Suffolk House-keeping

Thanks to decades of pain staking and backbreaking work by dedicated individuals, the once dilapidated Suffolk House was saved. Its unique value was acknowledged by Unesco in 2008 with a prestigious Award of Distinction. In July 2009, Badan Warisan Heritage Services was chosen by the state government to operate the landmark as a cultural and arts centre. What can tourists and Penangites look forward to at the site in the years ahead?

Next to the Methodist Boys School stands what is destined to be one of Penang’s most renowned restored heritage buildings, Suffolk House. So named because it stands on what was part of the pepper estate belonging to the “country trader” from Suffolk, England, Captain Francis Light, its origins are still a matter of controversy.

The earliest depictions of Suffolk House that exist are from 1811. The first was a watercolour by James George, done in May 1811. In September that year, an amateur artist named James Wathen did an orange-and-blue-hued watercolour of the building and its surroundings after having dined there as a guest.

Wathen – sometimes called the island’s first tourist – described Suffolk House as “a very splendid mansion built in a mixed style of English and Indian architecture”.

Indeed, Suffolk House is today the only major Anglo-Indian mansion to be found outside India. Now saved for posterity, hopes are high that it will promote a stronger sense of history among present inhabitants of the island, and enhance the lifestyle experiences of all who come into contact with it.

Over the last 200 years, the building was altered several times. In fact, an oil painting by Captain Robert Smith from 1818 shows the building with a roof that was not there in the 1811 watercolours. This addition was apparently to rectify the unsuitability of a flat roof in the rainy tropics.

By the 1960s, it had deteriorated to a sorry state, and was sealed off in 1974. After the state acquired the ruin in 2000 from the Methodist church through a land swap, restoration was carried out by a group of enthusiasts. With some additional support from the state and through fundraising efforts by HSBC and the Penang Heritage Trust, the restoration was finally completed in 2007. It conforms closely to the architecture of the building in the early 1810s.

As icing on the cake, the Suffolk House restoration won Unesco’s highly prestigious Award of Distinction in 2008. The award was official handed over to Penang’s Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, on Oct 9, 2009.

In early December last year, Suffolk House was opened to the public by its operators, Badan Warisan Heritage Sdn Bhd. ceo Elizabeth Cardosa announced that visitors to this “historic building and its themed heritage garden can enjoy a drink or a meal in the restaurant or on the outside deck, and before leaving, pick up a little something from the gift shop.”

To get things rolling, Mark Gibson of Badan Warisan was brought in for several months to manage the place, initiate activities and adorn the rooms with appropriate furniture and decorations. Gibson, interestingly, is a graduate in English Literature from Cambridge. We spoke to him about his efforts to revitalise Suffolk House, and the amount of thought that went into every decision.

On furnishing

“Since August, things have been very intensive. For me, one of the most reward- ing things is the project to refurnish some of the rooms in the house. Imagine you were William Philips, the early governor who probably built this house. Where would you get your furniture from? There was no tradition in Penang of making European-style furniture. So, where would you go?

“You would go to India or China, or buy furniture off captains of European ships. Since Penang was considered a part of India back then, we decided that India was the best bet; we would source for furniture in India.

“An agent from India sent us hundreds of pictures to look through. We picked some, following what Laurence Loh, the restoration architect, had done with the building. He brought it back to the 1810s, but consciously retained memories of the succeeding periods. That’s how we are furnishing the rooms now, although we try to maintain some consistency in each of the rooms.

“Basically, we source for furniture styles from the 1810s to the 1850s. Those in the rooms upstairs are somewhat older than the ones downstairs. You have doors all over the place, and wall sections are not all of equal width, and so on. We have a problem getting the right sized furniture for each room. So each piece has to be handled individually. You can’t have a blanket solution.”

On activities

“When thinking of the activities we should encourage here, we think back to the 1850s. This house was the only one that had a ballroom when it was built. This was where the parties were held; ballroom upstairs, marble floor in the original dining room downstairs. So we are going to have lots of functions and events, the more the merrier. That was how the house was used, so we will continue to use it that way.

“This was also where many political decisions were made. (Stamford Raffles supposedly first discussed his plans for Singapore here.) So we want the state government to use this place for meetings, for government purposes. Dinners and meetings could be hosted here. “We have no big budget for marketing. We rely on coverage by the media, connec- tions with the MICE industry. On the corporate side, it’s likely to be local companies or multinationals based in Penang and Malaysia. We will get people from the peninsula and abroad.

“Photo shoots will also be something to have; wedding or fashion shoots Malaysian weddings, for example, can be too big for this place. Smaller European-scale weddings are fine. It’s terribly romantic here. And I don’t think it will be long before we will be approached to have films shot here. That will generate publicity and income. The place has to be self-sustaining.

“But we cannot allow those to interfere with the public activities of the house. That’s our core thing. We want this to be an inclusive cultural and civic space. It has to be open to the public, anyone who wants to come has to be able to come, and we can’t let a function take priority over that.

“We are surrounded by schools as well. We want educational programmes for children that will engage them in heritage. When they come, things will be very activity-based, not so much boring lectures. We will let them discover things; we will give them tools for discovering things. We want them actively involved, and weave lectures into activities.

“All that will take a while of course. We have to be very innovative. There is much we can draw on.

On architecture

“This house is Georgian architecture come through India, picking up certain elements along the way, including artisans and labour. So history is on the walls and the furnishings of this place, including its location of course. This place was after all built because of the spice trade. This house is an intimate part of Penang. It would be great if we had tours built on that, with visits to the spice gardens, and things like that. We may be able to collect items reflective of that trade in the future.

“We will be putting a lot of effort into the garden as well. That will attract botanical groups and get school kids interested in urban wild life. “Also, if we can rent an adjoining house, we would have the space we require to have a proper resource centre for Suffolk House. “As the furnishing comes along, we will want to attract fine art events and exhibitions as well. The furniture alone is only the skeleton; we need to put flesh on that, otherwise the place will be like a museum. The difficulty is maintaining authenticity and yet having multiple activities. For example, we had to put in glass walls because you need air-con.”

 “On a daily basis, we have the restaurant all day, pork-free. We may have the biggest bar in Penang round the back. The modern amenities are in the adjacent building where we have the toilets and the lift. Our gift shop is coming along as well.

“Our visitors have invariably been impressed with the place. If they are impressed with it now, they will defi nitely be more impressed later on.”
• Sarnia Hayes Hoyt 1991: Old Penang. Oxford University Press.
• Laurence Loh, 2007: Suffolk House. Penang: hsbc.
• Laurence Loh, 2008: “Saving Suffolk House”, pp. 8–18. In Heritage Asia, Vol. 5 No. 2, July–September.
• James Wathen, 1814: Journal of a Voyage to Madras and China. London.
• Suffolk House news release, Dec 1, 2009.

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