Eastern Deco

When I saw this advertisement on page 8 of the 1940 Straits Times Annual, I thought, Yeah, I know that building. That building is No 1, Northam Road, Penang, and that building should be my house.

I have spent quite a lot of time roaming around Kuala
Lumpur, Ipoh, and Penang looking at buildings, off and on since 1978. Actually, to say “looking at” does not quite hit the mark; a better word would be “experiencing” because these older buildings in Malaysia
have a compelling fascination for me. Standing in front of them, I get to feel a transported sensation, like being called into another world.

It was really only about four years ago that I came to realise that it is the architecture of old Malaya that makes up much of my fascination with that country. Previously I had not disentangled the architecture from the many other bewitching aspects of the place that seemed to cast a powerful amorphous spell. But as soon as I realised it, I set about to
photograph as many as I could find of these buildings. Nobody told me then what I now know: Son, whatever it is you’re intending to do, someone else has already done it, and done it better. This lesson I have lately learned from Flickr. Anything you like, go on, I dare you, anything you’re remotely interested in: type it into Flickr’s search engine and you’ll find a picture of it, and that picture, I further hazard, will be miles better than any that you ever took yourself.

So it was that I discovered Other People’s Photos of the Colonial Buildings of Malaya, making me wonder what on earth I am going to do next time I go there. We shall see.

What makes these heritage buildings so powerful? For one thing, even when they have been designed and built by Brits, they have an exoticism about them. The Brits in question have quoted Islamic styles and created imposing solid embodiments of orientalism. But when they have been designed by Malaysians, and that chiefly means Chinese architects, I believe, given the period that we are talking about, they have a grand Eastern feeling
about them, expressing itself through the medium of Art Deco style. Art Deco, as created in the East, is a bit special, and not quite like what you would find in Deco buildings in Bournemouth.

I came to think of it as Eastern Deco, stimulated by a sight in Ipoh. In 1978 my brother-in-law Bob drove me around the Ipoh area showing me all the sights. One was a garage called Wearnes, near the convent school that my wife (and his too, now that I think about it) attended as a child. From my collection of Straits Times Annuals, I now know how old, and how important, Wearnes was. Anyway, in 2005 I decided to look again for Wearnes Brothers, only to find that it had become a furniture emporium, bearing the title Eastern
Decorators. With a nascent awareness of the personal significance of Malayan Art Deco, I imagined (I had to imagine it as I had no camera with me) taking a picture of Wearnes with the RATORS hidden by a bus or something: EASTERN DECO, it would proclaim. The nearest I got to that was in Penang, where I was able to crop a picture of an outfit called Sunny Decorators, and get a second-best result. Reader, do you live in Ipoh? And does that store still exist on what was Hugh Low Street? Would you please realise my untaken photo and
upload it somewhere for me to admire? It is so little to ask, but it would make a failed old photographer happy.

Well, in Penang we have Northam Road. Undoubtedly Francis Light, founder of Penang,
came from Northam, Southampton, probably from the very street where I have been teaching since 1983. Most likely the Light descendants are all still there. I bet they shop in Oriental Foods in honour of their ancestor. And when they get the yen for the beaches of Batu Ferringhi, I bet they toddle down to Northam Bridge and chuck stones in the mud
at low tide. This one’s for you, Francis old boy.

And Northam Road is famous for its mansions, mostly built and lived in by very wealthy and very canny Chinese businessmen in the 1920s and 30s, or maybe even before that. See, it faces the sea, and it’s just a stone’s throw away from the shops. As we walk along Northam Road we pass before many knockout buildings, some of them in not so good repair now, others restored to all their former glory. Finally, approaching town, we come to this house (it might not really be No 1, but it feels like it).

How Deco is that! I’ll tell you: It’s as Deco as you like. And I want to live in it. Let the message go out to the owner: Sir, if you have any fellow feeling at all with admirers of old Penang, you will turf out whoever is in there right now and insist that Bob May comes to live in it, rent free by the way. I have bagsies on your house. If you are the owner-occupier, clear out immediately and give it to me. Reluctant to leave it? I can understand that, OK, OK, then bequeath it to me and I will give up smoking I promise.

I love that house, so I was most intrigued to find what I thought was a picture of it in the Straits Times of 1940, in an earlier incarnation as Morey’s Tricity House. I compared the picture (a poor one I admit) that I took of it with Tricity house in 1940, and doubts began to creep into my mind. They did not look the same. Had someone altered it for domestic
use? If so, they had done it in very sympathetic style. I turned to Google, and
immediately was routed to http://fromthefar.com/2009/08/28/singapore-to-bali/, the blog of William Morey, grandson of John Morey. Armed with a 1936 picture, he had gone in search of the building, not in Penang but in its true location in Singapore, and he had found what was left of it. William, I should like to have been with you on that trip!

Well, quite soon now I expect to move into No 1, Northam Rd, Penang, and I shall exist in a half-transported state, in the 1930s. To strengthen the effect, I shall throw out all mod cons, except maybe the TV, and perhaps the internet connectivity, as I need to be able to browse Flickr so that I don’t have to keep going out on photographic expeditions.

Post script

Look at this! Geoff-inOz on Flickr kindly sent me a link to http://imagesofipoh.blogspot.com/2011/04/wearne-brothers.html where there is exactly the picture I needed. After some cropping this is the result.

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