Hooking the young on heritage


Recognition of George Town as a Unesco World Heritage site followed a decade of commitment from hundreds of individuals. It was a monumental victory for heritage and conservation movements in Malaysia. The next challenge lies in implementing standard practices that meet compliance requirements. While the listing was the “sexiest land revaluation by a stroke of a pen1”, the singular question becomes, what’s next? Digital media is one way to go.

George Town’s heritage built environment played a significant role in its listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site and the city boasts the largest concentration of intact pre-war shophouses. Many traditional trades and lifestyles continue within these neighbourhoods. In citing the city’s “living heritage”, the listing was an effort to preserve cultures largely displaced in other Malaysian cities.

But while the built environment is physically accessible, the vocabulary is largely misunderstood, and thus undervalued. Heritage architecture speaks a language of the past. Its usage and relevancy no longer resonate with today’s generation. To the uninitiated, it is a collection of dilapidated buildings that should be replaced.

Understanding that this attitude in the long run may prove detrimental to heritage architecture, several local non-governmental organisations have taken initiatives to ensure clearly written promotional literature is made available to the public. The aim is to eliminate jargon and demystify complicated systems plaguing built environment conservation. Up to now these attributes have impeded public understanding and interest.

In 2008, Arts-ED and re-cap.org collaborated to produce an architectural walkabout booklet covering an older section of George Town, recruiting Limkokwing University architecture students under the direction of Janet Pillai, an advocate of holistic learning through theatre-based methods. The trail concept guides visitors to places of interest in a particular sequence. The built environment is unravelled slowly, allowing a person to absorb the environment at a chosen pace. The booklet helps identify structures and provides context to the otherwise unnoticed architectural details through diagrams, drawings and photographs.

The booklet, however, could only be fully utilised by those who have had the privilege to visit this area; only they could fully grasp its content since the information was bound to physical locations.

Building a digital image of the past

The primary intent to disseminate information on the built environment led re-cap.org to choose the web platform for its ease of access and reach. With the cooperation of the Heritage of Malaysia Trust and support from the Krishen Jit Astro Fund 2010, re-cap.org produced a prototype architectural heritage trail aimed for web consumption.

The overall vision involved deploying an online database of heritage buildings reconstructed to their glory days. By exploring a building within its historical context, site visitors would get a greater sense of how a building functioned and related to local society. In George Town, shophouses played a significant role throughout the expansion of the city, as they were host to some of the most lavish social engagements in the British port. The heritage trail began at the first public building of pre-colonial times, the Suffolk House. Currently managed by the Malaysian Heritage Trust, this structure was built on land owned by Captain Francis Light.

Conservation architect Laurence Loh made a conscious decision to restore the house to the year 1818. After countless consultations with historians and research involving numerous documents, they chose that year for the many important events that occurred at the historical building.

re-cap.org then reconstructed a Christmas dinner of that year. A journal entry by Captain John Crawford recorded the event, which described Sir Stamford Raffles and his wife as the guests of honour.

“We sat down at about 5pm, the dinner having been kept back one hour for Lady Raffles, who resides with the Governor’s family…We dined in the Marble Hall, had the Governor on my right and her niece, Ms Burney, on my left… Sir Stamford exposed himself greatly today when speaking of his chum Mr Philips…” 2

Raffles would later be noted as the founder of Singapore. It was rumoured that he and Colonel Bannerman discussed the founding in that house itself.

The trail opens with a view of the main porch area; the porch itself no longer exists as it had completely collapsed through years of neglect. All that remains are pad footings on which the main pillars once stood. There is also no historical visual reference of the porch. Loh based his conservation design on period water colour paintings though none include the main porch. Loh described it thus:

“The 1811 painting by James George shows a shaded row of arches depicting the inside face of a porte-cochere, possibly like the North Porch. However, several clues suggested the possibility of a double-height porch… This suggested that perhaps the most significant porch could have been a doublevolume space. Similar to an example of the same period, the Lucknow Residency in India.”3

Based on historical data and discussions with conservation architects, re-cap.org generated a rendering, adding elements such as human figures, foliage and even a horse carriage to recreate the ambience of that period.

Remote navigation through digital medium

This merging of physical and virtual space was further explored by Digicap, a group invited to document Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion as part of the Digital Art + Culture (DA+C) festival project. Digicap’s portfolio covers world heritage sites such as Gua Tempurong and Belum- Temenggor rainforest but the mansion was its first in heritage architecture.

Digicap was formed in 2008 as a research wing under Multimedia University’s Flagship R&D Project: Malaysian Culture and Heritage Digital Bank. The group focuses on digital media capture and construction in the context of cultural and heritage preservation. Virtual reality, still photography, video, soundscapes, aural treatments, digital illustrations and three-dimensional objects are created using various techniques, processes and software applications. Since its inception, Digicap has published and exhibited various digital assets in natural, cultural and historical heritage categories.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion has earned itself a coveted place in the “Top 10 Best Mansions in the World” list by Lonely Planet in 2011. Indeed, entering the mansion immediately validates this lofty recognition. Ornate detailing and lavish furnishing transport visitors to a forgotten time. The central courtyard that spatially connects the entire house is adorned with grand architecture. The details reflect the passion for beauty held by its original owner, a Chinese tycoon named Cheong Fatt Tze, whose businesses spanned East to West. Thus, while he admired the West for its advances in technology and art, his heart belonged to Asia. He sought to marry his love of both cultures in the design of his residence.

Straits Eclectic architecture

This is evident in several hybrid architectural features such as stain glass windows adapted for the tropics and wrought iron Corinthian columns adorned with Chinese ideograms. Due to the exacting authenticity derived from its superior restoration, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a highly valued private residence.

Digicap utilises high dynamic range (HDR) images for its photo documentation. Five to nine frames using a wide range of exposure levels are taken of the same scene. Combining these multiple frames during post-processing, details in shadow areas are enhanced while highlight hues are restored with reduced exposure. Then several HDR images are stitched into a panoramic layer to create a 360-degree virtual sphere (view).

These panoramas capture the Straits Eclectic architectural style with precision and clarity. Surface textures of the wrought iron railings and floor patterns can be examined in detail through a zoom function. Navigation via touch screen allows for seamless display. Visitors can now step into the main courtyard and examine features with simple finger gestures.

HDR images presented in a panoramic format are a powerful technique that simulates a three-dimensional space; it provides an illusion of stepping into a room. This vivid effect is crucial for conservationists who strive to share and promote these invaluable heritage sites to the public. By capturing these structures in this manner, the overall experience is then made available to those unable to visit these sites.

Currently, Digicap is developing HDR panoramas for online viewing. Further innovation such as embedded video and audio are also being explored.

Reconnecting built forms with contemporary society

The constantly changing global landscape demands societies to perpetually adapt. Exploding urban populations due to mass migrations in search of jobs greatly stress built environments. Heritage sites must also adapt to meet the demands of a growing city.

This change requires an assessment of the current environment followed by renovations to allow for sustainable growth. Unfortunately this often relegates portions of the built heritage as redundant or obsolete. Not surprisingly then, historical sites are often regarded as baggage of the past. But should we dismiss our heritage to make way for development? Should we subscribe to the saying, “Out with the old, in with the new”? And by doing so, will we lose something valuable beyond the logic of current economics?

Laurence Loh defines cultural heritage conservation this way:

“…It recognises that some of our heritage assets will face inevitable destruction, however, the negative impacts can be minimised to allow a more organic process of change that preferably takes place over several generations.”4

Architect Laurance Loh.

There are sincere efforts by many organisations committed towards cultural heritage conservation and preservation. Overall, most aim to maintain cultural authenticity so that these sites become historical reference points. Unfortunately, this could result in embalming aspects of the culture. Their noble intent to preserve authenticity may actually stifle public access to knowledge.

Conservation starts with an appreciation of heritage. Interpretations of heritage language must be extended with contemporary context to draw interest from the younger generation. Communicating in their language through various modern platforms leads to increased dissemination. Contemporary society is well versed in digital media. Therefore efforts must be focused on the marriage of media-art technology and heritage conservation. Earlier attempts to spread the built heritage information were confined to print media. The architectural walkabout booklet allowed visitors to discover George Town by experiencing its lively streets and alleys.

The desire to increase accessibility and advances in communications technology led to a shift towards utilising digital media. The Suffolk House and Cheong Fatt Tze projects attempted to explore more complex digital platforms for the same purpose. Heritage vocabulary formed the foundation for these projects. Artists and designers embraced the beauty of the past by negotiating them into the design language and high-tech tools familiar to most cutting-edge communities.

re-cap.org advocates embedding humility and respect for historical culture in its undertakings. For these two projects, this reverence was reserved for the vocabulary within George Town’s heritage built environment. By inculcating these traits through media, a sense of being a part of a larger whole becomes evident. The digital format also breathes new life into historical information and garners new interest from younger audiences.

Suffolk House.

Conservationists involved with Unesco sites are struggling to preserve their built heritage assets from persistent economic forces that threaten their existence. Thus a society’s heritage must return to the very people who form its communities. Slessor has said “the crucial architecture challenge… is to reconnect culture and its built form with the larger civic organism from which it emerged.”5

Full access to information will allow people to take ownership of their cultural history. Heritage conservation is sustainable so long as civic groups give it priority. In his interview with The Peak Magazine; Loh calls it a “bottom-up conservation movement in which communities themselves take pride and ownership in conserving their cultural repositories.”6

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.

This movement is critical in times when globalisation is pushing many older cultures to the brink of extinction. Their values should be allowed to continue evolving without the threat of elimination for the sake of change.

Credits: Deep gratitude to the following for their tremendous effort and support that made re-cap.org projects possible: The management of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion; the management of Suffolk House, Penang; Assoc Prof Laurence Loh and Elizabeth Cardosa (Heritage of Malaysia Trust); Janet Pillai, Chen Yoke Pin and Kuah Li Feng (Arts-ED); Ong San San; Farhan Mahmud; Elvin Tan; Chris Leong; Melati Zamri; Ahmed Iwaz Hamdy; Mastura Mohktar; Angelyn Tan; Catherine Kong; Siti Sarah Ameera; Fairuz Sulaiman; Mohd Hafidzat Ghazali; Anwar Othman; Assoc Prof Harold Thwaites, Khairul Hazrin Hashim and Mohd Jafni Jusoh (Multimedia University); Digicap; SIG Multimedia University; Jo Yoshida and the re-cap.org team.

1. Kenneth Tan, “The Magician of Leith Street”, The Peak Magazine, February 2011 Vol.22, Issue
2. pg 66-69.2 A description from John Crawford’s journal in which he describes his visit to the House on December 11, 1812. Mentioned by Prof C. Northcote Parkinson, University Malaya, "Study on Suffolk House for Majlis Perbadanan Pulau Pinang".
3. "Suffolk House", Loh, Laurence, 2007 HSBC Bank Malaysia Berhad, Penang, pg.38.
4. "George Town - where design and culture must continue to merge", Loh, Laurence, Penang Economic Monthly, July 2011, Issue 07.11, pg.8-15.
5. "Crucial Architecture Challenge", Slessor, Catherine, Architecture Review, 2008.
6. "The Magician of Leith Street", Kenneth Tan, The Peak Magazine, February 2011, Vol. 22, Issue 2, pg.67.

A trained architect, Suzy Sulaiman has led research projects for private and non-government organisations like Heritage of Malaysia Trust, Arts-ED and National Visual Art Gallery. Her works focus on the convergence of community building, architecture and digital technology. Among others, she is the director-producer of the Digital Art + Culture festival (www.dacfestival.com), a catalytic event where technology media explores Asian heritage. She also lectures in the field of architecture theory and culture in local institutions.

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