Friday, October 08, 2004

Historically speaking

Restoration Posted by Hello

Pic: Man working on restoration works for the Acheen Street Project, refurbishing and modernising the buildings in the Acheen & Armenian street enclave area. Penang, 2003.

Sidetracking a little today, doing an article for Heritage in Malaysia! Long read but enjoy.

Malaysia possesses a rich tapestry of culture inherited from the various communities, races and religions that congregated on our shores till this day. The legacy of the natives, working immigrants and later colonial masters had made us into the unique blend of community we call Malaysians. Aside from the facts of history, the more pressing issue is the status of our cultural heritage today, preservation of architectural remnants, religious and societal practices, lifestyles and values. The modern Malaysia is ever changing and nothing will be able to hold back the tide, it is a natural evolution for a society that is exposed to new technologies, a more global coverage and shifts in styles and trends through the eras. But that doesn’t mean that the past should just give in without a fight. Rather than just turning into a homogenized entity, our distinctiveness should be the driving force in the making of a Malaysian identity, true we don’t always get along but we are the better for it as we enrich each other by our differing views, beliefs and conduct.

For as long as I can remember, our efforts to showcase our culture as part of the World’s collective mosaic have been a sorry effort to say the least. Our two historical townships, that of Malacca and Penang has tried unsuccessfully to be inscribed as a UNESCO’s world heritage sites. Malacca with it’s significance as being the seat of power for the olden Malacca sultanate, one of the very first established power in the Malays Peninsular and later the seat of colonial power from the Bugis, Portuguese and Dutch. Penang an entreport of world class during the colonial era, a stopover first opened by Sir Francis Light and later taken over by the East India Company, was to become the administrative, commercial, metropolitan and cultural center for the region, before being overshadowed by the opening of Singapore. Both places resonate with the huge collective echo of the past, both are rich in architectural significant period buildings, both have played host to important events of significance in our nation’s history, both still boasts a rich community based society whose daily lives, occupation, traditions and beliefs still paint a picture of how these places functioned in the old days. So what are we still lacking?

Well, the first thing is that there is not much of a serious effort in protecting this heritage of our. Rather than seen as contributing to the richness of our society, the past is looked upon more as a hindrance and a roadblock to development, something we should forget and instead rush in to join with the modern. Old buildings with cultural significance have not only been neglected at times but at the most severe instances, torn down in the middle of the night without approval or thought. The very people that makes cities like Georgetown in Penang alive are left out after the repeal of the Rent Control Act (a law that freezes rents for pre-war houses of which Penang has the highest concentration) to make way for more equitable rent prices for the property owners. Traditional crafts and occupations have lost their significance in modern times and many of the younger generations are not interested to continue them. Even rhetoric reasoning has been used to ban performances such as the wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) due to influence of the Mahabrata and Ramayana which is not in accordance to Islam in Kelantan. Folk dances such as the Mak Yong and Kuda Kepang have even been cited as indecent and lacking of morality though it has been a part of the Malay community for ages.

Second there is no central authority to oversee the preservation as well as development of our historical culture. A hodgepodge of societies, action groups and private bodies such as Badan Warisan, the Penang Heritage Trust and the museum and antiquities department are taking up the banner but without a leader, development in this area would remain small time efforts and a cohesive strategy can never be mapped out. Success stories are few and far between while the casualties are high. To date, the good news is that several preservation efforts in Malaysia has won international recognition such as the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in Penang and the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Melaka. These societies also are dependent on donors for funding to carry out their activities whereas a government body would have the necessary mandate, funding and resources to carry out projects more effectively. Without a watchdog to manage affairs, the heritage status is just that, without checks and safeguards to prevent abuses. Recently with the reshuffling of Ministries, two different Ministries were formed from the prior ministry of culture, arts and tourism. One for Tourism and the other is the arts, culture and heritage ministry. With this step it is hoped that matters will be addressed, but to date nothing concrete has been carried out.

Thirdly, us Malaysians ourselves have not taken interest in preserving our heritage. History is not a priority for us because many of us think that it has no relevance in our lives. But famous words were said once “To forget the past is to repeat the mistakes again in future”. Most people would be more eager to read about the latest fashion trends in magazines than to take up a history book. I still wonder if anyone in my generation can truly remember events of the past, even to reflect on the past few decades. Malls are more popular destinations than the numerous temples, association buildings, pre-war buildings and monuments. Events such as the recent concert by Blue have more relevance than say the Baling talks (joint talks between the Government and the Malayan Communist Party). Maybe it’s the way history is being presented to the people, that’s what keeping them away, rather than being user friendly and interesting, history is often presented bland or information hard to come by. I still think they should shoot whoever writes the history books for schools, I can fall asleep after the first page! Our museums are cobwebbed, boring and not well presented. We are no longer intrigued about the battles of the past that portray honour, valor, sacrifice nor question their merits or demerits; we are not inspired by the figures of the pasts, great politicians, social movers, freedom fighters, pioneers and men of arts; we lightly forgot the injustice of oppression, the hardship of poverty, the blood shed in making our nation and the values we can learn from them. If the Americans can make history interesting, a different approach can be used here as well, more well directed documentaries, better education materials, NGOs efforts in getting kids interested, movies and films made as they are more accessible and exhibitions held to showcase.

But I disagree preservation should be for the sake of preservation itself. Preservation without function is a losing proposition. Practices and trade that are no longer relevant will die out, this in inevitable. But to let the skills, experience and wisdom accumulated by generations fade away as such is a sorry state. We don’t want our children to just read about such matters in books, it’s better to allow them direct exposure to a living, breathing culture. We have found various ways to adapt the past into the future, and many are successful in that sense but uncontrolled commercialization of our culture is not the right path. Take for example, Jonker Street in Melaka, beautiful buildings of the past are reconditioned and restored for new uses such as businesses, art galleries and shop lots but at the same time old time businesses are still present such as lotus foot slippers (tiny shoes used by foot bound women in the past), paper effigy making for prayers and traditional crafts being sold as souvenirs while culturally significant buildings are preserved such as Dutch Square (the old administrative center in the Dutch era), St Paul Cathedral (a ruin now but preserved), old religious centers (mosques, temples and kuils) and mausoleums (of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, olden Malay warriors and heroes). A heritage trail has also been set up in conjunction with corporate sponsors to highlight these attractions. The same goes for efforts in Penang.

What we do not want to see is a whitewashed culture that we can put on show for tourists. Tourists don’t come all the way to pay and see modern boutiques nor do they want to see elaborate parades that only mimics our culture, those they can find back home. What they want to see is the living, breathing manifestation of life found no where else. Preservation of old townships and culture does not mean an end to development, many places in the world are retaining their cultural charm and yet still manages to progress, at times even reinvigorated. Tourist dollars are a good incentive to preserve what we have left but the more important objective is for the preservation of our culture and it should start from us. But sadly we are losing the past faster than we can say “World heritage listing”.


Jeremy said...

Who's publishing the article?

Kervin said...

This article is not being published, wrote it for public consumption:) Well just writing to keep skills on edge lest they deteriorate. Anyway figure it's not good enough to be received by any magazaine or print out there. Hope it's ok, you think? Need improvement? Flow good? Language ok?

hyelbaine said...

I like the picture a lot and great post too. Keep up the good work! ;)

Cheers!!! :D

Jeremy said...

Asking for opinions in public is always a dangerous thing. I noticed this on blogs with large readerships. One writes what one must write, damned be the public.

You wrote a sentimental article there and I largely agree with you with the need for a more inspired conservation policy backed by just-as-inspired execution.

I'd like to share with you an observation I made in London. London is an ancient city, and has been, for most of modern history, an illustrious one. London has had to evolve a lot, and what has happened is that today, London is home to some of the greatest achitectural masterpieces of mankind. Buildings that appeared timeless when built, but which after time proved be to be lacking in genius are torn down to make way for new projects. And so, over time, London became populated only with buildings that the Londoners love too much to tear down. And those are personable buildings indeed.

Malaysia, the way I see it, doesn't so much have a problem with conservation as she does with inspiration. Malaysian-designed buildings suck to high heaven. Our architects are hopeless. Have you noticed just how much more sophisticated the Petronas Towers look compared to anything else in KL? Do you think a Malaysian architect could have come up with the "diamond in the city" (as the achitect envisioned the Twin Towers to be, hence the metal cladding to reflect light)?

Should I be a town planner, I'd gladly let old townhouses be torn down IF the replacement for them is of a truly inspired design. Old is not necessarily good; only good is good. And may my town (remember I'm still playing town planner) have the most likable buildings of all, whether ancient, old, or new.

To use a bookshop analogy: A town filled with old buildings is like a used bookshop filled with second hand books. Some may be good, but most are just junk. A city like London, on the other hand, is like a boutique bookshop filled with landmark first-edition books bound in leather from immortal authors mixed with hand-signatured first editions by acclaimed contemporary ones.

Jeremy said...

The idea is to be like London.

Kervin said...

Comparing a different city to another might be comparing apples to oranges. I have not seen London, so I can't be a judge. Kl is relatively an new city unlike London or Paris. We have not gone through the ravages of countless wars, social upheavals, strife, poverty, disease and natural disasters as many of the others. Rebuilding through the ages is prevalent in London, through the great London fire and the Blitz. Kl has never seen such large scale destruction where rebuilding is needed.

If you say there are no comparative aesthetical buildings in Kl, I've to say you're not entirely right about that. We may not have the London Parliament building nor Tower bridge (didn't people dislike the Millennium dome, but it's still standing?) but the legacy of olden architecture in Kl and even some newer additions have their's own merits and values. As for architecture we do have our own renowned architects, few but still they produce quality works such as the Menara Mesiniaga in Subang, the National Theatre and even the Dayabumi complex has statements of their own to make. We may be new but talents are still developing.

Yet I agree a majority of buildings have very little style and more of functionality. Most modern buildings are often mirror images of each other, square and blockish without much striking features. Remaking Kl would take massive urban renewal and this would mean the tearing down of most of the existing infrastructure to do so. I remember giving an out cry when they announced the demolition of Stadium Negara and Stadium Merdeka to make way for development. Call me a sentimentalist but I still think these should be preserved.

To use the book analogy as well, a children's book you had in your past, tattered, weathered and maybe even stained still holds the magic and charm it did for someone when he/she read it in the past. To rediscover such a treasure though it may not be as priceless as say a printed Guttenberg Bible, is still valuable to that child even as a grown up. Same for buildings, some may lack style and taste but there's always someone who grew up there, lived there, had memories there and though it may be old, worn down and abandoned, it is still as priceless.

Kervin said...

Well if we were London, it would be Kl anymore would it? or even Penang:) Each city must find it's unique resonance and not just be a carbon copy to another. Many Klites or Penangites would just hate for their town to change (heck with the amount of people in Penang complaining about the construction of a bypass, it's a wonder any development can even be carried out). Say aye! :)

Adrian said...

Uh... posts-too-long-cant-take-it-eyes-gonna-pop-out-argh-argh-AARGGHH!!!!

Kervin said...

Hehe knew you were going to say that;) yeah guess it's a bit long for a blog but hey my blog :)