Friday, December 22, 2006

The Tragic End of Bok House

Sometimes stories are in books and sometimes they are held in the walls of buildings.

I can't let this week go past without this diversion to talk about the demolition of one of KL's most beautiful buildings, Bok House. I feel very emotional about the way an important heritage building is torn down because of the commercial value of the land. (Also see Elizabeth Wong's posts here and here and Dr. Rais' explanation excuse here. Lensamalaysia's account here.)

You do of course, know the romantic legend of the house, right? If not here it is. (An adaptation of info from Badan Warisan).

Chua Cheng Bok arrived as a penniless immigrant from China with no education, and got a job in shop selling spices, but then decided to move into a business of his own.

At night, after his day job was done, he went to “Red Light Corner” at the junction of Ampang which was lit at night to prevent any traffic colliding in the dark, and there he mended bicycles and carriage.

Later he heard of an Englishman up country whose tin mine was going bust and who was about to sack his workers and return to England, and Chua bought over the mine. (Later when he was rich he voluntarily paid the Englishman a pension for the rest of his life.)

The story goes that Chua fell in love with the daughter of a rich man who lived in a big mansion on Jalan Ampang, but the father turned him down because of his humble origins.

Eventually he built a mansion just across the road, more beautiful and grander than that of the man who had rebuffed him. Perhaps it was to spite him. Perhaps (and I like to think this) it was to remind the daughter daily of his love for her.

The company that Chua founded was called Cycle and Carriage, after his humble beginnings in KL. Some of you may have heard of it!

The house was later used as a restaurant - Le Coq d'Or. I went to eat there a couple of times, and while the food didn't delight (steaks, chicken chop - not terribly well cooked ... but I loved the bombe alaska with sparklers embeded in it, which was a birthday treat!)

But it was the ambience of the place that delighted - the statues in the hallway, the sweeping central staircase, the very gothic light fittings, the age-stained oil paintings, the bathrooms with their imported British sanitary ware and one of the most ingenious showers I've ever seen (pipes sprayed water at the bather from every direction!) It was a museum piece, and one that should have been preserved. This photograph by Azrul Kevin Abullah* is sadly captioned "probably one of last times sunlight fell inside this house" is perhaps the most fitting memorial to a piece of KL's history now gone forever.

*His account of the house as it used to be, and more photos here.


FBT said...

oh, no, why did they knock it down? Why? What are they going to build there, some big stupid office building?

sympozium said...

You should read Rais's idiotic words in The Star this morning: "...there is no significant history or aesthetic value attached to the building." and "...just a house belonging to a rich man."
Should we tear down P. Ramlee's house because "it was just a house belonging to an actor" ?

sympozium said...

By the way, some descendant of CC Bok had written a letter in the Star denying the legend of the reason why the house was built, as it brought shame to his ancestor and words to that effect.

I thought it showed CC Bok to be an amazing man, and wasn't a shameful episode at all.

Janet said...

I was utterly shocked to read about the house being demolished a few days ago - pass it every day on the way to work. Made me wonder about the procedures for this sort of thing, registering buildings under the Heritage Act or something like that. Whose responsibility is it? If the government (DBKL) doesn't do it, should the public do something about it? The problem with most Malaysians is apathy. Guilty of it myself. I mean, yes, some of us may feel very strongly about these things but strong enough to put up a petition, or actually vigorously fight for the preservation of historic buildings etc? In Malaysia, getting anything done involves a lot of effort. Most of us are 'too busy' with our lives to actually undertake the responsibility to pursue such worthy causes.
But the demolition of Bok House is really appalling. Another fine example of how little farsight this government/country has.

bibliobibuli said...

fbt- no doubt, yes. greed marches on.

i think it's an amazing story too, sympozium. the "no aesthetic value" is complete rubbish as badan warisan can attest ...

what rais perhaps means is that it is not of historical value to ... certain groups. (more i could spout here but it is best done over coffee and not posted blab-mouthedly on my blog).
even conservation has its political sub-text in this country.

maybe rais should declare himself minister of "disinheritage"

bibliobibuli said...

janet - badan warisan had really been trying hard to get bok house declared a heritage building - they worked tirelessly for years. if they couldn't save it, i don't know that anyone could.
unless people power. but then these guys are sneaky and the demolition was never publicised. i would have gone and chained myself to a pillar.

lil ms d said...

i was there a few nights ago. broke my heart. when i was a kid, my late tokki brought me there for lunches. i used to dream of holding a ball there.

we don't value many things in this country, kan?

Janet said...

Thanks for the info, Sharon! Have subscribed to Badan Warisan now; ashamed to say I didn't know very much about what they do at all. Will at least be more informed on preservation of buildings from now on!

lil ms d - you said it. We usually value the wrong things. This government doesn't understand that that the development of the country cannot be limited to infrastructure only; no point having progress if our minds don't.

midnite lily said...

the article Sympozium is referring to is here...
Based on the professional opinion of engineering consultants that Bok House is structurally unsafe and unfit for human occupation, the owners of Bok House applied in 2005 to the DBKL to have it demolished on the grounds of ensuring public safety.

It would be noted under the National Heritage Act, the owner of a heritage site has a duty to ensure that the heritage site is always in a good state of repair.

Sounds to me the family was disinterested in keeping the house any way. At the end of the day it became about money. It is sad though that this building couldn't have become an inspiration for the Chinese-Malaysians today whose immigrant (great)grandparents strived to create a new life for their families here. Some more successful than others.

Anyway, our govt will continue to destroy our history and heritage. And I think the Act has come many years too late. I'm still upset about the BBGS school being torn down.

I agree with lil miss d, we don't value much. everything is superficial.

Ron said...

I hate see old, beautiful and historic buildings torn down. Most new buildings are so ugly and look run down and tacky so quickly especially if they use lots of concrete.

Imagine what it would be like now if the past custodians of the great cities of the world had had had the same mentality as so many do today.

xpyre said...

Intended or not, I think demolishing Bok house is a sign of something worse than merely greed: little by little, the people on top seem to be engaging in systematically dismantling our collective history. Bok house is just a step in that direction, in my opinion. I might sound like a conspiracy theorist (and a bit wild around the eyes), but consider how historical narratives are being altered to suit a certain view of Malaysia's origins; history textbooks emphasize certain things and de-emphasize certain things.

It's just very depressing. What they cannot do with blatant revisionism in text they are now doing in the public space.

animah said...

The people who tore this down are the descendents of the man that built it. Go find out the story from Badan Warisan, but as I recall, the old man had set up a trust for a significant number of years - his family could not destroy the building during this period. The family allowed the house to fall into a state of disrepair, and once the trust period expired, it was clear that they wanted to demolish and develop the land for something more commercially viable.
I did my pupilage in 1993 across the road in the Selangor Dredging Building. We would sometimes go across the road for lunch or drinks. I loved the place, and would always go upstairs where the toilets were and creep around marvelling at the statues and high ceilings. The place had such mystery and it felt haunted. I loved it.
The play I am writing now is a testament to all old buildings we have torn down - the Bok House, and my old school BBGS.

Elizabeth said...

If you all feel strongly about this, write to the newspapers! Show that at least some members of the public are concerned.

Jenn said...

Sharon, I cannot help but be reminded by your story and the pic to the house Luke built for Dimple in The Rice Mother!

acid burn said...

well, we're talking about a minister who launched the construction of that montrous revolving tower in Malacca one day, and then ordered the building site to be moved away when they found the old walls beneath. In the first place, I can't fathom why the minister would have agreed that Malacca, Bandar Bersejarah, needs a modern skyscraper to 'attract more tourists'..

Glenda Larke said...

Couple of days back I happened to be passing by on foot with my daughter, back in Malaysia after a long time abroad. We stopped and peered through the covered construction site gate. And we both cried out in horror to see the house was about one quarter gone.

Next to us were another couple of people from TV 7. They interviewed me on the spot and I raved on...(One of these days I am going to get myself turfed out of this country!)But I remember how often we used to go there back in the 1970s. My daughter still remembers the shower and the bombe Alaska.

Actually, having lived in Europe, I know how wonderful a city that takes care of its beautiful buildings can be. Buildings don't have to be "of historical value" - to be of "value". Just being part of the history of a city's past, being lovely to look at, should be enough.

Melaka makes me cry, it truly does. I remember the waterfront from the 1970s. Why do I - an orang putih - value things Malaysian (be it rainforest or buildings) more than local Malaysian politicians? I'm not sure. I like to think that I have what some people called 'soul', that intangible thing that that puts me in touch with what matters. Unfortunately, 'soul' appears to bypass politicians, no matter where they are from.

But politicians like votes. People with soul have that weapon. Use it.

animah said...

"People with soul have that weapon. Use it."

Glenda,your words are inspirational. Thank you. It doesn't matter that you are not Malaysian, you are still human, and you grieve the loss of Malaysia's history. The sad fact is that Malaysians are not taught to value history. In our mad race to develop, we lose our roots. Perhaps that is why as a nation we are such a confused lot.

bibliobibuli said...

midnite lily - it was structurally unsound perhaps because the back portion had been demolished - before that i'm sure it was safe enough - it was a restaurant up to the time it closed.

it was about money. actually we can't blame the descendants for wanting their money ... and perhaps the government for not being prepared to save it ... but perhaps some kind of compromise could have been worked out. the building could have been used for many practical purposes. it would have made a splendid museum (isn't the minister looking for a suitable building?)

yes, i'm still sad about BBGS

ron - yes, well said

xpyre - yes. i also think this.

animah - chuah said the house could not be sold for four generations. according to something i just read this prohibition was supposed to last till 2025. and yes, his descendants are the ones who want to sell the land. but surely the misnistry has a caretaker role as far as heritage buildings are concerned.

elizabeth - please do. or blog it. but best root is to support badan warisan who are doing such a lot.

there's too much to get angry and upset about these days, isn't there?

jenn - that thought crossed my mind too!

acid burn - *sigh* - beyond belief indeed

glenda - oh so well said. you and i both will get ourselves turfed out for what amounts to loving too much(and too noisily) the things that are truly great about here. quite right about buildings not needing to be 'historical" to be of value (but bok house was! it represents the aspirations of an immigrant class of chinese and is a monument to hard work and determination ... besides how much history does kl have?) ... but look at just how many of us have memories of the place and a love for it. the demolition was sneaky because had this been known beforehand there surely would have been protests!

melaka makes me cry too ...

*cosmic freak* said...

too bad. it looks like a great building to be turned into a clubhouse for book-a-holics, don't you think?

such a shame.

cavingliz said...

And in todays Sun, p10 it seems that the 'Sun House' in Penang might now be in danger. You can find it on the Sun www.

*cosmic freak* said...

I mean, IF it could be turn into a clubhouse for bookaholics.

bibliobibuli said...

who's going to sponsor a clubhouse for bookaholics? mind you it would be nice to have an old house to turn intot writer's centre

liz - here's a link to the article you mention and a pic

Kak Teh said...

sahron, how sad ! a wonderful buidling that gave character and held so many beautiful stories! But then again, those are not values they want to preserve.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year from cold foggy london.

Chet said...

I know a nice house near where I live which would make a great clubhouse for bookaholics. Oh, wait ... it already is.

bibliobibuli said...

kak teh - what's sad is that the debate about the building's historical value is only beginning now in the press when it's too late. the minister presented us with a fait accompli.

have a good holiday too!

haha chet, i think i know it too

xpyre said...

There's an interesting write-up on the significance of Bok house's method of construction over here, as well as a link to Badan Warisan's petition to the government. A good read.

rojak girl said...

So ironic that this happens just a couple of weeks leading up to Visit M'sia Year 2007!!!

I walked past Bok Mansion everyday this last year and am ashamed to say that I never realised what it was... If you're like me and never had had the privilege of dining there before, there's really nothing to tip you off, is there??

Still... the sight of those awful tractors clawing at the walls of the old building on that cold, bleary morning... somehow it still got to me... And that was BEFORE I found out was the famous Bok Mansion/Le Coq D'Or.

Less than 100 metres away, I see busloads of tourists snapping pics of the Twin Towers every morning... Lying on the floor, comically twisting their bodies to get a good angle - did anyone ever think of showing off Bok Mansion to them before it became a ruin? Or maybe an old building with a beautiful, romantic legend attached isn't worth much, ke?

I mean... is our goverment really so dense that it takes a huge effort from the public to prevent these sort of things from happening??? I don't get it... they try to grab the Coliseum building over the protests of the owner but decide that Bok Mansion is worth nothing...

Sorry to rant, but it's so frustrating!!!

Aneeta said...

A sincere thanks for publishing this post. I did not know that Chua was the founder of Cycle and Carriage. Yes, I shall support Badan Warisan.

fadz said...

memang menyedihkan melihat Taj Mahal KL diruntuhkan begitu saja..kenapalah pihak berduit tidak mahu beli dan 'restore' tempat itu sebagai khidmat sosial? Nampak sangat bentuk orang apa yang kita ada dalam dunia kapitalis KL.

KadidiaTerri said...

When I first arrived in Malaysia after living in Surabaya for a year, the first thing I noticed was the amount of construction going on. As I rode into KL from KLIA I felt motivated to enter what appeared to be a land of growth and opportunity. Very shortly after arriving, that motivation turned into a subtle kind of fear. I wondered….who’s going to live in all those condos? Where are they living now? All those people living on top of each other…..isn’t that dangerous? (Mind you, the last ten years of living in the US were spent in New York City so I am not na├»ve about living in a city filled with tall buildings). I’ve been here long enough to see that what was once ‘a subtle kind of fear’ ought to be serious concern.

Visiting Bibliobibuli today I found this post on the house which I’ve been passing on the way to work for the past two years. My children and I had always been rather curious about it. Now, to find out its history AND that its no longer standing, is quite a shock.

I do not plan to settle here permanently but Malaysia has been home for two years and it has embraced me in many ways. I owe it to Malaysia to help bring attention to this very serious issue and plan to do so.

Bibliobibuli, Glad I "stopped by" today.

bibliobibuli said...

i'm really glad the post touched you all ... but i feel so sad that it's now that we're beginning to know and care about the building, when it's gone ...

xpyre - thanks for the link, i found it very interesting.

rojak girl, fadz - i don't get it either

kadidiaterri - glad you stopped by too ...