Seri Teratai – Saved from the Ravages of Time and Termites

loading Seri Teratai.

An archway in the master bedroom has been revealed after the tearing down of an old, built-in cabinet.

Commissioned in 1919 for Macalister & Co., Seri Teratai is the official residence of the Chief Minister of Penang.1 Located on Jalan Macalister and initially known as the State Guest House,2 the building was aptly renamed Rumah Tetamu after the country’s independence.

Wong Pow Nee – the state’s first chief minister – was the mansion’s first long-term tenant, living in the double-storey structure throughout his tenure from 1957 to 1969.

State chief ministers after him have utilised Seri Teratai, as it is now known, in dwindling measures: Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu resided there for the first decade of his 21-year tenure, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, in his own words, resided there “not even for a day, and not overnight” but frequented the building for rest between events along with other exco members and senior officers in his line-up, especially those hailing from Seberang Prai, and immediate past chief minister Lim Guan Eng lasted a year and one week before a serious termite infestation forced him to relocate.

Since 2009, the mansion has not been inhabited, although a caretaker still lived in the compound and attended to the daily maintenance of the distinguished abode.

Current chief minister Chow Kow Yeow, who resides in Balik Pulau, expressed his intention to utilise Seri Teratai after taking over the top post in the state last year. The move, he said, will cut the travel time to his office in Komtar significantly, understandably as his personal home is at least 15km further from his office, compared to a trip from the stately bungalow.

Repairs and Restoration

A bathroom on a mezzanine floor of Seri Teratai is one of five bathrooms that will be repaired and rehauled.

One of the columns of Seri Teratai that has been damaged by moisture seeping in from the ground.

Existing furniture in one of the upstairs bedrooms have been retained and varnished.

Seri Teratai is listed as a Conservation Category II heritage building, in short indicating that it possesses “special interest” that warrants preservation efforts.

(Category I indicates buildings, monuments, objects and sites of “exceptional interest” that reflect the authenticity of the surrounding cultural landscape.)3

Said to be have been inspired by Henry Alfred Neubronner, a prominent architect in Penang in the early 1900s, Seri Teratai “comprises an arcade, embellished with rustication and keystone, on the ground floor, and a Tuscan colonnade, consisting of single, paired and triplet columns, accompanied by turned balustrades, on the first floor”.4

Overall, the building spans 8,000 sq ft in a 114,000 sq ft compound and contains four bedrooms – three on the top floor and one below.

Authors Khoo Salma Nasution and Halim Berbar note that during the Victorian era, a standard type of bungalow had emerged in Penang: a largely rectangular main building with a projecting front bay that comprises a porte cochère (carriage porch) with a verandah or bedroom above it.5

Though built slightly later, Seri Teratai reflects buildings of this era, with parts of the mansion having since been repurposed for different uses. The upstairs verandah above the coach gate, for example, has since been transformed into a slender meeting room, surrounded by glass windows and installed with wooden finishing. The back of the abode, immediately inside the rear entrance, now represents a small kitchen area, with the original outdoor kitchen still intact, located off the back courtyard.

Over the years, a modern 1,500 sq ft annex has also been added to the original main building for special events and banquets. The compound also still contains two separate structures for the use of the house’s caretaker and other staff.

Mohd Syahir Mohd Rifan, an architect from the Penang Public Works Department ( JKR) who is overseeing the project, says a survey of the property was carried out last year to assess the damage and the work needed to make Seri Teratai habitable.

“In mid-January, we began preliminary works on the building. Damp-proof treatment was also carried out throughout the ground floor in the first two months,” he says.

Mohd Syahir says the termite attack that caused Lim Guan Eng to relocate had been addressed at that time and regular checks continue to be done to ensure the insects do not return.

JKR architecture assistant Jumardi Mohamad Koldaie further expounds that dampness is one of the main challenges that old buildings in the state face. “Damp rising from the ground causes damage to the walls and plastering and in the long-run, can cause damage to the structure itself,” he says.

Fortunately, like so many Anglo-Indian bungalows in Penang which were built by early British settlers, Seri Teratai is an elevated structure. Raised off the ground by sturdy pillars, author Julia de Bierre writes that it was hoped that visitations from marauding animals, poisonous insects, monsoon floods and fearsome tropical ills would be lessened.6

This design has also saved the elegant floors of today’s Seri Teratai from moisture damage that can otherwise be seen around columns in the home.


(From left) JKR architect Mohd Syahir Mohd Rifan and architecture assistant Jumardi Mohamad Koldaie.

(From left) Penang JKR director Ir. Shahabuddin Mohd Muhayidin, architect Mohd Syahir Mohd Rifan and architecture assistant Jumardi Mohamad Koldaie examining a corner of Seri Teratai that has been given damp proof treatment.

Unwanted fixtures like temporary partitions and old bathroom fittings have been removed in the current upgrading project.

Jumardi says originally, there were no bathrooms in the home as houses built a century ago had outhouses; but over the years, five bathrooms were added to Seri Teratai – two downstairs, two upstairs and strangely, one in the middle of both storeys.

“If you asked me if there is anything unique about the house, it would be that it has a bathroom on a mezzanine floor. I think it would be hard to find another house in the state which has a mezzanine floor for just one bathroom!” he exclaims, adding that the unique location of the bathroom was likely chosen to serve the occupants of the upstairs front bedroom.

Like other houses of its period, each of Seri Teratai’s upstairs rooms has two doors and is connected by a perimeter running along the sides of the house. This layout allows for easy entry and exit of occupants and some areas, like a cosy nook just off the upstairs living area, have also been repurposed over the decades, in this case being converted into a small reading room.

Mohd Syahir says as part of the upgrading works, the internal plumbing of Seri Teratai will be replaced along with its entire wiring system which is over 20 years old. All the bathrooms will also be overhauled and air conditioning systems installed upstairs.

The downstairs, however, with no less than six doors giving ventilation to the living and dining areas, will remain without air conditioning.

Furniture-wise, all loose items including beds, tables, cabinets and settees were removed by the State Secretary’s office which has been given the task of sourcing for any new needed furniture. “Aside from the master bedroom, which had a built-in cabinet blocking an archway, we have retained all the built-in furniture that was already in the bedrooms. They are still in good condition, both inside and outside, and just need to be varnished. Some of the plaster ceilings, like in the meeting room and master bedroom, have also been removed and we are reverting back to the original timber ceilings,” Mohd Syahir says.

The impressive timbre staircase that sweeps down to the living room – one of two sets of stairs in the mansion – is also free from any major damage, with only the replacement of the signature red carpeting planned.

Mohd Syahir adds that the building façade is also being given a facelift with repainting, using special breathable paint that is suited to the building’s age and construction.

Overall, the cost of Seri Teratai’s repairs and restorations is around RM1mil. Chow Kon Yeow moved in on July 30, marking the first time in a decade that anyone inhabits the stately, elegant mansion.

The facade of Seri Teratai is being spruced up with a new coat of paint.

The back courtyard of Seri Teratai.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.
1Jon Sun Hock Lim, The Penang House and the Straits Architect 1887 - 1941, Penang: Areca Books, 2015, p. 125. 3
2 Khoo Su Nin, Streets of George Town Penang, 4th edn., Penang: Areca Books, 2007, p. 121.
4Jon Sun Hock Lim, The Penang House and the Straits Architect 1887 - 1941, Penang: Areca Books, 2015, p. 125.
5Khoo Salma Nasution and Halim Berbar, Heritage Houses of Penang, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009, p. 47.
6Julia de Bierre, Penang Through Gilded Doors, Penang: Areca Books, 2006, p. 83.

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