Today is Chap Goh Meh, which is also the last day of the 15-day Chinese New Year celebration.
Just like in past years, the lunar new year celebration in Penang this year was a grand affair, with numerous open houses thrown by politicians from both sides of the divide.
There was also the 109th Jade Emperor’s birthday celebration at the Chew Jetty, an annual event celebrated with much pomp and splendour.
The air of festivity was, however, marred by dissension after an old abandoned colonial heritage hotel along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah was partially demolished by its landowners, much to the chagrin of heritage activists who had called for it to be restored.
The Runnymede Hotel, believed to be close to 200 years old, was the former home of the Penang governor’s assistant secretary, Sir Stamford Raffles.
The buildings, that predate the 1800s and endured bombings by the Japanese during World War 2, were once considered the most luxurious hotel East of Suez.
The land has been earmarked for a five-star hotel and mixed development project. Checks on the e-Local Government One Stop Centre (OSC) portal showed the landowners had applied to build a 31-storey, 180-room hotel tower, a 12-storey commercial and office tower and a 61-storey apartment block.
Although the Runnymede Hotel does not fall under specifications set by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), heritage activists were nevertheless up in arms over its partial demolition, especially so with George Town’s recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
What baffles them even more was the hush-hush manner which the demolition took place, being the second day of the lunar new year.
Members of local heritage-interest group Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) were of the opinion that the building could have been restored and turned into a heritage icon. They also argued that the local authorities should have consulted the public and local heritage campaigners before taking down such historical structures.
Historian Marcus Langdon regarded the authorities’ decision to allow the Runnymede Hotel’s adjacent buildings to be demolished as “callous and disappointing”, which smacked of nonchalance.
“It was the last example of Raffles’ home in Asia and had great importance to the people of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. A lot of people around the world are watching this. It is disappointing to know that the authorities gave permission to have the building demolished.”
Following that, the usual blame game and finger-pointing set in.
The state government had maintained that the demolition of the buildings was done in accordance with planning permission given to the landowners in 1999.
Part of the planning approval was to preserve the Runnymede Hotel, which is the main three-storey building. The others have been allowed to be demolished.
Based on the Town and Country Planning Act 1976, the planning permission did not lapse, since one of the components of the project, the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) building, had taken place.
As far as Penang Barisan Nasional chairman Teng Chang Yeow is concerned, it would have been impossible for the Runnymede to be legally demolished using permits that were first approved 17 years ago under the previous government.
The policy of the local authority then clearly stated that planning permissions needed to be renewed annually and were only valid for 10 years.
For a start, Penangites are demanding to know if the demolition is legal. Is an approval still valid after 17 years? It would be good if an independent authority could enlighten us on the matter.
It is true that the Runnymede Hotel does not fall under specifications set by Unesco, but the people are questioning the need to demolish the building when it could have been restored and turned into a heritage icon.
After all, it is the only one standing in Asia. Shouldn’t we all be extra proud of it? Please don’t tell us not to be “emotional” over the demolition.
Over the years, Penang has seen the demolition of several of its heritage structures. Among them was a double-storey bungalow at No. 20 Lebuhraya Pykett, which was demolished to make way for a high-rise project. Public outcry following the incident led to the developers being slapped with a stop-work order and a RM6,000 fine for the illegal demolition.
Many may have forgotten how the Metropole Hotel, formerly Asdang House, one of Penang’s most prominent historical-heritage buildings, was reduced to rubble on Christmas 1993. They only found out that the building had an interesting history after its demolition. Built at the turn of the century, it belonged to the Khaw (Na Ranong) clan. It was here that receptions were held for the king and queen of Thailand. Members of the Thai royal family also stayed at Asdang House.
There have been repeated calls for the state to carry out a heritage inventory, aimed at protecting heritage buildings in the state. Whether or not it will serve any purpose is left to be seen. Not that the conservation list did any good with the recent demolition.
Being in power, the DAP-led state government must prove to the people that it has the political will to protect heritage buildings in the state from being demolished. Blaming the previous administration for its own shortcomings only shows its lack of competence.
Penang’s journey to getting the World Heritage Site status and the listing of its great cultural townscape represents the culmination of efforts starting in 1996.
At the very least, the previous BN state government had left behind a priceless legacy for Penangites. It is for the current administration to safeguard this status, come what may.
Audrey Dermawan is NST's Penang bureau chief. She enjoys the sun, the sea and the sand, from which she draws her inspiration