Opinions & People

Staying In Focus with…Laurence Loh

by Su Aziz

While Laurence Loh’s passion and skill as a conservation architect may be impressive, what truly takes the cake is the fact that he has managed commendably to balance heritage building preservation with commercial viability in Penang. Here he tells how he achieved and maintains this fine balance.

Laurence Loh’s skill and authority on heritage buildings preservation is evident in the likes of Suffolk House and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, as well as Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur – three of the many of which he had resuscitated back to their former glory. The first two are impressive mansions once belonged to very wealthy men who left indelible marks on Penang history. Both centuries-old buildings were in a state of dilapidation before Loh restored them.

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A corner at the Blue Mansion

Today, these mansions have become staples in tourists’ agendas when visiting Penang as well as recognisable landmarks that often featured in most things pertaining to the island’s tourism. Each earns revenue through business such as operating a fine dining restaurant and guided tours. Merdeka Stadium, on the other hand, was where the formal declaration of Malaya’s independence took place in 1957 and now, it’s a venue for international concerts and national soccer matches. So, you can imagine the nostalgia it holds and its role in Malaysia’s history.

An impressive résumé, steadfast dedication and ardent passion for historical concrete structures, alas, are not enough to result in sustainability when it comes to conserving heritage buildings. This, any conservationist or government, will tell you.

In fact, good business acumen and marketing skills need to be part of the equation that result in success. In this sense, Penang encounters challenges when it comes to managing its city that was awarded UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2008. There is a thin line it straddles in balancing the city as a world heritage site and as an increasingly popular tourist attraction.

Yet, Loh has managed to surmount the hurdles lithely, skirting issues and sensitivities with dexterity when it comes to managing, for example, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Known fondly as the Blue Mansion, it holds such fascination for its visitors because, perhaps, of the history contained within its indigo-painted walls. Below, Loh reveals not only the how and what it entails to sustain world heritage sites but also his own experience.

The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion also known as the Blue Mansion.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion also known as the Blue Mansion.

What was your vision for the Blue Mansion?

Initially, in 1990, a small group of conservation-minded Penangites bought the building with the primary purpose of saving it from destruction. We wanted to prevent a non-sympathetic purchaser from buying it only to demolish it and redevelop the site.

With the realisation that the building would have to be conserved, we decided to undertake a complete restoration to reflect its original design, construction and workmanship, employing authentic materials and craft techniques, to make it the first of its kind in Penang, especially of 19th Century Southern Chinese courtyard house that was embellished in the Penang eclectic style. To ensure that it would set the benchmark for conservation in Malaysia. So, no expense was spared.

Did that vision become reality?
The vision did become a reality.

It won the top award in the 2000 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, a vindication of the years of sweat and tears and dedication invested in the conservation process.

Today, it has attained global acclaim, recognised by Lonely Planet as one the top ten Great Houses and Grand Mansions in the world. A Google search on the Blue Mansion will offer close to 15 million results.

How long did it take to restore the Mansion?
The initial conservation work took four years, from 1991-1994. Subsequently, we’ve done three rounds of repair and upgrading.

What are the current functions of the Mansion?
It’s now a 4-Star heritage hotel with all the modern conveniences but is unique in that it offers three interpretation tours a day that allow the normal public to visit the house and be told the story about the life and times of Cheong Fatt Tze, China’s last Mandarin and first capitalist who resided in, among other Southeast Asian cities, Penang.

How is it sustainable?
The revenue from the hotel operations and tours sustains the place and enhances its cachet. The brand value adds to capital appreciation of the land and building.

Conservation architect, Laurence Loh.
Conservation architect, Laurence Loh.

What are the challenges of managing a heritage building as an individual?
It’s like running any other business – you have to have the management skills and knowhow, a head for business, understand how to market and grow a brand, how to make the product unique and the like.

Without prior training, I learnt on the job, so to speak. Most importantly, I had a very clear vision of how I wanted it to be – a place that one wants to return to again and again.

If you knew then what you know now about managing a heritage building, what would you change?
I’d do it better right from the word go and achieve results more quickly and efficiently without the angst and the years of trial and error. In the main, I think I got it right the first time in terms of its branding. (See above.)

What’s your advice to those who want to make a heritage building commercially viable?
You have got to have a good working knowledge of hotel management, be well-acquainted with the tricks of the trade and have good cash flow. You must position the hotel at the right level and be an online marketing expert. Today, online travel agents control the hotel market worldwide. They are kings. You have to know how to work with them, and below and above them.

You have to find ways to drive traffic to your website and to increase the percentage of direct bookings – which is easier said than done. Sell, sell and sell. You can’t take your foot off the pedal, or more accurately, your eye off the screen. But most of all, you must have a good product in the first place. I mean, you don’t have to tell people what a Ferrari is.

What were the criteria for the UNESCO Heritage Site status?
George Town was inscribed together with Malacca as a World Heritage Site on the basis of three criteria whereby the site demonstrates Outstanding Universal Value:
a) it exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
b) it bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared;
c) it’s an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history.

How does Penang sustain the site’s status?
The management plan, Special Area Plan (SAP), has legal status and was gazetted under the Town and Country Planning Act of Malaysia. It sets out all the policies, guidelines and rules about looking after the site and ensuring that its outstanding universal values are not threatened or lost.

The State Government has set up a World Heritage Office that handles all non-statutory matters related to the site and its heritage values. It runs awareness and training programmes to help socialise and deepen the public’s understanding and appreciation of the city heritage assets and the necessary safeguarding of its attributes of authenticity.

How is Penang balancing the site’s commercial and heritage values?
Through its programmes and policies. The SAP defines zones and clusters for social and cultural activities outside the commercial realm. The process of gentrification can’t be stopped as property values increase and buildings get renewed. There are however always limits to growth. I believe it will find its own level as time goes on. In the life of a city, it’s still early days. Every World Heritage Site goes through a growth cycle and then levels out. The government will have to consciously promote arts and culture to counter the commercial forces.

In your opinion, is Penang succeeding in keeping this balance?
There are no major issues that stand out, other than the fact that the prices of shophouses and terrace houses have risen incredibly high [in George Town], bolstered by buyers from overseas, especially Singaporeans. This is inevitable, but it should find its own level because the rental prices in Penang have never been strong, except in key areas.

After a while, buyers should realise that they can’t get the returns. From the business angle, the tourism industry [in Penang] is growing on the back of culture. Food is a big draw. As long as the distribution of wealth is not too lopsided, there’ll be money re-circulated into heritage conservation through renewal.

What is Penang doing right in terms of maintaining its heritage site?
Penang is obviously leveraging on its strengths. In the core area of the World Heritage Site, many of the businesses that have opened up in the last five years cater to the cultural travellers. There are now many interesting places centred round the heritage theme. Slowly, changes are taking place to make the site more attractive and liveable.

The local authority has launched a new programme public realm campaign called ‘The Pedestrian is King’. It’s clearing the five-footways by removing obstructions and illegal structures. The latest news to hit the headlines is the demolition of bricked up verandah openings between shophouses.

Also there has always been a very close monitoring of new works. All plans have to go before a Technical Review Panel which comments on the aesthetics of designs in relation to their urban forms.

And what is Penang not doing in terms of maintaining its heritage site?
I guess the authorities can always do more, especially in terms of congestion, greening and safety on the streets. Many of the amenities, especially the underground works, are very old and need renewal. Many areas still don’t have common sewers.

Is the heritage site a positive economic contributor for Penang?
Without a shadow of a doubt, cultural heritage is now one of the biggest and most visible economic contributors [globally]. The income from tourism has increased by leaps and bounds. There’s a positive trajectory in terms of investment from locals and abroad in this sector. There’s a buzz about the place that attracts visitors constantly.

The World Heritage ‘badge of honour’ has changed the whole perception of George Town and Penang. It’s a ‘must see’ place in Malaysia.

Is the amount of visitors to the heritage site detrimental to its longevity?
Penang has the carrying capacity to take the increase in visitors. It’s really a question of channelling them and spreading them out. Also, it’s about attracting a different class of visitors. For example, Penang’s not very strong on eco-tourism. There are many opportunities in this sector. Turning Penang Hill into a UNESCO biosphere site, which is on the agenda, would attract a different set of people.

However, the authorities can’t rest on their laurels and will have to keep upgrading its facilities and transportation system to meet the needs [of sustainability]. Of course, if handled wrongly, the masses [of tourists] could become overwhelming, which creates the wrong impression and will have negative effects.

Is there a city in Asia that’s exemplary in terms of heritage site conservation, its sustainability and succeeded in being commercially viable?
I’m unable to name a city as I don’t have very detailed firsthand knowledge of such a case. I suppose you could say that in some ways Hoi An in Vietnam, could be an example. Except that its source of income is almost entirely dependent on tourism, which is NOT the desired outcome of World Heritage listing.

What is the level of Penang’s conservation awareness and sustainability?
Generally, I’d say that in comparison to other cities in general, conservation awareness and commitment to the cause, in Penang, is stronger.

After all, Penang is a bottom-up place, where civic society is strongly embedded. The shift to the sustainability paradigm will come, but like all global movements, it will take time.

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ABOUT LAURENCE LOH
Well-known as one of the key players who championed Penang’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Laurence Loh is an outstanding conservation architect, an expert of cultural heritage in Malaysia and a principal architect at Arkitek LLA. Trained in London, his endeavours have won him not only recognition as an adroit heritage preservationist but also international awards. He shares his ground up and hands-on knowledge in conservation as an Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong. Today, he resides in Penang with his wife and is the immediate past President of Badan Warisan Malaysia, a trustee of the Penang Heritage Trust and a director of Think City, a company that undertakes urban regeneration through cultural development in George Town, Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur and Johor.

Note: WIEF Young Fellow 2017, a 7-day programme in Malacca centres around ‘Unlocking the Business of Heritage and Culture’.

April 26, 2017
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