Even before leaving KL, I already knew one place which I wanted to visit - the newly restored Suffolk House at Jalan Air Itam, which was once the former residence of the Governor-General of Penang (then known as Prince of Wales Island) during the reign of our British colonial masters.
So, we paid a visit to Suffolk House which is now managed by an NGO known as Badan Warisan. The sight that met us was breathtaking. It is indeed a magnificient mansion, with a well-manicured lawn surrounding it, and the Air Itam river flowing dramatically besides it. Well, the river looks more like a polluted stream nowadays. I am sure it was crystal blue 250 years ago.
Suffolk House, which was once doomed after decades of neglect, has been restored to its full grandeur through an intensive fund raising campaign by the Penang Heritage Trust. I regretted not taking a better picture of the house with its lovely manicured lawn as the foreground.
Anyway, there is some dispute regarding the actual history of the house. The most consistent version is that it was built by who else than Captain Francis Light, the British East India Company officer who founded Penang in 1786. It is highly likely as Light hailed from Dallinghoo of Suffolk County, East Anglia, hence he aptly named the mansion Suffolk House to remind him of his home country back in England.
The house back then was built within Captain Light's pepper plantation and the naval captain resided there for about eight years before he died of malaria. The British Empire then took full control of the house, making it the official residence of its Governor General for Penang, and even at one time, for the Governor General of the Straits Settlement.
In the years that followed, Suffolk House continued to be the grand old lady of Penang, playing host to numerous social and official events of the British Empire until the 1920s when the Crown decided to sell off the property to a local Penangite, Lim Cheng Teik, presumably a tycoon of the island at that time. That marked the start of the house' downfall as it was then in turn sold off by Lim in 1928 to the Methodist Church of Malaya for the purpose of constructing a Methodist missionary school. In fact, the church petitioned to demolish the house to make way for the school complex but fortunately, the Penang Municipal Councillors at that time rejected the motion. Instead, the church built the school adjacent to the house which still stands until today.
World War 2 then followed where the house was used by the Japanese military administration and after that, the era of neglect began. For some cruel reason, the house was left to rot and declared unsafe for occupation in 1975 as deteriorating conditions hit the peak, on the verge of collapsing.
Fast forward to the year 2000 where restoration efforts officially kicked-off by a group known as the Penang Heritage Trust, with full support of the Penang State Government and I believe also with the blessings of the Federal Government.
View at the top floor of the house, with its magnificient pillars and wide verandahs, typical of colonial mansions built at the height of the British Empire
Fund raising was a monumental challenge as the State government only granted sufficient funds for structural reinforcement. The rest was up to generous contributions by various quarters which trickled in slowly but surely. Just when all hope was lost in completing the restoration, HSBC Bank came to rescue by injecting a cool RM2.5 million which assured the rejuvenation and reincarnation of Suffolk House. It opened its doors to the public early last year and charges RM10 as admission fee. Fair enough as they would need all the money to maintain this grand and stately home.
(To be continued...)