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2006 Award of Merit

Han Jiang Ancestral Temple

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Project Title: Han Jiang Ancestral Temple

Location: 127 Chulia Street, George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Size: 796 square metres

Cost: US$ 395,000

Responsible Party: Lim Gaik Siang and Dato’ Khor Teng How

Heritage Architect: Lim Gaik Siang

Contractor: Tan Yeow Wooi Cultural Research Studio and Xiao Wen Si Heritage Contractor

Date of Completion: 11 March 2005


Project Synopsis

The Han Jiang Ancestral Temple was constructed in 1870 by the Penang Teochew Association. The Teochew, immigrants from Chaozhou in Guangdong province, are one of the six main Chinese dialect groups in Malaysia. 

The temple was built in the form of si dian jing (four point gold), which refers to the gables of the four hipped roofs that form a quadrangle around an inner atrium. While the exterior is simple, the interior is richly detailed, including fine examples of Teochew crafts such as chien nien (decorative porcelain shard mosaic work), frescoes, vignette painting on wood and long cantilevered brackets with perforated wood carving. Later additions include an ornate gate building constructed in 1890, a testament to the increasing affluence of the local Teochew community at the time.

The operation of the Han Chiang School at the temple led to further additions; the panelled screen doors were removed to provide enough space for classes and many of these were discarded or improperly stored. In 1935, a major renovation introduced inauthentic materials such as porcelain tiles and terrazzo, and converted the side bays of the gate building into offices and staff rooms for the school. Also, the front section of the roof was extended using a metal awning, in an attempt to replicate a Chinese-style roof. Two further ad-hoc renovations using cheap, modern materials were the construction of a badminton court in the courtyard and the overpainting of faded paintings such as the door god deities.

In 2000, prior to the start of the restoration project, the temple faced a number of structural concerns, including a leaking roof caused by a crack in a roof verge. The general deterioration in the physical fabric of the building reflected the decline of the temple in Teochew community life. While the temple continued to house rituals, the festivals and feast days had lost their former vibrancy as many Teochew families had moved out of the inner areas of George Town. 

The restoration project was concerned with both the physical and socio-cultural rejuvenation of the temple, with the intent of renewing the built fabric of the temple with the close involvement of Association’s 2,000 members and, in so doing, revitalizing it as the centre of Teochew culture and community in Penang.

Today, the temple is considered one of the most intact and best preserved examples of Teochew temple architecture in South-East Asia, and has become the focal point of an unprecedented revival of Teochew culture, including the renewal of rituals, puppetry, opera, music and dance.    

Highlights of the Conservation Approach

The project sought to maintain the building’s architectural and structural integrity and to use original materials and techniques as much as possible, while adhering to the principles of Chinese architecture and feng shui. Deteriorated architectural features were repaired rather than replaced. The project team made decisions on a case-by-case basis about the period to which the temple components should be restored and whether new materials could be introduced to improve amenity.

A preliminary survey of the building’s condition was carried out prior to the tendering process, followed by photographic documentation, a full dilapidation survey, measured drawings and an inventory of moveable artefacts. Extensive research was carried out to discover how the temple had been used and what modifications had been made during previous renovations, with historians reviewing land titles, maps, photographs and historical accounts. In addition, the contractor and the conservation team visited China to learn more about Teochew and other styles of temple architecture and to source materials and artisans. Materials obtained from China included roof tiles, seasoned lime putty, pigments, porcelain bowls for chien nien, da qi (a resin-based lacquer with pest-resistant qualities), gold leaf, vegetable and mineral pigments and granite slabs. 

The project was divided into five stages, addressing in turn the temple building itself, the front gate building, the restoration of moveable artefacts, the installation of a lighting and sound system and landscaping.

The entire temple roof was removed and relaid, including repair of the broken roof verge using traditional lime plaster. Timber beams that had decayed and had been hollowed out by termites were replaced with new beams lacquered with da qi and fitted with copper caps to prevent further termite attack. Missing green glazed ceramic drip tiles were installed on the roof edges. 

The restoration of the decorative elements was carried out with great care after thorough investigation. The vignette paintings were repainted where they had faded away, while two sections that were still intact were cleaned. Similarly, new fresco paintings were commissioned where the old ones had completely debonded. Where gilding had worn off, new gold leaf was applied. Mosaics along the roof ridges and gable walls were cleaned, and only missing or damaged portions were remade. The few remaining original screen doors were used as the basis for reproducing replicas, allowing a complete set of 48 new panels to be installed. 

Concealed fibre optic lighting was installed to illuminate and highlight interior design elements, including gilded carvings, frescoes and paintings located on wooden brackets and beams. Such lighting produces little heat, uses minimal power and does not radiate either infrared or UV light, which could potentially damage paintings and other heritage components of the building.

Conservation and the Community

The restoration of Han Jiang Ancestral Temple catalyzed and strengthened volunteerism and community mobilization. The community networks developed through the project greatly enlarged the Penang Teochew Association’s pool of contacts and volunteers, which is now organizing further cultural activities and is fundraising for future projects.

The project also facilitated a cultural revival, including the re-establishment of a music group that performs amateur opera, the revival of Teochew cuisine and association with an existing Teochew puppet company. Teochew customs and rituals were observed throughout the restoration process, certain of which had not been performed in Penang since the Second World War.

The project has also had an impact on local conservation practice and policy, spurring a rise in conservation standards for other temple custodians and private building owners. It has also encouraged a number of members of the Penang Teochew Association to undertake restoration work on their private shophouses.

Quote from the Project Team

“Our goal for the physical restoration was to preserve and restore as much of the original fabric as possible while maintaining and enhancing architectural, historical and socio-cultural values, and to support the restoration with full documentation. We were guided by the desire to restore the Teochew temple as authentically as possible, consistent with the principles of Chinese architecture and feng shui.”