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A love affair with Malay palaces

(Aug 2019)



SETIU: As a 20-year-old, Alex Lee Yun Ping had a dream of owning palaces and aristocratic villas of the ancient Malay world.

In 1990, as Lee’s first step towards realising his dream and after much convincing, he turned two wooden shoplots decorated with intricate wood carvings owned by his grandfather into a resthouse in the tourism district of Marang.

“My neighbours and friends are mostly Malays. I eat what they eat. I eat belacanpetai and ulam. I played traditional Malay games like gasing (spinning top) and wau (kite). I speak fluent Bahasa Melayu and I love traditional Malay carvings and architecture,” Lee told the New Straits Times.

“My fascination with Malay arts and traditions has become a passion. I dream that one day I will have a complete ‘collection’ of Malay aristocratic houses and palaces. They are priceless as such buildings have soul. It is difficult for me to describe in detail the secrets I’ve learnt about their architecture for the past 30 years,” said the tourism industry entrepreneur.

The old Marang house, Lee said, became a tourist attraction and its rustic architecture appeals to foreigners who made it as a halfway house before departing for Pulau Kapas or Kuala Terengganu.

Inspired, from that year onwards until 1999, Lee travelled to every district in Terengganu and befriended owners of aristocratic traditional Malay buildings in villages before buying them one by one. He now owns 29 of such structures.

He dismantled them and kept every piece of plank in a store in Marang because he had no place to reassemble the buildings, as well as due to the high cost of hiring craftsmen to rebuild them with wooden pegs.

“It was difficult to buy the buildings because they were heirlooms. I had to gain the owners’ trust and convince them that they would be preserved for future generations. For 20 years, I could only keep the dismantled pieces in a family store in Marang.

“I got a big break in 2005 when I saw a land-for-sale sign in Kampung Mangkok. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I hid the sign in my car to make sure no one else bought the 4ha plot of land, which was parallel to the banks of Sungai Setiu and fronting the South China Sea.

“I was excited as I could achieve my dream of assembling the aristocratic traditional Malay buildings. My passion for them is because of their historical value, intricate carvings and architecture. Each of them has its story on how it was built by its first owners more than 100 years ago,” he said at Terrapuri or the Land of Palaces, in Kampung Mangkok.

Lee did not regret spending more than RM8 million on the buildings. He said some of the houses were more than 200 years old and were built using chengal wood with no nails but just pasak (pegs) and tanggam (joints).

Lee said the restoration started in 2006 and he employed 30 people who had no experience reconstructing such buildings.

“I had to show them how to use pasak and tanggam. In the end, some of them became expert traditional Malay house builders. The architecture of the buildings belongs to this part of the world, namely Laos, Pattani and Cambodia.

Singgora tiles were used for the roofs, and to simulate lakes I built ponds around some of the buildings. The first owners built the houses cleverly by including spiritual elements in the wood carvings. They took great effort when raising the tiang seri (main pillar) to ensure that the buildings’ interior stood out.

“When the British came, they introduced Moorish architecture elements. This resulted in the traditional Malay wooden houses slowly fading from memory. It will be a loss if we do not preserve them as the buildings were built with philosophy attached.

“The younger generation should study their features. They should find out how the first owners could build and dismantle the houses like Lego pieces. They should also study the houses’ ventilation system because the buildings’ interior is cool every day. They should look at their hidden story as well.”

He said the houses’ wood carvings hid many tales and that the carpenters had passed on their knowledge and skills to the next generation.

“These buildings have soul,” said Lee, who dedicated 30 years of his life to realise his dream.

He said history should not be lost and aptly, historian Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard had written that Terengganu was the cradle of Malay civilisation.

“Preservation is key to realising my dream. I have to be patient because it is a costly affair,” said Lee, who planned to assemble another three aristocratic houses, five palaces and eight traditional houses from eight states in the peninsula.

Lee also said some of his friends believed he was wasting his money by investing in something that gave low returns.

“This is not entirely about money. It is a dream I have chased all my life. If I want, I can just turn the buildings and the traditional tools into museum displays so that everyone can appreciate the beauty of Malay architecture and culture.

“It can become a place that inspires architects and students of the arts, as well as historians. Although it may be costly, I am aware of the buildings’ historical value and am concerned about their existence as time may destroy their value as art pieces.

“I have done my research on the 29 aristocratic buildings over the past 30 years. Universities and museums should join me in discovering the stories behind their construction.

“Their stories should be etched in journals, as well as coffee-table books for future reference.”




Terrapuri | Kampung  Mangkuk, 22120 Setiu, Terengganu, Malaysia.  T : +(609) 6245020  +(609) 6312081  F : +(609) 6228093  E :