A Brief History of 123 Macalister

By Au Tai Yeow

December 2021 FEATURE
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Front view of the property.

The 109.38-hectare (ha) George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) contains more than 1,700 buildings, making it the largest collection of pre-war buildings in Southeast Asia. Its buffer zone is even larger, measuring 150.04ha and containing over 2,700 buildings any further developmental proposal for which must be referred to the local authorities.

Furthermore, outside the city are over 100 privately-owned buildings listed by the State Committee for a Heritage Inventory during the early 1990s.1

One of the major roads leading out of the city is Macalister Road, named after Col. Norman Macalister, the Governor of Prince of Wales Island from 1807 to 1810. It is one of the longest roads on the Island, and is lined with angsana trees (Pterocarpus Indicus) which were planted by Charles Curtis, curator of the Penang Botanic Gardens.

As with the mansions along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (formerly Northam Road), once referred to as Millionaire’s Row, those along Macalister Road are facing persistent development pressure. Some have been listed as heritage buildings to be conserved, while others have been demolished.

First floor of the mansion with new Merbau flooring. Photo by: David ST Loh

The mansion, 123 Macalister, was originally owned by businessman, Tan Chong Keat. He previously lived at 138, Hutton Lane, in a bungalow which he purchased from a Malay jeweller, Abdul Wahab, in 1918.2 The bungalow, a Sino-Malay design that combined the pyramidal Malay house roofing with Chinese and European features, and that exhibited similar architecture features to the Syed Al-Attas Mansion that stands on Armenian Street, was constructed in 1893. Its tympanum had a crescent-and-star, and Adamesque-style fanlights at the windows. Alongside the primary quarters, it also comprised a kitchen block and a separate garage (which included the driver’s room).

When Chong Keat built 123 Macalister, it was believed that he may have used as template for design 138, Hutton Lane since there were many similarities between the two buildings. On Chong Keat’s death in 1926, the mansion was purchased by Khoo Loon Teik for 32,000 Malayan Dollars. According to Khoo’s descendants, 123 Macalister then came to be furnished with antique chandeliers, mother of pearl furniture, and antique mirror frames with Chinese wood fresco panels. Outside, in the vast gardens, fruit trees abound.

A close-up of the portico's front right facade where phoenixes and pomegranate motifs can be seen. Photo by: David ST Loh
Details on the right facade of the mansion where the durian motifs sitting atop a vase element are flanked by Corinthian capitals. Photo by: David ST Loh

In 1959, the Tang family acquired the mansion, and that family’s last occupant would remain until the early 21st century. It was then left abandoned. By 2012, the mansion had been stripped of its furniture, windows, doors and finally, its timber floorboards. When the Ooi family bought it in 2017, it more or less resembled an abandoned cathedral, sheltered only from the caprices of weather by damaged roof tiles.

Straits Eclectic Architecture

In The Penang House and the Straits Architect 1887-1941 (Areca Books, 2015), the author Jon Lim observed that “the non- European elite of the Straits Settlements made their own architectural statements in response to European displays of colonial power. The local capitalists built ostentatious mansions, combined Palladian or neoclassical idioms with a taste for Chinese symbolism and intricate embellishment in an architectural fusion sometimes called Straits Eclectic. By these forms, the Straits Chinese expressed their aspirations as modern entrepreneurs and British subjects striving for status and recognition in the global British Empire”.

123 Macalister today is replete with symbolic detailing reminiscent of wood-carving, except that they are made in lime plaster. Above the main portico, for example, are a pair of Chi-Lins guarding the place, and symbolising wisdom, prosperity, good luck and longevity; and above a keystone to the front porch, artisans had married the durian fruit with Corinthian pilasters.

Traditional Peranakan motifs that are unique to the mansion include the buah delima (pomegranate), which suggests productivity, and that is plentifully featured at traditional weddings, as well as artworks with phoenixes. The tympanum now boasts an Edwardian detail, the Rosette.

In the process of restoring 123 Macalister to its former glory, and to adapt its previous use as a home for commercial purposes, the Stoke-on-Trent tiles have been scrubbed clean and buffed; and hardwood for the timber floorboards sourced with difficulty, along with Marseilles tiles for its roof.

The present owner of 123 Macalister has thus far resisted the urge to dispose of the property, or to engage in modernisation of it. In fact, it now awaits new tenants interested in fitting it out in keeping with the cultural ambience of George Town.

123 Macalister, Pre-restoration

Photo by: Ganesh Kolandaveloo
Photo by: Ganesh Kolandaveloo
Photo by: Ganesh Kolandaveloo

Au Tai Yeow

T.Y. Au, an established architect in Penang, intends to channel his inner Bukowski and Sartre in his writings on George Town, its history and architecture.