Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Art Deco Walk 3: Bangunan Lee Rubber

When the admittedly popular Popular Bookstore was relocated from the heart of Petaling Street to the corner of Jalan Hang Lekir and Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, I was pleased with how accessible it is now from the Pasar Seni LRT station. As soon as I saw the building it is currently housed in, I had another reason to rejoice. The Bangunan Lee Rubber is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture I have ever seen.

The discrete horizontal 'banding' on the exterior facade and the spandrels in Fauvist colours are the first indications that this is an Art Deco building. Like most urban Deco buildings, the Bangunan Lee Rubber has a flat roof with no cornice or overhang.

The narrow windows, considering the full surface of the walls, are characteristic of Art Deco buildings of that era. Repeated geometric patterns below the windows create a sense of theatric opulence. The windows above the Deco accents are of metal muntins, also in the Deco style.

Art Deco spandrels accentuate the space between the top of the window in one storey and the sill of the window in the storey above. Fluted pilasters halfway up the wall hold up an entablature with fluted rectangular motifs.

The construction of Bangunan Lee Rubber was commissioned in the early 1930s by the Lee Rubber Company, a multi-million dollar enterprise set up by Southeast Asia's rubber and pineapple king, Lee Kong Chian.

The building itself has a colourful history. It was once the headquarters of the Kempeitai (Japanese Secret Police) in Kuala Lumpur, according to the ‘Letters & Comment’ column in Asiaweek (15 September 1995) and the testimonies of various Malaysians who lived through World War II.

Later, the building became one of the branches of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), which isn't surprising considering that Lee Kong Chian was once the general manager and vice-chairman of Huayi Bank, and was later appointed vice-chairman of OCBC when three Chinese banks merged to form the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation during the Great Depression in 1933.

"Jalan Tun H.S. Lee" was formerly known as "High Street", while "Jalan Hang Lekir" was formerly known as "Cecil Street" before the nationalisation of street names in Kuala Lumpur. Many of the double-storey shophouses along Jalan Tun H.S. Lee date back to the 1880s.

Tun H.S. Lee, or Tun Sir Henry Lee Hau-Shik (1900 - 1988) played a major role in helping to establish the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) in 1949 and in initiating the coalition between MCA and UMNO in 1952, which led the then Malaya to Independence in 1957, so it is only proper and fitting that such an important and busy street be named after him.

Hang Lekir, on the other hand, was a warrior who lived during the height of the Malaccan Sultanate in the 15th century. Some of the street names in Kuala Lumpur have been named after warriors from the Malay Annals.

High Street leading to Foch Avenue (1930s). Photo reproduced from "Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400 - 2004" by Wendy Khadijah Moore, without permission but in accordance with the principles of fair use.

The Bangunan Lee Rubber is a perfect example of how a coat of paint and a culture of maintenance can make a world of difference to heritage buildings. Heritage buildings in Kuala Lumpur do not have to be converted into unproductive galleries and deserted museums. They could still be utilised for commerce and trade and be wholly tenantable, as long as the property owners take pains to keep the building in good repair.

I wish that someday I could walk down the streets of Medan Pasar, Leboh Pudu and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and see that the Art Deco and Art Noveau buildings are as well-kept, clean and aesthetically pleasing as the Bangunan Lee Rubber.

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.

Art Deco Walk 1: Central Market

This is the first in my series of posts on Art Deco structures in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

Seeing as that I was at the Central Market Annexe on Tuesday evening, it is inevitable that a post on Central Market would follow. It is, after all, one of my favourite places to hang out in.

Why Art Deco? My fascination with Art Deco began in the mid '90s when my love of big band and swing music grew, along with my love for the works of authors of the Jazz Age, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and poets of the 1920s such as WH Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis.

The Roaring '20s was a glorious period in the history of the world. World War 1 had just ended, and never had there been a better time for industry and innovation. Even art forms embraced and celebrated technology and modernity.

There have been arguments propounded by the narrow-minded and mean-spirited that buildings such as the Kuala Lumpur Central Market aren’t part of our Malaysian heritage at all, but that of our colonialists. I beg to differ. In the first place, Malaysia wasn't a British colony, but a protectorate. Huge difference there, my friends. Secondly, what is Malaysian heritage, if not a miscegenation of cultures, faiths, ideas and shared histories? I think it is wonderful that the communities existing in Malaysia in the 1920s saw so much potential and beauty in Kuala Lumpur that they were inspired into constructing a building so elegant and so sophisticated for its time as the Central Market.

Central Market hasn't always been an Art Deco building. It was constructed in 1888 as a wet market for the then growing town of Kuala Lumpur.

The old Central Market. Black-and-white photos reproduced from "Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400-2004", by Wendy Khadijah Moore, without permission but in accordance with the principles of fair use.

The new Central Market as we know it today was constructed in the 1930s. This photograph shows it in its completed stage in 1937. It must have been such an architectural and aesthetic gem even in its day.

Europe was then abuzz with fresh ideas in architecture and industrial design after the
1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, and the enthusiasm it generated was carried all the way across the oceans to the expanding and vibrant city of Kuala Lumpur.

I recall my first visit to Central Market as being in 1986, after it was saved from demolition, renovated and reopened as an arts and culture market. My father has always been very big on taking us to local places of interest as soon as they are open to the public. Our family made it a habit to travel miles to visit new highways, bridges, dams, parks and buildings weeks before the official opening ceremonies. This is just one of the benefits of having a Geography teacher for a father.

I remember a comic book specialty store on the first floor of the Central Market back in 1986 where we could purchase DC and Marvel comics. It was probably the first such store in Malaysia. I remember also the artists on the ground floor of Central Market, and the breathtaking portraits they painted, as I watched a little distance away, not quite 8 years old, not quite daring to breathe in case I ruined their paintings in some way.

Later, in my teenage years in the 1990s, Central Market became less of a showcase for local art and culture and more of a place where cheap, tacky souvenirs from neighbouring countries could be bought. Still, it was a colourful and friendly place to hang out in.

There used to be a pub called "the Bull's Head" to the left of Central Market where my buddies and I watched most of the football matches during the 1998 World Cup.

I remember a young man named Eddie who had a stall selling Native American crafts in Central Market, although I am positive that he is not of Native American descent any more than I am, and his merchandise were probably made in some warehouse somewhere in Selangor. I wonder where he is today.

Central Market received another facelift in 2008, in an effort to upgrade its facilities, regulate the merchandise sold and to divide the shops into zones. Hence the new Central Market now has "Lorong Melayu", "Straits Chinese", "Lorong India" and “Lorong Kolonial” zones.

The interior of Central Market, with its booths and stalls in the wide corridors.

The Asli Crafts shop has always been one of my favourite shops.

I am pleased to see that the renovation work did not destroy the original Art Deco details in the interior of Central Market. Here, the 'flat-against-the-wall' fluted columns and mock pillars have survived several facelifts and renovation exercises.

The illusion of pillars and columns and ancient architectural designs such as pyramids and ziggurats is frequently employed in Art Deco.

Central Market at dusk. Again, we can see that the architect has chosen a bold ziggurat design. A ziggurat is a terraced pyramid with each storey smaller than the one below it. King Tut's tomb was discovered in 1922, and it wasn't just the archeological community that was excited over the find! Artists, architects and designers all wanted to incorporate pyramids, ziggurats and other Egyptian motifs into their work.

The subtle horizontal band of pink textured concrete running across the breadth of Central Market is also characteristic of one of the techniques used in Art Deco, in which bands or columns of contrasting materials are used to create a sense of line or division.

One of the best adjectives used to describe Art Deco design is 'theatrical', the entrance of the Central Market is just that! The recessed 'second entrance' creates the illusion of a passageway to a stage set. Symmetrical receding abstract planes and aerodynamic streamlining are typical of later Art Deco and Art Moderne details.

The back entrance of Central Market. You've got to love the Deco typestyle in the signage! Most Art Deco typestyles are completely in capitals, emphasising the swank and boldness of the era right before World War II. Take note, yet again, of the ziggurat design and the repetitive geometric patterns and the combination of materials used. Art Deco isn't about moderation -- it was all about eclecticism and glamour!

Central Market is one of the best success stories in Malaysia when it comes to heritage buildings. We didn't just 'preserve a building left by the British', we combated stasis by making it our own. Dare we hope that City Hall and the Ministry of Federal Territories would apply the same strategy in conserving and revitalising other heritage sites in the City?

Friday, October 23, 2009

“No Refuge” at the Central Market Annexe Gallery

I was at the Central Market Annexe on Tuesday evening for a photo exhibition on Burmese refugees in Malaysia. "No Refuge: Burmese Refugees in Malaysia", was presented by SUARAM and the Annexe Gallery. It runs from 15th to 25th October, 2009, and features the work of five photographers: Greg Constantine (USA), Halim Berbar (France), Rahman Roslan (Malaysia), Simon Wheatley (UK), and Zhuang Wubin (Singapore).

Artwork on display and for sale at the Central Market Annexe.

The Central Market Annexe looks clean, inviting and well-lit after the Central Market facelift. This place holds many memories for me. My buddy Sumita and I used to go clubbing in this area ten years ago. It stopped when I noticed many vagrants searching for food in the waste bins near Central Market. We started using our clubbing money to purchase food and beverage instead, which we would distribute to the vagrants sleeping on the sidewalks and park benches. It looks considerably cleaner here now, but maybe it's because it is still early in the evening.

The Annexe Gallery.

I inquired as to whether cameras would be allowed in the Gallery, and was informed that I may take photographs as long as they are not direct shots of the artwork. I can appreciate that, as the photographs remain the intellectual property of the photographers.

Faces filled with fear, despair, hope and grim determination stare back at me from the walls. There are over 60,000 Burmese refugees registered with UNHCR Malaysia right now. The Malaysian government perceives refugees to be economic migrants.

"The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilisation."
~ UNHCR website

The predicament of the refugees in Malaysia is not an easy topic to broach. The Government should understand that recognising the protection needs of the refugee population in Malaysia does not undermine our sovereignty and national security.

"The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native born. Love him as yourself."
~ Leviticus 19:34

The photographs speak not only of fear, sorrow and oppression, but also of courage, compassion, dignity and faith.

There are no ready solutions for those escaping persecution and threats to their life and freedom in their home country. Without a legislative framework, it is difficult to put into place any effective mechanism to protect vulnerable and marginalised communities.

For many refugees, resettlement is, in reality, out of reach. Resettlement countries will not acknowledge that certain groups and communities are favoured over others. The lives of the asylum-seekers who have been denied resettlement remain in limbo in Malaysia.

We have been blessed with so much in Malaysia. While there is no doubt that a sizable percentage of the Malaysian population agrees with the Prime Minister that the country cannot open its floodgates to undocumented migrants, it would be a positive step in the right direction for the country if the immigration and law enforcement authorities would honour the protection documents issued by the UNHCR.

I am glad to see that the Central Market Annexe is still the focal point of a vibrant, brave and progressive arts scene in the City, and that the management body is so supportive of citizens’ action and interest groups such as Food Not Bombs KL. It is delightful also to see how this modern annexe has so perfectly complemented Central Market. Our visits to the Central Market area are made all the richer for the Annexe.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Froggy Encounters in Gasing Hill

It was on Deepavali morning that I agreed to go frogging at Bukit Gasing with Hurnain, Lillian and gang that night.

I informed Lillian that I would be at the SPCA animal shelter in Ampang all afternoon until after 7.00 p.m., as I had volunteered to stay back to feed the animals and clean up so that the Hindu staff could knock off a little earlier. The gang agreed to wait for me.

When I first informed Raj and our other friends during the Deepavali lunch that I would be going frogging at night and invited them to come along, they were incredulous.

"Frogs? What, to eat?" they exclaimed in surprise and curiosity.

Hey, just because I am of Chinese ethnicity doesn't mean that I eat everything with four legs except a table!

Frogs and toads are fascinating, and are good indicators of the environmental health of an area. Since amphibians are particularly susceptible to contaminants and are very sensitive to the changes in their environment, a decline in the amphibian population is a warning to us humans that an area may not remain safe for human occupation for very long.

The MNS Herpetofauna Special Interest Group , under the leadership of Hurnain and Lillian, has been conducting nocturnal frogging excursions in Bukit Gasing, Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) and other secondary forests in the City for years, for the purposes of data collection and research, and to inculcate greater appreciation for nature and indigenous reptiles and amphibians among city-dwellers.

The Bukit Gasing Forest Reserve is special in that it straddles the border of Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. It is a secondary forest and green lung covering over 100 hectares. It is worth noting that 36 hectares of secondary forest in the Petaling Jaya side were gazetted as a greenbelt in 1961, while the Kuala Lumpur side remains unprotected. I hope that the Ministry of Federal Territories accords this issue with the importance that it deserves and takes steps to gazette this green buffer zone in the City.

The last time I conducted a Green Living - Eco Kids Day Camp here was in 2007. The beneficiaries were the able-bodied children from the Taman Megah Home For Handicapped Children.

Happy faces after our Day Camp in 2007. The children received their certificates after making their Green Living pledges. I had initiated the Camp and was, and still am, very grateful for the support of my key volunteers: Yanty, Serina, Mariam, Hui-Min, Christine and Mohala.

Tonight, there would only be a handful of us. I pulled up at the entrance of the trail and joined Nain and Lil, pockets bulging with flashlights and mosquito repellent.

The local authorities must have thought it was a good idea to put these rock gabions here and create an embankment for our little stream. Perhaps their intention is to reduce or control soil erosion, but it has created siltation and reduction of flow in the stream and affected fauna that relies on the natural foliage growing on the riverbanks for shelter and food.

Lillian remains an active volunteer despite being in her fifth month of pregnancy. Her spirit of volunteerism is infectious!

Rana Raniceps / Hydrophylax Raniceps, commonly known as the Copper-Cheeked Frog. See how its beautiful skin glistens in the night!

Lillian showing little Cerys the proper way of holding and handling a Copper-Cheeked Frog. Nature awareness and education should begin as early as possible.

Bufo Parvus: We learned to identify it from the hourglass-like marking at the back of its head.

Hurnain and Lillian trying to locate the position of the frogs by their calls.

We heard Hurnain hissing to us from 10 metres away and squelched up the stream to see what he was so excited about. It was worth the hurry! Hurnain had spotted a Dogania Subplana! What luck! It hasn't been spotted in Bukit Gasing in ages!

Dogania Subplana: Malayan Soft-Shelled Turtle

The Dogania perceived us to be a threat and tried to get away by burrowing under the sandy stream bed. There was a plastic bag in the way and I offered to remove it. Hurnain and Teck Wyn cautioned that the Dogania would attack, and that it has a very painful bite.

I was adamant that the plastic bag be removed, and was not worried about being bitten. After all, I get bitten at the SPCA by new arrivals and nervous animals at least once every six months. I tugged gently at the plastic bag until it came loose and we collected other plastic litter from the stream.

L-R: Hurnain, me and Lillian with a message for joggers, picnickers and hashers: Please do not leave your litter behind. Littering is a poor return for the enjoyment you have derived from our natural spaces.

We saw another Dogania a little further upstream. This really is a serendipitous night for us to have spotted two in the same hour. This is a good sign that the water quality is good enough to create liveable conditions for wildlife.

While we were photographing another Bufo Parvus, I spotted another frog, sitting very still, next to it. It took a while for us to realise that it wasn't another Bufo Parvus but a frog which we have never seen before and could not identify. We proceeded to take photos of it from all angles to help in its identification.

Little Cerys was exhausted from her long day of Deepavali visiting and trekking, and so we made the decision to pack up for the night. We brought the litter we collected out with us, congratulated each other on a productive night of nature observation, and promised to come back again soon.

Our Deepavali wish would be to see green spaces given due protection against unnecessary development. There are enormous environmental and economic costs associated with the destruction of forests, such as an increase in the incidence of landslides and flash floods and the rise in tropical diseases. Similarly, there are enormous benefits to be gained from the preservation of rainforests and their ecosystem services such as carbon capture and as water catchment zones. A well-cared for green lung or forest reserve will also have great tourism potential and will be an asset to any state!

May we all tread gently upon the good Earth and show love and respect to other beings that share our Planet!

Brickfields Through My Eyes

Mention Brickfields, and Indian food and the KL Sentral Terminal come to mind. Brickfields is acknowledged to be, but largely neglected as, one of the pioneer settlements in Kuala Lumpur.

Long before the construction of the KL Sentral Terminal in Brickfields, the very site on which KL Sentral stands used to be a Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) depot. The fifth Kapitan Cina (Chinese Chieftain) of Kuala Lumpur, Yap Kwan Seng, developed Brickfields as a hub for the brick-making industry for the then Malaya in or around the 1880s.

Labourers were brought in from India to work in the brick kilns and railway and thus until today, Brickfields is known for its high population of people of Indian ethnicity.

These railway quarters in Jalan Rozario are still serviceable as homes for the railway staff. They used to look so picturesque before the facelift, which saw all the quarters painted the same colour and fitted with identical window and door grilles. There used to be a football field right across the street from Jalan Rozario, but half of it has since been covered in concrete to serve as badminton courts and parking bays. Jalan Rozario was named after F.L.D. Rozario, who had served as the chief clerk to William Treacher, former English Resident of Selangor.

Reminders of Brickfield's illustrious past, railway quarters in Jalan Chan Ah Tong line up juxtaposed against high-rises that weren't here 15 years ago.

I was in Brickfields for errands on Friday, and waves of memory came flooding back to me as I parked at the YMCA. This is where we used to play football after work, in the fading evening light, until it got so dark that we couldn't see our goalposts anymore.

YMCA Building, Brickfields.

The admittedly quaint and charming Thambipillay Flats in Jalan Berhala.

Brickfields used to have an unpleasant reputation as a vice and crime-infested area. But it is also a place of great historical importance to Malaysians, and had played a big role in the modernisation and development of our country's capital. This is why I was pleased to read in The Star on Sept 29 that the Ministry of Federal Territories would be injecting funds into the beautification of Brickfields, and to develop it to make it safer and less congested.

Brickfields is fascinating for the number of places of worship located in a single enclave.

The Buddhist Maha Vihara was set up by the Sinhalese community in Kuala Lumpur. I can see improvements being made to the area by the Ministry already. The pavements in Jalan Berhala have been tiled, potholes repaired and street lighting and waste bins added.

This is where I come to worship. The Buddhist Maha Vihara in Brickfields was set up by the Sinhalese Theravada community in 1894.

The Lutheran Zion Church was established in 1924. Lutherans trace their roots back to the sixteenth century when Martin Luther, an Augustinian Roman Catholic monk, challenged some of the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Tamil Methodist Church was operating well before 1908. Methodism came to Malaysia more than 120 years ago, and is now the largest Protestant denomination in Malaysia.

The Vivekenanda Ashram facing the KL Sentral development was constructed in 1904. You can still sign up for Kundalini Yoga classes here.

Night has fallen, and it is time to go. No visit to Brickfields is complete without a yummy meal of South Indian food, made complete with traditional sweets.

North Indian sweets fit for a king, at Jesal's, along Jalan Tun Sambanthan. You haven't lived until you have tasted their chocolate burfi.

Thank you for taking a stroll around Brickfields with me.