Testaments of Their Times

Jubilee Clock Tower in George Town, Penang.

It is easy to tell the time today – you have it on your wrist, or in your pocket, or on your desk, or bedside. In the past, however, wristwatches and even clocks were items that were not necessarily affordable to the general public, and helping them tell the time required much greater effort on the part of the authorities. Clock towers were one of the solutions. Clock towers dating back to British Malaya dot the country.

These were built not only to tell the hour, but also as symbols of an era. In George Town, the iconic Jubilee Clock Tower stands at the roundabout intersecting Lebuh Light, Lebuh Pantai, Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah and Pesara King Edward. It was built by Chinese tycoon Cheah Chen Eok in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. At 60ft tall, each foot represented a year of Queen Victoria’s reign.

The clock tower’s Moorish influences are apparent in its horseshoe arches with rounded tops; and distinct honeycombed vaults known as murqarnas, exquisitely carved onto the inner arches.

Built at a cost of 35,000 Straits Dollars, it once stood as one of the tallest structures in George Town. The clock tower has four tiers – an octagon base followed by two tiers comprising four distinct sections furnished by elaborate windows, Victorian-style balconies and a working clock on each side. The highest tier is supported by Roman pillars and topped by a golden Moorish cupola. During the Second World War, the heavy bombings that occurred around it caused the structure to lean slightly on one side.

Moving north to Kedah, we find the clock tower in Sungai Petani. Commissioned by tycoon and philanthropist Lim Lean Teng, construction of the eponymous tower began in the early twentieth century. Its foundation stone was laid by his second wife, Madam Koid Cheng Heok, in March 1936; on three sides of the tower are bronze plaques in three languages – English, Chinese and Jawi – bearing the words, “This clock tower was presented to Sungei Patani by Lim Lean Teng Esq. J.P. to commemorate the reign of His Majesty King George V 1910-1936”.

Lim also left a lasting legacy as the founder of the Han Chiang primary and secondary schools in Penang.

Sungai Petani clock tower.

About 50km farther north, as the crow flies, is the Alor Setar Clock Tower, built in 1912. It played an important role in telling the muezzin of the neighbouring Zahir Mosque, which was built around the same time, the hour. The tower’s bells would ring, followed by the beating of gongs by royal musicians from the Nobat Tower across the street, before the muezzin in Zahir Mosque began the call to prayer.

The Alor Setar Clock Tower was built in Moorish fashion similar with the Jubilee Clock Tower, with its horseshoe arches and honeycombed murqarnas. Topping the structure is a cupola dome adorned with a crescent moon. Together with the majestic Zahir Mosque, they are fine examples of Islamic architecture in South-east Asia.

Today, these clock towers stand proudly as testaments to the ingenuity of the architects and engineers of the era, as well as monuments of their times. Now, how many colonialera clock towers do you know, apart from these three?

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