Penang's History, My Story | By Wong Chun Wai

The first low-cost high-rise flats built in the country were in Penang

Big complex: There are nine blocks spread over 16.7ha with 3,888 units

Big complex: There are nine blocks spread over 16.7ha with 3,888 units

THE Rifle Range Flats is one of the most densely populated areas in Penang.

Penangites can tell you if you choose to park your car near the flats in the evening, the chances of your car being blocked by other cars is almost 100%.

The likelihood is that the unsuspecting motorist would never be able to get his stuck vehicle out.

The best way would be to return in the morning when the other cars have left.

That’s how sardine-packed the area is.

The almost non-existent parking bays at the flats is simply because the architects of the country’s first high-rise, low cost flats never imagined that the dwellers would be able to afford a car as low-wage earners.

They probably never believed that the living standards of Penangites living at the mostly single-room flats, would improve.

According to blogger Lim Thian Leong, there are nine blocks of 17-storey buildings within an area of 16.7ha, with every floor consisting of 20 units of single bedrooms and four two bedroom units.

With a total of 3,888 units within the flats, the average size of a unit is merely 340 sq ft!

It is not unusual for the rest of the family members to sleep in the living room while the parents take up the only room in the flat.

Because of its high density, the flats remain a politician’s delight, or nightmare, depending on the crowds you can command come election time.

Almost all the big guns (pun intended) show up at Rifle Range during the last leg of the campaign.

Rifle Range Road or Jalan Padang Tembak is one of the main roads connecting Air Itam and George Town.

Popularly known as pak cheng poh, in Hokkein, is so named because the area used to be a shooting range, according to writer-photographer Timothy Lye.

“It was once an open space used as a shooting range by the police and the military.

“The namesake shooting range located next to the Batu Gantong Cemetery made way for the low-cost flats,” he wrote.

The flats were built by the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu when the then opposition Gerakan party swept into power in 1969.

Through the Penang Development Corporation, the Rifle Range flats, designed by a German firm, was built.

Faced with the problems of housing needs for the poor, more flats were then constructed in other areas.

When he took over Penang, unemployment was running at 16% but he created plenty of jobs through the setting up of the Penang Free Trade Zone in Bayan Lepas.

But according to Farouk Gulsara, in his blog posting, in 1964, the national Ministry of Housing and Local Government had already identified two pilot projects in order to try out the industrialised building or prefabrication system (known as IBS).

The first of these projects was in Kuala Lumpur along Jalan Tun Razak (Jalan Pekeliling).

The second pilot project was set in Penang, consisting the construction of six blocks of 17-storey flats and three blocks of 18-storey flats comprising 3,699 units and 66 shop lots along Rifle Range Road.

“The project in Penang was awarded to Hochtief/Chee Seng using the French Estiot System and took 27 months to complete, inclusive of the time taken in setting up the precast factories.

“When Rifle Range Flats were completed in the early 1970s, they were the tallest buildings in Penang.

“None of the units were big ‑ on average they were approximately 36 sq m for intermediate one bedroom units and 38.7 sq m. for two bedroom end units.

“Nonetheless, they provided housing for many hardcore poor. “

The Rifle Range Flats area where Dr Lim chose as a site for the construction of the buildings was not the more preferred choice for residence.

Located next to the Batu Gantong cemetery, it is said that the ground where the flats now stands used to be the burial plot for the mass burying of those massacred by the Japanese during the Occupation.

As a child growing up in nearby Jalan Kampung Melayu, I used to cycle to the flats to meet up with friends.

Even in the late 1970s, there were still cow herds along Boundary Road, which I had to cycle past to reach Rifle Range.

News reports of residents jumping to their death, or more precisely, committing suicide, were regular and when I finally joined The Star as a reporter in the 1980s, the suicides still did not stop, with residents often bringing up stories of those who were buried underneath!

The suicides there were the subject of a book by anthropologist Jean Elizabeth De Bernardi The Way That Lives in the Hearts: Chinese Popular Spirits and Mediums where a medium purportedly claimed that the spirits had to take away 16 lives although at the time of research, there were already 20 victims.

Her cynical research assistant concluded that it was more likely that the victims had taken their lives because they had no work or money.

But less talked about is actually the large number of hawkers and coffeeshops, located at the ground floors of the flats.

There is also a wet market nearby.

As a child, my brother Wong Chun Fong, and I would to go the market every Saturday morning to buy the economy fried bee hoon and the Penang style pan cake, ban chang kuih, made from flour and sprinkled with sugar and groundnuts.

Nothing much has really changed in Rifle Range Flats today.

There would likely be new occupants, as those who have fared better in their lives moved out.

It has remained crowded with a host of social problems from drugs, thefts to gangsterism but the majority of the people are law-abiding, helpful and friendly people.

Despite the density of the area, Rifle Range has remained home to thousands and thousands of Penangites.