Under The Shadow Of Rent Control
Published on April 12, 2000. News Analysis: Penang 2000: Year Of Living Dangerously
First published in Malaysiankini Apr 20, 2001
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A Tale of Two Women
First published in Malaysiankini Apr 12, 2000; Star Newspaper July 20, 2000
Grandmas Cheah Siew Chee, 80, and Ameena Amnal, 70, have a lot in common although they originally come from different parts of the world. one is from Hui Ann, China’s Fujian province and the other from Satang kolong, Madras, India,
They have not been back to their native villages which they left more than half a century ago. Both came to Penang to join their husbands when they were young. Now at the autumn of their life, they are largely forgotten – living in squalor in the inner city of George Town. Despite their age and poverty, both grandmas are healthy and cheerful – a reminder to many modern-day city folks the many virtue of hard labour and a frugal life. Beneath their humble appearance lies the strength of human spirits and courage.
“I worked in construction sites all my life since I arrived, until my legs were no longer able to bear the heavy load,” said Cheah cheerfully. She was forced to retire five years ago at the age of 74, when she fell and broke a leg while clearing debris at a construction site in Macalister Road. The women of Hui Ann, Fujian Province, used to be a familiar sight in the country. Known for their colourful dress, tenacity and hard work, they were ubiquitous in the construction sites decked out in their distinguished red headdress and coarse blue cotton Samfoo.
In the days when machinery were few and giant cranes unheard off, building materials and earth were moved by hands. Hui Ann women mostly did this heavy work – shuffling earth and heavy loads on their shoulders they toiled ceaselessly. It would be unimaginable for the building industries to be without them. Today few remember them.
We hear success stories of immigrants stepping ashore from crowded hold of junks and steamers with nothing and becoming rich overnight. The late tycoon, Datuk Loh Boon Siew came from Hui Ann and started life in his adopted country as a lowly coolie. How he rose to be one of the richest men in Malaysia is well documented.
Grandma Cheah embodies the long-suffering woman from a period when prejudice was still strong, and women’s rights unheard of. Half a century ago, she boarded a junk and sailed to Malaya to join her husband in Penang. Cheah said she was 32 when she arrived. She was married at the age of 16 into the Koay clan. Three months after wedding her husband came to Malaya and she was left behind in China to take care of her blind father-in-law.
“I was abandoned and left with my in-laws. I didn’t see my husband again until 16 years later when I came to join him in Penang.”
For today’s modern women, it must be unthinkable, how she endured the lonely years living with her in-laws in feudal China. In Penang reunited after the long lapse, the couple stayed in a former horse stable in Noordin Street paying a monthly rental of RM13.50. Since the repeal of the rent control in 2000, the rental has increased to RM62. The leaking roof is patched with wooden boards. The mews have 12 tiny cubicles on the ground floor and 12 on the top floor. There is no bathroom and the two broken down toilets are shared by 24 households.
The common passageway is where they cook and take their bath (wearing sarongs) from taps fixed by the residents. There is no water supply, the residents had to construct the water pipes themselves, she said. She worked at construction sites for RM5 a day until 74, an age when many of us would have gone to meet our maker.
Her husband died a year ago, aged 82. Her only son who is a daily-paid labourer has moved out to a low-cost flat with his wife, leaving their two sons aged 9 and 7 in her care. Last month on International Women’s Day, Cheah was honoured by the Malaysian Local Democracy Initiative (Melodi), a human rights NGO, as the unsung hero of the country. She was given the Penang Builder Award, which reads “In recognition of women’s contributions to the country who were neglected by society.”
Perhaps her biggest triumph is her abundant human spirit and cheerful bearing which has seen her through thick and thin. “It is an inspiration to all who have seen her,” says a young neighbour.
She says the Koay clan’s ancestors (of her late husband) were Muslims. “That’s why when we die, we cannot take pork any more,” (meaning they cannot use pork to pray to their ancestors). Another surprise, like Muslim village doors in rural China, the door of her cubicle is painted green, the only one in Noordin Street.
If not for the fact that the house [she is staying in with her extended family] could collapse and in all likelihood bury some of them, no one could have known that Ameenal Amnal, 70, exists at all. Muda Lane is a short, narrow street of pre-war residential shop houses in a mixed neighborhood of Chinese, Tamil and Muslim families.
There is a toddy shop, Chinese kongsi (clan) house, and Muslim shops. Ameenal’s dwelling is conspicuous for the facade of the upper floor is broken and patched by decaying boards. It is quite a shock to step into the house. The top floor has collapsed completely, corrugated sheets have replaced the roof and large cracks appeared on the walls.
Ameenal says the house has been in this condition for more than 10 years. First the roof collapsed and the family could not afford the RM2,000 to replace it with asbestos sheets. Then the floorboards of the first floor and staircase came crashing down. The family live in three cubicles of plywood and plastic sheets on the ground floor. One cubicle is occupied by her married daughter and her husband, one by her 12-year-old granddaughter, (according to Muslim custom) while she sleeps in the third with the two unmarried sons and the 11-month-old grandson. Another son sleeps on a plank board outside her cubicle.
Blue plastic sheets on the top floor and the cubicle keep the rain and falling debris away. Initially she paid RM70.40 rental monthly, but over the past 20 years the rent was raised and stood at RM112 last year. Beginning this year (2000), the rent was raised to RM900 despite the fact that the place is not fit for human habitation. She says the landloard has given her until April to pay up or face eviction. The family cannot afford it as all the working sons and daughter are earning less than RM500 each.
Ameenal says she has been staying in the house since she came from India 45 years ago and the house has deteriorated year by year. She was married at 20 and soon after her husband left for Penang to work as a stevedore (dock labourer). Five years later, the husband came back to India and brought her to Penang. Her husband died 20 years ago and she has not been back to India at all.
Since her arrival from India she has been working as a domestic help in an Indian restaurant. She cleans the house, serves food and does all menial work without a break until five years ago when age has caught up with her. She earns RM250 a month, she says.
Dressed in her colourful sari and shawls, she cuddles and carries her 11-month-old grandson everywhere she goes despite her advanced years. Still robust and healthy and surrounded by her extended family, the smiling Ameenal is unperturbed about her housing problem, come April when she faces eviction. “I hope the government will give us a low-cost flat in River Road where we only pay RM100 per month,” she says cheerfully.
Author’s note: two years later, the roof of Ameenal’s house collapsed killing her grandson.Ong Boon Keong, head of SOS (Save Our Selves) called a press conference to highlight the plight of the poor and the author’s story. This was reported in the Kwong Hwa Chinese Daily: February 21, 2002
Published on April 10, 2000. News Analysis: Penang 2000: Year Of Living Dangerously
First published in Malaysiankini Apr 20, 2001
Old time visitors to George Town, the capital of Penang, have always come away impressed. Established by the British in 1786 as its stronghold and trading post in the region, it is everything a thriving city should be: a historic environment of residences, shops, religious buildings and civic spaces; varied ethnic groups occupying distinctive neighbourhoods; and overlapping streetscapes with vibrant street life.
While such sentiments might be true some years back, the city today is fast losing its charm as its residents are being moved out and whole neighbourhood of old houses in danger of the developers’ hammer. Accelerating this process is the repeal of the rent control early this year.
“It is a rotten apple still shining outside but if you look inside, the old buildings are abused and awaiting destruction. At night it is a dead city as even the poor are being evicted,” said Alex Koenig, German town-planner, who had spent 20 years in Penang. It is now visible that George Town is turned into a hotchpotch of high-rise, old and new office buildings, haphazardly thrown together, he said.
According to Koenig, any attempt to shift existing urban population into new housing estates away from the urban centre, with the intention to demolish wholesale existing urban fabric for commercial redevelopment has regularly resulted in disastrous urban plight and popular unrest all over the world.
Penang’s famed Campbell Street was once the cultural and commercial hub of the city, said Kee Phaik Cheen, State Tourism, Culture, Arts and Women Development Committee chairman. Despite a major facelift, the street once crowded with late night shoppers is now deserted by 7pm. In a recent festival to revive the street, the state minister pleaded to the shops to open late and close late so that it could be a street of culture and late night shoppers again.
“This is futile, how could it be ever revived when the inner core city is empty, with its residents being driven out?” remarked Ong Seng Huat, deputy director of the Malaysian Chinese History and Relic Survey.
Ong added that Penang was also the cultural and commercial center for North Sumatra and South Thailand for over a hundred years. In recent years the government has destroyed it.
“It is an irony that the authorities are attempting to revive that, calling it the Northern Growth Triangle. When you empty the inner city of its inhabitants, you destroy not only the culture but all the net-working as well,” Ooi Kean Huat, 46, from Noordin Street laments the passing community life of old George Town:
“I grew up here and remember the street is full of passing hawkers, from the ‘mamak mee goreng’ push carts, ‘hokkien mee’, ‘tok tok mee’ (Indian, Fujian and Cantonese noodles) to fish ball soup. From morning till night, we hear the shouts of the hawkers from the bamboo claking of the tok tok mee to the cliking porcelain chimps of the fish-ball sellers.
Ooi says though Noordin Street has a bad reputation as a tough neighborhood, it is so safe that residents do not have to lock their door at night. It is common for four to five families to live harmoniously in one house. Today the street like many in old George Town is not only dead, everything is under lock and key, as nothing is safe.
There was a gradual movement of people leaving the old town as the middle class grows and moves to the suburb leaving a hard core of poor residents taking advantage of the cheap accommodation under rent control since the pre-war days.
On Dec 29 last year Ooi and the street residents got a rude shock when 10 families from four pre-war houses were evicted. Their belongings thrown into the streets and the houses demolished, two days before the repeal of rent control came into force.
“We lost RM200,000 worth of property as 300 officers came and threw everything out into the streets – documents, furniture, everything from TV sets, cooking utensils to the children’s school books,” said Choo Kok Leong.
The episode has thrown the issue of rent control and urban conservation of heritage/historical buildings into sharp relief: An old historical urban centre faces severe development pressure, new unsympathetic intrusions, conversions of residences into offices, overwhelming traffic, developers eager to demolish vernacular treasures.
Choo said his late mother rented the house 70 years ago, paying RM46.50 per month. He shared the house with two brothers and a sister who like him is self employed. The house is work place, office and residence for the extended family. One brother is a tailor, the other a curtain maker, and the sister runs a school transport service while Choo runs a house renovation business.
Trouble began when developers bought up the whole row of pre-war houses in 1983 at RM15,000 per house. In 1995 they were served notices to quit. The case went to court and the case drags on without a settlement. The developer offered RM15,000 as compensation. Choo said it is inadequate.
All office equipment and records were thrown into the street and looted, he said sadly. “We not only lost our roof but our business and livelihood were destroyed.”
Choo who is single now squats with friends who took pity on him. For his brothers and sister who have children, it was nightmarish – to find accommodation with friends and new schools for the children, he said sadly.
“We will do a Noordin-Street on you” has become the war cry of the developers to threaten recalcitrant tenants, said Choo.
Undaunted, the residents have mobilised and formed an association called “Save Ourselves” (SOS) to fight for their rights and seek justice. Their main complaint is while there is a glut in middle and luxury condos, alternative cheap housing could not be found for the poor evicted. Penang’s NGOs and urban conservation and heritage groups have rallied to the support of SOS.
Rents have gone up from an average of RM60 to RM1,200 per month. Other commercial premises have gone up as high as RM4,000 while pay up or eviction notices are served. So far peaceful protests were staged, asking Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon to intervene. Fearing resumption of the “Noordin Street eviction” after expiry of the three-month quit notices, a homeless night vigil was staged on March 31.
The all-night vigil turned into a political rally when all opposition parties descended on Noordin Street to lambaste the government for ignoring the poor and homeless. The crowd broke out in loud applause when KeADILan conveyed a message of support from jailed former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim. “Be resolute, your fight for justice will prevail,” it says.
Koh finally relented and agreed to meet SOS on April 1 to find a solution. In a subsequent meeting last week, he agreed to look into the wider issues of the poor tenants, their livelihood and aspects connected to the inner city.
Kak Wan Visits Penang’s Poor
First published in Malaysiakini April 28, 2000
People came out in their Sunday best – octogenarian grandmothers, curious children, the lower working class and poor tenants facing evictions.
“Is the Agung’s (King) wife coming to see us?” grandma Cheah Siew Chee, 80, asked curiously.
“It is Mahathir’s wife who is coming,” quipped her eight-year-old grandson.
“Not quite,” said an older lad, “It’s the wife of the former number two man of the country.”
The office of SOS, an association of tenants fighting against unjust eviction, in Noordin Street took on an air of festivity on a recent Sunday. Its abandoned crumbling pre-war house-cum-reception hall was spruced up with a long a long table with white table cloth. Nyonya cakes and bottles of spring water lined the table.
Banners were strung across the entrance. The young and old held placards of welcome and thanks. “Selamat datang YB Ahli Parlimen Permatang Pauh Datin Wan Azizah ke pusat SOS untok memahami kesusahan Rakyat…” [Welcome the Honourable Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh Lady Wan Azizah to SOS Centre and understand the hardship of the People” a banner proclaimed].
“It must be the biggest event Noordin Street has seen in recent years”, said a mother on her way to work. It was nine o’clock in the morning. “I can’t stay to meet her as I have to work but my mother is here to see her,” she said.
The sea used to come right up to one end of Noordin Street, heartland of old George Town’s Fujian community. It was home to seafarers and women construction workers in distinctive red head-dress, unloading cargo and shouldering loads at building sites.
Right up to the 1970s the old sea dogs plied their bat-sail junks carrying charcoal from Thailand and Sumatra. Now, most of the old sea dogs are gone, and those alive are in their 80s. The women tend to out live the men. They are out in their best clothes to welcome an important guest this morning.
Like its old residents, Noordin Street today is half way to its grave. If developers get their way, the neighborhood will face demolition and the community dispersed. Many are unsure if they will get low-cost housing or be made homeless overnight.
Eighty year old Tan Choot and a dozen of her neighbours of her age were ready since nine to welcome ‘A Very Big Shot’, she said. Like many of the old women present, grandma Tan was a labourer all her life since she migrated from China, over half a century ago.
She thought the VIP visitor was the King’s wife, somebody with the power to get her a low-cost flat. She was overwhelmed with emotion when Keadilan President Wan Azizah Wan Ismail stepped into her tiny cubicles converted from a horse stable. Without bathroom and proper toilets, the mews is home to 24 households.
“Oh God! Have mercy. Find me a new house… I’ll be homeless,” she wailed and shook with despair. Wan Azizah kindly sat her down and fanned her. She calmed down.
“I remember when I was young, visiting Penang… how beautiful it was,” the MP told the crowd of residents.
“This is the soul of George Town. How can we call ourselves caring when people are evicted and made homeless? How can we called ourselves a caring society when the poor and old are forgotten?”
“We are the people, we have the power and political will. We have come here to support you,” she added to the cheers of the crowd.
Grandma Tan Choot lifted her hands skywards and thanked Heaven profusely.
Wan Azizah is the wife of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Throughout the ordeal when her husband was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for 6 years she managed to hold the family fort and even won parliamentary elections. In the general elections in 2008 her eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah just out of college, toppled the stalwart of UMNO’s women’s wing and entered Parliament. It was a ‘David and Goliath’ feat, the biggest upset of the elections!