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.

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