Conservation of heritage buildings not only represents the single most visible aspect of our past history and culture, it also provides a sense of identity and continuity in a fast-changing world for future generations.
This was the reason behind Encomas Sdn Bhd spending 18 painstaking months to restore the beauty and nostalgia of a 120-year-old derelict building and transforming it into the hip and trendy Caffe Diem @ Pekan Cina, the first homegrown third-wave specialty cafe in Alor Setar, Kedah.
Its efforts in preserving the character and a living piece of history garnered the developer the prestigious FIABCI Malaysia Property Award 2018 under the Heritage (Restoration/Conservation) category.
“We are proud to have ‘accidentally’ generated a new lease of life for a historical landmark, which then brought about a domino effect for the entire town,” laughed Encomas managing director Datuk Rick Cheng.
“It has yet to fully sink in that Caffe Diem was the catalyst that set off the transformation of Pekan Cina or China Town, the earliest town in Alor Setar, into a vibrant tourist enclave.
“But now that we have won, we have to perform even better for the recognition comes with great responsibility. The accolade, the first for Alor Setar, is not only for Caffe Diem alone but also for the whole Pekan Cina community,” he said.
Caffe Diem owner Jackie Loo added that the recognition would further inspire other like-minded entrepreneurs to come in and develop the area. This would add variety and spark visual interest within the town.
“Like people, buildings too have stories to tell. More so for heritage architecture that form an integral part of a place’s charm and character. We are honoured to have restored the building into a living museum for the enjoyment of all,” he said.
The most unique part about Pekan Cina is that it is located next to Pekan Melayu (Malay Town), making it a symbol of racial harmony where everyone co-exists peacefully. Enjoying a strategic duo frontage in the heart of Pekan Cina, the said building was constructed by the British Malaya as a prison in 1896.
As the site faced Jalan Penjara Lama, it was named Penjara Lama (Old Prison Building). Standing regally with stunning Roman architectural influences, most of the double-storey buildings along Jalan Penjara Lama were built around the 1800s.
Before the Japanese occupation of Malaya in 1941, the prison was relocated to its current premises at Jalan Sultanah and the old building was sold to a private owner from Penang. The new owner divided the ground floor into four smaller shoplots.
The first and second lots (from the left) were leased to a salted fish merchant, third to a tobacco leaf trader and fourth to a vegetable cum provisional shop owner with the company name Keow Hin & Co, of which the name is still preserved at the front of the building.
The entire first floor that used to house the three prison cells were converted into an opium den, and when opium was banned, the owner turned the den into budget rooms. He occupied the master bedroom with his family and the rest of the rooms were leased out to labourers working at and around Pekan Cina.
For the last 30 years, the lot that was previously occupied by Keow Hin & Co was rented out as a noodle shop while the rest of the building was left abandoned.
The ownership of the building had changed hands several times over the decades until Encomas took over in 2014.
The 120-year-old structure, which had been abandoned for the last 30 years, was restored to its former glory based on the sustainable concept of “going back to basic, simplicity and our roots.”
According to Cheng, the objective was to retain the building’s old-world charm as much as possible using traditional craftsmanship for “we want the building to stand tall for another 100 years and more!”
The tedious restoration works commenced in late 2014 under the expertise of architect cum designer Ar Muhamad Azimin Shafie of Azimin Architect.
The contractor was the father and son team of Cheng Meng Chia and Cheng Ching. They have worked on some of the shop houses in Pekan Cina before and are thus familiar with the architectural design.
Some 80% of the timber was infested by termite, including the timber louvre window, while 30% of the concrete slab on the first floor needed to be replaced. Whatever that could be salvaged was recycled into various furnishing for the cafe.
The developer decided to cover the open air courtyard with a laminated low-E glass and steel beam structure to invite natural light and ventilation into the building.
The whole premises was installed with 100% LED bulbs to save energy and water-efficient taps and dual flush sanitary ware to conserve water. The interior was “greened” with odourless low VOC paint.
These green initiatives earned Caffe Diem the distinction of being the first in Kedah to be recognised with the GreenRE Silver Certification for non-residential category. It also won the PAM Award 2017 (Conservation).
Besides construction challenges, Cheng said one of the main difficulties was getting the right skilled workers for the job as craftsmen with traditional skills are a rare find in this modern age.
“The two wooden staircases were handcrafted to the exact measurement from 120 years ago. Such were the details and passion that went into preserving the building.”
The first floor is converted into a single big room – The Tunku Room – to cater to private functions, and the master bedroom that was once the home of the former owner into a private dining room – The China Room – since Caffe Diem is located in Pekan Cina.
The Hanging Perahu Kedah at the enclosed double-volume courtyard is yet another eye-opener with three large traditional row boats suspendd from the glass roof.
This room was created in memory of the Founding Father of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj ibni Almarhum Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah (1903 – 1990).
“As Kedahans, this is a very meaningful room for us. Caffe Diem through the creation of The Tunku Room is proud to present our very own Anak Kedah, who from a humble prince rose to become the Father of Malaysia to all Malaysians,” exclaimed Cheng.
Hanging on the walls are photographs of Tunku, his framed signature and handwritten article. The cafe had also hosted Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, both Anak Kedah, last year.
The premier used to operate a clinic in Pekan Melayu just across the street back in the days.
With its walls painted China red to evoke the nostalgic feeling of the good old days, The China Room is infused with local culture and contemporary arts.
All the paintings exhibited, depicting the local scenes of our multi-racial society, are by Kedah-born artist Lee Choon Kooi.
Occupying the middle of the room is a handmade trapezoid table and hanging above it are five beautifully handcrafted Chinese lanterns by Ipoh-born artisan Chuen Mun Wai. The white opium day bed is now for patrons to sit back and relax over a good cuppa and delectable cakes.
The China Room with its local flavours and influences is a clear reflection of Encomas and Caffe Diem’s unwavering support for the local art scene and culture.
Hanging Perahu Kedah
This masterpiece was the brainchild of the project architect who suggested that “we should hang something meaningful that represents Kedah rather than some expensive chandelier.”
The boats, which were at least 90 years old, were owned by a pakcik (uncle) who lives along Anak Bukit River. They were used by his great-grandfather and grandfather as the main transportation mode in the early 1900s.
The perahu were lovingly restored to their pristine condition by former traditional perahu maker Md Amin Bakar. “We not only want to preserve the history of the Perahu Kedah but also the trade of yet another slowly dying craft,” added Cheng.
Everyone is welcome to walk in and admire the intricate architecture and the various unique exhibits housed within Caffe Diem, specifically The China Room, The Tunku Room and The Hanging Perahu Kedah.
“We would also constantly host arts and cultural events such as photography exhibitions and book launches, especially on the works of our local artists and artisans. The back lane that used to be a drug addict haunt has been trans- formed into a safe communal space where we would have local bands and school orchestras performing,” quipped Loo.
Cheng said it had always been their intention to make Caffe Diem and its surrounding the focal point of the community besides promoting local art, culture, heritage and history to attract more people here.
“With conservation, preservation and green in mind, we are delighted to have rejuvenated Pekan Cina through Caffe Diem, which is more than just another cafe.
“It not only upholds the highest form of coffee appreciation but also for architecture and all its processes. It aspires to make friends through a great cuppa and build a community through history.”
Caffe Diem was established by Loo in May 2013 and was previously operating from its old premises an alley away. The cafe boasts an impressive clientele comprising royalties, dignitaries and celebrities.
Loo shared that the daughter of Keow Hin & Co, one of the previous tenants of the Old Prison Building, visited Caffe Diem recently.
“The lady, who was in her 90s, started sobbing as she was walking up the stairs and admiring the well-restored interior. She related how she used to live here more than 70 years ago.
“She was telling us where she hid during the Japanese Occupation and how Japanese soldiers looted her father’s shop. It is touching stories like this that gives the building life and must be documented for future generations.”
True to its mantra “Inspired by the past, built for the future”, Encomas believes that rehabilitating heritage is a form of architectural expression as much as it is an integral element of cultural safeguarding and community building.
A third generation family business specialising in construction, property development and investment since 2000, the Old Prison Building is the Kedah-based developer’s first restoration project.
“Encomas has acquired another two heritage buildings in Pekan Cina. Restoration works have started for one of the premises which will also be turned into an F&B outlet.
“Heritage conservation is a slow and tedious process. We don’t have a blueprint to guide us, we just have to overcome whatever challenges with every layer we unearthed. But we have proven that heritage preservation can be lucrative in the long run,” said Cheng.