The century-old family cemetery of Penang’s first ‘Kapitan Cina’ Koh Lay Huan in Batu Lanchang has been dug up to make way for a property development project in a move that has alarmed heritage enthusiasts.
The plot is behind the Lintang Gangsa Apartment (next to the market) off Green Lane (lot number 1560, section 5, DTL. The housing project, reportedly undertaken by developer Kemuning Setia Sdn Bhd covers 11.5 acres of the 27-acre site, was approved by the MPPP in December 2009.
Read Wikipedia here to find out more about Koh Lay Huan, who was appointed by Francis Light as the the first Kapitan Cina of Penang in 1787. One of Koh’s sons even accompanied Stamford Raffles to Singapore in 1819.
Among those buried in the cemetery is Koh’s grandson, Koh Seang Tatt, who died in 1899.
According to an NST report:
Prior to 1880, Balik Pulau was under the jurisdiction of an adviser to the British colonial government, Koh Seang Tatt, a local magnate who took up law studies in England.
Apart from being the district magistrate, he was also given the authority to bring in labourers from China to open up the forested hilly areas at Air Puteh. Most of the cleared areas became Koh’s property.
There were already Malay villagers in the various kampung, most of whom had migrated from Kedah and Perlis after the Siamese attack on Kedah in 1821.
Koh had administrative authority not only of Balik Pulau but also Air Itam and Tanjung Tokong.
There was no proper road in Balik Pulau then. Neither was there any horse carriage. Koh stayed in Air Itam and only visited Balik Pulau occasionally. He usually made the trip along the hilly path on a sedan chair carried by four coolies, escorted by two constables.
Balik Pulau was also called “Kongsi” because of the longhouse (in front of the Indian temple) built to accommodate 300 to 400 labourers from China. Among the areas cleared by these labourers were Air Putih which was planted with rubber.
The road Seang Teik was named after him and the fountain at the Balik Pulau roundabout was his contribution.
The Kohs were famous among the local Chinese community and are a part of Penang’s history and heritage. Heritage enthusiasts learned that the MPPP had given approval to dig up the tombs without looking into the historical significance – and 78 tombs were said to have been removed on this site and neigbouring areas. The MPPP had reportedly received an application by a Koh Chong Poh to remove 33 graves from this site but only approved 23. (Koh later told theSun that the tomb of Koh Lay Huan and his wife would not be disturbed and would instead be turned into a small memorial park.)
An MPPP Councillor told me there is no list of heritage sites outside George Town; only a listing of a few houses e.g. Suffolk House. “If the owner of the cemetery comes to the MPPP to request a demolition of cemeteries not listed as of heritage value, I think it is difficult for MPPP to refuse if the building guidelines are complied with.”
At present, anyone intending to excavate cemeteries has to apply to the MPPP but if they fail to do so, the fine is very small, if at all. In all likelihood, if no one complains, MPPP officers could well turn a blind eye. The task of informing family members is the responsibility of the cemetery management – it is not a requirement of the council – and failure to do so would be covered under civil law and might constitute breach of contract between the family and the cemetery management.
The World Heritage Inc office in Penang should think of expanding its reach as part of its terms of reference in protecting sites and structures of historical value. The MPPP for its part should ensure there is consultation with heritage groups when considering applications. It should also carefully assess, review and if necessary, amend its own guidelines and regulations on projects affecting cemeteries.