Sat, 29 Mar 2003

Keeping old city breathes amid modernization

Keeping the old cities Breathing: Malacca and Kali Besar Fransiska Prihadi Architect Jakarta

How do we remember a city? Is it by the roads and buildings that we pass through? By the food we eat? By unfamiliar faces of people we meet on the street? We could find thousands more answers, but it would still come back to the sense of place in our mind.

The sense of place is defined by time-historical and political time, they do not work with timetables, lists of departure and arrival times. Old cities usually leave one with a certain image of a frozen "here, now and then" place.

As one of the cities that is considered as Malaysia's most historic place, Malacca has an interesting blend of Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. We can still see the old architecture of Malacca is being preserved.

Malacca was once the most important trading port in the region but is now little more than a sleepy backwater. Ancient-looking junks still sail up the river, imbuing the waterfront with a "wants to be" timeless charm. The city remains full of intriguing Chinese streets, antique shops, townhouses, temples and nostalgic reminders of the now-departed European colonial powers.

One of the relics from the Dutch period in Malacca is the massive pink town hall, Stadthuys, built between 1641 and 1660. It's believed to be the oldest Dutch building in Asia and displays all the characteristic features of Dutch colonial architecture (read incredibly weighty doors and louvered windows). The building houses government offices and the Ethnographic Museum, which highlights aspects of local history and culture.

The ruins of St Paul's Church, built by the Portuguese more than 400 years ago, stands in an attractive setting atop St Paul's Hill. It was regularly visited by St Francis Xavier, who was buried here for a short period before being transferred to Goa in India. The church fell into disuse when the Dutch arrived, but is still surrounded by Old Dutch tombstones.

Buildings on St. Paul's Hill and all along River Side Street (including the old shop-houses) are now all painted red. It's indeed amazing to see how much he Malacca Municipal Council is trying to conserve the old part of city, no matter how audacious it may seem.

For a few decades, the Malacca Municipal Council was on improving economic and infra-structural conditions of the state by doing lots of heritage conservation.

One could notice all the signboards of building constructions while strolling through Malacca's old town, especially in some of the Malaccan townhouses in Heeren Street.

As a mix of European-Chinese influences with local tropical compromise, many of the Malaccan townhouses are no longer utilized as intended. Some have already turned into tourist hotels, giant swallow birds' nests, antique shops, bars and cafes.

One cannot escape the feeling that these townhouses are manipulated to draw tourists, businesses and property speculators.

Tourism is undeniably one major reason that keeps the old city of Malacca breathing.

For a comparison, Jl. Kali Besar in Jakarta is also struggling to keep the soul alive. Although the government claimed that tourism would be a major reason to improve the old part of town, one would easily feel that it's being abandoned.

If we agree to think simple, the heritage of an old part of town could be labeled successful if it is esthetically pleasing, then "taste" would be a later topic of discussion. The old historic buildings along Jl. Kali Besar are not ephemeral, it has duration. Conservation plays an important role, gives the surrounding its texture and communicates its solidity. By exploring the expressive potential of Kali Besar Street, only disappointment rises when we see the situation now.

When one goes to an old city anywhere in the world, there are great expectations of how it's being preserved for various reasons.

Tourist agencies worldwide sell the local heritage of a city with "try authentic experience" packages to tourists and visitors. They turned heritage issues into a global commodity for greater mass consumption.

Even when we let the consumerism save our old part of Jakarta (as it happened in Malacca), Kali Besar might have to wait longer to breath again among the clothes and underwear that's being dried along the river.