How would a heritage building help one appreciate the progress of Malaysia as well as its history? I had a chance to visit a penghulu‘s house built in 1930s that was originally located in Kampung Sungai Kechil, a small village in Kedah.
Thanks to Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), established in 1983 to conserve, preserve and promote Malaysia’s built heritage, I don‘t have to go far. Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman, a traditional Malay house built in the mid 20s and was completed in the 30s is now right here in Jalan Stonor, Kuala Lumpur.
“It is part of the tradition of the penghulu to leave both the title and the house to their sons,” explained Intan Syaheeda Abu Bakar, the Project Manager of this NGO. However, Penghulu Abu Seman’s son, Penghulu Ibrahim, did not have a son to inherit the house or the title.
The house was left vacant in 1980s, and after 15 years, BWM acquired it and moved it more than 300km from its original location in Kedah to Kuala Lumpur. When I asked Intan how they moved a building over such a long distance, she replied, “Every single single panel was numbered before the structure was dismantled.”
The movers then transported all the panels and reassembled everything successfully. “The process of disassembling took only seven days, but the process of reassembling the whole architectural marvel took a year,” added Intan.
On touring this very special traditional Malaysian heritage home, I was filled with awe. The house was made of wood with wood carvings, and it still had its original floor panels. I was taken through each section of the house while Intan explained the use of each room.
As we entered the house, we saw the Balai, which is a room with a veranda that is used as an office by the Penghulu. According to Intan, Balai is usually used for meetings and is also a place for villagers to resolve administrative matters. But sometimes the Bilik Penghulu, which is in the Balai is used as a temporary lock-up for criminals waiting for the police.
Next, we entered the Rumah Ibu. A beautiful wooden staircase connects the Balai to Rumah Ibu. This part of the house is designed to be the highest area from the ground, and it is used for public functions such as weddings and for entertaining special guests. Inside the Rumah Ibu, one can find the main pillar, known in Malay society as the Tiang Seri. In the Rumah Ibu, there are two bedrooms. Entrances to both bedrooms have fretwork archways. Framed above each archway is a coloured carving of two birds.
According to Intan, during the restoration process, they found a 1916 Straits Settlement coin which had been placed underneath the Tiang Seri. Why? It works as a time capsule, which means the house is almost 100 years old, and it supposedly brings fortune to the house and keeps bad spirits away. However, when the house was located in its new setting, they did not return the coin to the same place, because of the septic line which ran under this area. So they placed the coin under the opposite pillar and added a 1996 Malaysian coin to mark the year the house was restored.
Then, we have the Rumah Ibu. Between the Rumah Ibu and the Rumah Tengah, there is a walkway called the Selang. The Rumah Tengah is a working area where women do their sewing and care for their children. It is also used as a dining area.
Finally, we reached the kitchen. The house also has another kitchen outside the house. When there’s kenduri-kendara, all the cooking is done here by the village men.
The house tour definitely helped me appreciate the progress of Malaysia as well as its history, and Intan supported it by saying, “With the entire heritage building restored, the younger generations can make a comparison to learn from the past.”
During Kuala Lumpur Open Day, the public can visit other public and private heritage buildings which are usually not open for visits such as the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Headquarters, the Rubber Research Institute and others.
As the consultant for the physical conservation and management of heritage sites, the Malaysian Heritage Trust has contributed a lot to ensure the historical sites of Malaysia are not forgotten. As George Santayana once said,
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
By Keshav Vinayagar
16, Kuala Lumpur