House by house,
one man is trying to save the rich architectural and cultural heritage of
A GUY has been buying
old wooden Malay houses from all over Terengganu for about RM10,000 each.
He dismantles them, and then reassembles them into a boutique beach
And then he will
charge tourists a few hundred ringgit for one night’s accommodation. Who
says heritage does not make ringgit and sense?
passionate about preserving the heritage of his home state rather
than allowing it to be bought up by foreigners and taken out of the
This is Terrapuri, a project
by Alex Lee, the boss of Ping Anchorage (go to www. pinganchorage.com.my),
one of Terengganu’s largest tourism operators.
“Conserving heritage buildings
is like buying antiques. It may look like junk now, but its value will
soar later,” he says.
And in Penarik, about 90
minutes north of Kuala Terengganu, he is assembling his dream project,
plank by plank. When completed later this year, it will feature 28 antique
(between 100 to 200 years old) Malay houses in refurbished splendour and
reassigned luxurious roles as a spa, an art gallery, a beach club,
residential suites, and a Malay fine dining restaurant.
Even by Terengganu’s high
standards, the project sits on a breathtakingly beautiful site: a narrow
spit of land flanked by the South China Sea on one side and an inland sea
with mangroves and nipah palms on the other.
By day, coconut trees sway
amidst sea breezes and three of the state’s top island attractions –
Redang, Perhentian and Lang Tengah – shimmer invitingly just offshore in
emerald iridescence. By night, fireflies flash about while, in different
seasons, ocean-going green turtles and fresh water river terrapins lay
their eggs on their respective sandy shores.
As if this symbiosis of
architectural and ecological heritage is not rich enough, there will be
artistic pedigree thrown in too: Chang Fee Ming, renowned for his luminous
watercolours of traditional Terengganu villages and a personal friend of
Lee, may have found the perfect setting for several of his artworks here –
which will adorn the antique wooden walls of Terrapuri.
preserved: One of the many old houses that Alex Lee bought,
dismantled, and rebuilt as part of Terrapuri resort at Penarik,
Terengganu. – Photos by BRIAN MOH / The Star
(Chang’s latest KL exhibition,
Mekong: Exploring the Source, was featured in StarMag’s
Arts pages last week in An epic journey, captured.)
Lee’s amazing journey began
over 20 years ago when he used plywood partitions in his grandparents’
wooden shop at Marang, Terengganu, to create a backpackers guesthouse.
“I learnt about the importance
of heritage from my guests,” he recalls.
Over the years, he has been
buying up not only old houses but also everything inside them – from
highly ornate quail traps and boat prows to coconut scrapers and cookie
“Often people in the kampungs
would just throw these old wooden things underneath their houses where
they slowly rot away,” he says.
But what is not valued by
locals is prized by Mat Sallehs: Lee reveals that antique brokers have
been coming to buy up these artefacts on the cheap before shipping them
off to Singapore and Europe.
Ismail (right) and his brother Abdul Rahim fill in any gaps in the
restored old houses with new carvings.
“After all, one of the world’s
best collection of antique keris is not in Malaysia or Indonesia but in
Holland,” he notes. “When I buy up the old houses, I tell the owners that
the houses will still be in Terengganu, and they can still see them if
A big obstacle to heritage
conservation is the local mindset that looks up to all things foreign
while scoffing at what’s ours. Old wooden houses, for instance, are seen
as a symbol of backwardness and poverty, not as possible antiques.
“Some wooden houses have been
chopped up and modified with concrete renovations. Often people will say,
‘susah (difficult) to maintain’, yet in Sweden, they can maintain
not only 600-year-old timber houses but also whole wooden towns. Our
houses are only 200 years old! So why can’t we?” says Lee.
One hard lesson was the
tearing down of Marang old town (20km south of Kuala Terengganu)
comprising wooden shops, including Marang Inn, Lee’s original backpackers’
“In the early 1990s, a kind of
backpackers haven developed there. Eric Tho (the batik fashion exponent)
started here, too, and he had roaring sales. And there was good business
for food hawkers and souvenir stalls,” Lee says.
However, when the then State
Government saw the prospect for tourism, they decided to “clean up” the
town by revoking the shops’ Temporary Occupation License land titles,
demolishing the “old, ugly” wooden shops, and building “nice, modern”
“Overnight, tourism in Marang
was killed. When the heritage charm there was gone, the backpackers
stopped going there,” recalls Lee.
Examples of this mindset can
be seen even in urban landscaping where Municipal Councils plant
expensive, non-native date palms, or worse, plastic palm “trees”!
concrete mosque was built so all that remains of the old mosque at
Penarik is this pile of cengal wood planks.
“That’s not our culture. We
should plant and admire our local trees,” Lee stresses. “To promote
heritage, the mindset has to change.”
While Lee and his staff were
handling tour groups across the whole of Terengganu, they were also
scouting out antique houses.
“I bought the first unit in
1990,” he says.
Some of the houses were in
excellent condition. Others were partially decayed, and he had to restore
them with, as far as possible, old cengal wood.
“I also bought houses which
were half-decayed for use as spare parts. Old cengal wood is very lasting
and superior to new cengal wood which comes from less mature trees,” he
It’s not just endurance that’s
embedded in the wood, it’s a whole cultural history. The book Spirit of
Wood: The Art of Malay Woodcarving by Dr Farish A. Noor and Eddin Khoo
(ISBN: 978-0794601034), has postulated that Terengganu is heir to the rich
cultural legacy of the ancient Langkasuka kingdom (2nd to the 16th century
CE, which may have been located on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia)
and thereafter the Sultanate of Pattani.
Lee adds that the Terengganu
Malays have also long had links with (and possibly originated from) the
ancient civilisations of Champa in central Vietnam and Cambodia, and that
many renowned traditional Malay art forms, including wayang kulit and
dances like Mak Yong and Menora, hail from this area.
And, of course, this fertile
cultural milieu shows up in the houses. According to Lee’s research, the
Terengganu traditional house known as rumah bujang berserambi,
(stand-alone house with veranda) has features strikingly similar to
Cambodian and Thai houses, such as a raised platform on stilts, a
generally triangular shape, steep gabled roofs, gently curved gable ends,
rhomboid-shaped terracotta roof tiles, and timber panel walls slotted into
Amazingly, not a single nail
is used. Instead, the whole structure is fitted together using wooden
joints held in place by pasak (wooden pegs).
“That’s why the whole house
can be dismantled and put back together,” says Lee. “In our (Terengganu
Malay) dialect, we call it masang, meaning ‘assemble’. Imagine,
Terengganu was already making prefabricated homes hundreds of years ago!”
When parts rot away, Lee
commissions woodcarvers to do up fresh carvings.
Most Terengganu woodcarvings
fall into two categories: simpler kerawang, or geometric, designs
or finer sobek with flamboyant filigree resembling local foliage.
Lee takes some of his most
precious antique carved panels out from a storeroom and goes to meet two
woodcarving brothers near Kuala Terengganu, Amran and Abdul Rahim Ismail.
One panel has swirling vegetation in timba balik or mirror image
patterns. What does it all mean?
“You see here two trees tied
together and a flower coming out of their union. It’s like a synergy,”
Another carving has an
eight-sided floral pattern.
“Even we carvers don’t really
know the origins. It’s too ancient. It’s just that owners of old houses
tell me it’s called pecah lapan (break into eight),” says Rahim.
Lee thinks it’s a possible
clue to cross-cultural fertilisation: “It could have originated from the
bagua (an octagonal mirror) of Chinese feng shui. Or maybe it’s the
Buddhist eight-fold path.”
Apart from ancient
architectural heritage, Lee also wants to emphasise the “Terengganu
garden” concept with local trees such as jambu laut, bunga tanjung, and
“When I was growing up as a
boy in Marang, I remember people used to have puja pantai (sea
worship) ceremonies for up to three days. Hawkers would fry melinjau nuts
in hot sand as snacks then. All that has disappeared in the last 30
While some traditions have
disappeared because they are perceived to be un-Islamic holdovers from
Terengganu’s animist-Hindu past, Lee at least hopes that his guests can
sample those fried melinjau nuts again.
With such a bountiful
heritage, Lee chose the name Terrapuri for his project – from terra,
Latin for land, and puri, Sanskrit for palace. The Land of Palaces.
Being the savvy marketing guy
that he is, Lee smiles and adds, “It also refers to the river terrapins of
Before he bought each home, he
or his staff interviewed not only the owners but also the neighbours to
ascertain its history.
One of the homes was built by
one Haji Mohd Ali some 150 years ago, and has the rags to riches story of
a Terengganu-style Loh Boon Siew (aka Mr Honda, the Penang tycoon). Ali
was a 19th century millionaire who made his fortune from trading in
pelara (Terengganu fish sauce).
Lee tells the story: “He would
send out his boats to the big ships moored at Kuala Terengganu to buy salt
from Siamese traders. Using that, he would ferment fish until it turned
into pelara. Then he would go up the Terengganu River as far as Kuala
Berang to barter for rice, fruits, and other jungle produce. From that, he
made a fortune and built two big houses.”
Ali’s grand old house will be
converted – and will emit a more fragrant smell than fish sauce! – into a
Malay-style spa, overlooking the inland sea of mangroves.
“There are many Balinese and
Thai spas but not many Malay spas being marketed. I have a pakcik from a
kampung nearby training my staff in traditional Malay healing arts such as
mandi bunga (flower bath) and urut (massage).
Lee, who speaks the Terengganu
dialect of Malay fluently, says that heritage is not just about cultural
pride for his home state. It’s also solid economics.
“Traditional builders and
craftsmen have been losing their jobs, as all the kampung folk now want
concrete houses. Old skills are being lost. But conservation can become a
whole industry in its own right, like in Europe. For instance, I have been
employing several tukang kayu (carpenters) to reassemble and
renovate the old houses.”
And, of course, it will give
Malaysia a crucial edge in the tourism industry.
Under the Government’s East
Coast Economic Region plan, Terengganu is supposed to become the “tourism
hub” for the East Coast.
“The airport will be upgraded
but tourism is not just about infrastructure or about providing a beach
hotel any more. You can find the same type of modern hotels the whole
world over,” explains Lee.
“Tourism is about content, and
heritage is crucial. We face stiff competition from Thailand and Bali
where the cultural tourism is stronger. As it is, unlike in Bali, it’s
difficult to even catch a traditional Terengganu dance here unless it’s a
specially organised event.
“People will want to visit a
place because of its unique heritage and culture, they want to see
He says there has been “not
much” Government financial support for conservation, and he has had to
self-finance his project.
“It’s not cheap, and
commercial loans have higher interest rates. Conservation is a long-term
investment. But once we have saved it, the money is bound to come in
Despite lack of Government
backing, Lee has been more than willing to pour his time, energy and money
into his Terrapuri heritage project.
“If I just wanted to make fast
money, I could have built an eco-themed resort very quickly. This has been
like my hobby.”
It is indeed a testament to
ethnic harmony when Lee, who is Chinese-educated, is taking a leading role
in promoting and preserving Terengganu’s Malay heritage.
“My grandmother is a
Terengganu Peranakan Chinese. She used to wear a sarong and eat dishes
like laksa with budu (Malay fish sauce).”
And Terrapuri, Lee’s labour of
love, is perhaps a much more eloquent testimony of Bangsa Malaysia pride
than any seminar or slogan could ever be.
Next week: Malay feng shui
from Terrapuri and beyond