MALACCA, June 27 — Conservation architect Lim Huck Chin stands in front of a 300-year-old “shophouse” in Malacca city’s historic core and points out the telltale signs that this building, on a street zoned as a heritage conservation area, has been turned into an aviary where wild swiftlets’ nests are cultivated to make birds’ nest soup, a Chinese delicacy.
The front door of 133 Heeren St has been sealed and the windows boarded shut. Only the front portion is still standing; behind the crumbling facade, a squat concrete structure looms, with fist-size holes that allow swiftlets to fly in and out.
A recording of steady bird chirps wafts out, attracting new swiftlets. (Inside, it’s likely that a steady mist is being sprayed to keep the humidity high, simulating a swiftlet’s natural nesting site.) A closed-circuit television camera monitors the front of the dilapidated facade, a sign to Lim that someone wants to keep prying eyes from what’s happening behind the sealed door.
That’s because the aviary is illegal: Under Malacca’s conservation laws, any renovations in the city’s core heritage zone require government approval, and must follow strict guidelines aimed at preserving these buildings.
But the dozens of “birdhouses” like 133 Heeren are an open secret. The recorded chirps and the flitting swiftlets tell any passerby what’s going on behind the facade.
“If they allow this to continue, what is the future of tourism here?” asks Lim, exasperated. He notes Malacca has applied to Unesco for World Heritage status – a decision is expected as early as next month – but asks, “What’s the point…when you allow this to go on?”
Malacca, capital of the state of Malacca in peninsular Malaysia, is one of Asia’s oldest and most-storied port cities, and its old town, part of the core heritage zone, is both a mecca for tourists and a place where people still live and work.
Centuries-old shophouses, built by Dutch and Chinese settlers, are still family homes to Chinese clans who settled here hundreds of years ago. Designed to house a business on the ground floor and a residence upstairs – although many in Malacca were purely residential – these long homes feature lofty ceilings and two or three open interior air wells that let sunlight and rain fall on indoor gardens.
Historically, they were decorated with gilded carved wooden screens and ornate frescos.
Across the river is more history: The ruins of St Paul’s Church and Porta de Santiago, the gate to a fort built by the Portuguese, who ruled Malacca from 1511 to 1641, stand next to the Stadthuys and Christ Church, built by the Dutch, who defeated the Portuguese and ruled until 1795. (The British, who took over in that year, eventually destroyed most of the fort.)
But the city’s heritage is under pressure. Defying the conservation laws, private owners and developers make unauthorised alterations, sometimes knocking buildings down entirely, to cash in on mass tourism or alternative industries like lucrative bird-nest production.
Traditional tradesmen – like goldsmiths and blacksmiths – are moving out after generations of passing building and craft from father to son, to be replaced by trinket shops, pubs and karaoke bars.
Mourning the losses, Lim, who is from Penang, and Fernando Jorge, a Portuguese conservation architect, spent six years researching and photographing hundreds of old buildings. In 2006, they published their findings as a book, “Malacca: Voices From the Street.”
Lim, 44 years old, fell in love with old Malacca when he was hired in 1997 to help restore the Cheng Hoon Teng temple, Malaysia’s oldest Chinese temple. Jorge, 37, was drawn to Malacca’s historical connection to Portugal.
For their book they interviewed more than 200 residents, as well as descendants of former residents, to unravel the histories of dozens of buildings. They visited archives in Lisbon, London, the Hague, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, poring over colonial-era maps and documents.
The book failed to slow the destruction. Some of the buildings they photographed are gone or irrevocably changed. A theatre built in 1887 on Java Lane by Tan Hoon Guan, one of the leading Chinese businessmen of the day, was torn down in 2001. The property has been vacant since.
“It’s depressing,” says Jorge. “Each time we go to Malacca we feel like we are visiting a friend in prison who’s done nothing wrong and is being punished for no reason.”
During their research, Lim and Jorge found treasures that had literally been discarded with the trash. “We picked up Dutch window brackets thrown into drains by contractors,” says Jorge. “We found painted wood frescos, relief stucco work, granite carvings.”
The two examined one house that they believe belonged in the 17th century to the top Chinese general in Malacca. They found carved, gilded wooden plaques that commemorated a wedding in the house at that time – and that some long-ago owner had used to repair the kitchen ceiling.
A university expert in China, to whom Lim and Jorge had sent photographs and detailed scale drawings, dated the building to the early Qing dynasty, in the late 17th century.
The owner shrugged off these findings, unsure of how they could benefit him or his family, and went ahead with plans to sell. Lim and Jorge sent the government a dossier, complete with colonial-era documents and maps and the university expert’s opinion, and urged that the house be saved. They got no response.
The house was sold and gutted; painted bright yellow, it now houses a small restaurant.
Another house, the site of a goldsmith business from the late 19th century to 2000, was stripped of its wall mirrors, painted glass panels and polished wood cabinets to accommodate a fastfood outlet.
There are notable exceptions.
Some property owners have restored their heritage buildings to their former glory, and turned them into restaurants, galleries and small hotels. But between 2001 and 2004 alone, Badan Warisan, the Heritage of Malaysia Trust, determined at that time that there were 68 complete and partial demolitions in Malacca’s core heritage zone – and more than 60 traditional tradespeople, including jewelers and herbal-medicine practitioners, moved out.
“From casual observation, we’ve noted that both demolitions and the loss of traditional trades have continued,” says Lim.
Part of the problem is money: Residents can’t afford to maintain or renovate old buildings and will take offers from buyers keen to cash in on tourism. And many modern-day Malaccans are simply unaware of the history around them. For some, the longtime family home is just a crumbling old building.
“When we talked to people, we found that their understanding and sense of the value of their property just wasn’t there,” says Lim. “They would be living in a structure that’s hundreds of years old, and just can’t see why a carving or a column is precious. Their view was, ‘Just strip it and paint over it’.”
Lim believes the government should offer incentives and funds to encourage renovation and encourage tradesmen to stay. “Tourists want to see authenticity,” he argues. “They’ll buy traditional crafts; they’ll buy gold. They don’t just want to see stalls selling trinkets.”
Zaini Nor, who as mayor from 2003 until early this year oversaw much of what’s happened in Malacca, says it can’t be done. “That is private property, not government property,” he said in an interview shortly before his term ended in February. “It’s not fair to collect taxes, then give it to private individuals.”
Still, the government does manage to fund large projects that seem at odds with heritage conservation. In 2003, the municipality repainted shophouses, most privately owned, to try to brighten them up. Each street got a colour – one all in yellow, another in blue, another in red – with 300-year-old and 50-year-old buildings both getting the same shade simply because they stood side by side.
Frescoes, ornate carvings and art nouveau tiles that graced doorways and facades were painted over. Some 1930s buildings had been finished with a nubby material called Shanghai plaster; the paint job destroyed the surface. Owners have since repainted some buildings, but on many, ornate detailing remains obscured.
In 2004, officials proposed a RM20 million, 110-metre-high tower at the base of St Paul’s Hill. Answering objections that it wasn’t in keeping with the look and feel of the historic area, Malacca Chief Minister Mohamed Ali Rustam told the local press that he “didn’t see how the tower would spoil the charm or affect heritage sites close to it…The 110m tower can also be painted to match the colours of the other buildings near it.”
After workers preparing the site in 2006 dug up more ruins of the area’s Portuguese fort, though, the tower was relocated. Malacca decided instead to build a replica of the fort there, and workers are now cementing new bricks imported from Burma over the historical find.
In another attempt to draw tourists, Malacca is building a large wooden water wheel attraction on the river. Malaccans didn’t historically use water wheels, but after seeing one on a recent trip to Jordan, the chief minister decided it would make a good addition back home.
“The whole issue of authenticity just doesn’t seem to matter in Malacca,” says Lim. “It’s all about history for entertainment.”
The government seems similarly cavalier about the birdhouses, as Malaccan K.C. Lee and her husband could attest. In December 2002, they bought a derelict shophouse on Heeren Street, which they lovingly renovated, furnishing it with antiques and old artwork.
So when their next-door neighbours at No. 74 demolished the back of their building last year to put a birdhouse behind the run-down facade, the couple went to the conservation department to complain. But nothing was done.
When the neighbours tore out a wooden beam from the common wall between the houses, it punched a hole through the Lees’ side. The couple plastered the hole over. Already termites have moved in, and the couple worries about water seepage and the possibility of disease from the bird waste piling up behind the wall. Then there is that mechanical chirping all day. (The sound is switched off for the night, when the birds sleep.)
Lim reckons that more than 14 houses on the short street have fallen prey to suppliers of birds’ nest soup. Many in Malacca believe that some government agents take bribes to let this happen, but government leaders deny the charge, and say they’re doing what they can to stop the trade.
“It’s not allowed, but we have to give them time to move out,” Mayor Zaini said in February. But according to Heeren Street residents, some of the birdhouses have been there for three years or more. Under the new mayor, Yusof Jantan, the pace of enforcement hasn’t picked up much steam.
Residents say swiftlet operators continue in the old city’s heritage core.
“We are in the process of relocating bird-rearing activities in the conservation area on a case-by-case basis,” Yusof said in a statement.
So while the government pursues the heritage listing from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and says it is doing its best to preserve the old city, some residents say not enough has been done.
“A big piece of history is already lost, and we’re losing more,” says Chan Kin Wah, whose family has run a timepiece-repair business on Jonker Street in the old quarter for two generations. “We can’t do anything much. People voice their opinions, and nobody listens.”
City and state leaders continue to approve development projects that leave heritage buffs aghast – such as a modern glass-and-chrome shopping mall at the base of St Paul’s Hill. The mall, which opened early in 2007, bisects the core heritage zone, sitting between the Dutch and Portuguese ruins and the river that fronts the old town.
When contractors began work on the mall in 2003, more ancient ruins from the Portuguese fort were unearthed. That didn’t stop the mall, which sits flush up against these ruins, giving McDonald’s patrons a view of partially unearthed pieces of the fort wall.
On a recent visit to Malacca, Jorge took photos of the wall. He shook his head at the sight of plants and a fountain, added as decorative features; both will speed erosion. Then he walked over to the second newly discovered part of the fort, and snapped a photo of workers laying new bricks on top of it. “When you find a ruin,” he said, “you just keep the ruin.” — AWSJ