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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)

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.”


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)