Penang’s iconic town hall in sorry state

Sad state of affairs on the ground floor of the Penang Town Hall, a premier social gathering venue during the colonial era.

GEORGE TOWN: The iconic town hall building at the Esplanade grounds here is in a sorry state of disrepair, with signs the 140-year-old building may be teetering on the brink of ruin.

The inside of the two-storey building, built in 1879, shows cracks, exposed bricks, peeled-off lime plaster, moss growing on the ceiling due to extensive leaks and worse yet, a ground floor filled with mostly rainwater and scattered, unwanted furniture.

A concerned film crew worker who chanced upon the building alerted FMT to the dilapidation taking place. The man, who did not want to be named, said the building had appeared to have been closed to the public but was opened due to filming in the area. The street is closed to general traffic.

Penang Heritage Trust vice-president Khoo Salma said the sad state of affairs at the building appeared to show the misplaced priorities of the authorities.

She said more resources appeared to be spent by the state government and Penang Island City Council (MBPP) on celebrating its Unesco World Heritage status rather than protecting it. She was referring to Penang’s annual George Town World Heritage celebration.

“If heritage is not protected, soon there will be little to celebrate,” she told FMT.

A memorial tablet for the late architect Captain William Innes, who designed the Town Hall, is seen on the ground floor. He died at the Pasir Salak stockade in 1875 while following troops there after the murder of Perak resident JWW Birch.

“After 10 years of World Heritage Listing, the authorities should already understand how to build capacity among their staff to maintain their own heritage buildings.

“We are alarmed by the state of the Penang town hall building. The building lacks maintenance in terms of roof repair and protection from water damage. Inappropriate cement repairs have also been earlier noted.

“Once repaired, the town hall should be more actively used by the public. I suggest that the MBPP get some suggestions from the public and social and cultural groups about how to keep the town hall in good, constant and appropriate use.”

The town hall used to be the seat of the Municipal Commission of George Town, the predecessor to the present MBPP, before moving to the City Hall next door in 1903.

The City Hall, immediately next door, is the headquarters of the MBPP and is in use until today.

The town hall building has been categorised as a Grade 1 historic monument under the Antiquities Act 1976.

The town hall was the de facto place for many occasions during the British era. It contains an assembly hall, ballroom and library and was the premier social venue for the town’s elite.

The locals referred to it as “Ang Mo Kong Kuan”, which was Hokkien for European Club. In 1999, it was used as the set for the movie, Anna and the King.

According to PHT, an original ceiling fan was still in use. In 1890, the entrance hall was enlarged and four more rooms were added.

It was last restored in 2004 at a cost of RM4.5 million with past extensions and renovations done in 1890, 1903, 1938 and 1991, PHT added.

The building was completed in May 1880. It was officially opened on July 28 that year at a cost of 35,000 Spanish dollars.

It was built by military engineers of the British Army and designed by Captain William Innes, who died at the Pasir Salak stockade in 1875 while following troops there after the murder of Perak resident JWW Birch.

Last November, a granite foundation stone appeared to have been painted over in paint by the authorities, which was later removed following an outcry from heritage activists.

MBPP mayor Yew Tung Seang said the council will call a tender in August to repair the building.

“The dilapidation report has been done. We are preparing tender drawings and documents before calling the tender,” he said.