Restoring a 119-year-old temple cloth banner in Penang’s first textile conservation project

AN antique cloth banner that is 119 years old and quite worn out in a Chinese temple in George Town is now being restored and conserved.

This is being done through a collaborative project by George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), Hong Kong Street Tow Boh Keong Temple and Artlab Australia.

They are organising the first Textile Conservation Community Training for the local community with the help of Artlab Australia principal textiles conservator Kristin Phillips, who is the workshop conductor.

For a start, the temple’s cloth banner, measuring 3.5m long and 65cm wide, is their focus of attention as she guides local volunteers for two weeks on how to restore and preserve it in the training programme.

The cloth, with the images of Eight Immortals and the words of Nine Emperor Gods in Chinese characters embroidered in gold threads, was given much attention by the previous Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng when he visited the temple in 2017, according to temple advisor Datuk Seri Choot Ewe Seng.

Even the names of donors were also seen on it. Temple authorities are unsure whether the cloth banner came from China or was hand-sewn in Malaysia.

Phillips showing Yeoh (in coat), Choot (second from right) and other temple officials the delicate work they have done to help restore the 119-year-old cloth banner. Looking on is Dr Ang (left).

“He (Lim Guan Eng) saw the cloth was in dire straits. GTWHI then took the initiative to collaborate with Artlab. We’re the oldest Tow Boh Keong temple in South East Asia, having existed for 177 years. And this is the first time in history that the government, public together with foreign experts are involved in this joint project,” Choot said.

“I want to thank the state government for its relentless support and GTWHI for getting an expert here to train locals on textile conservation works.”

Phillips, who has 30 years of experience in textile conservation and is responsible for preserving and conserving the artefacts at the art galleries and museums of South Australia, is also involved in conversation programmes and trainings in countries such as Indonesia, India, East Timor and Malaysia.

She has also worked on numerous textile projects, including a conservation project in Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum for the clothes worn by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi when they were assassinated, and the Eureka Flag which was designed during the Eureka Rebellion in 1854.

She was also involved in several projects on Chinese banners, such as treatment for the custom-made Beechworth Chinese Banner dating back to 1873 at Burke Museum, Australia.

Part of the design on the cloth banner.

“This fragile textile must be saved for the future so that it can play its part and tell the stories about the people of Penang,” Phillips said.

“We’ll need to do about 100 to 200 hours of stitching. We’ve put a new lining of similar colour to support the old one. We use very fine thread to fill the holes.”

When Phillips departs for Adelaide, the task will then by led by Annie Lee, a conservation studio coordinator at GTWHI. She has received training in conservation works in Japan and has the experience of helping to preserve building plans from the British colonial period.

As and when the need arises, both Phillips and Lee will communicate via Skype. When the work is completed, the banner will be displayed in a casing inside the temple.

State Tourism Development, Heritage, Culture and Arts Committee chairman Yeoh Soon Hin said the state government was glad to see GTWHI establishing a partnership with international experts, providing a chance for the local community to learn basic textile conservation skills.

GTWHI cultural and heritage officer Ng Xin Yi (right), Lee and Phillips admiring the beauty and intricacies of the designs.

“It’s very rare to find textile conservators locally, and there are many precious textile collections by the local community that require conservation. Therefore, this project aims to enhance the local community’s understanding in textile conservation, helping them to be actively engaged in the conservation process,” Yeoh said.

“This project, which is sponsored by the Penang government at a cost of RM130,000, was implemented on Jan 15 and would complete by August this year.

“Through this project, the state government hopes that the relationship and cooperation with our sister city of Adelaide could be further strengthened.”

GTWHI general manager Dr Ang Ming Chee said they were delighted when Artlab responded favourably to their invitation and willingness to share their knowledge on object conservation with Penangites.

“On Dec 11, 2017, GTWHI also signed a memorandum of understanding with Artlab and this project is the outcome of the cooperation from the memorandum.

“Eleven local participants will be involved in the voluntary work to learn textile conservation techniques from Kristin Phillips. Coming from various backgrounds, the volunteers include cultural practitioners, the media, students from art institutions, archaeology postgraduate students, representatives from the temple and also staff from GTWHI.

“I hope they benefit from this workshop and will play a role in the local development of textile conservation and preservation, as well as raise public awareness.”

Story by K.H. Ong
Pix by Adleena Rahayu Ahmad Radzi