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