Text and Photos by Lau Sook Mei
Where have all our buildings gone?
Long time passing…
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?…so goes the song…
What’s happening to Ipoh ? Is the city undergoing the long-awaited renewal?
For the past two months, Ipoh has seen a spat of demolitions involving mostly pre-war shophouses. This happens despite Jabatan Warisan Negara’s (National Heritage Department) intention to nominate Ipoh/Kinta Valley as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In view of these rampant demolitions how would Ipoh/Kinta Valley be branded? What outstanding universal value has it got?
Currently, the state government is actively trying to promote Ipoh’s tourist attractions, especially the historic buildings in the vicinity of Panglima Street in Old Town. The buzz is about preserving the “Panglima Core”. That’s commendable. But, is the state government aware that other parts of Old Town is under siege? Let’s hope that the Ipoh Master Plan 2020 has addressed this situation.
In order to appreciate the heritage and the aesthetic value of the city of Ipoh, one must understand its historical background.
In less than three decades, Ipoh has become the most important town in the Kinta Valley, the world’s largest tin ore producer in the first half of the 20th century. The tin rush in the Kinta Valley saw the establishment of British tin mining companies and overseas banks. An influx of Chinese immigrants worked the tin mines, a few of them eventually became towkays: Yau Tet Shin, Leong Sin Nam, Eu Tong Sen, Lam Looking, Foong Seong, and many more. They gave their “sweat and blood” to develop Ipoh, building hundreds of shophouses in Old Town and then New Town, as well as theatres, schools and mansions. As a result, Ipoh flourished and became “The City That Tin Built”.
While Ipoh’s development is not without the vital roles played by Malay aristocrats, colonial administrators and the workers, these pre-war shophouses are the legacies of the millionaires who financed and built the city. As such, these old buildings are of immense cultural value and historical significance. Yet, they are allowed to be pulled down indiscriminately without any consideration to preserving the streetscape. At the rate the buildings are going, given another ten years there will be nothing left to show off Kinta Valley’s tin-mining heritage. Let’s not forget: once gone, that’s forever.
To quote Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid, President of Badan Warisan Malaysia:
“Our physical legacies remain fragile and highly vulnerable, especially within the context of economic market forces and real estate development. We are fighting against time to protect our built heritage. We need to have a clear understanding of what is meant by heritage. We need a clear system for designating our heritage buildings and sites, a system which provides clarity on the criteria applied when making listing decisions so that improved information about the statutory list of buildings will show clearly why a property has been listed, and its features of significance, and through this, to understand why a property is not listed.
We need to have fiscal incentives to spur and encourage owners and developers of heritage buildings and conservation areas to undertake conservation and revitalisation programmes, and to stimulate conservation and restoration activities. We need to have greater stakeholder participation in the protection and enhancement of their heritage neighbourhoods which means that we need to ‘build’ a nationwide cultural map, documenting our heritage from local significance, to those at national, and even international, that is world heritage, significance.
We need greater public participation, through a holistic and inclusive historical approach in the creation of a National Heritage Policy and in the establishing of the heritage register.”
We, in Ipoh, are indeed fighting for time. Demolitions and improper renovations are the result of a lack of legislation, enforcement and co-ordination among different departments in the Dewan Bandaraya Ipoh (DBI). It also shows a lack of awareness, understanding and appreciation towards pre-war architecture by various quarters. It is time that DBI emulates Majlis Perbandaran Taiping with stricter legislation and enforcement on built heritage besides having its own heritage conservation unit.
If, indeed, the state government is serious about nominating Ipoh/Kinta Valley for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, efforts would have to be made with regard to preservation and conservation to strengthen the sense of identity through the association with history and development. We need to be in touch with the past as well as the future. Conservation is economically and socially beneficial to various stakeholders, communities and governments and their agencies. It is timely to encourage adaptive re-use of old buildings so that they can be retained for businesses, tourism and education purposes. The experience of Chinatown in Singapore as well as Nagore Street and Stewart Lane in Penang, show that preservation and conservation (read heritage) pay. Much could be gotten out of these pre-war buildings if they were not threatened with demolition.
PHS is definitely not against development. Honestly, we care about our past. Pre-war buildings give us an identity of place. If Ipoh cannot retain its built heritage, it will have no historical reference. And there will be nothing uniquely Ipoh, and no tourists would want to see a provincial city with a wealth of architecture replaced by faceless buildings.