Perak fights to save its British heritage


IPOH/TAIPING, Malaysia (eTN) – Majestic neo-classical or Edwardian buildings, a profusion of Sino-Malay villas, even a supposedly haunted manor. While foreign tourists come in waves to Penang or rush to shop in Kuala Lumpur, they simply forget to stop in Perak, one of Peninsular Malaysia’s states along the west coast. This could be a blessing in disguise. “True that we do not attract so many foreign travelers, but people coming to Perak can expect an authentic experience and discover some of the finest examples of our British colonial heritage,” said Law Siak Hong, an architect who is also Vice President of Perak Heritage Society.

“Colonial heritage.” It sounds almost like an insult for some in Malaysia. But Law Siak Hong is not shy to talk about it: “This is part of our history, and there is no way to feel ashamed about it,” he explained. This is still considered by many people in the Malaysian government as an eyesore. During the decades-long “reign” of former Prime Minister Mahathir, what could have remained of any British heritage has been systematically destroyed, falling a sad fate from the idea that buildings that did not reflect the story of newly-independent Malaysia were not worth keeping.

Taiping, Peninsular Malaysia’s first British settlement on the “continent” (Penang is indeed an island) did not spare the city of large destructions over the last four decades. A sad fact as the city was the place of 40 “firsts” in Malaya, such as the first public school, the first rail link, the first swimming pool, the first zoo, or the first public museum. “There are roughly some 40 buildings of historical importance today compared to over 100 a few years ago,” explained Anuar Isa, Curator and Founder of Taiping First Galleria, an interactive institution celebrating all “firsts” of the city. The institution hopes also to contribute to preserve Taiping heritage. Destruction still goes on with some old villas, which could make way someday for condominiums.

With Mahathir officially retired – he was fiercely an anti-Westerner at least in public – there is more awareness from Malaysians for their heritage. The government recently bowed to protest from locals in Kuala Lumpur against the partial destruction of Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur Chinatown. Penang and Malacca are now UNESCO World Heritage sites with large amounts of money being invested by both local and national governments to restore monuments and houses. In Perak, however, private people still fight to protect remains of a long-gone empire. Current Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak recently named Taiping as a “heritage city,” which will help to preserve remaining old structures in the city. The government even hopes in the long term to turn eventually Taiping into another UNESCO World Heritage site. In budget 2012, the government will allocate US$320 million to accelerate development in Taiping.

However, neighboring Ipoh is unlikely to share the same destiny. Perak’s largest city with over half a million people has also probably the largest collection of pre-war structures and houses, probably as much as in Penang. Of course, grand structures such as Ipoh’s magnificent rail station – dubbed as the Malaysian Taj Mahal due to its bombed-shape roof – the city hall, the Royal Ipoh Club, or the Birch Memorial have been renovated or are under renovation. In the streets between the rail station and Ipoh Padang, impressive bank buildings have been renovated and still testify of Ipoh days of glory a century ago. Local real estate owner Mike Singh is also involved into a project of renovating Panglima Lane, previously known as “Concubine Lane.” Old houses are carefully renovated and could soon welcome restaurants, cafes, boutique hotels, trendy shops, and also some housing. “I would love to make it a great area not only for visitors but also for locals, especially young urbanites,” he explained.

They are many causes that Perak inhabitants will have to fight for: starting first with Kellie’s Castle, probably Malaysia’s most romantic heritage. Scottish engineer William Kellie Smith built a magnificent mansion near the city of Batuh Ganjah, blending Scottish and Moorish architecture details. Started in 1908, the mansion was never completed. Kellies family abandoned the place following the death of Willam Kellie Smith in 1926. The impressive building is in ruins today, and its poignant silhouette looks even spookier as little has been done to renovate and preserve it. “The government should have a better museum concept for the place to make it more attractive to local visitors who believe that it is haunted,” estimated the Perak heritage society.

Looking at the tiny village of Panpan near Kuala Kangsar brings lots of sadness. It could easily be Malaysia’s most beautiful historical village today with rows of 100-year-old Sino-Malay shophouses along its main road. However, many of them are in ruin, while some already collapsed. A sad story, which is linked to history as the village was home to a community of Mandailing Malays, who were guilty of having closely collaborated with the British during the tin boom. More than 60 years later, they are still paying for it… In this case, history remains much alive.