three shop office units.’

Once again, I’ve written before about the human and cultural costs of George Town’s mass evictions.9 The pattern that has emerged in George Town in the years since its heritage listing in 2008 shows that policy still privileges profits over people.

The bitter irony here is that many of the people facing eviction now are part of the reason Penang got its heritage listing in the first place; the city was listed for its ‘living testimony’ to its cosmopolitan past, as embodied by its diverse people, foods, and festivals. And so a tidy profit is being turned on the cultural capital of the people now being turned out of their homes.

Day by day, brick by brick, home by vacated home, George Town loses a bit of itself. The city may be touted for its heritage in guidebooks and press releases, but what does that word mean when the people and places that made this heritage are gone?

Photo: Runnymede Hotel and the rubble of Runnymede House, courtesy of George Town Heritage Action.

[1] ‘Secretive demolition of Raffles House’, The Star, 1 March 2016. URL: http://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2016/03/01/secretive-demolition-of-raffles-house/
[2] ‘Kampung Siam villagers ask for compassion as they are forced to leave their ancestral homes’, The Malay Mail Online, 10 March 2016. URL: http://m.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/kampung-siam-villagers-ask-for-compassion-as-they-are-forced-to-leave-their.
[3] ‘Runnymede Hotel. Sir Stamford Raffles and Penang’, The Straits Times, 21 December 1928, p. 10. Thanks to Mark Lay of George Town Heritage Action for discovering this fascinating article and sharing it with the group.
[4] ‘Runnymede’s frame dates back to 1800s’, New Straits Times, 8 March 2016.
[5] ‘Historian: Raffles built Runnymede in 1808’, The Star, 12 February 2016. URL: http://www.thestar.com.my/metro/community/2016/02/12/historian-raffles-built-runnymede-in-1808/.
[6] ‘Raffles did stay in Runnymede, group tells Penang govt’, New Straits Times, 26 February 2016. URL: http://www.nst.com.my/news/2016/02/129470/raffles-did-stay-runnymede-group-tells-penang-govt.
[7] Runnymede listed as ‘untouchable’, New Straits Times, 16 February 2016. URL: URL: http://www.nst.com.my/news/2016/02/127718/runnymede-listed-untouchable.
[8] ‘Siamese village folk and traders’ plea to developer’, The Star, 11 March 2016. URL: http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2016/03/11/please-let-us-stay-on-siamese-village-folk-and-traders-plea-to-developer/.