Racing to rescue derelict heritage buildings from uncaring development

Peggy Lim strongly feels that buildings constructed in the late 19th century in Malaysia are unique and need to be preserved.

IPOH: Peggy Lim’s family has an eye for old things and anything vintage. That includes the pre-war buildings in once-thriving Ipoh Old Town.

Their appreciation for antiques led the family to acquire several abandoned heritage buildings, hoping to salvage them before they were either left to fall into further decay or torn down by profit-driven developers with scant regard for history.

It was her sister, Lim Bay Sie, on one of her return visits to Ipoh, who spotted the abandoned Bank of Malaya building.

“She mentioned it to our parents and they were interested, especially when we found out it was for sale,” said Peggy in an interview with FMT. “It was such a beautiful art-deco building, it was a terrible shame to see it in such a dreadful state.

The Bank of Malaya was the first Chinese bank in Perak. Built in 1920, it prospered along with the state during the tin mining boom. However during the great depression of the 1930s, it shut its doors. Other occupants came and went, among them the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation, but now the building lay empty and neglected.

“Given our family’s love of all things old, the chance to restore an old building like that was a dream come true.” The family got on with the job.

The building is now part of Sarang Paloh, a heritage retreat stay housed in two distinct premises. One is a typical retro Malayan Chinese shop house, once a prominent pawn shop, that was renovated around 1960, and the other is the now-restored Bank of Malaya building.

“We named it Sarang Paloh, a combination of the Malay word for nest and a Cantonese word “paloh” used by our grandmother to refer to Ipoh Old Town.

“The meaning of Sarang Paloh is also deeply rooted in our family lifestyle. Since our father travels a lot he’s always flying everywhere like a bird. This is why we have an aviary theme in our hotel and why we decided on ‘sarang’ as it’s like a temporary nest for travellers,” said Peggy.

Sarang Paloh is one of several buildings the Lim family has restored in Ipoh, including the Sepaloh Art Centre, and Lim Kopi coffee shop.

They recently embarked on a new backpacker hotel project which will likely be launched next year.

The Sarang Paloh, made up of two buildings, one a former pawnshop and another which once housed Bank of Malaya, the first Chinese bank in Perak.

“We feel that the only way to bring back the good old days of Ipoh, when the city was filled with class and sophistication, is through preserving whatever we have left today – the old buildings that marked the city’s glorious past.

Peggy recalled how her parents, growing up in poor families, tend to associate old things with the childhood memories that they treasure.

“Due to the nature of our father’s peripatetic occupation in coal and mining, my two sisters and I grew up in the jungles of Borneo and rarely saw proper buildings throughout our childhood, let alone beautiful architecture with intricate facades like these.

“When we finally moved to cities and started travelling to different parts of the world, we were wowed by all the buildings that were built in the 19th century and are still standing and treasured today.”

Peggy and her family strongly feel that buildings constructed in the late 19th century in Malaysia are unique and very cleverly designed but their beauty and potential is often not appreciated locally.

“These buildings, combining the best of both East and West, maximised airflow, space, light and other essential components to make a place comfortable to work or live in,” she said.

Peggy believes that restoration is a way to preserve the identity of Ipoh Old Town, and the stories of Ipoh natives. “Sometimes we find someone who was born or lived in the house. Their memories are priceless. These properties are little pieces of history and culture that deserve to be preserved.”

“When people are talking about history versus development, I refer them to London, and how that city is both rich in preserved heritage and yet well-developed. It’s not a contradiction in terms. Why can’t we do the same here?” implored Peggy.

She worries that Ipoh will suffer from investors betting on the appreciation of their buildings and demanding very high rents, as in Kuala Lumpur.

“Did you know that hawkers in Ipoh Old Town are being driven out because some owners of heritage buildings are charging sky high rents?” she said.

“This leaves the average Ipoh artisan struggling to survive, because the local economy and standard of living is not as strong as other major cities such as Penang or Kuala Lumpur.”

The other concern is that some owners will decide not to rent out their buildings but just demolish them and replace them with something generic and without character, as has been seen so often across the country.

“Even for the restoration work that we are doing, it’s not easy to find a perfect fit for each building. We always try to remember every restoration should benefit the locals and add value to the community.

“Typically, when we first purchase a building, many of the interiors have been ‘modernised’ with new fittings such as false ceilings.

“The air wells are covered over in order to provide more rooms for offices and many of the wooden shutters have been carved out in order to fit air-conditioning units. Most of the ingenious features of the original building are gone or hidden. So it’s difficult to know where to start.”

Heritage buildings around the world tend to be well documented, with their architectural plans and history recorded by the appropriate government bodies. But this is not the case in Ipoh.

“Without any original architectural or design plans to refer to, for us to restore them to their original grandeur we have to refer to books on old shophouses, and the memories of locals in their 80s who knew the buildings,” says Peggy.

She looks pensive. “The books we shall always have, but the personal memories are a diminishing resource, for obvious reasons. So there is definitely a sense of urgency.”