Saturday, October 15, 2011

History comes alive in small towns

PAPAN is not on the tourist map, and for good reason.
By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief

Located in an isolated corner about an hour's drive south of Perak's capital of Ipoh, and with its tin-mining days long behind it, the village's shophouses are fast being overtaken by creepers.

It is almost a ghost town now, and its 300 remaining residents live quiet lives, except when tourists arrive looking for the former clinic of the late Ms Sybil Kathigasu, a midwife who fought the Japanese during the Occupation.

Her clinic on the main street was in a shophouse which still has its original indigo lime wash peeking out from the modern paint later slapped onto the walls. It is open to visitors, thanks to Mr Law Siak Hong, 60, who has leased the lot for the last 10 years. 'I never tried to recreate the clinic but retained the old ambience to let people experience the house as it is,' he said.

Mr Law, a retired designer with pewter retailer and manufacturer Royal Selangor, has known Papan from boyhood, when it was a thriving town supplying the tin mines. He leased the house with the idea of keeping an eye on Papan, which occasionally comes under threats of demolition.

When he discovered the story of Ms Sybil, he started researching it, and found the house's secret dispensary and nook where a radio was hidden. He has since filled the rooms with pre-war furniture, including an old examination bed, and is now changing the exhibits for the third time.

'Many visitors come because they know of Sybil,' he said. 'But she's not accepted as part of Malaysian history because she helped the communists, and therefore some people think she must be one too.'

Mr Law, who is involved in the Perak Heritage Society, is not alone in his passion. There is growing interest among many seeking to hold on to a part of their personal heritage in these small towns which are rapidly being swept into oblivion by development.

In some ways, this fits into the bigger movement of Malaysians seeking to reclaim the history of their country - a history which many now insist has been hijacked by certain political groups to legitimise their hold on power.

Some Malaysians have begun lobbying for history textbooks to be more inclusive, so as to give a more complete account of the nation's story.

But that's just one part of it. Those who pour their time and money into restoration projects say it's often a lot more to do with preserving their personal stories.

Mr Laurence Loh, a prominent heritage architect, said Malaysians have come quite some way in appreciating their past, although there is still reluctance to put money into conservation.

'In this increasingly globalised world, we look for something that is unique,' he said.

In the course of his 27-year career, he has restored iconic buildings like the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in George Town in Penang, and recently, the Whiteaways arcade that was a swank British department store in its heyday.

But three years ago, he undertook a more personal project - the restoration of his grandfather's rubber smokehouse in Lunas, about 100km south of the Kedah capital of Alor Setar.

'My grandfather was one of the three Chinese personalities who built Lunas town, and my dad was born there,' said Mr Loh, 61. 'I undertook the project because no one has mapped Lunas' history, and I wanted to do it.'

The project, which was sponsored by a telecommunications company and involved local school pupils who mapped the town's history, was nominated for an Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which recognises architectural and preservation projects in Islamic societies.

When opened, the smokehouse saw visitors turning up in droves - although some left hurriedly after being greeted by the pungent smell of smoked rubber sheets. And they kept coming, until the funds to keep it open ran out.

Today, Mr Loh's cousins, who run an eatery nearby, open the smokehouse only when visitors pop by. As he noted, such projects are hard to sustain, as government or corporate funding is rarely available.

This, however, did not deter former venture capitalist Bernard Yaw, 50, from spending RM500,000 (S$203,000) to restore two shophouses in Gopeng which had belonged to his great-great-grandfather who set up home there after arriving from China.

Located about 10km from Ipoh, Gopeng - like Papan - was then a thriving tin-mining centre. Today, it's also a sleepy hollow.

One of Mr Yaw's shophouses has become a museum honouring Gopeng as the first Chinese town in Perak, while the other depicts the typical home of a tin-mining tycoon. The antiques were provided by a classmate, while his former history teacher gave the intellectual input.

Both places have drawn 170,000 visitors since they opened three years ago, and are still open to the public for free.

'There's nothing political about the project, it's just about my hometown. Many locals now tell us that they, too, want to restore their houses,' Mr Yaw said, adding that he has heard of a tin tycoon who is now building a tin-mining museum in Kampar, also in Perak.

It's news that would have got a nod of approval from Mr Loh the architect.

'Heritage resonates with people's souls, and it's often manifested in a built environment,' he said. 'Man and buildings are as eternal as the world.'

That's as true for the cities as for some of the smallest towns in Malaysia, as these quirky little museums show.