“Our history is in danger of disappearing”

Alex Lee

Alex Lee

Founder, Terrapuri Heritage Village

Alex is the founder of Terrapuri Heritage Village, a resort that doubles as a conservation project to rescue and restore centuries-old Terengganu houses.

“I had actually been buying up old houses for years, dismantling them piece by piece, and storing them in my backyard. But only in 2006, did the perfect storm create the right conditions to build my dream resort, when I found a piece of freehold land for sale on Penarik beach. 

My accountant was dismayed. He told me Penarik was not a tourist destination. I was better off investing my money in Langkawi, Bali, Phuket. I stayed firm. It must stay in Terengganu, or else it will disappear. 

The project ended up costing RM10 million. It was hard to get banks to approve the project. I had to sell my properties and my cars to fund it. Some of my staff resigned because they were worried for their livelihoods. People called it ‘Projek Orang Gila’ (Crazy Man’s Project). 

But the longer I worked on the project, the more I was convinced that I made the right call. From doing this, I could see the magic of the traditional houses. They are built without a single nail, using an ancient technique called pasak, so you can dismantle the structures like Lego. Imagine, this kind of innovation existed hundreds of years ago in Asia, yet we worship the West.

During construction, over 5,000 people came to see what we were building. Some, like artist Chang Fee Ming, were moved to contribute gifts: he created kisaran semangat, a unique water feature by the swimming pool that symbolises the cycles of life. Another artist created our logo, free of charge. Their encouragement motivated me to keep going.

Since opening, we’ve developed our own niche fans. This is not a place for everybody. We have more inquiries from foreigners than locals. Locals complain that it’s hot, buruk (Bahasa Melayu for “old”), dark, haunted. I joke, ‘I am a big bomoh and I will scare away all the ghosts!’ But seriously, how come you can travel to Europe and it’s okay to stay in a 600-year-old castle hotel? How do we implant into Malaysians a deeper appreciation for their identity and values? 

Since completing Terrapuri, one of our carpenters has gone on to restore a RM3 million (US$710,000) museum and other houses in Sungai Lembing. Lately, the Terengganu State Government restored Rumah Haji Su, a house at Kampung Losong. Other people started buying and restoring old houses for their own collection. But we have to be careful. The problem comes when foreigners buy them and bring them back to their countries. Even we get a lot of offers. 

During the process, I met so many carpenters, house owners and villagers who opened my eyes to the richness of our local heritage. If nobody champions all this, our history is in danger of disappearing.”

Read more about Terrapuri here.

Meet Wati of Terrapuri here

Photographer and Writer
  •  Alexandra Wong 

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