PENANG’S capital, the port city of George Town, is a Unesco World Heritage Site, reflecting its rich history, vernacular architecture and multiculturalism. To celebrate the distinctive structural designs of Penang’s heritage homes, writer Khoo Salmah Nasution embarked on Heritage Houses of Penang. The book illustrates the architectural style and history of the state’s period mansions, bungalows, townhouses and terraced dwelling houses, as well as the lifestyles within, through the work of award-winning photographer Halim Berbar.
Salmah, a fifth-generation Baba Nyonya, commenced work on Heritage Houses of Penang in 2004, but has also written other books on Penang. “When I first began writing about Penang [in 1989], its heritage architecture was very much ignored. The houses were mostly under rent control and occupied by working-class families who regarded them as ‘old houses’ requiring constant repair,” she tells The Nut Graph.
“It was this Straits architecture that inspired me to learn more about the history of the city. Penang must have been very prosperous to put up such glorious buildings. What was the source of this wealth? Why is the city in such decline now? No one could give me the answers. It was like looking for a ‘lost civilization’.”
Through Heritage Houses of Penang and Berbar’s photos, Salmah hopes to shed further light on her questions, as well as promote what she calls the “artwork” of the state locally and internationally.
“Now art is only apparently meant for museums and private collections, but at one time, architecture and decorative arts were a kind of public art. It is everywhere around us; we only need to learn to see it,” she says.
Berbar’s photos also capture Penang’s appeal outside of George Town, from beaches to modern infrastructure to community life.
Heritage Houses of Penang is published by Marshall Cavendish Editions, and was launched at the Penang Traders Hotel Corporate Social Responsibility Fair on 17 June 2010. It is available at major retailers such as Times and MPH as well as at tourist outlets in Penang, and is priced at RM86.
All photos are by Halim Berbar, and caption information is courtesy of him.