Laurence Loh: Raising Consciousness of Penang’s Heritage, Restoration by Restoration


THE NAME LAURENCE Loh has over the past decades become synonymous to the conservation of cultural heritage, having saved many of Penang’s dilapidated historical landmarks from ruin. He has under his extensive portfolio Suffolk House and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, where the movies Indochine and Crazy Rich Asians were filmed.

Loh trained at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, where he was taught to adopt unique design approaches and more importantly, to think outside the box and rebel against rigid systems. On his return to Penang, Loh busied himself designing new buildings. His passion for heritage conservation was still latent, but in 1984 he was “pulled” into a group hosted by Dr. Goh Ban Lee, a celebrated Penang thinker. This group, which also comprised a German conservation architect and several artists, would often gather at Goh’s residence to discuss Penang’s future.

This led Loh to mull over the question: What gives Penang its unique identity? The answer turned out to be its heritage, but how do we go about conserving it? Loh wondered. His interest was piqued. Loh had by then risen through the ranks to become Chairman of Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia’s (PAM, Malaysian Institute of Architects) Northern chapter. To raise public awareness of heritage conservation, Loh organised the state’s first International Conference on Conservation and Urban Planning in cooperation with the Penang City Council in 1986; this brought together many local and international architects, academics and urban planners.

The Purchase of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

The year 1990 proved to be a major turning point in Loh’s career. The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion had just entered the property market, but was in a serious state of disrepair.

To salvage the mansion from further decay or worse, a possible demolition, Loh and his historical researcher wife Loh-Lim Lin Lee, and a few friends decided to acquire it. “After the purchase though, I still had no idea what to do with it. I was a greenhorn in conservation practices back then,” explains Loh. But through one of Loh’s co-owners, he became acquainted with the Director of the Department of Ancient Monuments Office in Beijing, which managed heritage sites like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall of China. This director-friend, who was responsible for drafting the conservation plan, eventually made his way to Penang to guide Loh on the mansion’s restoration. The plan outlined the history of the mansion, conservation methods and the materials to be used in restoring the residence to its former glory. Later, traditional craftsmen were recruited and building materials purchased to commence work on the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.

The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion at dusk. Photo: The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Loh worked alongside the team and learned the ropes of heritage conservation practices. “During the restoration, curious passers-by would turn up at the house requesting for a tour. I’d bring them around, explaining what we were doing. People kept coming, and this inspired the organised tours we have now.” The mansion’s restoration was completed in 1995 but the construction of a block of car parks at the Continental Hotel the following year, using percussion hammer piling caused extensive damage to the building’s structure. Dismayed, Loh filed for a court injunction and managed to halt the construction temporarily. The hotel brought the case to the Court of Appeal which uplifted the injunction for 14 days and gave them leave to continue piling.

To a layman, this was a bewildering decision. Either there are legitimate grounds for an injunction or there are not. The developer managed to complete the piling works and this caused extensive cracking of the property’s walls. “I refused to step inside the mansion during that time,” Loh recalls, “it was too heartbreaking to see the damages done to it.” Loh won the case in 2012 (14 years later!), which also led to the landmark ruling: hammer piling is now prohibited in the city or next to identified heritage buildings within the George Town World Heritage Site (WHS).

Following the second round of restoration works, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion finally opened its doors to the public, this time offering homestay packages. Its successful restoration also garnered numerous international accolades, including the prestigious UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award (Most Excellent Project) in 2000. The award holds great sentimental value for Loh, “What I achieved through this project was in creating a benchmark for Penang on which everything else is based, that was both my vision and mission.”

Listen Up, Young Architects!

For those interested in becoming conservation architects, there are three pillars of heritage conservation to take seriously, says Loh. These are: understanding the place to understand its significance; always strive for excellence in quality and technicality; and sustainability and policy. “The last is also determined by how transformative a project can be in terms of effecting long-lasting changes in future policies concerning heritage conservation.” These values were developed throughout Loh’s expansive career, and drawn as well from his own experience as a jury panel member for the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

“An excellent project is one that can seamlessly combine the three pillars in its conservation. For Penang to attain the UNESCO WHS listing is just one step forward in history (Loh was a key figure in this endeavour), but the learning process never ends. Why does a conservation architect feel compelled to preserve a particular piece of heritage? This roots us back to the initial vision and mission.

“Personally, my intent of restoring the mansion was to highlight, for the first time in Penang’s history, the outstanding universal values of heritage conservation, and to get the conversation going at all levels of society on their importance so that they do not get swept away and forgotten with time. “But when that initial momentum dwindles, urban planning agencies like Think City must step in to continue discussions with the grassroots. Even today, there is still a general lack of understanding at a granular level about heritage preservation; policymakers struggle to appreciate the value of heritage,” he laments.

Income Generation vs. Heritage Conservation

To be sure, Penang has achieved remarkable success with its WHS status. Channels have opened up for a new and steady stream of income generation not only within the core heritage zone, but also its surrounding areas. Land value has likewise increased tenfold since 2008.

“It has helped Penang’s economic development tremendously,” agrees Loh. “Nowadays, a traditional shop house, which was insignificant in value before the WHS listing, can be readapted to serve a diverse range of business activities. But the local community must also shoulder the responsibility and continue to champion and push forward the economic sector to achieve newer heights.”

Of equal importance is George Town’s standard of liveability. “There is always a reason why certain cities are so popular; the liveability of a city is key in determining its popularity. Penang has a special appeal and gives its residents a sense of belonging; in fact, my son gave up a lucrative career in KL to return home. As heritage conservation Penangites enter our autumn years, it is ultimately up to the young generation to direct Penang’s future,” Loh says.

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