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19 March 2013

Heritage Preservation efforts growing

By Subhadra Devan | sdevan@nstp.com.my

INITIATIVES: Malaysians are shoring up the work of conserving and preserving heritage sites on our own volition
THERE's a new heritage drive in town, powered by people from all walks of life. From simple I-love-my-hometown websites, to non-governmental heritage societies, and heritage advocacy groups, heritage seems to be on a front burner.

It's a volatile subject, given the threads of our current civilisation. Built and other tangible heritage is wrapped around our cultural, arts, and other intangible environment.
But topical discussions are sooner or later sullied by "whose heritage, whose history, whose culture", even regarding Lembah Bujang in Kedah, and the more recent Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) world heritage site of Lenggong Valley in Hulu Perak.
The newest "people's movement for heritage preservation of Kuala Lumpur" is RakanKL, which started in September 2012. Come January 2013, this group of friends have a blog, and an active Facebook discussion community with over 1,000 members.

The volunteers have mapped out heritage routes, and many Malaysians have joined in the RakanKL guided walks, conducted in three languages, around Pudu, Petaling Street, among other city areas. It's a growing interest in heritage preservation, with event participants helping to document the sights and sounds of the area.

It reminds me of the 2008 "Khazanah Brickfields" Heritage Education programme, run by Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM), which involved moer than 60 children, aged between 10 and 16 from schools including SJK (C) St Theresa and SMK Vivekananda.

These earnest children produced 3 issues of Brickfields Kita, replete with their own photographic skills in a DiGi Amazing Malaysians initiative.
RakanKL's interest may have arisen from the proposed development of a 100-storey Menara Warisan, set in the midst of the historic landmarks of Chin Woo Stadium, Stadium Merdeka and Stadium Negara, as well as the construction of the MRT line which poses potential damage to heritage buildings on Jalan Sultan.

This groundswell in KL heritage preservation seems like a slow tsunami, one wave of which came from a project to develop the Art Deco-style 1920 Coliseum Theatre in 2005.
Public opinion then helped sway the authorities concerned to keep the cinema building as a living heritage site, continuing its original function of almost a century.

But voices went unheeded when it came to the destruction of historic buildings like the 1920s Bok House. As a leading advocate of heritage preservation, BWM's executive director Elizabeth Cardosa was incensed by that destruction.

"Badan Warisan Malaysia had high hopes for the protection of our historic built environment when the National Heritage Act 2005 (NHA) -- gazetted on Dec 31, 2005 -- was effected on March 1, 2006. Finally, there appeared to be a force of law which would champion the nation's heritage cause," she says.
"This event has set a precedent for all local authorities in Peninsular Malaysia -- what if they all decide that expediency is central to the decision to protect or to demolish and redevelop our heritage buildings and sites in the country?"

An earlier wave came when the Pasar Besar KL, commonly called Central Market, was turned into an arts hub in 1986. Seen as a successful adaptive reuse of a historical building, Central Market (Pasar Seni) now houses Malaysian traditional handicraft and serves as a commercial cultural centre.
The Art Deco building, until the 1980s, was a bustling wet market with vendors of all produce. The building and the shophouses north and south of it were to make way for more development under the then Urban Development Authority. That it wasn't demolished was mainly because of the effort of The Malaysian Heritage Society, the precursor to BWM.

While BWM has expanded its heritage conservation work to Malacca and Penang, Malaysians all over the country are shoring up the work of conserving and preserving local heritage sites on their volition.

The lovely town of Taiping and its heritage is vaunted by the Taiping Heritage Society, started in 2006, and its own townfolk including Tony Ng Chuan Aik who has set up his website, gotaiping.com.
A Taiping native, now living in Klang, Ng says: "It's my personal site. I've created it partly to promote my dear hometown of Taiping. Years ago, I found that people seldom knew about Taiping, let alone its history."

Sabah boasts a citizen-run Sabah Heritage Society, as does Perak. The non-governmental Perak Heritage Society, based in Ipoh and up since 2003, holds guided heritage walks, talks and other events, all run by its volunteers.
Its most recent event was the UM-NUS Joint Studio Programme Exhibition, in February. The exhibition showcased the results of two studies in Perak: Returning Taiping and Familiar Spaces Untold Stories: Encounters with Ipoh. These were done by architectural students and lecturers of the National University of Singapore and the University of Malaya, on Taiping, in 2010, and in Ipoh last year. The PHS has also embarked on a Documenting Perak Heritage project.

Such people advocacy set-ups seem marginal compared with the heritage conservation and preservation of Penang's George Town, a real Pearl Of The Orient in this arena.

Part 2 tomorrow: The Penang experience

Source: New Straits Times