One year on, Sia Boey’s historic shophouses remain in shambles

What’s left of the shophouses next to Sia Boey located just across the George Town World Heritage Site.

GEORGE TOWN: A row of shophouses significant to Penang’s past at the Sia Boey Market site appears to be on the brink of collapse, despite assurances to restore them back in 2015.

In the early 19th century, Prangin Canal and the Sia Boey Market were best known to locals here as a meeting place where the community converged for trade, marketing, eating, entertainment and commutes.

The canal also served as a waterway that brought goods from the harbour to the market through tongkangs and perahus.

After many years of service, the canal was turned into a covered monsoon drain due to a town development plan conceptualised in the 1980s and 1990s, as part of the Komtar development.

An aerial view of the shophouses which appear to be in ruins.

The Victorian-era Sia Boey market, once a thriving centre, was cleared out in 2004 and the whole area cordoned off.

The traders were relocated to Macallum Street.

Besides the shophouses, the fate of the once famous canal now hangs in the balance despite a surprise find of an old police barracks and ceramics from the early 19th century there last year.

Recent checks through the “peephole” cutouts at hoardings put up by the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) around the area showed the 24 shophouses in a sad state. State agency PDC currently owns the site.

Despite withstanding the sands of time, the shophouses appear to be on their last legs.

Metal scaffolding placed to protect the remains of the shophouses from crumbling.

The once vibrant shophouses, which housed wholesalers and other businesses, are crumbling and most of them appear to be left with just structural beams.

Earlier this year, one of the shophouses collapsed due to excessive vegetation growth. Fig trees are seen growing inside some shophouses. Evidence of earlier collapses were also visible even to the untrained eye.

The excavated canal, where construction workers found artefacts from the 1800s, appears to be overgrown with grass.

The granite-walled canal appears to be overgrown with vegetation.

Heritage activists unhappy

In response to the latest state of Sia Boey and its surroundings, local heritage activist Clement Liang said it was saddening to see the shophouses in their current state.

“While the Prangin canal is under an archaeological preservation order, it is sad to see the old shophouses abandoned and dilapidated.

“Not only have they become an eyesore, it is a bad testimony to George Town’s efforts to preserve its dwindling number of old shophouses,” Liang, who is Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) council member, said.

City councillor and PHT vice-president Khoo Salma Nasution hoped the authorities will reveal what will take place at the site now.

“As the site has a lot of social significance and relevance to George Town’s World Heritage Site status, we hope the latest plans for the site will be made known and public views sought,” she said.

George Town Heritage Action group co-founder Mark Lay said the longer the authorities took to rebuild the shophouses and the surroundings, it might get more difficult to restore them.

“We are hoping that restoration works under the guidance of trained conservators would commence soon,” he told FMT.

Lay said George Town and Penang should have a proper heritage conservation management plan put in place so that buildings such as the ones next to the Sia Boey Market can be restored.

Shophouses cleared out in the 1970s

The shophouses and the Sia Boey Market were cleared out in the 1970s as part of the larger Komtar Phase 5 “urban renewal project”.

The wedge shape of the Sia Boey site is also known as Phase 5 of the Komtar masterplan.

A picture postcard from the late 1920s of the Prangin Canal area as a transport hub. (Courtesy: Visions of Penang).

The first phase was the Komtar tower, followed by the rolling out of subsequent phases, comprising a five-star hotel and two shopping malls.

A high-density commercial development was planned for the 1990s but never took off.

In late 2010, the Penang Development Corporation (PDC), which owns the land on behalf of the state, had plans to conserve the area.

An urban park was to be built and the historic canal at the market site was supposed to be brought back to life by rehabilitating its waters.

In September 2015, the Penang government even announced the conservation of a section of the Prangin Canal, the Victorian-era market and a row of shophouses facing the canal.

The RM100 million project, entitled “Sia Boey Reborn”, was intended to transform the area into a Penang Heritage Arts District.

An artist’s impression of the now-abandoned Sia Boey Reborn project.

A private gallery art museum called Ilham Penang was supposed to have opened there as well. Had it been built, Ilham Penang would have been the largest private art museum in the country.

The PDC was reported to have spent several million ringgit rehabilitating the 5.5-acre site, building a new drain diversion and strengthening the structure of the shophouses.

However, barely six months later, the Penang government appears to have scrapped the “Sia Boey Reborn” project. The heritage arts project was moved instead to a vacant lot at Macallum Street Ghaut.

The state government next announced it would build a rail terminal at the Sia Boey site, with an LRT line and two monorail lines converging there, as part of the proposed Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).

Construction workers find coins, Chinese ceramics at canal

Then, last August, archaeologists discovered an older canal and the remains of an old police station dating back to the mid-19th century at Sia Boey.

A secure wall, a canal lock and building built with red brick and mortar showed up. They were most likely built by the British East India Company in 1804.

Further digging also revealed Chinese and European ceramic shards, other ceramics, a wooden bollard (block) and old coins minted by the British North Borneo Company.

The revelation came following five months’ of excavation work by Universiti Sains Malaysia, contracted by the PDC. The National Heritage Department issued a stop order until archaeological excavation was completed.

A before and after comparison of Sia Boey, which means ‘settlement tail-end’ in Hokkien, also known as Ujung Pasir to the Malays.

A report on the excavation was supposed to be made public in November last year but nothing has come out of it.

The site’s managers, George Town World Heritage Inc (GTWHI), were supposed to reveal their heritage management plans then.

In March this year, following a complaint letter to Unesco sent by the Penang Forum, an NGO, it was reported that Sia Boey and the famous canal would be spared from an LRT and monorail terminus project.

The new terminal was then repositioned not far off from the shophouses facing Magazine Road, where an open car park is currently operating. This new terminal will house the last stop for the proposed LRT line. The earlier two monorail lines were axed.

Work will go on, promises agency

Sia Boey’s site owner, PDC, said the shophouses are currently being “propped up” and will be restored soon.

PDC general manager Rosli Jaafar told FMT the shophouses had been detected to have weak walls and this problem had been attended to immediately.

Meanwhile, state heritage agency GTWHI said Sia Boey’s restoration plans were still on track and they were awaiting approval from the stakeholders.

A spokesperson from the agency said it had completed an integrated plan on the project and was collating feedback from the stakeholders.