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Streets of George Town and Sun Yat Sen Penang Base (Part 2 of our chat with Salma Khoo)

Statue of Dr Sun Yat Sen at 120 Armenian Street
(To Part 1 of interview)

“What happened after you left Pulau Pinang magazine?”

Salma recounts starting her own design company.  It didn’t work out and after two years she gave it up.  But during that time, her curiosity in Penang’s history spurred her to convince her mother to buy a shophouse at 120 Armenian Street, which she eventually restored with her own savings.  

What Salma knew at that time, and what is unfortunately still unknown to many, is that the foundations of the 1911 Chinese Revolution, which resulted in the end to imperial rule in China and the beginning of a Republic, was strategized in Penang.  

The unassuming shophouse at 120 Armenian Street was the Southeast Asian base of Dr Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary movement and specifically the site of the 1910 Penang Conference to plan the Second Guangzhou Uprising.  The Uprising led to the successful Wuchang Rebellion that saw the downfall of China’s last Emperor, and the election of China’s first president, Dr Sun Yat Sen 孫中山

“If only people knew these stories, they would be as passionate as I am,” Salma added, discussing her initial feelings on why she wrote her first book, Streets of George Town

“Who got you started on the book?  Who funded it and published it?”

“I just did it from my own savings.  I had to design, edit, and publish it myself.”  Salma smiles in her modest manner, as if she did what anyone would have done in her place.  If only we all had that same drive to tell the stories of our home! 
Salma Khoo during her research for Streets of George Town



“How did you research the book?”

From across the street, the call of prayer begins at the Acheen Street Mosque, drowning out our voices.  Salma speaks up, telling me how she sourced a few articles and books, but primarily had to record oral stories from the residents of George Town.  “I was just oblivious to how everyone felt about a young woman walking around town taking photos. I was so naïve that I used to venture into all these, so called 'bad hat areas', houses that were still under rent control, and there would be four or five families staying in the house.”

“Five families in one shophouse?”

“Yes, usually one or two families downstairs and the rest upstairs.  One family per room, so there was no privacy.”

“And you were welcomed into the houses?”

“No, not really, but when you walk in, everyone thinks you’re visiting somebody else.  So I would just kind of walk in, ask a few questions, and take some pictures.” 

Streets of George Town was not only Salma’s first book, but was also the first book on Penang’s history and culture that reached out to the masses.  This was only in the early 90s, but it was a time before the UNESCO listing, before the term “Cultural Tourism”, when Penang was known only as a beach destination. 
Former residence of Chung Keng Kwee. Now restored as the Peranakan Mansion

“What was the response when the book was released?”

“The book came out in 1994 and nothing happened.”  

Salma goes on to say it finally received attention five years later.  “People started to tell me that, ‘Oh, I’ve used the book and walked practically every street.’  But they were all foreigners.  Hardly any locals did it – they would shop at Penang Road, Campbell Street, maybe Chulia Street, but they wouldn’t venture beyond that.”  

Before the Rent Control Act was repealed in 2000, most of George Town was still occupied by residents, but the streets were divided along different groups of people.   Locals could not understand, for example, going to Khoo Kongsi Temple if you weren’t a Hokkien Khoo.  

It didn’t make sense until the idea of cultural tourism took hold in Penang.  Salma points out, “Tourism helped to neutralize the area.”  Penangites who had studied or lived abroad were the first 'locals' to return to the town as tourists and begin using Salma's book.

“Will you be updating Streets of George Town?”

Salma shakes her head.

“It’s too bad that many of the wonderful historical buildings you’ve captured in the book have been torn down.”

“Yes, so much has changed.   Instead of updating Streets of George Town, I plan to write an entirely new book on George Town’s heritage.”

“Soon?”

She gives me a smirk that tells me she has too many other projects ahead to even think about another book.  Between Penang Heritage Trust, Areca Books publishing company, Dr Sun Yat Sen's Penang Base, the endless heritage conferences and talks, the books she is working on now about Masjid Kapitan Keling and the Chulias, and not to mention her family responsibilities - I think I can wait patiently for her next George Town book.
The only Jewish cemetery in Malaysia, located at Yahudi Road (now Jalan Zainal Abidin) in Penang.  The oldest grave dates back to 1805, in the early days of Penang's history.  One of the many secluded sites revealed in Streets of George Town.

Thank you Salma for sitting down with us for a chat, and more importantly, for all the admirable work you do for Penang.  Your curiosity and passion for Penang’s heritage is contagious, and was contagious over a year ago when we met you for the first time and made the decision to move back to the island.  

(Last three images from Streets of George Town, courtesy of Areca Books Publishing)

3 comments:

debi said...

What a fascinating woman; such tenacity to preserve the history.

Studioleng said...

Streets of Georgetown is a great book. I was impressed and got it when it first came out. Still have it. That’s exactly what Georgetown looked like in the 80s when I was in high school in Penang.

seasonwithspice said...

A lot has changed looking through the book now. Many of the buildings pictured in the book have been knocked down, but others have been restored to their former glory. It will be very interesting to see what Penang looks like 5 years from now, and 10 years from now.