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A chat with 'Ms George Town" - Salma Khoo

Salma in front of her shophouse, Dr Sun Yat Sen's Penang Base, during the Chinese New Year Cultural and Heritage Celebration.
“Were you always interested in history?” I ask.

Salma smiles.  She’s always smiling, just like the photo of a younger her in the back of her first book, Streets of George Town.   “No,” she laughs, probably thinking of how it all started.  

Khoo Salma Nasution, or ‘Ms. George Town’ as many of us in Penang playfully call her behind her back, is the current president of Penang Heritage Trust.  But she is too modest, and too busy, to worry much about titles.  For the past 20 years, she has struggled, but succeeded in conserving and revitalizing much of George Town’s heritage, culminating in the significant role she played in George Town’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.  
“How did you get started in Penang’s heritage movement?”  

Salma recounts leaving for Duke University, with her mother hoping for her to be a doctor or lawyer or engineer.  Instead she completed a degree in art, focusing on her love of photography.  She had met many other Malaysians studying in the US who shared her passion for the arts, and together they vowed to return to their home and change Malaysia. “But I was one of only a few who came back,” she laughs again. 

“You came straight back to Penang?”

“Yes, but I still wasn’t certain if I wanted to stay in Malaysia or go somewhere else.”  Her handphone rings, and she glances down through her glasses, but doesn’t pick it up.  “When I came back, I just knew that I wanted to take photographs…and I wanted to write.”

That won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Salma’s work.  She is the author of countless books on Penang’s heritage, including Sun Yat Sen in Penang 孫中山槟城基地, Heritage Houses of Penang, and More Than Merchants.  And she is a regular contributor to local and international periodicals.

She tells me her first job was the festival secretary for the Penang Festival - a now defunct art festival, but one that helped shape the current, and much larger, arts & heritage event called George Town Festival, held annually in July.
 
“In 1989, I started a new job at the Pulau Pinang Magazine.  Have you seen it before?  I think they’re on the shelf behind you.”

Salma points behind me.  We’re sitting in the office of her publishing company, Areca Books, in a shophouse on Acheen Street.  I grab the stack of a dozen or so magazines.  I had never heard of Pulau Pinang Magazine before.  I leaf through them, spotting dilapidated buildings that are now restored, and photos of locals in a much busier George Town setting before the Rent Control Act was repealed in 2000, forcing most residents to move out from the inner city. 

“It was a small tourist info magazine when I started, but I wanted to do something more interesting.  Looking around George Town, I thought this was such a magnificent city, or it used to be, so why is it that now people only build ugly buildings?  Architecture was very good before, so there must be a reason.  People must have been very rich, and had more culture and appreciation, and I started to research into the history.  And in those days it was mainly interviews, because I didn’t know where to look for resources.”

She admits that to grow the magazine, she had to take on the roles of editor, photographer, researcher, writer, and layout designer.  But most of all, she had to tune out other Penangites, “People would tell me, ‘That’s just an old house, why are you looking at that old house?’  People couldn’t understand why I was taking all these pictures.”
Image of George Town shortly after WWII, published in the Pulau Pinang magazine
Over a two year period, Salma completed 13 issues, focusing on Penang’s culture and way of life, and on the historical buildings that first drew her fascination.  It became Penang’s first heritage magazine.  
 

Pulau Pinang magazine - printed and published by Phoenix Press
“Was it a success?”

“Yes, you could say that.  A critical success,” Salma glances at the pages of the magazine as I skim through, “but commercially difficult to sustain.”  

She chuckles, “I’ve never been good at making money.”
  
Capturing Penang’s interview with Salma Khoo will continue in our next post…

(Last four photos courtesy of Pulau Pinang magazine)

8 comments:

debi said...

Reese,

Fascinating! I love how you search out and find the treasures of your world.

I admire Salma's dedication and persistence. I look forward to the next post.

saraho said...

Hi Reese,
I wish my two month trip to Asia had allowed me some time to visit Malaysia and Penang! Your blog definitely whets my appetite. But I made the decision to not jump around too much, and get to know people in just a few places. Next time, perhaps I will visit Penang and taste some of these delights you describe!
Sarah

Reese said...

Hi Sarah,

Completely agree with you about not jumping around too much when traveling. You can learn so much more when you just stay put in one place and explore.

Hope you have the chance to visit Penang next time!

Reese said...

Thanks Debi. Penang is definitely lucky to have Salma here.

kylee said...

Hi. We had the Pulau Pinang magazines at home long time ago when I was still a kid. I remember all the photos were so beautifully taken, my brother actually wanted to cut out some of the photos for his school project and I hid the magazines in order to 'protect' it, haha! Those memories... thanks for all that you are doing. I long for the day I can move back to Penang too...

Reese said...

Hi Kylee,

Thanks for sharing your memories of Penang, and for keeping them safe from "destructive" brothers.

Hopefully, you still have the magazines. Fascinating to look through the old pictures and see what has changed in Penang.

Reese said...

Hi Kylee,

Thanks for sharing your memories of Penang, and for keeping them safe from "destructive" brothers.

Hopefully, you still have the magazines. Fascinating to look through the old pictures and see what has changed in Penang.

kylee said...

Hi. We had the Pulau Pinang magazines at home long time ago when I was still a kid. I remember all the photos were so beautifully taken, my brother actually wanted to cut out some of the photos for his school project and I hid the magazines in order to 'protect' it, haha! Those memories... thanks for all that you are doing. I long for the day I can move back to Penang too...