Architect and urban planner Dato’ Seri Lim Chong Keat had a vision for Penang in the eighties and a special one that superseded his past projects including the Singapore Conference Hall and the Jurong Town Hall. His dream was to revitalise Penang with an unprecedented mega project that took place in the very core of the state namely George Town.
Komtar, a 65-storey tower that overlooked the city of George Town was only one-fifth of the then government’s plan to enlivened the sleepy town into a modernised hub for Penangites – that included another Komtar lookalike in Sia Boey, an area located next to the Prangin Canal in George Town. The other phase was a four-storey podium that surrounded the tower and catered to local businesses. Despite a decade spent in executing the first two phases and the million ringgit invested, the mega plan fell through and the land that was cleared out for this project was left empty – only to be taken up by 1stAvenue Mall and Prangin Mall in the years to follow.
‘The Lost Giant’, the brainchild of a collective group of Penangites from all walks of life, was an ode to what Komtar could have been and what was left of the tower today. The team included photographer Wei Ming and Xujen Teoh, filmmaker Boon Huai, designers Alvin, Jamie and Choco, gardeners Vin and Jannminn Foon, musician Cheong, artists Bibichun and Ammar Khalifa as well as entrepreneur Shawn Tan.
Following the opening of ‘The Lost Giant’ exhibition, photographer Wei Ming was overwhelmed by heartfelt responses from Penangites who were hit with similar waves of nostalgia about the iconic landmark. ‘In the ‘90s, people hung out and met their friends at Komtar. It was a central point for the younger generations then’ said photographer Wei Ming and he added it also attracted real stories that were unheard of. ‘There was an uncle who came and he showed us a 1930s map of Penang before Komtar was built. His school, Chung Hwa Confucian School, was one of the places that was knocked down to give way to the Komtar development’.
Dato’ Seri Lim Chong Keat graced the opening of the exhibition and shared that the Dewan Tunku Geodesic Dome was conceptualised by the late American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, whom he dubbed as ‘the Leonardo Da Vinci of our time’. It was also known to be his last international project before Fuller passed in 1983. A fact unfamiliar to most, the geodesic structure included a squash court, a badminton hall and exhibition space fit for a game of tennis and futsal. Old Peranakan ceramics and tiles were also found while unearthing the construction site of Komtar.
‘Finding Laputa’ was a personal favourite of Wei Ming. It was a photograph that depicted Komtar shrouded by wild, untrimmed greenery. ‘It was taken from Sia Boey Market where the trees were overgrown and it was hazy. We called it ‘Laputa’ because it symbolised the legendary lost empire in the sky. This was my version of ‘Laputa’ and what Komtar was like after abandonment’.
Echoing the two-decade abandonment of Komtar, the tallest tower in Penang caught the eye of the state government as they announced a partnership with Penang Development Centre (PDC) for an RM40 million project to revitalize Komtar. The idea consisted of retail and commercial spaces, food and beverage outlets, a banquet hall, a sky lounge and a viewing deck. Wei Ming also chipped in an idea or two. ‘The good thing about Komtar is the accessibility. We could gather a group of young designers and students to set up an artist residency within Komtar’.
This article titled ‘The Lost Giant of George Town’ was published on my Penang in 2014. Kindly refer to this link to view from its original publication.
Image courtesy of Marcus Tan via Flickr