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 fa├žade.

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.