Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Art Deco Walk 2: Medan Pasar
Exit Central Market from the back and walk down the street where the city buses wait to pick up passengers, and you will find yourself in Medan Pasar, formerly Market Square, before the 'nationalisation' of street names in Kuala Lumpur.
"There isn't much to see in Medan Pasar", my friends complain. "It's just a dirty place with damaged pavements where mostly migrant workers wait to board their buses."
In the 1990s, I figured out that if Central Market were an Art Deco building, then at least some of the buildings in the same area must necessarily also be Art Deco buildings.
I didn't realise how accurate my conjecture was. At least half the buildings in the area are Art Deco buildings, constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. The other buildings date back to 1907, and are in the Neoclassical/Art Noveau style, with highly ornate motifs inspired by nature, or garlands set in cast plaster.
Medan Pasar, or Market Square, was the capital's banking and shopping hub in the 1920s. It is sad that this area has been largely ignored as the river confluence where the tin-miners and traders first landed.
A 1920s photograph shows 3-storey commercial buildings built in the Art Noveau / Neoclassical style in Market Square. Photo reproduced from "Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400 - 2004", by Wendy Khadijah Moore, without permission but in accordance with the principles of fair use.
What we know as 'Bangunan OCBC' today, at the corner of Medan Pasar, was constructed in 1938 as the headquarters of the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation. The architect for this Art Deco wonder is A.O. Coltman, the same genius who designed Odeon Cinema in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman - Jalan Dang Wangi.
The regularly-spaced, narrow windows of the Bangunan OCBC speak of Art Deco elegance. The vertical columns create a 'band' separating the first from the second storey. Like many multi-storey Art Deco buildings, the windows are relatively small, considering the full surface of the wall.
The old clock tower in Medan Pasar is revolutionary in design for its time. It was erected in 1937 in commemoration of the coronation of King George IV, but the original memorial plaques have been removed. The geometric art form shows the influence of Cubism and Futurism. The geometric sunburst motif on the doors at the bottom of the clock tower is of especial interest, as it is more commonly found on windows and above archways than on clock towers.
The sunburst and rising sun motifs in Art Deco convey a sense of strength and optimism in a time when the Great Depression was imminent. Also, fascination with the Orient and the Far East was beginning to grow in the West in the 1920s, and this delight in all things exotic was translated into pyramids, ziggurats, rising suns, running deers and Japanese cranes in Art Deco motifs.
Unfortunately, the Medan Pasar Clock Tower is a sorry sight these days. At least 2 of its surfaces have been defaced with obscene graffiti. Litter surrounds its base. The tired commuters queuing up in front of the Clock Tower have no interest in its history or preservation.
It is a shame that Medan Pasar, which is so rich in history, and indeed, the very place where Kuala Lumpur began, is so neglected. It is hard enough for me to get my fellow KL-ites excited about it, let alone persuade tourists that it is a place of historical and artistic interest.
I believe that it shouldn't be too difficult for City Hall to rally up volunteers to clean up and beautify Medan Pasar. I wish to see the area rid of illegal stalls, graffiti, litter and petty crime. I am a strong proponent of the 'Broken Windows' theory. Litter and graffiti begets more litter and graffiti, because the impression a passerby gets is that no-one cares. Condoning the presence of illegal stalls and pirated goods shows that low-level crime is tolerated in a particular area, and of course, crime begets more crime.
Restoring the buildings in Medan Pasar to some of their former glory should not be a costly exercise. Building owners can be held to account for the condition that their properties are in. Unsightly signboards and banners should be restored with tasteful and unobtrusive ones, while rubbish should be removed and drains fitted with gratings and covers to deter littering. The installation of grease traps and drain traps should be made mandatory for food and beverage outlet operators to ensure the cleanliness of the area and to manage stormwater and wastewater. The installation of better street lighting and pavement barriers to create a safe zone for pedestrians from motorcycle snatch thieves would go a long way towards lowering the crime rate in the area.
Plaques could be installed on building walls to inform tourists and visitors of the year the respective buildings were constructed, and to provide a short history of the area.
It is a shame that this little square, just a skip and hop away from Central Market, could be left to deteriorate the way it is. We claim to be proud of our history and heritage, but our actions so far do not seem to reflect our values. I believe it is time that we restore Medan Pasar to its former glory.