Driving along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah in Georgetown, Penang, one day, I noticed an old building in a state of ruin, in the area that is known as Millionaire’s Row – the stretch of street where a row of large mansions line the shoreline along the former Northam Road. The dilapidated building would make a wonderful subject for a horror flick, standing close to the eerie old Protestant Cemetery. With the words “Shih Chung Branch School” quite clearly emblazoned on the façade, it was clear that it was an abandoned school building, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to learn of the building’s fascinating past while doing a search on why and when the building was abandoned.
The building had started its life as the five storey mansion of a wealthy and prominent Penangite, Cheah Tek Soon in the 1880s. It would have been a magnificent sight to behold back then, and was apparently the first five storey mansion built in the Straits Settlements, being referred to as the “Goh Chan Lau” or Five Storey Bungalow by the locals. A book “Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya” published in 1908 was said to draw reference to the mansion as the “the pagoda-like residency of a wealthy Chinaman which is four storeys in height, from the topmost balcony of which a splendid bird’s-eye view of the harbour and mainland is obtained”.
The mansion also played its part in the history of China, being sold to fund Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary efforts, by Cheah Tek Soon’s daughter who inherited the building and was married to a supporter of Sun Yat Sen. With the sale of the mansion to a rich local merchant Tye Kee Yoon in the 1910s, the mansion began its life as the Bellevue Hotel, which with an intended reputation for luxury, service and comfort, could have epitomised the Romance of Travel at the turn of the century, and came to be popularly known as Raffles-by-the Sea.
A search through a digitised database of the Straits Times would yield several advertisements for the hotel which provide some insight into its clientele – one in 1912 reads: RAFFLES-BY-THE-SEA Penang. A SELECT UP TO DATE FAMILY HOTEL Under the direct management of the English Proprietor and Proprietress, situated in the best part of Penang, with an unequalled view of Hills and Sea. A suitable Establishment for Ladies visiting Penang alone.” Alas, although the intention was to mimic the luxury offered by the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, complete with afternoon teas on the lawn, the hotel was maybe a little less successful than the owner had envisaged and it closed a little later.
In the 1920s, the building was leased to be used as the Government English School. What is known however is that the building began the final stage of its life as the Shih Chung Branch School after the Second World War. News reports point to the building being abandoned when the Shih Chung Branch School relocated to Sungei Nibong. When? Well, I still don’t know.