Thursday, July 06, 2006

Recording Malacca

... Malacca is a city with an irreconcilable past, in which history is hastily rewritten and packaged for mass consumption; in which the oldest buildings are condemed, their parts sold to willing buyers; in which the past is wrongly told but unquestioningly swallowed; in which traditional communities are displaced by the inexorable drive for profit; in which historic icons are ripped out of context and exploited for tourism. A city whose name is a "saleable item" and nothing more.

And a city in which the voice of common sense is seldom heard.
This from the preface to Lim Huck Chin and Fernando Jorge's new book Malacca: Voices from the Street.

I knew about their project: I'd been a member of Badan Warisan Malaysia, and I was also kept updated on their progress by a mutual friend with a strong interest in conservation. What has blown me away is the quality of the book they've produced (and self-published).

I feel very strongly about Malacca. When I first came to Malaysia in '84, I used to travel to down to stay with friends in Klebang Besar and would spend my weekends wandering through the old streets taking photographs. My boyfriend at the time, a wonderful guy who boasted six different racial collisions in his family tree, laughingly called it "the time tunnel" and introduced me to much of its informal history and many of its local "characters". I was in love - at least with the city.

I don't think any street in the world better symbolises religious harmony than the stretch of Jalan Tokong (Temple Street) where cheek by jowl you find Cheng Hoon Teng - Malaysia's oldest Chinese temple, the Sumatra-style Kampong Keling Mosque and the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi temple - Malaysia's first Hindu Temple. I was fascinated too by the Baba-Nyonya houses on Heeran Street and the history of this unique community.

I was stunned when the reclamation project began, destroying the sea-front of the old part of the city and replacing it with an ugly commercial centre in one of the most unsympathetic pieces of town planning I think I've ever seen. Then there is the "touristisation" of the city by the local authority which makes a mockery of its real heritage (the artitfact that sums up utter total tastelessness is that bloody replica of a dutch windmill in the middle of a traffic-island!) and turns the city into something of a theme park. (No Malay artifacts in evidence? Let's tack on a wooden palace to even things up!)

Many of the most important heritage buildings meanwhile fell into a state of disrepair or were sold to businesses for commercial premises. Owners and tenants uninterested in or ignorant about the heritage value of their buildings "renovate" (often without planning permision from the local authorities) and some heritage buildings have been demolished. Still others have now become nesting homes for swifts for the commericial production of birds nests. (Heaven help us if bird flu gets into the swift population!) The toll of neglect and and ignorance and beaurocratic bungling goes on and on and is totally heart-breaking.

Congratulations then to Huck and Fernando for documenting Malacca so carefully that we can be left in no doubt as to value of what still remains and why it needs conserving. (And I can't help hoping the decision makers treat themselves to a copy of this book.)

Heritage is not just about bricks and mortar and the authors document the living community of Malacca, uncovering the human stories of the city's inhabitants. The book gives names and faces to the people who populate the streets: we see, for example, goldsmith Wong Poon Oon at his bench; coffeeshop owner Lee Sook Kok chatting to customers; and A. Thiruppathy, a chettiar money lender, totalling columns of figures. Malacca is no dry museum piece and must never become one.

The photographs are so evocative I think I would have bought the book for those alone, and I love the layout and feel of the book, the matt finish to the pages, the weight of the paper. But it's not just a beautiful book to leave lying around on the coffee table: the text is authoritative and draws on extensive research, while remaining extremely readable. It's truly a labour of love.

Okay, the bad news is the book costs a painful RM198 (I was fortunate to have some book vouchers to soften the blow!)

For much more about the book and the project in general, visit the website.

28 comments:

sympozium said...

And now for a similar book on Penang...the lady Ms. Khoo Nasuton (I am ashamed not to remember her full name) has been admirably documenting the heritage of Penang...

SleekBlackMercedes said...

You sound like you really know malacca.

the name of the streetroads, the location of the temples and heck, i can't even recall the road names even though i spent most of my childhood in malacca.

reading your post brings back nostalgic memories of a bygone era - an era where we'd have parties in homes of friends, dancing in the moonlight with my teenage peers, cycling along the old streets of malacca, early morning jogs at bandar hilir...

your post evoked all these memories and for that i thank you

hugs

Sharanya Manivannan said...

Great post, Sharon. I *LOVE* the book's cover.

Ted Mahsun said...

Ooh... was that the book I saw in your shopping bag yesterday? Hehe...

Too bad about the price though. It sounds like a very nice book.

Eternal Wanderer said...

This was one of several books I looked at for my coffee table book article. It's pretty nice, a book that will appeal to people who feel a connection with the historically rich Malacca. The turn off was the price though...

snowdrop said...

oh Sharon, you describe the circus and heartache that is present day malacca too well!!

(totally agree with the preface of the book too. must check it out)

dreamer idiot said...

Ah, the inexorable tide of change... which reminds me, I might want to share one of S'porean poet Arthur Yap's poem.

animah said...

Elizabeth, where is Sharon and what have you done to her?!!

This is a wonderful book. Malacca is so rich in history and culture, its a shame that there are very few books on it. I love peranakan design, and when I was doing my house renovations late last year, I could not find any book on peranakan houses/ design. Unbelievable!

bibliobibuli said...

sympozium - indeed, i'd love to see a book like this about penang ... the book you're referring to - is it "the streets of georgetown"? if so, it's a book i treasure ... i'd love to be able to slip back into the past ...

sleekblackmercedes - so glad the post brought back good memories. you're lucky to have grown up in malacca - it's a great place. i think you need to buy this book!!

sharanya - the photography is fantastic and i know you'd appreciate it

ted - yes, sorry should have shown you all my great purchase! the price was indeed very ouchy

eternal wanderer - the best way to afford nice books is to buy them and review them ... it's the way i intend to support my habit

snowdrop - circus and heartbreak? good way of putting it

dreamer idiot - change is inevitable - but not so much change for the worse, surely? that joni mitchell song "don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till its' gone" - keeps playing round in my head

animah - haha! do i sound like elizabeth then? you've found my weak spot, i get all emotional about heritage buildings. i love baba-nyonya design too (how i wish i could have afforded that book on embroidered kebayas). i have a very nice book on the babas with lots of interiors. but i agree a baba-nyonya style book would be nice! those guys had beautiful taste bringing together the best of chinese, malay and english
design. i love the way the houses are designed around air-wells so that the afternoon rain comes flooding in to a central courtyard. the only baba-nyonya treasures I have are a C19th rice bowl, a tiffin carrier, a few antique tiles, an embroidered kebaya (made for me by one of the last traditional practitioners of the craft) and a carved mirror. i'd love more ...

(a friend of mine told me how he threw away all his mothers pink and turquoise dining sets because he thought it weas old fashioned! oooouuuuccccchhhhh!)

btw - this lovely book can be consulted in the sharon reference library (drop by and i promise not to disturb you while you browse)

Thaatch said...

Hi Sharon,

Visited the Badan Warisan website and frankly speaking, I had no idea such a thing existed! This may be out of topic, but was wondering, what do you do as a member? I am thinking of joining it - I am fascinated with historical and cultural preservation.

Thanks.

bibliobibuli said...

hi thaatch - i haven't renewed my membership and feel guilty about it ... but it is a very interesting organisation to get in join if you are interested in heritage

there are talks and trips and the possibility of getting involved in projects, plus an excellent library

sympozium said...

Sharon, yes the book was Streets of Goergetown - a great help in my research and brought back lots of homesickness for me. She's also been involved in Penang: Postcards Collection 1899 - 1930s...

bibliobibuli said...

sympozium - really am looking forward to reading your book ...

Thaatch said...

thanks sharon. i will definitely consider joining. i have always admired the way hertiage is preserved and appreciated, in countries like the UK (English heritage), Europe and Canada. It's comforting to see it happening in Malaysia.

bibliobibuli said...

and there is an incredible heritage here, in fact ...

sympozium said...

Should be launched Oct/November 2006 in the UK...

bibliobibuli said...

wah! am so happy for you, sympozium. biggest congrats. (and yeah, i was right ...)

please do keep us informed of what's happening so that we can celebrate too and make a lot of noise at the right moment!

sympozium said...

What were you right about? :-)

bibliobibuli said...

*lol* methinks i know who sympozium is ... and if so it makes me very happy that you have been dropping by here

sympozium said...

Jo-Anne Ding asked me to drop by...
And I was directed to another literary blogsite as well, by a local woman. Found THAT site quite whingey and moan-y and full of bad poems and tortured writing... :-)))

bibliobibuli said...

haha! good old jo-anne! i didn't want to blog about it then because i did not want to acknowledge the tortured blogger (once, twice bitten) ... but hey, i felt very proud

did you ever get the e-mail i sent via your office?

sympozium said...

No, I never got the email you sent to my office. I think Jo-anne may have given you the wrong information. I can proudly state that I always answer my emails ASAP...I donno if I should post my email address here in public but I'll see if I can send an email to you via your blogsite, with my email details...

sympozium said...

sent you my email address to your streamyx address...

bibliobibuli said...

thanks and have replied!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else have the strange urge to ask Fernando whether he can hear the drums ? :)

I hope I don't actually get to meet him, that would be too tempting :)

maon said...

nice book, maybe I've to get this one:)

Anonymous said...

You definately got to have the book, if you have a passion for heritage and it will also allow you to see the buildings in Malacca as more than just "A BUILDING". I was lucky to have the privilege to work with Huck and Fernando 5 years ago....and never would I thought they would remember me (very much a teenager back then) after 5 years. They were really kind and generous to give me the book as a present yesterday as it would take me some time to save up to buy this book considering I just found out how much it cost.

Above all, I'm glad that there are still people in Malaysia who are passionate about preserving our heritage and buildings.

Anonymous said...

The book is indeed a good read.. Far from being a glossy book with cliche pictures of Malacca, it is a great insight of the historic pulse of the city... The authors could have taken the beautiful photos of the famous Baba Nyonya museum which is still in excellent looking condition but they chose a deeper image, like the old houses' architectures of less documented places like the back of an old "panggung" of a Heeren St. home.

Kudos to those folks & thanks for bringing out the topic of this wonderful piece of reading.

This from a fellow Malaccan residing in Singapore..