A RM7m beautification project at Sia Boey has generated heated controversy. Koi carp and red tilapia have been literally dropped into a cleaned-up stretch of the original canal, which has been sealed off with fibreglass reinforced plastic, to create a water feature – or elongated pond, as some would call it.
(See photo above) Looks good, ya. Let’s see how long/how well this pond will be maintained – and the costs of the maintenance.
According to one environmentalist, koi carp is an introduced species that is relatively tolerant of artificial or polluted conditions – ideal for domestic ponds and aquariums. The tilapia is known to be a scavenger fish.
Singapore has an opposite approach. When fish species that flourish in clean water – ie species that are intolerant of pollution – are seen, that is a sure indicator that the river is coming alive – and they achieved that in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the usual dirty water along the canal has been diverted to a new canal covered by a concrete walkway. It hasn’t really solved the problem of polluted water landing up in the sea – merely covered it up.
This graphic image has been circulating online:
Some have pointed out that the Prangin Canal was never a river; others argue it was, as the waterway used to drain the mangrove swamps in the large area surrouding it.
Still others have said rivers in Penang tend to slowly and sadly envolve from river to stream to ditch to canal to big longkang (drain). (Change the sequence as you see fit.)
It seems incongruous to me that the state is creating a water feature or pond or whatcheveryoumaycallit in the original canal in the centre of George Town and dropping some fish into it – while the real coastal fishing grounds of native wild fish are being destroyed by massive reclamation around Penang Island. Even aquaculture farms off the coast of southern mainland Penang are worried.
All this reminds me also of the attempt to create an artificial beach at the planned Gurney Wharf on reclaimed land – after many of our original beaches have lost their lustre as a result of misguided development.
The Sia Boey rejuvenation is a far cry from the vision of a cleaned-up canal in an arts and heritage district, as envisaged by some:
The original market could have been turned into a tram station, as part of a cheaper island-wide bus and rail network at street level, see above and below:
But no, SRS Consortium prefers a single and extravagant RM10bn elevated LRT route from Komtar to the airport (along with a RM8bn six-lane highway which will hug and tunnel through the sensitive hill slopes of Penang and degrade two popular public parks). The state government, for its part, wants an LRT terminal to be located smack in the middle of the congested Komtar/Sia Boey area, like this:
Imagine how much more teruk (terrible) the congestion will be with pick-ups and drop-offs in the area. Indeed, it is a severe mistake to turn the Komtar area into a transport hub. Why? Read this.
You want to see real rejuvenation? Hop over to the Sungai Ara Linear Park to see what the local residents have done – without a RM7m budget. Heck, with hardly any budget.
That’s a real cleaner river you see there – definitely not a pond! But the residents’ pride and joy is now being threatened by that six-lane monster highway. Sad, isn’t it?
Check out Khoo Salma Nasution’s version of events at Sia Boey below:
The Prangin Canal revitalisation that could have been
As vice-president of the Penang Heritage Trust and committee member of Penang Forum, I would like to respond to recent allegations made against Penang Forum over the Sia Boey rejuvenation project.
Dating from 1804, Prangin canal was the man-made boundary of early George Town, canalising a river, or rather a creek.
“Sungai Prangin”, spelt in different ways, appears in many George Town maps and early records. The Malay toponym “Ujong Pasir” surely preceded “Siaboey”, the Hokkien name for this area.
Those of us who grew up in George Town remember how food was available around the clock at the wholesale Siaboey market, and how the busses were lined up along the big smelly drain called the Prangin canal.
The Siaboey market sadly moved out in 2000, around the same time that the inner city was being decanted due to the Repeal of Rent Control. Komtar Phase V was derelict for many years. The exposed part of the Prangin canal, with its granite walls was left exposed at the eastern end, but the section in front of Komtar and Prangin Mall had long been covered over.
One could write a whole book about the rich history of this area, but here I would just like to set the picture right about its rejuvenation efforts.
It is obvious that the historic centre of George Town needs a green lung in addition from Padang Kota. As soon as George Town was listed as World Heritage under Unesco, a few of us started to think about how to get Komtar Phase 5 earmarked as a park and open space.
The George Town World Heritage Incorporated was established in 2010 as an agency tasked with managing and monitoring the George Town World Heritage area, although it appears to do little of this now.
Historic plans of old Prangin canal were shown to the first general manager (now executive director of UN Habitat), and as a planner she could see the wisdom of turning the area into a park. She convinced the then chief minister (now the finance minister) that if the place were developed as an extension of Komtar it would be just another development adding to the congestion of the city.
On the other hand, if it was converted into a recreational open space, he would be positively remembered for giving George Town a public park.
As the landowner, the Penang Development Corporation was tasked with bringing the plan to fruition. As members of the GTWHI consultative panel, we were invited to a few meetings and helped to nudge it in the right direction.
Sia Boey Reborn: Penang Heritage Arts District was launched by the former chief minister in September 2015. This proposal included preserving Prangin canal as a water feature, restoration and conversion of the 19th-century Prangin market building into a hawker food court, restoration of the shophouses for food and retail, and the addition of a potentially world-class art museum.
A storm drain diversion had already been planned as a joint flood mitigation measure by MBPP (managing the drain) and PDC (landowner).
A few months into excavation works, rows of neatly arranged granite blocks in peculiar grids were unearthed in October 2015.
The USM Centre for Global Archaeological Research was immediately engaged by PDC for an emergency archaeology to conduct a scientific study of the discovery.
At the same time, George Town historian Marcus Langdon was separately commissioned by PDC to conduct research and study into the rich history of the site and British engineering of the irrigation system, as discovered at the site.
Both USM and Langdon’s findings were presented to former chief minister who was also the chairman of PDC. The recommendation was to preserve the artefacts and to include the findings in the new plan for the site.
PDC extended USM’s appointment and the archaeological team went on to unearth the canal lock, a basin wall, and the footings of a police station. The National Heritage Department was briefed, and the commissioner of heritage made a site visit in March 2016. With the underground discoveries, the abandoned site was enhanced with layers of history.
Just a few months after launching the Penang Heritage Arts District, the former chief minister had a change of mind, and the area was re-designated a transport hub for an elevated LRT line and two elevated monorail lines.
I was invited for a heritage impact assessment for a proposed transport hub in March 2016 and that was the first I heard of the SRS proposal for the Penang Transport Master Plan which had replaced the Halcrow version.
It was a preliminary plan for a gargantuan Sentral-type multi-storey commercial hub with park-and-ride facilities. It was obvious that such a large development right at the edge of the world heritage area would obfuscate the vistas, change the morphological landscape and scuttle the opportunity to create the much-needed open space.
So I joined Penang Forum to learn more about the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). The following month, the Penang Heritage Trust organised a press conference about the Prangin canal.
At the press conference, the present GTWHI general manager explained that she would not comment on the transport hub, whether the effects would be minimal or significantly adverse, as it lay beyond the boundary of the world heritage area.
Earlier, we had great dreams for the park, about how historic structures could be preserved for new uses, how the park would serve the community, and how an eco-system could be revitalised.
Ideally, the project could have been a real river clean-up starting from upstream, to upgrade Sg Prangin from “not suitable for body-contact” to “suitable for body-contact recreational usage”. However, river rehabilitation was not part of the state’s vision from the beginning. The urgent thing now was to save it from being obliterated by the transport hub.
As the state government was unreceptive to our recommendations, Dr Lim Mah Hui of Penang Forum wrote a letter to Unesco to inform them of this major infrastructure being planned in the vicinity of the George Town World Heritage area.
The National Heritage Department, having earlier endorsed the archaeological works, also took the opportunity to convene a meeting about the future of Prangin canal.
The GTWHI general manager, the head of the state think-tank, and a few DAP politicians wrote letters to the press alleging that a pre-emptive strike had been launched against the Penang Transport Council, and accusing Penang Forum of backstabbing, betrayal, treachery and even treason.
This was possibly to distract public attention from the real question Unesco was asking – what would be the impact of the transport hub on the world heritage area?
If not for Penang Forum’s timely action, the PTMP transport hub would have been built over most of the visible Prangin canal and potential park area. Penang Forum did not receive any thanks for its intervention but was instead vilified as “anti-Penang”.
The state decided to shift the proposed LRT Station to the Jalan Magazine side of the PDC land (currently the car park), without reserve space for monorail stations.
Designed in a pseudo heritage architectural style (as shown in the artist’s impression) the LRT station would replace what would have been the biggest privately sponsored art museum in the country. The relocation of the “arts district” upset the art and cultural communities. The dream of an international urban art-park was turned to dust.
In late 2016, GTWHI took over the site management from PDC. The Sia Boey rejuvenation project launched on March 25, 2018.
Compared to the PTMP transport hub proposal, the Sia Boey rejuvenation project costing RM7 million is a welcome alternative. The government should certainly be lauded for providing a pleasant park amenity for the enjoyment of the public.
However, following the initial publicity about a “rehabilitated” Prangin canal or “river” in some of the first announcements, some of us felt duty-bound to point out the fact that no river (open system) has been rehabilitated in the process.
Rather, a section of the Prangin canal structure (the walls inexplicably topped up with new concrete slabs) has been converted into pond (closed system) and filled with water, while the stormwater of the Prangin canal is merely diverted into a parallel culvert.
It just needs to be made clear that this no Singapore river clean-up; it is no Cheonggyecheon (Seoul) nor even a Japanese koi stream.
The public should also realise that due to the misbegotten PTMP transport hub proposal, three precious years were lost, the shophouses are further crumbling, and the “Sia Boey rejuvenation” is, in fact, “Sia Boey reborn, resurrected” – but minus the art museum as the “jewel in the crown”.
If Penang Forum is again called “anti-Penang” for pointing out the truth, so be it.
Khoo Salma Nasution is vice-president of Penang Heritage Trust and committee member of Penang Forum.