Living in George Town: Even Deep Roots Eventually Move

loading 30, Stewart Lane is home to (at least) three generations.

There may be an abundance of media reports on evictions and “Disney-pocalypse” in George Town, but the reality is actually much less dramatic.

30, Stewart Lane. The house has been in the family since 1954, or thereabouts. It was built much earlier of course – Stewart Lane being part of an old quarter – and was purchased by my great-grandfather to house his multiplying progeny a year after my father was born. (He was born on Leith Street, at the school quarters; my great-grandfather was a teacher at the nearby St. Xavier’s Institution.)

Today, my Second Granduncle still lives there with his children and grandchildren – all eight of them under one roof. The house has become synonymous with family gatherings, Christmas and Chinese New Year. (My Second Grandaunt, always wearing a kebaya, is a fabulous cook. When I went to chat with my uncle Nico Tan Seang Bee for this story, she was frying assam prawns for lunch. The piquant scent of cooking tamarind reminded me dearly of my own grandmother’s kitchen.)

For Seang Bee, living in George Town has many plus points: “The church is just here, as is the school, the market… Moving around is easy on foot or by bike – not so much for cars because of the limited parking space.”

It wasn’t so quiet back then, but for a long period, it was. Seang Bee misses his old neighbours. “When we were small, we played with the other kids in our neighbourhood – kalitoi, marbles, picture cards… When it flooded, us kids would jump into the floodwaters for a swim.

(Left to right) Three generations. Cecilia Kok Sweon Kee, Nico Tan Seang Bee and Cayden Tan Yu Xin.

"Given a choice, if I had millions to spare, I would redo this house and stay here. I would. But to earn that kind of money is not so easy, and between renovating this house and moving to a new place, hasslefree, I pick the latter."

“In the evenings, folks would come out of their houses to phah-khoh (chat). Your great-grandmother,” he says, pointing to a photo on the wall, “would sit at the goh kaki (five-foot way), when the sun wasn’t so hot. The neighbour opposite used to sell koay teow th’ng just outside their house, and we frequented their stall quite a bit. We used to call her koay teow soh (koay teow auntie),” Seang Bee recalls.

There’s no stopping nostalgia when it comes: “We were among the more financially comfortable families living here back then, and we had the only black-and-white TV on this street. Every time we switched it on to watch one of those Chinese series, our neighbours would come and watch too; those we didn’t know so well would stand outside and peer in through the windows. I remember those Siu Fong Fong shows – whenever it came to an emotional scene, the lights would be switched off. The moment the lights came back on, you would see red, puffy eyes all round,” Seang Bee says with a laugh.

Now, there are only a few residential houses left along Stewart Lane; a lot of the units have been converted into hotels, motels, cafes. “I think there are only four houses here that still belong to and are inhabited by the owners; the rest are commercial or rented,” Seang Bee muses.

Stewart Lane today is synonymous with tourists and backpackers looking for a watering hole. I ask Seang Bee if he finds this annoying, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. “At midnight, when the nearby pubs close, some tourists can get very rowdy, but only for the few minutes that they pass by. It usually doesn’t get too busy here, even during the day. The tourists will come, snap a few photos of the murals and leave – unlike Armenian Street, which has many shops and stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs.”

Seven Terraces is along the same row. Seang Bee remembers a time when they made and sold bright pink miku, or festive buns, there – among other traditional trades.

Houses along the row go for millions today. At 1,900 sq ft or so, we’re looking at figures above RM2mil. Two years ago, Seang Bee had actually found a buyer for the house on Stewart Lane, but because of an old council plan – presumably predating the 2008 Unesco World Heritage Site listing – to widen the road, the transaction fell through. “We managed to convince our father to sell the house, and we had actually bought a duplex near the university – it’s ready and we can move in anytime,” he says.

(Left to right) My great-great-grandparents, Por Bong Chee and Tan Teow Lim.

I ask him why he wants to move out of the Stewart Lane house, and Seang Bee replies that it was only a matter of time – even his neighbours are looking to sell as well. “I just want to have the family together – sell the house, distribute the money and still have a roof over our heads.

 “For me, I would also like to move for the sake of convenience,” he says, stressing that this is his own sentiment. “There have been a few more interested parties, but we’re still waiting for the right deal. We actually had an Australian come and look at the house, but it was too small for him and he bought a unit at Argus Lane, just behind us. It’s a bigger unit and he even built a pool behind the house!”

Having lived in George Town most of his life, he and his family have found ways of adapting modern lifestyles to an old (if somewhat rigid) setting. Parking space is the most obvious issue, and Seang Bee’s family circumvent this by parking at the back alley behind the house. “It’s true that parking space is limited, but because we stay here and our neighbours pretty much don’t have cars, we take up the back lane.”

The family's hall of fame.

Original floor tiles and one enthusiastic boy.

It can become a problem when relatives visit though – and we are many.

The surroundings have indeed become commercialised; it wasn’t residential anymore. But even before that – before the Unesco listing – things had already been quiet. Taking the example of Seven Terraces, Seang Bee says that the row of houses was in a dilapidated state, with barely anyone living there when the new owners took over for a bargain. “It was an eyesore,” he admits. “It’s a good thing that they refurbished everything.”

He continues: “Actually, much good has come out of the Unesco listing. Investors see the opportunity and come and refurbish our buildings – many of them neglected – and convert them into something nice. If you think of the Seven Streets Precinct, a lot of the houses were in ruins – real eyesores. Now, they have been refurbished and converted. Vacant, dilapidated houses are given new life. It’s a good thing – to me anyway.

“Although a lot of the buildings have been taken over by foreigners, at the same time, you need to have a lot of money to refurbish these houses. Can the locals afford it? Would they want to do it – to even do something as simple as paint the houses?

“Given a choice, if I had millions to spare, I would redo this house and stay here. I would. But to earn that kind of money is not so easy, and between renovating this house and moving to a new place, hassle-free, I pick the latter,” Seang Bee admits.

I tell him that if and when they do make the move, I am going to miss the family gatherings at the house, where hot food is always available. He confesses that Second Grandaunt is getting older and can no longer spend much time in the kitchen to cook anymore. (Festive seasons dictate cooking from sunup till midnight.)

“We have to move on. I believe in staying in a modern house, in staying in a better place,” Seang Bee says.

He continues after a heavy pause: “Of course there will be memories of this house, but all good things have to come to an end. You just have to try and remember. And take more photos.”

Julia "Bubba" Tan is deputy editor of Penang Monthly and head of the Publication and Publicity Unit at Penang Institute. She is still working on her zombie apocalypse novel.

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