Zuhaila Sedek visits a classic kampung house in the middle of Kuala Lumpur and is awe-struck by its intricate designs and the depth of its history.
RIGHT in the middle of the many impressive and tall concrete buildings along Jalan Stonor, Kuala Lumpur, a house made of wood stands apart from the rest. With the house in the picture, the other modern structures seem to pale in comparison. Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman is truly an embodiment of traditional Malay architecture. It was originally located in Kedah, but now this 148-square-metre wooden house is a famous attraction for tourists, architects and interior designers alike.
THE OLD DAYS
Back then, Rumah Penghulu was home to a local headman named Penghulu Abu Seman Nayan. He lived in a small village called Kampung Sungai Kechil, which is part of Mukim Bagan Samak. Other members of this historical house were his two wives and children.
Abu Seman was a wealthy man who was responsible for a few villages in the district. It is important to note that he was not a ketua kampung (village head) but more like a district officer.
The house has three main sections — the Balai (office), Rumah Ibu (mother’s house) and the Dapur (kitchen). Each one of these was developed at different times.
The oldest section of the house is Rumah Ibu and it was developed around the year 1910. Originally, this section belonged to a different man named Tok Taib who was from Kampung Paya Takong. After he passed away, Abu Seman bought Tok Taib’s Rumah Ibu and moved it to Kampung Sungai Kechil in 1924. He then assembled the Dapur and Balai later.
After years of performing his duties for the people, Abu Seman passed away. His son, Penghulu Ibrahim, inherited his father’s house and continued the family’s legacy.
Unfortunately, after Ibrahim’s death, the ownership of the house fell into dispute. This is because Ibrahim didn’t have a son. As a result of the dispute, no one looked after the house and it was abandoned for more than 15 years.
Eventually, Ibrahim’s family sold the house in 1995 to Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM), the current caretaker of Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman.
RESTORING THE PAST
This sale was the first move towards restoring the house. In 1996, BWM decided to transport the house to Kuala Lumpur, next to its management building in Jalan Stonor. This was to make it easier for restoration team to work on the house . Also, the house would be a pleasant contrast to the city’s ultra modern facilities.
Funds for the restoration work came from Renong Berhad. The contractor for the project was the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. There was also a group of individuals from various industries who joined the team as volunteers in the restoration project .
When the house was first discovered, its condition was horrendous. The wood was falling apart and it was termite-infested. The team had to use a special oil to remove the termites.
Structural components (pillars and flooring) of the house comprise hardwoods like cengal and balau. The non-structural pieces such as the carving come from the dark red meranti wood. As for the roof, only 15,000 out of 31,000 tiles have been salvaged. The rest of the roof tiles had to be purchased. These tiles are made of clay and is an indication that Abu Seman was a wealthy man. The roof of an ordinary man was often made from rumbia or nipah leaves at that time.
During the dismantling process, the team found the main pillar of the home which was known as Tiang Seri. The discovery was made when the team stumbled upon a coin from the Straits Settlement that dated back in 1916 under one of the pillars. This pillar was located in the Rumah Ibu section. It’s because of the coin that the team concluded that development of Rumah Ibu took place in 1910.
“In those days, it took about five to six years to build a big house like this,” says BWM project manager Intan Syaheeda Abu Bakar.
Other restoration works included timber works, electrical wiring and landscaping. It took about a year for the restoration work to complete. In 1997, Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman was finally restored to its former splendour and glory.
Stepping inside the house, my heart raced with excitement. It is not everyday that one can set foot on a classic village house like this. Decades ago, this house must been ‘the’ house, envied by many.
“We can also tell that this house belonged to a very wealthy man by looking of the house such as the at the intricate carving work,” says Intan.
Abu Seman’s house connects both the office section and the home section together. Balai is where Abu Seman dealt with the public complaints and where he did his other work .
Intan says that a headman at that era would also act as a judge to solve disputes among members of the community.
“Sometimes, anyone who is accused of a crime will be locked up temporarily in the Balai until it is time to take him to the police station. A police station is usually located very far away and it takes time to transport the offender,” she says.
The entrance of the Balai is mainly for the public. There are three entrances at Rumah Penghulu, one for men, one for women and the other for workers.
In the the Balai, one can see the influence of both Perak and Thai craftsmanship in the carving designs.
“Bandar Baharu is located at the border of Thailand and Perak. This is why you can see the influence from these two places,” says Intan.
The Perak carving design is reflected in the criss-cross wooden lattice while the Thai influence is apparent from bird-carving motifs.
Intan explains that in Malay homes, no living things are used as a carving motifs. But in Rumah Penghulu, it is quite the opposite.
“The birds were carved in a two-dimensional style so that they don’t look like the real thing. Carving animals or people in a three-dimensional way is not allowed among the Malays,” she says.
There is also some Chinese influence seen on the carving. For one, the vase carving on the exterior facade of the house is Chinese.
“There could have been a Chinese community living in the village. This vase carving symbolises peace in the Chinese culture,” says the Penang-born Intan.
MOTHER OF THE HOUSE
As I walk away from the Balai into Rumah Ibu, I had to take take off my shoes. The smell of mosquito coils hits me slowly and every step I take, the hardwood flooring creaks and I was suddenly reminded of my grandmother’s house.
Rumah Ibu has this very soothing feeling. How can it not when it is the most important part of the house? The carvings here are extravagant with its double-layer carving feature. It’s built a level higher than the rest too.
In the old days, it was customary for mothers to look for a spot to build a house. Normally, the mother would go to her choice of location along with a shaman, bringing with them a rattan, a bucket of water and a plate.
Intan explains that the process of locating a spot for Rumah Ibu starts by the shaman reciting his incantations. Then the long rattan will be erected in the soil, roughly measuring the length of a mother’s arm span (depa). She will then place the plate underneath the bucket of water. The water and rattan will be left for a night. In the morning, she will come back with the shaman to check the condition of the rattan and water.
“If the water spills on the plate and the rattan becomes longer than one arm span, it means that the ground is good for a house. If the opposite happens, it means that the spot is a bad location to build a home,” says Intan who has been working with BWM for 10 years now.
“This test must be done so that they can know whether a land is fertile enough for planting. They also need to determine whether the land is flat so that they won’t be trapped during the flood season,” she adds.
Also, the spot where the rattan is stuck in the ground will be the spot for the Tiang Seri, which is the most important pillar in a Malay house.
Traditionally, the owner of a house will place a coin under a Tiang Seri as a form of offering to the Semangat Rumah (spirit of the house). It was believed that by doing so, the spirit will protect the house.
There are not many partitions in the Rumah Penghulu because the space in this house are meant to be utilised for a variety of reasons. It can be used for dining, praying or sleeping, among other things.
“For newly-weds and guests, temporary partitions are made using curtains,” says Intan.
Only two bedrooms are available in Rumah Penghulu. They are for the wives of Abu Seman.
In one of the bedrooms, there is a hidden attic. To enter this attic, one has to climb up the small stairs attached on the wall. The attic was used to store valuables and food, and sometimes as a hiding place.
“Young girls who are getting married will usually sleep in the attic for a night before the wedding to avoid bad omen,” Intan explains.
A lot of natural light and air come into the house through its many windows. These wooden windows work using a shutter system.
Intan says there is more than meets the eyes about these windows. Because there are many of them, the families are often required to behave well.
“This is why Malay women back then were very soft-spoken and demure. If they talked too loudly or acted roughly, the neighbours could hear and see them,” says Intan.
The architecture of the house is well-designed. For instance, the lagging roof in the Dapur was designed in such a way to allow hot air to escape when there was cooking in the kitchen.
There were also security features built-in. One instance is the steep staircase at the connector area between Rumah Ibu and Dapur. Because the womenfolk would usually be in the kitchen, a trespasser in area would not be able to make a quick getaway if detected. If anything, he might even trip and fall!
Above this staircase, a low and deep roof was built so that women would be shielded from prying eyes outside.
Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman is really one of a kind. The restoration of this beautiful structure is proof that the talent and capacity to conserve local heritage are very much alive.