By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen
Thanks to private philanthropists who care enough about Ipoh and its history, the heart of Ipoh’s Old Town is slowly being restored and while not to its former glory, heritage conservation efforts are gaining momentum to preserve the historical richness of the “City that Tin Built”.
The latest to join the preservation boom is 22 Hale Street, two adjoining buildings located in the oldest section of Ipoh. Both buildings would most likely have been torn down given the condition if not for the passionate conservation spirit of Puan Sri, Dato’ Sandra Lee who, supported by her husband Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian and a team of passionate conservationists, worked tirelessly over a period of three and a half years to bring back the spirit of the place and give to Ipoh, the Hale Street Gallery.
The purpose and intention of conservation is to retain the spirit of place, the soul of the building
The History and Stories
The buildings reflect two different designs of two different decades each with its own unique stories. No. 22 is the only one on Hale St which is still true to its original 1900 design. This was Ali Pitchay’s townhouse, the Chief Sanitary Inspector of Kinta in the 1940s. It was home to as many as 70 people at one time. It subsequently acted as office for Lloyd's insurance, architecture firm, signboard maker, etc., until it became derelict.
No. 24 was Kam Kong Hotel, the last surviving hotel on this street, then known by its Chinese name of ‘Hak Chan Kai’ (Hotel Street) at the time of its closure. Some of its rooms were still there with original furniture when they began conservation work. They found beds and wardrobes used by hotels in that era and they plan to recreate some of these rooms used by traveling salesmen and traders who did business with the tin miners then. This is planned for completion in 2018.
Leading Conservation Architect
According to Laurence Loh, the architect who is recognised as a leading conservation architect and cultural heritage expert in Malaysia and the Asia-Pacific region, whose best exemplar of his work is the restoration and adaptive reuse of the world-renowned Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang (2000 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards, Most Excellent Project) and who was invited by Dato’ Sandra to spearhead the Hale Street conservation work, said that the first prerequisite in conservation work is to:
“start by respecting the building that we are entrusted to conserve, its beauty, its intangible value as a symbol of history and heritage and its place in time as a repository of memory and knowledge.
“We acknowledge our debt to the master builders and craftsmen whose traditions and skills are reflected in the built forms they have created over the centuries. These forms resonate with the retelling of myths and stories cast in iron, frozen in decorative stucco and carved into timber and stone.
“They define the roots of our being, embedded in an architectural culture that conveys the spirit of place. And we learn to put trust in their craft.”
Spirit of Place
“The purpose and intention of conservation is to retain the spirit of place, the soul of the site or building. We ask ourselves the question ‘How is the spirit of place conveyed?’ We allow the traces of time embedded in its walls to speak to us and examine how they will tell the stories of its past lives. We look at the changes and try to retain as many layers of history as much as possible, always deferring to the underlying principle of maximum retention and minimum intervention.”
New Life and Continuity
“Conservation is not a denial of the need to breathe new life into a building. In fact, it tries to celebrate and enhance the building’s future by revealing its past, through interpretation and through new uses that are compatible and complementary, configured in such a manner that the recipient within the space can read the lines of history and the intention of the creator.”
Labour of Love
It was a labour of love for Dato’ Sandra, from acquiring the two buildings, finding an architect, to putting a team together. “Not many contractors in Ipoh are experienced with conservation work but many were willing to learn and try new things. Most of them are local Ipohites – construction workers and craftsmen and occasionally sometimes from Penang. I really was intent on preserving the spirit of old town rather than to give way to a modern building that lacks soul.” she added.
It wasn’t just about retaining the facade and building new inside which is what is done in a lot of restorations but a meticulous process of addressing the major issues of stabilizing the foundation through cement grouting, reinforcing the existing structural systems and roof systems as well as arresting the decay of timber floor structure.
They had to replace the entire roof and roof structure which had been destroyed by white ants; fix major structural weaknesses like external arches which had to be reinforced with steel beams and re-plastered to hide; replacing supporting beams; salvaging whatever was reusable; recycling old timber; rebuilding the first floor; treat the walls using the old methods such as lime wash, lime plaster; finding Terra-cotta V-tiles; carpentry for the original No. 24 staircase and restore windows and doors to reflect original designs. The timber flooring was recycled from an old rice mill in Kedah which they purchased and brought the wood here.
The only new elements were new wiring, plumbing, fire deterrents and new additions were the toilets, kitchen, fire escape and a small lift.
The ‘Unfinished’ Finishing
“We kept some of the exposed beams exposed, to retain the historical perspective and we did not plaster and paint over the walls, having painstakingly used old ways to treat them.
People have commented on why we left bits ‘unfinished’ and ‘did we run out of money?’ but what they don’t realise is that it cost a whole lot more to restore everything in the old traditional way, finding the craftsmen who still had the know-how and taking the time to meticulously tackle each task.
“It would have been much cheaper to plaster and build new inside. As it is, the restoration took longer than anticipated because of the painstaking work involved.”
Inculcating Appreciation for Old Architecture
Sandra went on to express the hope that this 22 Hale Street restoration, will help to inculcate a deeper sense of appreciation of old architecture and encourage architecture students to come and study the work and the process she and her team took.
“We are also in the process of setting up a heritage gallery to tell the story of Ipoh Old Town and the many stories of its buildings, people and their lives. There is already upstairs, a ‘museum’ where artefacts, furniture and heritage pieces which have been collected by me and my husband’s family, are on display.
“22 Hale Street is not some musty old museum basking in the past. We want it to be alive, vibrant, telling the stories of the past yet rejoicing in the present with food, camaraderie, communion, linking past, present and future, serving as a community space to meet, to share and celebrate.” she enthused.
Hale Street is already establishing a reputation as the ‘go-to’ place for fellow conservationists and private philanthropists to come and learn from their example. Sandra offered to share everything they’ve learnt and revealed that Dato’ Chin Lean Choong brought his architect in to follow their restoration method for the Tin Miners Association down the road. She hopes it will be a catalyst for more restoration rather than rebuilding.
Community Space cum Cafe
“Meanwhile, I’m thrilled that 22 Hale Street is becoming a community space, a place where people come together, where the products from Daybreak, an NGO I started 25 years ago to help people with disabilities, can be showcased and purchased.
“I have also unwittingly become a cafe proprietor as people associate food with culture and heritage and we now have quite a following who come for our local food and enjoy dining in an ambiance steeped in history and heritage. Although I have absolutely no background in Food and Beverage I have a wonderful, young and enthusiastic team who are willing to roll up their sleeves and pull together to deliver the best service they can muster whether it be an event, a meeting, a celebration or even a wedding.” she concluded with a self-deprecating smile.
Ipoh is certainly undergoing a renaissance and we at Ipoh Echo certainly hope that other Ipohites will follow the Hale Street example and jump on the conservation bandwagon.