A Venue for a Culture City

loading Dewan Sri Pinang

But to fly higher, Dewan Sri Pinang will need some wind beneath her wings. 

Since 1972, Dewan Sri Pinang has stood as a monument of modernist architecture along Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah. It has acted as host to almost everything – from conferral of state titles to funerals of public figures; from international theatre productions to wedding dinners.

The 45-year-old building stands on grounds once owned by one of Penang’s famous families: the Khaws. Khaw Soo Cheang, the family patriarch, arrived in Penang in the 1810’s with nothing to his name. Starting out as a vegetable farmer, he later moved to southern Thailand to open a trading shop.

As the family grew in wealth and stature, Soo Cheang became governor of Ranong in 1854. His sons also held positions as governors in Ranong, Kraburi, Langsuan, Trang and Kra. Khaw Sim Bee, superintendent commissioner of Monkthon Phuket, was one of the more notable administrators. When he was shot by a gunman in Thailand, he was rushed to Penang’s General Hospital but could not be saved.

The Khaw Empire included plantations and tin mines in Thailand, and international trading and tin smelting in Penang. To enhance Siam’s prestige, the Khaw family donated a football-sized field to the people of Penang for recreational purposes. The field was called Ranong Ground, and Dewan Sri Pinang now stands here.

A Venue for All Purposes

First funded by the Queen’s Hall Fund, Sir Henry Gurney Memorial Fund and Merdeka Celebration Fund, the Dewan Sri Pinang as it stands today consists of an auditorium, function rooms, dining areas, a foyer and an examination hall. Original plans included balconies within the auditorium and a grander foyer.

It was commissioned and built in time to host the Pacific Area Travel Association (Pata) Conference in 1972. PATA is a not-for-profit association developing travel and tourism to, from and within the Asia Pacific region. This conference set in motion the rise of tourism development within Malaysia, leading to the creation of the Tourism Development Corporation and the completion of the National Tourism Master plan in 1975, thus helping to diversify the country’s economy.

Khaw Family Tree.

Constructed by the Public Works Department, Dewan Sri Pinang slowly took over the role as cultural provider from the neighbouring Town Hall, which used to stage performances largely attended by English-educated, middle-class urbanites. Town Hall even carried the Hokkien nickname “ang mo kong kuan” (European Club), given by locals who felt alienated by its elitism.

Dewan Sri Pinang still retains its official air from its early days. One of its main functions is to host the annual ceremony for the conferral of state titles by the governor. Its other frequent users include the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) and the George Town Festival, which stages highlight shows by internationally renowned companies there.

It also hosts seminars, civil servant examinations and – most popularly – weddings. The hall remains open for use to the public; all one needs to do is place a booking and wait for approval from the building’s management.

The Dewan sometimes also functions as a venue for state funerals of Penang’s prominent public figures such as Penang’s second chief minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, and DAP Chairman Karpal Singh.

The Hall’s Dedicated Caretakers

Behind the bright lights of the shows and ceremonies that take place at the Dewan, Mida Mydin and Ahmad Junior silently keep order, working with event organisers so things run smoothly.

Mydin, 57, has been working at the Dewan since 1986. As a general helper, he hasn’t lost his love for the job. To him, every day is different, and a regular morning is often followed by an afternoon with novel demands – such is the nature of running a space that plays host to such a variety of events.

Dewan Sri Pinang still retains its official air from its early days. One of its main functions is to host the annual ceremony for the conferral of state titles by the governor.

This leads to one of the biggest challenges that the management faces: training and retaining talent. Mydin finds that many graduates who apply to join the team at Dewan Sri Pinang normally have no experience dealing with sound and lighting equipment. And even if they are trained in stage management, they may find the hall’s equipment quite alien. So people like Mydin are often tasked to train them, only to see them leave for various reasons.

He looks to Ahmad Junior, and teases with a tinge of resignation about the possibility of being transferred once Ahmad is promoted. Ahmad has been working at the Dewan as assistant engineer since 2004 and has high hopes for the old place. His personal goal is for the hall to gain world recognition. He realises, though, that this takes more than marketing strategy as the hall’s facilities first need to be upgraded to international standards.

This year, the goal is to have the carpeting changed and the lighting and sound systems in the auditorium modernised. These plans, however, are all pending approval.

Areas of Improvement

Mida Mydin and Ahmad Junior.

Datin Seri Irene Yeap.

Datin Seri Irene Yeap has been the chairperson of the PPO since 2009. She acknowledges that the hall was built for multi-purpose use and is thus not suited for classical music performances. The PPO currently does perform there, but not onstage. Rather, they play in the area in front of the stage so that they are level with the audience, which creates a more intimate setting. PPO concerts typically attract around 400-500 spectators, and the hall seats up to 1,180.

Yeap lists a few areas in which she hopes there can be improvement – mainly the acoustics and accessibility of the space – for both show organisers and audiences. Using their own funds, the PPO have brought in their own timber floorboards and side panels to achieve the desired acoustics. Yeap suggests that either the carpeting be removed or, ideally, a smaller concert hall be added to the compound.

The accessibility of Dewan Sri Pinang has been called into question not only by Yeap, but also by others who have experienced first-hand the facilities of the building. There are no lifts in the hall and the ramps that wheelchair users are supposed to use to get to the auditorium are “too long and too steep,” notes K. A. Tan, a wheelchair user who blogs at Wheelchair Access Penang.

A Penang Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Dewan.

Even organisers struggle with the set-up because of the non-existence of lifts. The only way to transport sets or equipment onto the stage is by erecting ramps up which everything is then pushed into place.

Be that as it may, Yeap thinks that it is not impossible to get onto the international classical music circuit; orchestras playing at the better-known concert halls in Thailand (Prince Mahidol Hall), Singapore (The Esplanade) and KL (Petronas Filharmonik Hall) could easily drop by Penang as part of their itinerary. However, for that to happen, Dewan Sri Pinang’s facilities must be of a certain minimum standard. Yeap believes that if Penang were to position itself as an international arts hub, then its facilities need be up to par: “We have the so ware – in the past, we have produced talent such as P. Ramlee and Jimmy Boyle. Now it is time for our hardware to catch up.”

Adeline Chua is a writer and educator. She has trained her keen eye on local curiosities, documenting cultures in word and image as they form, converge or disintegrate. Find more of her work at adelinechua.contently.com.

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