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The Penang team playing tourists at the Ernest Zacharevic’s mural ‘Children on Bicycle’ on Armenian Street, painted for Georgetown Festival 2012. Left to right: Raisa Kamila, Juno Ooi, Napong Rugkhapan, Lawrence Chua and Simon Soon. with Sam I-Shan missing in action.

Early on when the Penang team of Site and Space in Southeast Asia began planning for our first field school in Penang, each team member was called upon to nominate a site or an area that is related to their research interest. This helped us to narrow down a list of sites that we wanted to think collectively together, even if each specific site might not be of central importance to every participant’s project.

In September 2018, the first field trip had the broad ambition of learning through being on-site, learning how to work together as a team and becoming real friends, as well as reach out to significant knowledge producers in Penang. Besides spending a lot of time visiting different places in Penang, we bonded with each other just as we were also engaging with senior academics, institutionally affiliated and independent researchers as well as state officials. More importantly, we felt that it was crucial to reach out to various cultural workers in the heritage sectors and members of the contemporary art scene. In brief, here’s a list of sites we are able to cover:

Napong ‘Tao’ Rugkhapan provided the much needed ‘buka panggung’ (opening the arena) by offering a tour of the core heritage zone of George Town and an overview of current heritage discourse and practice. This was analysed alongside the stories found in a number of steel-rod sculptures ‘Marking George Town’, a Penang State government commission to celebrate George Town’s UNESCO listing in 2009.

Malay Mosque, Acheen Street, early 20th-century postcard.

Raisa Kamila took us from Kapitan Keling Mosque to the Malay Mosque on Lebuh Aceh to explore the cultural factors that contributed to Penang’s early-twentieth-century Islamic cosmopolis – encompassing films, novels, religious reformation, and Penang’s ties and connections to Cairo, Istanbul, Aceh, and Medan.

Originally called Northam Lodge, the mansion was built by the prominent architect James Stark in 1911 for the rubber and sugar planter Heah Swee Lee.

Lawrence Chua conjured the spoils of Penang’s compradors by conducting a walking tour along the millionaire’s row on Sultan Ahmad Shah, mansions and villas built along northern coastline to illustrate the architectural anomalies as a possible departure point to explore composite spatial designs that are evidence of competing cultural values negotiated through building design.

Five leprosy camps were built on various pieces of flat land on Pulau Jerejak. Featured in Mike Gibby’s Jerejak: Penang’s Untold Story (Entrepot Publishing 2018)

Sam I-Shan pointed our attention to Jerejak island, which required us to hire a boat and ferryman from a local fishing village. The story that continues bonds our team is the experience of being chased off Jerejak by Indian gangsters who found our story, of wandering into a seemingly abandoned holiday resort with plastic tulips planted into its sand beachfront, unconvincing.

Early model for Komtar, ca. early 1970s.

Juno Ooi conducted a ‘psychogeographic tour’ into the pulsating heart of Penang’s futurism – KOMTAR tower. Her literary background supplied us with a reading of Penang’s brush with modernism – its ambition and foibles – as well as the possible world-building narratives that can help us make sense of an arcade in the postmodern age.

The group exercise of getting team members to lead each of the site visits above was intended to be a creative one. Though central goal was to survey a diverse range of built environment, to prospect the ecology of a port city and to discover its many historical layers, we felt that doing this group exercise also encouraged us to think of a site as an area that exists or existed amongst others. Thinking of site and space this generously requires imagination on our part as scholars. Needless to say, it’s also a bonding activity all rolled into one.

A week before we came together in Penang, team members were asked to do preliminary research on their chosen site with the idea that when we conduct our field trip, the team member who selected the site would also be the main guide to provide everyone else with an overview of why the site is a subject of interest. This drew on the expertise of each participant, providing us a window into the presenter’s academic background so that we begin to appreciate the strengths and values that each discipline brings to the conversation about site and space.