Penang heritage temple in worse shape amid repairs

The murals at the 119-year-old Ng Fook Thong Temple in Georgetown, Penang, were plastered over with cement during the renovation works that started in May. The temple had fallen into disrepair over the years and its custodians were afraid that the wh
The murals at the 119-year-old Ng Fook Thong Temple in Georgetown, Penang, were plastered over with cement during the renovation works that started in May. The temple had fallen into disrepair over the years and its custodians were afraid that the whole structure would give away.PHOTO: GEORGE TOWN HERITAGE ACTION
The murals at the 119-year-old Ng Fook Thong Temple in Georgetown, Penang, were plastered over with cement during the renovation works that started in May. The temple had fallen into disrepair over the years and its custodians were afraid that the wh
The murals at the 119-year-old Ng Fook Thong Temple in Georgetown, Penang, were plastered over with cement during the renovation works that started in May. The temple had fallen into disrepair over the years and its custodians were afraid that the whole structure would give away.PHOTO: GEORGE TOWN HERITAGE ACTION

GEORGETOWN • An early 19th century clan temple has had its flooring hacked and murals destroyed in illegal renovation works carried out to save the building in Penang.
 

Built in 1898 by wealthy Straits- Chinese businessman Chung Keng Kwee and recorded as Malaysia's first Cantonese school, the Ng Fook Thong Temple has fallen into disrepair over the years.

Ng Fook Thong, which means Five Prosperity School in Cantonese, is among the few remaining heritage buildings in Georgetown that tell the history of early Cantonese settlers on the island.

The last time it was given a facelift was in 1901. Signs of wear and tear are apparent to visitors: Parts of the main altar are riddled with holes made by termites and the pillars holding up the roof are showing signs of rot.

When the building's inner walls started falling apart, its custodians, the United Cantonese Districts Association, decided to carry out repair works to save the building.

"We couldn't just stand by and watch it fall to pieces. So we started repairing the walls and floor in May," said the association's secretary-general Loke Hon Wah.

UNAWARE OF THE BIG PICTURE

We didn't know we were not allowed to use cement. What we were concerned about was to prevent the building from collapsing.

MR LOKE HON WAH, United Cantonese Districts Association's secretary-general, on why the renovation was not carried out in accordance with heritage guidelines.

The association, according to local media, did not know that strict conservation laws apply to the 119-year-old temple, which is a Category I heritage structure located in Chulia Street in Georgetown.

"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," Mr Loke told the Malay Mail.

In late June, George Town World Heritage Inc approached the association's committee and informed members that the repairs carried out at the building were not in accordance with heritage guidelines.

On July 3, the Penang Island City Council issued a stop-work order. By then, a portion of the flooring in the temple's main hall had been hacked and cement had been plastered on the wall.

The temple's intricate and large murals were also damaged.

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

The association did not have the funds to purchase costly materials used in heritage-restoration projects, reported The Star newspaper. It resorted to modern-day cement and steel mesh, a decision that The Star said "endangered Georgetown's Unesco World Heritage Site status".

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng visited the temple last Friday and announced a state allocation of RM200,000 (S$63,614) to the temple for the restoration work, reported The Star.

The total cost of restoring the temple is estimated to be RM2.5 million.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Penang heritage temple in worse shape amid repairs'. Print Edition | Subscribe