Where Have All Our Buildings Gone?

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?

No. 18, 20, 22, Jalan Bijih Timah, Old Town. Don't they have character? But alas, now you see them...

...now you don't...

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.

No. 45 and 47, Jalan Bandar Timah, Old Town. Renovation or demolition? Where to draw the line?

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.

No. 84, Jalan Sultan Yussuf, Old Town.

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.”

No. 48 and 50, Jalan Raja Ekram, New Town - site of the only "twins" in Ipoh.

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.

No. 2-22, Jalan Chung On Siew. Is the demolition scale getting larger?

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.


3 Responses to “Where Have All Our Buildings Gone?”

  1. 1 Ruth Iversen Rollitt August 16, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    How tragic – and how on earth can Ipoh even think of getting a nomination to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

    I was born in Ipoh (Batu Gajah) and love my home town. Although I have not lived there for many years I visit often and each time I am saddened at the dereliction and lack of maintenance of the town. It is an eyesore and makes me want to weep. Now the old shop houses are being demolished – they have not been maintained properly and are therefore crumbling and need to be replaced. But what will happen when they have gone? They will be replaced by ugly modern buildings withough any charm.

    My father was an architect in Ipoh (and all of Malaysia) for many years – his beautiful houses graced the roads of the country – but when I visited last year I saw that many of them have gone, others are in a sorry state of repair – and others have been ‘improved’ and enlarged which has resulted in an architect’s nightmares.

    Ipoh is so lucky to be situated in such wonderful surroundings – be proud of it – and look after it. As it is at present, people will pass by without any thought.

    I am so sorry.

  2. 2 perakheritage August 17, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Thank you for your concern. We are simply disheartened to see the number of demolitions happening in Ipoh. Many of the buildings here can be re-used but the sad thing is people are just not keen to keep old buildings resulting in them being torn down. We are also aware of the “renovations” being done to your father’s lovely buildings as pointed out by Hong. Most stakeholders are not conservation-minded and if the relevant authorities do not start doing something now the charm of Ipoh would be gone sooner than we expect. It would be irreversible then and a sad, sad thing to happen. Bye-bye UNESCO World Heritage Listing…

  3. 3 sembangkuala August 24, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    This is totally unacceptable.

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