Renovations to 119-year-old Chinese temple in Penang's Georgetown cause more damage

The interior of Ng Fook Thong Temple in Penang. A stop-work order has halted the illegal renovation works at the heritage building. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/LIM GUAN ENG
The 119-year-old Ng Fook Thong Temple in Penang is a Category I heritage structure. Strict conservation laws apply to any repairs carried out at the building.

GEORGETOWN: In a desperate bid to save the century-old Ng Fook Thong Temple, its custodians end up doing more harm than good to the heritage building.

When the building's inner walls began falling apart by the slabs, the United Cantonese Districts Association tried to fix the damage with what little funds they had. They used modern-day cement and steel mesh instead of the more expensive materials required for heritage restoration works, reported The Star newspaper.

The illegal renovation which started in May ended up damaging the 119-year-old temple's antique murals and flooring. Gone was the grand mural at the main ancestral hall of the temple.

The association's secretary-general Loke Hon Wah said the body thought it was all right to do internal repair works to the temple, not knowing that they had to abide by strict conservation laws.

The building is a Category I heritage structure located within Georgetown's Unesco World Heritage site.

"We couldn't just do nothing. The roof was leaking badly, roots of small trees growing off the outside walls were breaking the walls.

"The building is in a very bad condition, the ground is caving in, the main pillars holding up the roof are rotting, there are holes in the floor, in the walls and we are so worried the whole building might just collapse on us."

"We can't just stand by and watch it fall to pieces so we started repairing the walls and floor in May," he said, adding that his association lacks the funds to fully restore the building in Chulia Street.

In late June, George Town World Heritage Inc approached the association committee and informed them that their repair methods were not in accordance with the heritage guidelines. On July 3, the Penang Island City Council issued a stop-work order notice to the association.

By then, a portion of the flooring at the main hall has been hacked and cement has been used to plaster on the wall.

"We didn't know we are not allowed to use cement, what we were concerned about was to prevent the building from collapsing so we do what we can," Mr Loke told Malay Mail.

Ng Fook Thong means Five Prosperity School in Cantonese, and it is the few remaining heritage buildings in Georgetown that tell the history of early Cantonese settlers in the island in the 1800s. It was built in 1898 by Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee and is recorded as the first Cantonese school in Malaysia.

The school also became the clan house and ancestral hall for all Cantonese settlers.

On Facebook, local heritage conservation NGO George Town Heritage Action, exposed the illegal renovations and posted photos of the temple's intricate and large murals that have been destroyed.

Mr Loke, however, stressed that the photos were taken 10 years ago.

He said some heritage activists did not bother to offer him help or advice on how to restore the building, and yet publicly berated the association for doing it wrongly on social media.

"Don't criticise us without talking to us. If they are heritage experts, they should offer advice and help us instead of criticising us and blaming us for destroying the building when that was never our intention," he told Malay Mail.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng visited the temple on Friday (July 21) and announced a state allocation of RM200,000 (S$63,560) to the temple for the restoration work, reported The Star.

Also present were state exco member Chow Kon Yeow and Lim's political secretary Wong Hon Wai.

Lim lashed out at "allegations by certain individuals or groups who attacked the association's attempt at restoration".

"Don't just talk and criticise and not follow up with concrete action...If you are serious about restoration, please donate to the conservation fund to help buildings like this," said Lim.

The total estimated cost of restoring the temple is RM 2.5million .

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.