George Town’s secret courtyards, known only to the locals


George Town’s secret courtyardsRattan and bamboo screens made by local craftsmen to adorn a courtyard

If you wander randomly around George Town’s Little India, you might stumble upon across a manicured courtyard hidden away down a back lane. Or you might not.

These ‘secret gardens’ are not easy to find. They aren’t on any tourist map, and are tucked away in places where no one ever goes to – unless they have a reason to.

They were built for the local people by Think City, a Khazanah Nasional subsidiary tasked with community-based urban regeneration of George Town.

Its programme manager Daniel Lim said there was no publicity as the courtyards are meant to be for local use.

The first two courtyards have just been completed while the other two will be ready by year-end. It was a remarkable transformation from overgrown and dirty courtyards to chic gardens that anyone would be proud to have in their home.

The idea is not just to clean up the space and make it nice, but also to help build a stronger community through a sense of civic pride and ownership.

As Lim said, people might feel more encouraged to use a beautiful place well, and keep it clean unlike an unkempt alley full of rubbish. It could help stir rejuvenation in the neighbourhood.

That was why so much care went into making these courtyards, to ensure that they suited the requirements of the local community. Numerous consultations were held.

George Town’s secret courtyardsHence, in one courtyard, a low platform was built to allow the space to be used as it always had been – by a hawker to cut potatoes and prepare other ingredients before he goes on his rounds.

A small ramp was also built so he could continue parking his van there, as he had always done. Chairs repurposed from old wood, an old wooden stairway and a row of pretty rattan lanterns were added to turn the place into a charming oasis.

The designs are different for each courtyard. Another one had rattan and bamboo screens set up around it, and a tidy corner for a herb garden that had always been there.

Existing prayer shrines are left untouched while the cement floors have been repaved for better drainage.

Mr Lim said the design was deliberately kept simple.

“We use the things that are already there, and incorporated local heritage. For instance, the bamboo screens were made by local craftsmen,” he said. “The design is kept neutral as it’s intended for everyone of all races.”

The items are also mobile so that they can be moved to another site if the land owner decides to use the courtyard for other purposes.

The courtyards have been a hit.

Residents are happy that their backyards have become clean and decent enough to use, or just to sit around in the evenings.

A resident, who wanted to be known as Ah Soon, said their courtyard used to be so dirty with fallen leaves that they had to clean themselves. Rainwater used to pool in their backyard but the new cement flooring has provided much better drainage.

“It’s so much more spacious and brighter now,” she said. She has run a coffee shop in a shophouse there for the last 40 years.

They did not pay anything as the cost was borne by the federal government-funded Think City.

Think City was set up in 2009 to manage the RM20 million fund for George Town which had just obtained Unesco listing as a world heritage site.

After a successful trial run in George Town, Think City has now expanded its mandate to Butterworth and Kuala Lumpur.

Mr Lim said the courtyard gardens were part of a bigger project for the improvement of Little India.

“The people had asked for the backlanes and courtyards to be cleaned up,” he said. “It’s not to take away the existing use but to improve it.”

Maintenance of the courtyards is the responsibility of the community.

Mr Lim said several arts groups have also asked to hold events there. This was under consideration as the courtyards are meant to be for local use and not taken over by outsiders. If allowed, the events must reflect the local neighbourhood culture, and be inclusive.

These secret gardens point to how well George Town has undertaken urban regeneration. Once neglected, its streets have become lively, and dingy lanes and public squares beautiful.

So, the next time you are in its Little India, let your feet wander. You might just find a secret garden.


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