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Tuesday, 1 November 2011


I suspect, Penang as a state and George Town as a city may have the most amount of art galleries/art spaces compared to other states and cities in Malaysia. The last time I count, it was 24. But before anyone gets jealous, I have to admit that when it comes to art and art galleries, it is not the quantity that really counts. It is the nature and quality of engagement that matter most.

Yet I can't help feeling a bit excited and having this little temptation to brag a bit about the numbers. Perhaps it is a sign that George Town is rejuvenating, in this case, culturally or artistically. Even Huzir Sulaiman, whom I met during recent opening reception at Narrel's China House place, felt and said the same thing - George Town is emitting an exciting new vibe now.

Enter the Dragon. "Underword II" by Hirzaq Harris, which will be a new addition to MGTF USM Fine Art Collection, thanks to Nazli and Hirzaq.
One good signification of such vibe is Narrel's China House. Few weeks ago, I went to this house at Beach Street with my friend, Nazli Aziz from the Chandan Gallery KL. Nazli was there to arrange a contemporary  art show from his gallery at this new space. The show, called "Signs, Symbols & Icons" features works by Hirzaq Harris, Najib Ahmad and Anisa Abdullah (Nazli calls her Arab). Before that, I only heard about this new place from Kevin Mark Low and Sali Sasaki, plus few others. Everyone was telling me to see the place. I have to thank Nazli for bringing me there. How ironic, it took a KL guy to show me a new gem in George Town (or perhaps, it shows how much I've been busy doing my own thing, I forgot about enjoying others).

Looking through the window of Narrel's gutsy spirit
Narrel was not around the first time I went to her place, so I had to rely on Nazli to show me around. Mannnnn.....I was blown away.  Ok, I know, I'm no expert in old shop house architecture or anything with the tag 'heritage' on it. But this China House really blew me away when I first explored it's interior with Nazli. Narrel's gut in investing in such place, and her creativity in transforming the building were really inspiring.

The gallery on the upper floor
China House is consisted of two blocks of old shop houses with a restaurant and bar on the ground floor and a gallery on the upper floor. There are also few rooms and living space on the upper floor, perhaps suggesting possible artist-in-residence program in the future.

Narrel has a 'midas touch' when it comes to old buildings, especially in regards to adding value to it's existing structure and interior (rather than merely conserving, preserving and replicating). I am all for creative (yet respectful and well-informed) interpretation of heritage, rather than straight-jacket replication.

Retro vespa at the five foot front of the restaurant
For me, heritage is more than just blindly following certain heritage building codes and technicalities. Such obsession may sometimes turn one into an efficient machine (or worse, self-appointed heritage 'police') without heart. One may only be good in finding technical faults (or make others feel guilty and bad) rather than nurturing love, respect and honor, as well as inspiring and motivating others to creatively engage and interpret heritage according to their own terms.

Heritage should not be turned into a misguided 'religion' with inflexible rules, blindly-imposed prohibitions and a long list of 'dosa'(sin) to be avoided (or risk being harassed as 'berdosa besar' by pious heritage 'police'). That's bad PR for heritage.

Instead, heritage should be taken as rooted in spirit and attitude rather than mere formalistic flair. Narrel's place emits such spirit and attitude. The form simply follows naturally (and creatively without being to 'stiff').

Narrel's has a taste for allowing heritage to be 'as it is', old with dignity and rustic elegance (no need botox), down to earth, not too formal, no need to be too patronizing, no need make up and superficial polishing, and most importantly, no need to be preachy. 

Back to China House, the real gem of the place is its length. At the tail end of one of the blocks, there is an adjoining backyard garden with another block behind. One can walk through the restaurant, pass through a cozy mini library, pass through the backyard garden (with a soothing pool!), past through a kitchen space plus some storage space and workers' quarter, into the back entry of another old shop house. This shop house has been transformed into what seems to be an antique furniture shop or gallery with a mini performing art space on the upper floor. Phuhhh.....crazy and cool giler. Anyway, the place is best experienced, rather than read about.

Ground floor, view towards the mini library
Restaurant and bar
Saliva dropping taste
Natural light with black board
A view of the upper floor gallery with lots of natural light coming from the roof
The exhibited works
Since I'm a bozo when it comes to architectural jargon or heritage technicalities, it is safer to simply show some pictures. After all, Penang already has so many heritage heroes and heroins as well as heritage experts/activists who can do the explaining (or lecturing) better.  

Narrel by the way, has already opened few exciting new spaces around the Armenian Street. There are Straits Gallery, a craft and gift shop, a cafe, and few blocks of boutique-type hotel (again, old shop houses, this time converted into a line of self-sufficient apartments). I've been to one where Nazli was staying. Before that, Kevin and Sali also stayed in one of the blocks.

My reaction as I inspected the space,!!! Anyone interested in experiencing the 'wow!' is welcomed to spend around a thousand more of less per night in one of the apartments. Narrel seems to be the Queen of Armenian Street (or one of the prime movers of art, culture, heritage and tourism) in George Town, just like what she did in Langkawi (Bon Ton).

I wish George Town could have its own unique Malay House of similar excellence and inspiring nature to be shared with the rest of the world. Perhaps, there would be one or two, who knows, may be few at Lebuh Acheh where my very hardworking wife Ana is running her Rozana's Batik and Fine Heart Gallery. Nazli and I had a long talk after our visit at Narrel's place.

Since my first visit with Nazli, I've been to Narrel's China House three times already, with three main routines:

1. Bring friends to see art exhibition on the upper floor.
2. Show around the building, including passing through the whole crazy length of the adjoining shop houses, and
3. Enjoy the subliminal taste of its creamy fat carrot cake and cheese cake (with  ceramel and hazelnut topping) while chatting about inspiring ideas 

The second time I went China House was to attend an opening reception of the show brought over to Penang by Nazli from the Chandan Gallery. Narrel showered my wife and I (and all her guests) with her warm, friendly and generous personality.

Thank you Narrel for stuffing me with your coffee and cakes. You will be seeing my thick face again and again at China House.

(All pictures have been hijacked from Laila's camera and fb album, tq Laila)

Another retro
Upper floor of another shop house - mini performing art space with plenty of space
Retro again
Chairs for the audience
One of Arab's works (blame Nazli for calling her Arab).....collecting red dots