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  • Izzuddin Ramli

A New Lease of Life for Rumah Kampung

What’s more authentic in the Malaysian landscape than a traditional Malay house?

A Malay traditional house in Balik Pulau.
A Malay traditional house in Balik Pulau. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

Balik Pulau always holds unique experiences for me. The sight of the paddy fields, coconut trees, picturesque beaches and its gracious residents have never failed to transport me to another dimension. It is a natural museum where one can recall the memories of childhood – wading into a canal and catching birds and dragonflies. It is a place where the past enriches the present.

Within the freshness and the authenticity of Balik Pulau’s ecosystem sits a treasure trove of traditional houses withstanding the test of time, their stories waiting to be heard. Eagerly, I walked into the small Malay villages scattered there.

“This is a family house that was passed down through the generations; I am the third,” says Abdul Rahman, a house owner on Jalan Bharu. “The original house was a bit different. I had to do some renovation because the wood of the walls and pillars were decaying. But the Northern style is still preserved.”

Living in a modern concrete house sometimes makes me wonder how much of traditional architecture has been lost. The design-with-nature approach found in traditional Malay houses is best reflected in how the house fits the climate. As I sat cross-legged on the porch or anjung in Abdul Rahman's house, I was stunned by the ingenuity of a design that can’t be rivalled by modern architecture: fresh natural air flows through the main entrance to the core of the house and then blows out through the kitchen windows, cooling the place.

It is the deep understanding of and respect for nature that underlies traditional Malay architecture. One has to have a comprehensive knowledge of nature and ecological balance to build such a place.

“In the old days, people relied on nature for their food, medicine, and building and household materials. They were all obtained freely from the jungle or their backyards. We were very close to nature,” explains Abdul Rahman.

Traditional and hybrid Malay houses can be identified by their roof shapes. The basics are the bumbung panjang, bumbung lima, bumbung perak and bumbung limas. In Penang, traditional houses are known by at least two other specific names based on their unique forms – Rumah Gajah Menyusu and Rumah Bujang Selasar.

Now in Balik Pulau, traditional houses have become major tourist attractions. Abdul Rahman says that many film production companies choose his house as a filming site, especially during the fasting month, to catch scenes of children from different ethnic backgrounds celebrating the eve of Aidilfitri.

Indeed, his house reminds me of my days as a child playing in the yard during Hari Raya. As clichéd as the scene may be, it is something that many of us now long for. While some parts of the house may have been renovated, that authentic feel is hard to miss and was exactly Abdul Rahman's motivation for preserving the house.

In a kampung, it is difficult to distinguish what is public from what is private. I was quite surprised to find that I did not need to park my car outside the house compound when I arrived at Abdul Rahman's as the compound was open and unfenced. This is clearly a reflection of the community’s appreciation of belonging over personal privacy.

Another resident I met, Siti Rohani, says that “neighbours are usually related, cousins or distant relatives; but sometimes they are just friends. Even so, the relationship is like we are relatives. We help each other, exchanging food especially when we break fast.” Back home in my kampung, neighbours drop by through the back door with no one questioning their conduct.

Abdul Rahman's house.
Abdul Rahman's house. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

But there are things that need to be worried about. Modernity, economic demands and the desire for a better life influence people, especially the younger generations, to move to big cities for better jobs. This has left traditional houses to be maintained by the old. Abdul Rahman says even though his son is married and based in Penang, he prefers not to stay in the village and lives in a more developed area instead. As a result, many house owners in Balik Pulau have begun organising homestays for tourists instead of letting their homes rot from disuse.

As the Malaysian timber industry is highly export-oriented, timber such as cengal, meranti, damar laut and petaling – the main materials for traditional wooden houses – are hard to come by in the local market. This poses another challenge for those wishing to preserve traditional houses. The local market is deprived of high-quality hardwood.

“The high cost of timber makes it hard for me to renovate the house, even to change a single floorboard. The best I can do is replace it with a different type of wood that is cheaper,” says Abdul Rahman.

As the community works to maintain its way of life it also makes Balik Pulau’s good qualities – its ecological stability and the gentleness of its people – endure. It is a gem, thinly veiled by modernity.

*This article was first published in Penang Monthly, June 2016.


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