Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dutch Bastion the latest Malacca Tourist Draw.

Malacca now boosts another tourist attraction to cash on the tourism dollars. The replica of the Middlesburg Bastion is now opened to public when I visited there on Dec 9, 08.

The project is not without controversy from the first day its foundation was unearthed by workers constructing the Taming Sari Revolving Tower.
A few parties have voiced conflicting views how best the monument should be preserved.
A Badan Warisan columnist even go so far to acknowledge the site as the next most important archaeological find in the Malay Peninsula after the discovery of Hindu Cendis in Bujang Valley, Kedah.
For hard core conservationists, no viable option except to leave the bastion foundation unmolested.
On the other extreme, policy makers were more interested in turning the site into a grand tourism scheme by 'remaking' the bastions.
RM12.8 million and almost a year later and you've another tourist attraction.
Needless to say, critics of the project were aghast at the turn of event.
No expert could verify the authencity of bastion design or the height of the wall first constructed by the Portuguese and reinforced later by the Dutch before demolished by Farquhar in the 18th century.

All reference were based on illustrations and tell-tales provided by ancient sea farers.
Yet the conservationist experts who mooted the rebuilding task were adamant about the go-ahead.
Nevertheless, a bastion replica serves remarkably well for lay men. It works wonderfully to stir-up their imagination of the ancient bastion.
The fact of the matter is that they are the bulk of the visitors to Malacca and historical sites like Middlesburg appeal to folks more interested in snapping some memorable pictures but hardly excited with the historical value of this momentous archaelogical find.
Fortunately in my view, a few ingenious designs have been incorporated into this pricy project and we are able to appreciate the remnants of the original bastion foundation and the coral rocks hidden underneath.
Walk around the structure and you could find a few ground openings previously discovered by the archaeologists are decently preserved to show the original rocky foundation.
There are no captions currently available but I believe this would be overcome soon.
My favorite is the one closest to the main structure. A glass bridge is built to allow visitors take a walk over an original rock foundation on their way to the top of bastion.

If you think rebuilding the bastion structure goes against the exceptable heritage norm then surely the VOC cannon replicas found on top of the bastion is another symptomatic example where the lines of conservation and tourism blurred alarmingly in Malaysia.
Such manipulative interpretation of history would irk those who want to protect heritage at its core but they are slowly but surely silenced by groups calling for better cash cows for the economy.
Middlesburg buried over two centuries and thought to have lost forever but in a bizarre twist of fate, is now basked in all its glory.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Firemen at Malay Circumcision Ritual

Firemen are saviors of emergencies and they have responded to the most bizarre rescue missions or otherwise, but in Malaysia their line of duty extends to new heights.

On a fine December 2008 morning, fire fighters from the Army Fire Services based in Terendak Camp, Malacca found themselves busy with a not-so-common task. They were invited by the villagers in Kampung Pinang A, Malacca to use fire hydrants to shower for 40-odd boys taking part in Sunat or a religious circumcision ritual.

The fire crew arrived in a Mercedes Benz 911(ZA 6326) and began to douse the kids aged between 6 to 12 years old wet before they proceed to a makeshift operating theatre at the back of the village’s surau for their unnerving life changing experience.

Merc Benz 911 or locally known as Mercedes Manjung because of its large nose-like engine compartment was a favorite in Malaysian fire fighting scenes in the 80s until it was phased out by newer ones.
According to village elders, boys would traditionally take a dip at a nearby river or bathe near a well to instill courage themselves.

However, a check with those who have experienced sunat will tell you that cold water wherever the sources are has a calming effect on the male organ before it is surgically mutilated.

Elaborate and expensive berkhatan ceremonies are now a trendy phenomenon and Malay kampung go to their wits to outdo each other. Each claiming to have bigger sunat participants or a more elaborate scheme of things.

Sunat - previously a solemn religious occasion has evolved into a carnival, and not surprisingly, firemen and fire sprinkles are very much part of today’s repertoire.

Unfortunately, the traditional role of Tok Mudim or the village circumcision expert, has all but disappeared with more parents opting for the modern method of circumcision. Tok Mudim are being replaced by medical assistants armed with sterilized tools to perform the rite of passage.

As the ceremony progressed, I witnessed how ZA 6326 found itself stuck in mud because of the weight the pump has to take.
Fortunately, many villagers were around to save the day for the fire truck.

Three days later, another grand circumcision ceremony was held at the nearby Pantai Puteri and firemen from the State Fire Department were enlisted instead.

An overwhelming 200 kids came and the occasion was made more colorful with mothers who brought the beautiful bunga melur telur, a decorative ceremonial flower made from egg shell.

Soon, the parents accompanied their kids on a loud procession with kompangs and silat down the road to a site next the beach.
There, the firemen using hoses from the state’s latest fire fighting vehicle - Mercedes Benz Atego (BKA 8922) begin a 15 minute bathing ritual to prepare the boys for an unforgettable event in their life journey. The circumcision was then held in the Pantai Puteri community hall.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lunas Smokehouse Beacon for Malaysian History

History of rubber industry in Malaysia now has a home to call its own or sort of.

A private initiative by award winning architect Laurence Loh has given birth to a museum in Lunas, Kedah to showcase the latex industry in the country.

Loh has also pursued the museum idea by incorporating and maintaining the original allure found inside an old rubber smokehouse. Today, the museum has the distinction of allowing visitors the opportunity to see and experience the making of smoked rubber sheets.

It is the only museum of its kind in Malaysia.More importantly, the museum has provided a glimpse to an industrious past where the rubber industry was the main livelihood for millions and responsible for the making of many moguls.

Smokehouses were main structure in many Malaysian towns and they served as the processing center to treat rubber sheets brought by the tappers before the treated sheets are sent to ports for export.

Lunas Smokehouse is basically a wood structure but in bigger town like Malacca, the smokehouse there (previously at a site next to the Onn Yah Kong temple, Bachang) was a massive building about 5 stories high and occupied an area of considerable size.

Passers-by often have to cover their noses because of the pungent smell from the treated rubber sheets.

However, rubber industry has been sidelined in our quest to be economically developed.In a short span of just two decades, many traditional economy activities in Malaysia faced a slow death.

Like most developing economies, Malaysia began to embrace industrialization like a virgin attracted to a seductress in tow. Policy makers could be heard lauding earful 'F' words like FDI, FTZ to all and sundry.

Rubber trees were among the first to go and they were uprooted in a frenzy to feed the massive needs for industrial and residential lands. Sons and daughters of rubber tappers left their homes in droves for more 'glamorous' jobs in air-conditioned factories and supermarkets.

In its wake, small towns like Lunas in Kedah, found itself struggling to sustain itself and slowly disappearing from the map.

Urban migration is particularly acute in this country and a great Malaysian phenomenon which is not fully studied, or perhaps only understood by few about its implication.

The swift in the population was overwhelming. From a rural based country we have completely reversed the trend to an urbane one by the time we celebrated our 50th Independence.
Unbalanced development priority is the other culprit.

Rubber trees even in the villages are now far and between and the sight of tappers rarer.

After the first rubber seeds were planted in Kuala Kangsar about 150 years ago, the once lucrative Rubber industry is now a distance memory and fast disappearing from our mindset.

In 2006, Laurence Loh also spearheaded a conservation campaign involving the town's children to promote heritage awareness in Lunas.

Walk inside the museum and visitors will be awed with sights and smell of a smokehouse. Loh explained what to expect inside the museum in a talk given at the Asia Cultural Co-operation Forum 2007, Hong Kong:-

"In the rubber story, the actual patina and crust of history was retained. Actual rubber sheets were hung up on the original bamboo poles to simulate the environment of the internal space of a smoke house - black walls full of soot and dust, accumulated over 40 years, complete with teh rich pungent smell of raw rubber, totally unforgettable and distinct."

For another comprehensive insight on the rubber industry in this country, start your journey at the revamped Gallery C of Muzium Negara.

Visitors can view the paraphernalia used by rubber tappers in the olden days. Take a closer look at the mannequin tapper 'milking' the rubber tree and you will see that there is a mosquito coil attached to the side of the mannequin to repel the insects.

Middleburg's Man on Tour

Middlesburg's 600 year-old skeleton was reported to have assumed a new role as the ambassador of PERZIM and has embarked on a nationwide tour. (NST, Nov 21, 08) The few skeletal remains were first found on the excavation site of the old Malacca Tourism Police Base next to the Middlesburg Bastion in early 2008.

Interestingly, the excavation came about following the furor of the Taming Sari Tower construction within the historical enclave.

The Negeri Sembilan State Museum in Seremban is the first to play host to the Middlesburg Man, and the event is held in conjunction with The Archaeology Discovery Exhibition organized by Malacca Museum Board (PERZIM) and Museum Department.

While The discovery of the skeletal remains could probably presents historical importance in establishing Malacca as an early human settlement, but skeptics are bemused by the excitement amongst Malacca historical experts about who the bones belong to.

If the carbon test is proven correct, the museum authorities can lay claims to the first skeletal remains from an era which saw the burgeoning of the Malay Sultanate in Malacca.

Nevertheless, the skeletal remains didn't reveal much about who and what the person's role is in relation to Malacca early history, except the fact that it belongs to a male in his late 20s or early 30s.

A more detailed research is required to further substantiate the findings, and bear in mind, it was found at an excavation site of a Portuguese Bastion next to the Malacca River - a site which was then the river mouth and Malacca was a bursting seaport with a diverse population.

It is very obvious that these historical experts were quick at clamoring over the skeletal discovery and probably have jumped the gun with the notion that the human bones are intrinsically linked to the Malay Sultanate.

Taiping Museum - A New Look in 2009

The Taiping Museum built in 1883 and widely regarded as the grand dame of Malaysia’s historical repository will be given a fresh lease of life in a RM3.5 million refurbishment plan (The Star/Metro/Central, Tues., Dec 2, 08).

High on the list of this ambitious project is the conservation of the century old façade.

However, the icing to the cake is the long overdue effort to bring change to the dusty and ill-kept galleries. Many of the galleries are reminiscent of Victorian era and often the bane of the visitors.

According to curator Norhanisah Ahmad, the main work involved the natural history, culture, Orang Asli and ceramics galleries. When completed in June 2009, the galleries are poised to position Taiping Museum amongst the country’s top with interactive features and captivating exhibits.

The rejuvenated museum will then be in a stronger position to welcome a new generation of historical buffs. Nevertheless, important question remains unanswered about the fate of the impressive ethnography and Malay-Paleo collections.

My fear is that the museum will discard the existing arrays of collection and take on a completely different theme in line with nationwide trend to alter historical development in this country according to whims and fancies of the powerful.

Other element of what is essentially a structural uplift by the museum department involves instilling the original wooden floorboards. Future museum visitors may be required to wear woolen sandals to protect the floors.

However the curator notes that fee will be imposed for the usage of the sandals and it doesn’t that a rocket scientist to fathom long how it will enrich the museum coffers.

Friday, November 14, 2008

'Tale of Two Cities' - The Perfect Guide for Malaysian Museums

Foo Yee Ping -, the columnist of ‘Tale of Two Cities’ (The MetroStar, Fridays) writes regularly about museums with updates on events and exhibitions in the museums.

Unfortunately, the writer is New York based, thus her domain is mainly American museums.

Yet, Yee Ping’s ‘Tale of Two Cities’ makes a good reading and her weekly contributions offer Malaysian readers some fascinating ideas and concepts introduced in megastar museums i.e Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art etc.

These award winning institutions are an integrated part of the American social fabric and the exhibitions are the best in their league. It is not uncommon to find visitors from all ages making a beeline to see awe-inspired collections. Statistically, the US has some of the highest museums per capital in the world yet more Americans are visiting museums from the years before.

However, now that its economy is in near shambles, American museum operators must up the ante to entice new visitors and keep the regular ones.

Some innovative promotions include ‘Pay-What-You-Wish’ Day to help boost museum traffic. On these selected days, visitors have the option to tour the museums by making donations instead of paying the average US$15 (RM40) admission.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC for example chose instead to have free admission for its main exhibition hall and charged admission only for specially tailored exhibitions.

Getting Malaysians to visit museums was never an economical issue. Most are public funded and admission is next to nothing. The pertinent issue confronting Malaysian museum operators is more of the negative perception Malaysians have about our museums. If they are serious about their roles, they may well learn a few tricks from Yee Ping’s 'Tale of Two Cities’.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dennis Fire Trucks - Macau Fire Fighting Legacy

Two Dennis fire trucks with license plates- M-01-25 & M-01-27 - greet visitors at the main hall of the Macau Fire Services Museum. (Address - Estrada de Celho do Amaral, Free Admission)

The museum which still goes by its colonial namesake - Museu Dos Bombeiros - is a must for fire truck aficionados and is a mere 15 minutes walk from the Ruins of St. Paul’s.

Getting acquainted with these early 30s British-made Dennis and the fire fighting paraphernalia in the adjacent hall goes a long way to help one appreciates the early history of fire fighting in the ex-Portuguese colony.

The museum formerly Macau’s Central Fire Station served diligently from its strategic location in the heart of the Inner Harbor.

When a modern centre command facility was mooted, this fabulous European structure was saved by Macau’s pro-conservation policy. Compromise was made.

Walk pass the glass doors at the back of the museum and you enter the new Fire Brigade Headquarter with its fleet of Scania and Mercedes.

The 350 square meter museum, about the size of two basketball courts is not on Macau’s must-see list but my visit there in November 2008 was pleasantly rewarding.

Visitors can view rare footages of fire fighting and rescue missions. One section is devoted to a particular Macau social ill and how firemen rescued suicidal desperadoes from Macau’s skyscrapers.

Others may not be so lucky but my guess is gruesome photos don’t go too well in a museum dedicated to Macau’s rescue elite.

A check on the cyber provides interesting information on Macau’s Dennis.

Unless I’m wrong, I believe Dennis M-01-27 is the same Low Load 60/70HP model or popularly known as Dennis Big 6.

According to the information provided by Peter Williams, these vehicles were manufactured in Dennis Guildford factory in the 30s.
The writer adds that Dennis Big 6 fire trucks were powered by the White and Poppe 6 cylinder petrol engine and was rated at 45hp with a bore and stroke of 110 x 140mm. A Dennis No. 3, 900gpm pump is mounted at its center.

A thorough inspection will reveal that the M-01-27 has transportable aerial ladder as its choice for rear mounting to cope with Macau rising skyline. M-01-25 however spots only a wooden version.

The Museum is manned by full time members of Macau Fire Services but they lack good grasp of English. Hence, communicating with them is a challenge and a real barrier if we need information beyond the captions.

Fire fighting enthusiasts flying in and out of the Macau Airport should also look out for Rosenbauer Panther 6X6 (unit #11) - at the main runway.

The opportunity to view one of the world’s most advanced Airport Fire Fighting Vehicle is perhaps the perfect eye-opener to discover the fire fighting heritage in Macau.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pulau Besar Exhibition- Another Letdown by PERZIM

The Malacca Museum Board (PERZIM) is organizing an event titled “Pameran Menyingkap Sejarah and Misteri Pulau Besar” or Appreciating Pulau Besar History and Mystery Exhibition. It was launched by the Chief Minister of Malacca on Sunday, Nov 9, 08 (Berita Harian).

Pulau Besar, located off the coast of Malacca has for generations exude a mysterious shroud among locals and visitors that the island is the realm of an omnipotent ‘dato’.

Taboos were many if you’re holidaying in Pulau Besar. Non-Muslim visitors are well advised to abstain from their favorite ‘non-halal’ meals preferably a day earlier or else the 20 minutes boat journey from Umbai could be a catastrophic one.

A few individual cemeteries with extra large parameters dot the landscape at the southern tip of the island. They are believed to be the final resting place of renowned warriors or even royalties from the Malacca Sultanate, hence their magical prowess.

In the 80s, several large scale tourism plans were in the pipeline to transform the rustic island into a mega tourism draw. Spearheading the transformation is the state religious body with an ambitious task to clear the island from these kurafah elements. Sacred tombs and shrines or keramat were demolished but if you ask the villagers, the taboos and superstitions remain strong.

However, modern day Pulau Besar now boasts a 18-hole golf course. Visitors armed with glossy colorful brochures have turned blind eyes to these taboos. Villagers expressed shock and disbelief about this turnabout event and puzzled how tourists have no qualms about frolicking with their loved ones in this island.

Historically, Pulau Besar, the largest of the five Malacca islets was conspicuously missing in all known annals or maps compare to nearby islands i.e Pulau Upeh and Pulau Panjang (now Pulau Melaka after being reclaimed).

Pulau Upeh was instrumental to the Portuguese in the construction of a newly fortified Malacca and together with Pulau Panjang played crucial roles in resisting naval attacks on Malacca in the subsequent centuries.

During the closing hours of World War II, Pulau Besar was the site of horrid mass executions carried out by the defeated Japanese Imperial Army. Countless bayoneted bodies of locals (mainly of Chinese descend) charged or otherwise with collaborating with the Allied Forces were believed to have being dumped inside a large well.

Unfortunately, the details on this historical well and its vicinity have being whitewashed and they too have fallen victim to the state government’s mid-80s wonton rush to turn the island into a holiday paradise. Despite its dark chapter in the state’s history, there is no mention of the tumultuous event in the island.

There is vague information on what is the focus of this PERZIM event. My best guess is that the central theme would feature the tombs, keramat and the island’s role during and the aftermath following the fall of the Malacca Sultanate Empire.

Few have doubts about PERZIM ability to organize a thorough and well researched exhibition. Numerous past PERZIM activities have critically fell short of achieving the objective of presenting events relevant and concurrent to Malacca’s development as the nation’s premier historical state and for the betterment of the local population.

Pameran Menyingkap Sejarah and Misteri Pulau Besar” only reaffirms the cynics lack of enthusiasm with the state museum boards and its peculiarity towards mysticism and the unknown realms.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Macau Firecracker History

Miniscule Macau with no natural resources to call its own has always bellied on the skills and the cheap wages of its industrious people. It was the only mean of survival.

Hard to imagine but the economic landscape of the former Portuguese enclave after the Second World War was vastly in contrast to the current soaring casinos adorning its futuristic skyline.

Before the likes of Venetian, Wynn and Sands made their presence felt in Macau, the backbone industry of the 50s and 60s was the laborious firecrackers making trade.

Wages from making firecrackers, matches and incense fed mouths and offered hope to the destitute, some having just escaped from the brutal uncertainty of a newly installed Communist regime across its border.
The period was known as the Golden Years of Traditional Working Industries in Macau and it ushered a rapid growth of firecrackers factories.
At its height, Macau boasted seven such factories and top in terms of local employment. ‘Fabrico en Macao’ miniature explosives soon became the must-have ingredients for all Chinese festivals world-over.

Unfortunately, not much of this proud Macau heritage remains today.
But for the historical buffs, a visit to the grayish two storey building that once housed the Kwong Hing Tai Firecracker Manufacturer is a good start.
Located along the busy Rua das Lorchas next to the Macau Masters Hotel, the disused building offers a rare glimpse into Macau’s past and a firecraker making facility.
Interestingly, the building stands on concrete stilts above the muddy waters of the Inner harbor, perhaps as a safety feature.

However, the industry began to take a backseat in the 80s when laborers were drawn to better paid jobs and the safer working environment in the textile and toy making industries.
The advent of China as the new firecracker manufacturing powerhouse further compounded the situation.

The Museum of Macau (Admission – M$15/Adult) does a decent job of bringing back to life the sights of a bygone firecracker industry.
Visitors will find exhibits on the tools of trade used in the making of firecrackers. Rare old photos also reveal how firecrackers are manually prepared by mixing the explosive cocktail and the bare essential environment workers must work with in the factories.

Needless to say, the artifacts salvaged by the Museum have allowed an appreciation for an important historical chapter in Macau’s history.

No quest for the firecracker heritage in Macau will be complete without the opportunity to catch the awesome International Fireworks Display Contest.
According to Macau Tourist Guide, the annual event takes place in late September and early October, and the perfect spot to watch the firework displays is at the waterfront near the Macau Tower.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wickham Trolley - The Forgotten Malayan Emergency Hero.

Railway services in Peninsula Malaysia were the preferred mode of transportation back in the days when the country was largely covered in jungle and lacked good road networks.

Trains were the lifeline to move people and produce around the country.

When the Malayan communist insurgency peaked, railway services particularly the railroads became favorite targets of guerilla saboteurs. As the conflict escalated, the terrorists became bolder at blowing up rail tracks and inflicted heavy human cost.

The devastation soon overwhelmed the authority and a quick fix to the problem was urgently needed.

Before too long, the security forces found their answer in the British made armored Wickhams Trolley – a tank look-alike except it ran on train tracks. The trolleys were originally manufactured by D Wickham & Co of Ware, Hertfordshire and brought to Malaya by the colonial administration.

Each of the 2-ton Wickham Trolleys or AWT, was armed with search light and machine guns on the turret. They were immediately deployed in key roles as front guard and to provide cover for interstate train services.

Subsequent insurgent attempts to disrupt railway services were met fiercely by government soldiers in these self-powered Wickhams on steel wheels. AWT quickly proved itself to be a deterrent force and provided all-weather and round-the-clock protection for all trains.

However, when the Emergency ended in 1960, AWT triumphing records were cut short and many of the AWTs were left idle at KTM sheds in Klang. Their formidable fighting tales began to fade with time too.

Recently, the railway authority has embarked on giving the AWT a new lease of life as war relics in various museums and establishments.

For the best view of the Wickhams and to get a glimpse of how AWT was effective in its role, then check out the Armored Trolley No. 60 at the Malaysian Army Museum in Port Dickson.

The Army’s AWT No. 60 spots a grey body and it is parked along a steam locomotive and train coach. The museum has undoubtedly the best display of the Wickham and with a bit of imagination, visitors can see for themselves how the armored trolley protected trains in those turbulent times.

The Royal Police Museum in Lake Garden, KL is the next best bet to see a Wickham. AWT No. 63 is painted in police blue indicating a different ownership but the logo on its side shows KTM with its roaring tiger.

No much is revealed in the Police Museum about the success made by the Malaysian Police on the Wichham but fighting communist insurgency in those days was a concentrated effort involving different parties and strategies.

One can also head to the less conspicuous Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial in KL to see -AWT No. 56.

However, like all the AWT on display, they are exhibited outdoor and their fate is left to the mercy of the weather. Information on the Wickham is sorely lacking and similarly all venues don’t provide sufficient materials about where and how the Wickhams were deployed.

One need to go to the KTM Mini Museum at the Old KL Train Station to find Wickham related materials. In its small gallery, there is brief information on the three Wickham Trolleys and their whereabouts. There are old photographs showing men on the AWT preparing guns and search-light, but unfortunately, this railway museum does not have static display of the armored trolley.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse - The Hidden Treasure of Penang Heritage.

The 19th century Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse is one of the best hidden colonial gems in Penang’s UNESCO heritage enclave.

Many visitors often give it a miss although it is just a stone throw away from the iconic British fortress of the same name.

Penang tourism players fare no better and they too overlook the lighthouse potential and its historical importance to Penang’s maritime role.

The British built the lighthouse in 1882 when harbour traffic began to grow for a prosperous Penang. Now in its advance age, the historic lighthouse no longer served to warn ships approaching the Penang cape.

The lighthouse is now manned by Jabatan Laut, Malaysia’s Maritime Authority, and offers fascinating opportunity to acquaint oneself with a bygone maritime era. Admission is free and it is accessible from a small northern entrance of the historical complex.

Walk inside the lighthouse, and you will learn why it is structurally one of its kinds in this country. Most lighthouses in the Malay archipelagos consist traditionally of a lone silo structure i.e. Tanjung Tuan, Malacca(1880), fitted with warning beacons on the top.

Not the Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse.

It has a white coated light tower which sits on a huge steel frame and next to it, a 21-meter T-shaped mast. Together, they fill the entire landscape and probe the curious about the fate of this ex-guardian of the narrow Penang Strait.

For most visitors, the slow climb, about 15 minutes, to the top of the claustrophobic watch tower and the warning beacon is undoubtedly the highlight of the visit.

Walking up on the steel staircase might prove daunting for the vertical challenged. A wrong step could spell disaster to anyone’s holiday and when the steps are particularly slippery after a drizzle. Parents with small children are best cautioned against taking the challenge.

However the panoramic view at the tower is worth the effort. Visitors will be rewarded with an all-round perspective of the city, strait and the mainland.

In the distance, the full views of multi-coloured Penang ferries come unfold. Catch also cargo laden vessels berthing to take Made-in-Penang goods to the world.

Stretch your viewing canvas and over the horizon, you will find the Penang Bridge fills the background.

On the ground level, a small chamber houses a delightful mini museum and showcases lighthouse artefacts like communication equipments and giant bulbs used before GPS and satellite controlled gadgetries made them obsolete.

Penang State should work on this oversight and promote the lighthouse as a full fledge tourist attraction but more urgently, accord and preserve it with a heritage status.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Imjingak - Korea's Cold War Heritage.

Imjingak Tourist Resort with its 4-storey metallic pavilion and the semi arch observation platform is perfectly located to view the iconic Bridge of Freedom. About 13,000 Allied prisoners-of-war made their final desperate dash for freedom across this wooden bridge at the closing stage of the brutal Korean War in 1953.

Since the new millennium, South Korean authority keen on reunification with its communist North brethrens has embarked on making Imjingak a heritage site. The venue makes an ideal living museum to prepare the uninitiated on the issues confronting the Korean dilemma.
Imjingak is even adeptly lauded by tourist brochures as the must-see venue to witness the only divided country in the world!

Getting to Imjingak is easy and travellers have a choice of car, bus or rail, and it is merely an hour drive away from Seoul.
Tourists will be greeted by its impressive Visitor Center which overlooks the heavily fortified banks of Imjin River and beyond the reclusive North Korea.
Unfortunately, most tour guides would want you to believe that Imjingak sits on the world’s most volatile border in modern history but soldiers guarding on the banks of the Imjin River are mainly South Korean.
Nevertheless, the much feared and trigger-happy North Koreans are in fact positioned a further four km north from Imjingak.

Needless to say, South Korean military fearing a potential large scale strike from its Red neighbors, has designated defence lines in by placing barbed wires and army lookout posts on the edges of the Civilian Passage Restricted Line (CPRL).

Thus, visitors often get the false impression that South Korea ends at Imjingak, and the Imjin River the natural border between these two hostile neighbors.

A quick check on the maps will reveal that the fences at Imjingak are actually the Southern CPRL, with a heavily guarded buffer zone lining parallel to the Northern CPRL inside North Korea territory.

There is also the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) central to the buffer zone and together they cut the Peninsula into halves.
During my visit to see first-hand the cold war frontier in late September 2008, it got off to an unexpected start when we were stopped in our car by heavily armed South Korean personnel and our guide informed us that the army is conducting a drill to detonate two nearby road tunnels leading to the north border. (Naturally no photos were taken for fear of antagonizing the M-16 guys)
The Military Demarcation Line is the de facto border agreed by these two warring factions, amid reluctantly, and explains why Korea is also home to 30,000 plus American infantrymen.

The entire stretch of land within the CPRL is a no-man territory, but is more popularly known as Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.

Interestingly, only foreigners holding valid passports are allowed near the epic center of DMZ or Panmunjum.

Here, one is only a breath away from North Korean guards smacking in their traditional goose attire from the Soviet era. Their Southern counterparts have their peculiarity too. Dark sunglasses and arms folded in karate pose are their choice of instilling fear and awe.

Panmunjum is however, a no-go for Korean nationals. The furthermost point Koreans are allowed to go near their Northern neighbors is the border town of Dorasan.

Today, tourists take the scheduled Korail trains on the reconstructed 4 kilometer long Gyeongui Line to Dorasan Station from Imjingak Station (Train fare - KW2,000 / US$2 return).

For many years, the railway line was the main steel artery for intra Korea travel but the war cut it short at Imjingak.
At Dorasan, one can spy with the coin operated binoculars (KW700) on the North Korean industrial city of Gaeseong. Not to be missed is the guided tour inside the 3rd Tunnel, a must for those who doubt North Korean aggressive ambition.
A rusty steam locomotive outside the Imjingak mini museum casts a vivid reminder of the once extensive railway networks connecting all corners of the Korean Peninsula prior to the devastating war.

Take a few steps towards the museum rear, more war relics and the scales of battles fought greet you – The Sherman that pounded on the Russian T34 or perhaps intrigued by the Sabres that triumphed over the MiGs in the Korean skies.

Even the most bewildered visitor is unlikely to escape the highly charged atmosphere between both sides at the border.

My visit to Imjingak has left me with an overwhelming realization of this long lasting border conflict and how all aspects of border life are teeming with military alertness.

Here, no one gambles with the peaceful existence or risk provoking enemies who have no qualms to unleash the perils of Cold War on all.

While it gives you the impression that human life is cheap at the border area, visitors will be surprised to find Imjingak is also the main venue to celebrate Chuseok - aka Korean's Thanksgiving.

Family members torn by the war come here on an annual pligrimage to express their longing for relatives living across the barbed wires.
Besides the ruined railway bridge and antiqued military displays, the visit to Imjingak offers visitors an everlasting view on the terrible human cost brought by idealogic conflicts.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

National Museum of Singapore - Light System

Lightemotion uses illumination as scenography for the National Museum of Singapore's collection.

By David Sokol (Architectural Record - February 2008)

A major renovation and expansion of the National Museum of Singapore by Singapore-based W Architects presented a tabula rasa for light designers at Lightemotion and exhibition designers from GSM Group. François Roupinian, who founded Montreal-based Lightemotion in 2002, likens the museum’s 126,000-square-foot addition to a “complete black box.”

Founded as a natural history museum in 1887, the institution used its recent construction project also to expand its curatorial focus, which now encompasses cultural identity and nation building.

This broader scope meant that the museum’s collection would be spread thin across the new galleries, creating the need for the exhibition and lighting designers to engender a sense of intimacy in the cavernous interiors.

In a gallery located inside the original Neoclassical building, for example, curators lined the room’s perimeter with handmade Singaporean fabrics, but little else.

To concentrate visitors’ attention on these panels, Lightemotion grazed each textile with an AR111 tightened to a 4-degree beam spread. “Grazing really makes a strong statement,” Roupinian says, “so just by illuminating those layers, by highlighting their texture and making them shimmer, we could make the space pop.”

In addition to providing the illusion of a smaller scale, the designers at Lightemotion helped reinforce the museum’s narrative. “We tried to make lighting a third character,” states Roupinian. “The lighting became the scenography.”

In a gallery devoted to Singapore’s theatrical traditions, the firm suspended bare light bulbs from the ceiling, letting the electrical cords swag this way and that.

A century ago, Singaporean opera singers worked as itinerant performers, explains Roupinian. So “we tried to create a bit of the feeling of the nomadic dressing room, where performers would hang all those light bulbs to do their makeup,” he says.

While the original galleries now focus on themes such as fashion and theater, the extension designed by W Architects houses the museum’s permanent collection. Rather than divide galleries thematically, GSM designed two paths that follow the chronology of Singapore’s political and social histories.

One of the rare intersections between the two paths serves as the entryway to galleries devoted to the Japanese occupation. Here, too, suspended lighting does the work of props. “We wanted people to experience—in a metaphorical way—the anguish and fear [that residents felt during the occupation],” Roupinian says.

So GSM designed an angled concrete wall that outlines the route, and Lightemotion illuminated it with attenuated Edison bulbs whose filaments are dimmed to 5 percent. “They shake a bit just so you can feel the fragility,” Roupinian says of the quivering filaments.

Prior to this junction, along the social-history path, museumgoers can explore a re-created opium den where paper lanterns hang from the ceiling; a metal-halide/fiber-optic system integrated in the raised floor uplights a metal-mesh ceiling, where shadows evoke smoke. As the permanent collection approaches the most recent decades, a gallery devoted to contemporary manufacturing features a ceiling of myriad luminaires fabricated in Singapore.

The designers also used projected images to help fill the National Museum’s abundant space. In one example, at the start of the permanent collection, they created a collage of still images that dance across lycra panels stretched inside a drumlike volume.

At the end of the journey, films of contemporary Singaporean life play on canted walls, and embedded fiber optics in vitrines give the impression that the exhibition cases have somehow captured the spillover light.

A cinematic approach characterizes GSM and Lightemotion’s work at the National Museum of Singapore. In the pools of light that underscore certain artifacts, for example, the designers created counterparts to the range of luminous and emotional intensity found in film.

“Singaporeans are used to a wash of fluorescent light,” Roupinian says. That the National Museum of Singapore does the opposite offers testimony to a trusting client, and adds a new layer of meaning to the island nation’s relatively brief history.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Muzium Negara - A New Dawn?

Muzium Negara, the national repository of the country's heritage is undergoing a physical change for the first time since its inception in the early 60s. Under the patronage of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the national museum was the place to showcase a proud heritage that traverses across colors and race.

However in recent years, the national museum and the exhibits are losing its frantic battle to draw more visitors. The museum has become notorious of becoming museum piece itself.

Few were to be blamed.

Society changed and museums, at least in Malaysia, are no longer the place to take your kids to. The mushrooming of mega malls did not help either.

The axe finally came when policy makers turned blind eyed to the latest science and technology in museulogy. Key museum players simply fail to overhaul Muzium Negara and make the museum relevant to the changing taste of the public.
Generations of visitors are continuously greeted by the same mundane features on keris, bridal chambers, stuffed animals and wayang kulit. Countless internet postings came with a frightening verdict - Muzium Negara is BORING!

Yet there is hope now.

Years of increasing revenue from the tourism industry have make the government to view the National Museum in a whole new perspective. Malaysian government is giving it the long overdue facelift to entice more foreigners to visit the country. In fact, the new minister in charge in his Museum Day 2008 speech, has listed it as one of the two main functions of Muzium Negara.

The overhaul project valued at some RM20 million was first mooted in August 2006 and after several rounds of delay, the project is currently at its final stage of completion due late 2008.

Obviously, the museum authority has high hopes. Rais Yatim was quoted to have set it on par if not exceed some of the leading museum establishments in the region, notably in Singapore. Others are predicting that ticket sales will hit all time high.

Sadly, not much is said about the quality of the exhibition galleries.

Gallery C and D were opened to visitors since August 2007. The new Gallery C will take visitors through the different colonial eras with dioramas of on-board a Portuguese Galleon as it pounded Malacca in the 15th century. Close by, you can pretend to be a British guard at Fort Cornwallis. Or perhaps bear witness to the signing of the Perak Treaty in the 18th century on board on a steamer. Then there is more on the bloodied history of colonial conquests and regional forces like the Dutch and Bugis. Gallery C also dwells on the formation years the country took as a tin and rubber producer. Ingots and a large tin dredge model gave visitors a small but impressive display of the tin industry in the country.

It is perhaps the best of the two because visitors are left asking for more next.

In Gallery D, nationalism theme takes center stage but ends up trying too hard to impress visitors. Bad lighting and a rather disappointing choice of displays spell future downfall.

According to reliable inside source, the galleries have turned turf wars between the people running Muzium Negara and those from the ministry.

The overhaul of the two galleries upstairs were administered separately and the museum management basically were told to lay their hands off. Hence the adversary. Choose carefully when you praise these galleries, otherwise you'll get a mouthful how these galleries are no different from a showroom. You'll hear discontentment and disapproval over how basic museum guidelines like the positioning of display fonts are thrown into the air.

The rivalry is only natural because the first stage of the renovation are directives from the ministry and they have put something completely alien right under the nose of the Muzium Negara management.

But on the other hand, the museum management is guilty of idling too long and not attuned to position Muzium Negara as the nation premier museum.

However, the museum management now have their hands full of revenge at least till the year end. The stake is high for them to show how they can successfully turn around Galleries A and B on the ground floor.

Exclusive work progress report has revealed that the star attraction in Gallery A will be the Perak Man housed in a cave diorama. Also in the pipeline is a walk through timeline of Malaysian flora and faunas and a section with the opportunity to experience 'earthquake'.

The source also notes that Gallery B will confine to solely feature the emergence of the Malay Sultanate since the 13th. century. Maybe offering a completely new way to view royal regalia but it would not surprise anyone if it is just to know who's who in the Malay palaces and their long lineage.

Nevertheless, it appears that the 'new' museum has completely discarded the museum early day's concept of showcasing the many rich and colorful racial diversity. Malaysian minorities highlights are completely ignored. Polarization again bears its ugly head and Malaysians again is at its losing end.

It is ironic to me that Muzium Negara which falls under the same ministry that oversees Unity in the country has left this important factor out when they sat collectively to plan the future for the country's main repository of culture and heritage!

Unless one reads along the line of the authority and their sole objective. Muzium Negara will be Malaysia's latest cash cow and it is to bankroll on more tourists.

One can then understand why there are also fundamental change in the new museum's DNA.

It has also opted to move away from research theme in their displays. Story telling now are visually more stimulating but the information is frustratingly brief. Anyone wanting a rewarding outing at the museum will find walking on the corridors of Muzium Negara is no different from browsing through tour brochures.

Questions still remain if the rejuvenated Muzium Negara will reclaim its rightful place among Malaysians as the place to visit and the center of research in the region.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Stadium Merdeka Wins UNESCO Award

A jury of 12 conservation experts gave Stadium Merdeka the Award of Excellence and the Suffolk house in Penang the Award of Distinction in the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture and Heritage Conservation held in Bangkok (NST Sept 8, 08)

For those who fought hard to preserve the stadium’s historical importance, the award is a well earned recognition for a national monument that Malaysians accept as the symbol of our nationhood and its birth.

Not all share the belief unfortunately, and in the late 90s, the fate of Merdeka Stadium laid precariously in the hands of development juggernaut. A would-be victim of an outrageous trading chip by Tun Mahathir to fund his fancy Commonwealth Sports Complex in Bukit Jalil.

The more cynical ones perceived it all part of an elaborate scheme to discard the memoirs of our beloved Tunku - Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. However, the arrival of Pak Lah a decade later at the power helm, finally offered a ray of hope to the iconic football stadium.

Award-winning architect cum conservationist Laurence Poh was put in charge to put glory back to Stadium Merdeka. Soon, an army of jackhammers and hard hats descended on the bitumen track and concrete stands to give the stadium a new facelift.

Its seating capacity of previous high of 60,000 was scaled back to the heydays of Merdeka at under 20,000. The reduced seating capacity is far from the days when the Stadium housed Malaysia as an Asian football power house, but the new overall look is similar to what Tunku had envisioned when he led JKR engineers to transform Kuala Lumpur in time to celebrate our independence from the British.

At the core of the conservation plan is the preservation of the main façade of the grandstand. A mini museum cum photo gallery was included to showcase the stadium and its many historical events.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Reclamation Kills Historic Malacca Town?

The historic town is increasing its size by leaps and bounds due to rampant reclamation in progress.

Reclamation not only alter permanently the coastal contours of Malacca but put an abrupt end to any hope of discovering treasures in an area acknowledged internationally as some of the finest graveyards of sea vessels in the country.

Looking under the sea beds may reveal fascinating historical links to a turbulent past when Malacca - the strategic seaport was a favorite grab of maritime superpowers.

This notion, however, has little followers. The historical values that the warring vessels hold are not good enough to entice modern day prospectors more keen to reap quick buck from properties that mushroom in this reclaimed parcels.

Think of the hugely unpopular Talam-led Pulau Melaka project (the man-made islet connected by a bridge on the Google satellite map), and unplanned reclamation and its devastation unfold before your eyes. Its consequences are the massive silting of Malacca seas adjacent to Century Mahkota Hotel and Malacca River.

The entire area is slowly turning into swamps and now a favorite with migrating egrets. Ancient Malacca shore lines were the entire stretch from present day Equatorial Hotel to Malacca River mouth where the Tourism Malaysia office is now situated. (Indicated by the red line on the Google satellite photo)
It would not be too hard to imagine that many great European Men-of-War like the Flor De la Mar made its port calls where Hilton Hotel or Mahkota Parade stand today. Portuguese maritime annals would revealed how the pride of the Portuguese fleet arrived with hundreds of sepoys and captained by Albuquerque’s men.

It purportedly left with war spoilt from the defeated Malacca Malay sultanate. Its short glorious stint was then cut short when it sank with all its treasures when freak storm hit the unexpected crew.

Malaysia's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had urged a thorough magnomatic survey of the various potential sites when the idea for the massive reclamation project was mooted by the state in the late 90s.

Unfortunately, the technology prescribed concluded nothing significant, and the Chief Minister was adamant that the project should proceed.

Yet for sometime, local dailies had articles highlighting fishermen and those who fish for leisure would often show up with pieces of broken china, old coins and the musket balls during their outings in the same areas.

As a teenager, I too have my share of adventures at the edge of the reclaimed land before developers changed the landscape forever with the likes of Mahkota Parade and Melaka Raya.

As a matter of fact, I own a few of the musket bullets and broken china I dug out myself from the muddy soil.

Unfortunately, the state prefers to ignore the urgent need to find and identify the sunken treasures. Instead it has adopted a negligent attitude to concerned calls urging restrain in its reclamation project.

End of the story?

The same authority, however has shown remarkable enthusiasm to spend millions of ringgit for large scale projects supposedly to draw more tourist traffic - The Eye of Malaysia in Kota Laksamana – (The same Eye from KL by the way), The Taming Sari Revolving Tower and Malacca Skytrain but fail to appreciate the exquisite heritage and conservation value Malacca has to offer to its people and the world.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Malacca - An Oasis of History.

It is not often we chanced upon a fascinating insight on Malacca rustic charm and personally this is one of the best. The article is written by Thomas Fuller (International Herald Tribute) and published on Friday, March 19, 1999.

History Essence of A Colonial Past Infuses Neglected Malacca.

MALACCA, Malaysia: In a country where "old" is often defined as pre-1970, this city with its hibiscus-red colonial buildings and ornately carved facades is an oasis of history.

As progress and development have marched across Malaysia, one small corner of the country seems to have been spared.

Still intact are Malacca's centuries-old shop-houses, its church built in 1753 and the ruins of a fort erected by the Portuguese about 450 years ago to secure the once strategic port.

As one ambles through the streets of the city, it is difficult to fathom Malacca's crucial role in the region's — and indeed the world's — commercial history. An adage from the early years of European colonialism in Asia perhaps says it best: "He who is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice."

Malacca was the gateway to the spice islands, an entrepot for cloves, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. The narrow straits off the city, still some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, held the key to the lucrative spice trade for Europeans, who began their trips to the region in the early 1500s.

It was only in the last century, when the British moved their regional headquarters south to Singapore, that Malacca lost its strategic significance.

Today, the city's charm is its neglect. The local government has done little to polish the appearance of the historic district, a series of streets packed with sometimes rickety, narrow shop-houses. Local officials refuse to pay for renovations of the 18th-century church — the Dutch government paid the last time, in the 1980s — and talk of building a pedestrian promenade beside the oldest houses has remained just that.

The result: Many parts of the historic center still function independently of tourist dollars. Dilapidated buildings replete with elaborate tiles and carvings house barber shops, loan sharks, funeral parlors and furniture shops. Local patrons of tea stalls mingle and converse oblivious of the tourists who walk past the shops' marble-top tables and distinctive wooden chairs.

The hidden splendor of these buildings has not gone entirely unnoticed. Singaporeans, among others, are buying up the old houses and converting them into boutique hotels and cafés to complement the art galleries and trinket shops.

But history in Malacca resides not only in the rows of old shop-houses and nearby fort and church. There are gems throughout the city, although many are lost in Malacca's sometimes ugly and congested streets.

One is tucked away behind the fort: a small cemetery that speaks of the history of early colonists and their travails. Amid tombstones of former governors and military officers is the grave of Edward Hugh Massy, the 1-year-old son of a British lieutenant stationed in Malacca in the early 1800s.

His grieving parents left a little piece of poetry on his gravestone: "This lovely bud so young and fair calld hence by early doom just came to shew how sweet a flower in paradise would bloom."

It is through such tombstones that Malacca betrays the identities of its past and present inhabitants.

Few cities in the world can claim such an eclectic heritage. Malacca was founded by a Sumatran prince in the 14th century and saw successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonists met by traders from India, China and Java, among other places.

Some groups, like the Chittys from India and the descendants of Portuguese settlers, formed separate communities that remain today.

Each race and culture has left its mark on the city — whether it is the spicy Portuguese food or the Armenian inscriptions on the floor of Christ Church. Indeed, part of the challenge for visitors to this old port is to try to disentangle the city's European and Oriental influences.

VISITORS today range from Singaporeans who drive here on weekends, to the droves of Europeans who, as their ancestors did, often come in groups.

Malacca is halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore — two cities that have clearly succumbed to concrete and steel — making it an easy destination for a day trip.

Visitors who stay the night have choices among four and five-star hotels or boutique hotels in the historic part of town, a neighborhood recently made more lively with the addition of bars that stay open late.

At the heart of the historic area, next to the Dutch-built Christ Church, is the creaking State Historical Museum, housed in the former Dutch governor's house, and filled with dioramas, furniture and period costumes.

Next door is the Youth Museum, a dark and puzzling series of rooms filled with sports trophies and dedicated to the not-so-youthful politicians who built it.

To be avoided is a nightly outdoor historical performance, derided by Malaccans as the sound, light and mosquito show.

But no visit to the city is complete without a journey to the top of St. Paul's hill, where the ruins of a fortress mix with the giant, 17th-century tomb markers of fallen Dutchmen.

In the distance, plying the muddy straits, are the outlines of container ships that all but ignore once-mighty Malacca.