Political standoff over ‘50, Love Lane’

The impasse between the Penang Chinese Clans Association and the state government over a heritage building in George Town’s inner city has captured the imagination of many Penangites. With no feasible solution in sight, the group is preparing to hold a 100-table dinner that is seen as a show of strength.

Joceline Tan, The Star

CHANG Wei Lu is arguably the handsomest and youngest-looking president that the Penang Chinese Clans Association (PCCA) has ever had.

That is probably because the Chinese clans in Penang are largely dominated by senior citizens whose roots in Penang go back generations.

His presidency is also turning out to be the most controversial in the association’s history and Chang, 55, joked during the interview: “I look old since this issue started.”

He was referring to the “50, Love Lane” controversy which has captured the imagination of many in Penang. The issue has pitched Chang and the association against the state government in a way that has not happened since the 2008 political tsunami.

The Chinese vernacular media has gone to town on the issue which, said a Penang lawyer, is a manifestation of the discontent within the local Chinese society about the state of affairs in Penang.

The whole affair has also acquired a political tone because PCCA, which is the mother body to 82 clan groups, is planning a 100-table dinner next month to explain the issue to its members. The dinner is widely seen as a show of strength by the Chinese clans.

“50, Love Lane” is actually a dilapidated property in the heart of George Town’s heritage city zone. But it stands out for its historical connection to the life and times of the notorious Ghee Hin triad of the 1800s.

The trustees overseeing the buil­ding have died, leaving behind a backlog of unpaid property charges amounting to thousands of ringgit.

PCCA had earlier raised funds to renovate and maintain another Ghee Hin-related property known as Meng Eng Soo Ancestral Temple along Rope Walk.

When Chang became the president of PCCA, he was tasked to settle the Love Lane property so that it could be restored and turned into a museum.

Their public-minded intentions were well-received by a state leader and after several sessions, it was suggested that it would be better for the state to impound the property and then transfer it to PCCA with the proper land title for a nominal sum of RM1.

Chang was told that the papers were in order and were awaiting the final signature of Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. That was when Chang’s headache began because the state government has since demanded that PCCA produce proof that it is the legal beneficiary of the property. In other words, no proof, no approval.

The state government does have a point in wanting to go by the book – the state cannot simply transfer a property without a legal basis. But the PCCA side was infuriated at the turn of events.

“If we had legal papers, there would be no need to go through all those meetings in the first place. The property is a part of the history of the Chinese in Penang.

“We pursued that matter on the basis that we had the goodwill of the Chinese community to convert the property into a meaningful heritage building,” said Chang.

Things took a decidedly political turn during the recent Penang heritage day.

PCCA, which traditionally orga­nises a street festival on that day, had invited former Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon as the guest of honour.

“We normally invite the chief minister, but the state leaders informed us they were not coming. So I went to see Tan Sri Koh who only agreed after I assured him the CM could not come.

“But at 7pm, the day before our programme, the CM’s officer phoned to say they were coming. I could not sleep the whole night. People accused me of playing two sides and some of the Parti Gerakan people wanted to pull out,” said Chang.

The event went on quite smoo­th­ly but the political tone was palpable.

Chang, in his speech, praised and thanked Dr Koh for his role in secu­ring George Town’s heritage city status, Dr Koh attributed it to his team, the national authorities and people of Penang, while the Chief Minister highlighted his successes in the state. Three speeches that brought out the different personalities of the speakers.

But the most memorable moment that day was also the most awkward – Lim was speaking about how the state coffers had grown under him when one of the guests called out: “So much money then why borrow money (from China)?”

Had that happened a few years ago, others in the audience would have shouted the person down but the mood has shifted.

Nevertheless, the “50, Love Lane” issue is in limbo. It has also become a full-blown political issue, with what some say is “lots of tai-chi” going on behind the scenes.

Even going to the toilet can be political – during the heritage event, the PCCA secretary had made a toilet call while the speeches were going on. Within hours, SMSes were flying that Chang’s committee is not with him and his secretary had walked out of the event.

“We are 100% with him, we are very united in this issue. We even want to amend our association’s constitution so that he can continue to serve as president,” said PCCA de­­puty president Datuk Lim Mee Lee.

In Chinese culture, the underdog does not draw sympathy like in western culture, but there is quite a bit of fascination about Chang.

He is no ordinary Joe. He is an extremely wealthy and successful businessman with business inte­rests in China, Singapore and Macau. Although he comes across as rather shy and reserved, his handling of the “50, Love Lane” issue has elevated him in the eyes of the clans community.

The thing is that this is the first time a major Chinese group is standing its ground against the powerful Chief Minister who is still riding on people power.

The 100-table dinner is about taking the issue to the court of public opinion but the concern is that it will exacerbate the standoff.

“We need to clear the air on the Love Lane property. Let the people be the judge,” said Chang.

He has received threats, warning him to watch out and telling him that he talks too much.

He said he has not made any po­­lice reports because he does not want to distract from the real issue but he now goes around with a body­guard.

He intends to tell all at the dinner – the background to the issue, the threats as well as the smear campaign about his academic qualifications and an alleged love affair.

“I am not interested in politics. People tell me the Government will say ‘no’ for as long as I am the pre­sident. No problem, I am prepared to step down if our association can succeed,” he said.