A country’s cultural heritage including historic buildings, sites, cultures and other invaluable assets can play a major role in boosting the nation’s tourism sector as these unique features can be promoted as tourism products to generate income.
As the tide of modernity and development continue to constantly sweep across the nation, it becomes even more imperative to conserve what remains of the old world to retain the spirit or ‘soul’ of the country.
“Finding the right balance between the development of a modern way of life, buildings, and infrastructures, and conservation of traditions, architecture, and culture is critical to ensure the country’s attractiveness for tourists,” Asean digital resource platform, Asean UP, said in a post.
In Malaysia, cultural heritage tourism has always played a key role in the growth of the nation.
By 2020, the tourism industry in Malaysia is expected to reach record total receipts of RM168 billion, with 36 million tourist arrivals targeted under the Malaysia Tourism Transformation Plan (MTTP), Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz had said.
As for Sarawak, Tourism Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg had said that Sarawak has been consistently offering unique selling points in the form of culture, adventure and nature.
He highlighted that Sarawak’s pull factor has always revolved around culture, adventure, and nature aspects and as such, can be pillars of attraction to all market segments.
Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud had once said that preserving cultural heritage is also a social responsibility as it reflects our identity.
He pointed out that while Kuching is rapidly developing, it is still closely tied to its rich history.
Culture heritage tourism offers the opportunity for the local community to portray and narrate its own story.
If articulated in a proper way, through proper channels, culture heritage tourism could make an impact on the economic growth for communities and regions.
In Kuching, over the years, the older part of Kuching city has gone relatively quiet as its clienteles are pulled away by the attractive modernisation going on throughout the rest of the city.
Hence, various projects are currently underway to revive the old segment of Kuching in order to meet the younger market’s demand and to lure back the market as well as boost the tourism aspect of the area.
Most of these projects leverage on priceless historical assets readily available in old Kuching.
While developments are undertaken to rejuvenate old Kuching, its heritage should remain intact, so the future generations can appreciate the state’s historical remnants which could be traced to the White Rajah Brooke era.
BizHive Weekly spoke to representatives of projects involved in the overall facelift of old Kuching.
Bringing out the old-world chamr of India street
Along the banks of the Sarawak river, fronting the old Fort Margherita and the newly built State Legislative Assembly building lies the core of Kuching.
Stretched from the Main Bazaar down to Merdeka Square, each corner and each narrow street within Kuching’s old centuries old quarters is a wealth of historical heritage.
In one corner, one of Kuching’s oldest street is undergoing a major facelift. Formerly known as Keling Street, India Street is one of the oldest trading areas in the city with its history dating back to more than 160 years.
The street went through a major transformation in 1992, when the street was officially transformed into a pedestrian mall.
After more than 20 years, India Street is going through another major transformation that will not only enhance its image but also preserve its historical value.
First proposed in 2010, the community-based project of rejuvenating India Street was given the support of the state government. While it took some time for the proposal to receive feedback from the public, 90 per cent of the community in India Street agreed to the transformation project.
The circa RM4.3 million project revolves around a unique blend of old and new, with the installation of a new, modern-looking pavilion rooftop and the restoration of various old shophouses as well as the upgrading of basic facilities such as sewage and power system.
“Our buildings are more than 100 years old. From a heritage point of view, we are trying to keep the look as it is.
“But of course, change needs to be made for the interior,” Datuk Wee Hong Seng, chairman of the India Street pedestrian mall committee told BizHive Weekly in an interview at one of India Street’s antique-filled corner coffee shop.
“We know how much our properties are worth now and how much is the rental value we are able to get each month. However, if we cannot protect our properties then the value is temporary. We are not only the owners or the stakeholders of the properties, but also the custodians of Kuching’s most important heritage site,” Wee told the press during a previous interview.
Currently, he noted, upgrades have been undertaken to the sewage and power system in India Street.
Wee, who grew up in the historical India Street where his family owns and runs one of the oldest textile shops in India Street, Chop Chin Nam for three generations, explained that the consumption trend among traders and business owners along the street are a lot different from before and therefore, changes are necessary to boost infrastructure which in turn can boost business.
“Now, shops here use more power than before. We have air-conditioned shops and businesses that need more power. And shop owners have highlighted the need for better water and sewage system. These are some of the things that the community has discussed during the many dialogue sessions we have undertaken,” Wee said.
According to a previous press report, the new centralised sewage system in India Street will be the first of its kind in the country. The installation of the inspection chamber for the new sewage system is also expected to make it more convenient for tenants to access or connect their businesses to the central sewage system from the five foot way in front of their shop houses.
Wee also outlined that with the new sewage system, they have also received support to upgrade the power supply in India Street.
“All these will take time but these are all worth waiting for. We need to get all these done first, before we put in the roof so that we do not have to constantly undergo construction works and disrupt operations in this street.
“We also wants to make sure that this upgrade will last for many years, just like the previous upgrade which was undertaken 20 years ago. It’s a once and for all major upgrade,” he added.
Nevertheless, the construction of the new central sewage system in India Street took less time than initially estimated.
Wee revealed, the sewage system in India Street has in fact been completed in January this year, two months earlier than expected.
Shortly after that, in February, construction works started for the new pavilion roof along India Street.
Wee highlighted that new roof is meant to promote convenience for its tenants, visitors and customers by mitigating concerns over weather conditions.
Advocating the preservation of invaluable heritage sites in old Kuching, Wee pointed out while modernisation is unavoidable, the old buildings’ structures will not be affected by the renovations as the new roof is expected to be built above the rooftops of the old buildings along India Street.
“The covered roof is meant to reflect the old look of India Street. All these new things that are being installed are to protect the heritage of this street. The old stays and the new enhances. We want to bring out the old world charm of Kuching to the modern world,” Wee commented.
He also noted that the contractors are currently carry out what is called ‘micropiling’ to ensure that the construction works will not damage the old buildings.
“A lot of planning and consultations were done before this. That is why it has taken a while for this plan to finally be put into action,” Wee said.
While the renovation will no doubt disrupt operations along the street, Wee believed that in the long run, the tenants here will benefit from the new image of India Street.
The new roof will not only feature a modern look, it will also be fireproof, enhance ventilation and lend natural light. Its modern look is enhanced further by the technology implemented into the new roof which include retractable roof panels for fire preventions and rainwater storage system to promote recycling and green technology.
Besides that, as part of the committee’s plans to promote the historical aspect of India Street, Wee noted that the committee has identified two shop houses which have prominent historical architecture.
“We are now in the process of talking to the owner of these shop houses to preserve the look of these two buildings and enhance the heritage value of India Street,” he said.
To further enhance the image of India Street, old awnings and signboards as well as unused and old air-conditioners have been taken down.
All these ideas, Wee said, were suggestions shared during many dialogue sessions with committee members who are mainly representatives from businesses in India Street.
“It is no longer like the olden days. It’s more like a community now. There is a new sense of working together to build each other up.”
The whole revival of the India Street pedestrian mall is expected to be completed before Hari Raya this year, in time for the festive celebrations.
“After all these renovations are completed, we someone who can manage and maintain them and ensure that things run smoothly.”
In terms of customers, Wee said, the commercial developments around Kuching have caused the decline of clientele in India Street and the old Kuching area.
“But that is to be expected because we would want to go to places that are nearer to us and these commercial places are there for them. That is why, we have to look at another target … tourists,” he said.
Pointing out the various hotels, budget hotels, boutiques, and lodge houses located in and around the Golden Triangle of Kuching, Wee urged tenants to target their businesses towards tourists.
The committee is also looking at the idea of operating at night as well as increasing the parking spaces near India Street.
Talks are also underway to beef up the security system as well as the fire prevention system in India Street.
Wee said fire has always been a key issue particularly in old areas such as India Street where the building structures are vulnerable and built close to each other.
He said, suggestions have been made for a backlane in India Street for easier access for fire trucks as well as wider lanes between streets to prevent the spread of fire during such an event.
“It is a challenge but I believe it is not impossible,” Wee added.
All in, the various upgrades currently taking place in India Street will definitely bring out Kuching’s old charm and promote the tourism industry in the city.
Plaza Merdeka: Facelift for old Kuching
Plaza Merdeka is another important component to the whole revitalisation project of old Kuching.
As a new landmark in Kuching, the development of Plaza Merdeka as an integrated shopping mall and hotel was first announced in 2007.
In 2012, Plaza Merdeka opened its doors to the public with the completion of the first phase of its project: the shopping mall.
Now, its second phase: the hotel, is on the verge of completion and with it, comes the opportunity to boost the hospitality and tourism industry in the old Kuching area as well as the whole of Kuching.
BizHive Weekly met with managing director of Plaza Merdeka Management Sdn Bhd and Plaza Merdeka Holdings Sdn Bhd, Dato Steve Ng, to catch up on updates for the whole Plaza Merdeka project and the company’s plans and involvement in the upgrading of old Kuching.
“All that’s left now is the completion of the hotel. There were some delays but that is because we were doing some restructuring to the interior of the hotel as we wanted to make this hotel iconic and spectacular.
“We did some repositioning of the hotel to incorporate a ‘new dimension’ to it,” Ng said.
Currently, he noted that Plaza Merdeka’s interior design team have finalised all the components needed to complete the hotel.
Themed as an ‘artrageous’ hotel, the new hotel is expected to revolve around something uniquely Kuching – the touch of local artists.
“We are committed to working with and supporting the local art community and that is why, when the hotel is completed, local artists can do their exhibitions here,” Ng explained.
Besides that, the hotel, named The Waterfront Hotel, will not only feature local artworks but they will also provide reprints of the artworks in order for the net proceeds to go back to the artists.
“We want the artists to create the atmosphere in the hotel. It’s our way of supporting the local art community.
“We are also going to brand some of the rooms with selected artists and this will be something very different from what’s in the the market,” Ng said.
On other features of the hotel, Ng revealed there would be an infinity pool overlooking the waterfront.
Based on previous reports, the hotel is expected to have 208 rooms, with two-storey loft suites, executive suites, and junior suite rooms.
On the exterior design of the entire Plaza Merdeka project which seems to embrace the colonial architectures found in many of the old buildings around the project, Ng said from the very beginning, the management had made it a point to ensure that the building adapts to its surroundings.
“We need to incorporate into the infrastructure of the inner city. We need to be cognizant of that because if we don’t, in the long run, it may not be good for the neighbourhood,” he added.
Meanwhile, on the revival of old Kuching and Plaza Merdeka’s involvement in the massive project, Ng highlighted that there is definitely a change brewing across Kuching’s old districts.
From the newly established Drunken Monkey Bar, which is popular among youth, to businesses that make use of what makes Kuching unique, Ng said that these businesses are giving opportunities in various ways from boosting tourism to giving job opportunities for the locals.
Ng also expressed that it has become his personal and fellow tourism colleagues’ mission to form a synergic product which can showcase important tourism products throughout Sarawak, from the comforts of Kuching.
With that, he highlighted the importance of Legacy Square, of which he hoped Plaza Merdeka would play a major role.
“We have been working on some proposals, in consultation with various consultants and the community as well as with industry players such as Sarawak Tourism Federation (STF). After we take in all the details, we will seek approval from the government as soon as possible,” he commented.
First mooted by Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud during his years as Sarawak’s Chief Minister, Legacy Square was proposed as an area that would reflect the identity of Kuching city to the world via its history and culture.
“What we have conceptualised is not only creating products but incorporating it. Our proposal involves not just physical components but also what I call ‘software’, meaning the intangibles such as management, promotions, and others.
“We not only want to see the old town and the Legacy Square prosper but we would like to see Kuching as a gateway to all of Sarawak,” Ng hinted.
“While we have not secured any approvals yet but we hope the government under the new chief minister would understand that our purpose is for benefit of the whole community.”
When queried more on the plans to revive old Kuching, Ng revealed that part of his vision is to develop a ‘product’ to match Sarawak’s landmarks and landscape.
He hinted of high-tech products which could showcase places of interest in Sarawak as well as entice tourist curiosity
“The proposal we have planned out is very complex and it is not just one dimension. It incorporates management and other things that can make it more conducive for people to come down to Kuching.”
Ng highlighted that this, again, is to revive Kuching’s glory as the capital and gateway of Sarawak.
He stressed that it is important to improve tourism industry in Kuching as it would benefit not just those staying in Kuching, but people throughout Sarawak as well.
“It is time that we develop and diversify Sarawak’s economy not for just profit but mainly because tourism is a high social economic impact sector,” Ng commented.
Meanwhile, he noted that currently, plans are underway to push for the construction of more parking spaces around old Kuching to encourage business flow into the area.
There are also plans to provide better security by providing adequate monitoring and quick responses to any eventuality in the neighbourhood.
Ng also noted that within the vicinity of Plaza Merdeka, there are plans to develop a link that would connect the building to the old museum, new museum and the padang, without affecting the padang or Merdeka Square.
All these plans, while complex, are not impossible, he commented. “Anything is possible, we just have to change the mindset as we can be on par with cities offshore.”
He added, “The city has changed, it has become better and the attitudes have changed. And things are improving very quickly compared to that in the 90s.”
All in, he hoped that in terms of reviving old Kuching, the projects would get the support and participation of everyone in the area, including the young generation.
“It is time that we develop and diversify Sarawak’s economy not for the profit of it but mainly because tourism is a high social economic impact sector.”
Restoration and upgrading projects in Kuching
Meanwhile, other restoration and upgrading projects in Kuching include the upgrading and restoration of Fort Alice and the conservation of Fort Margherita.
In a recent report, Social Development Minister Tan Sri William Mawan announced that the state government has approved the proposal to construct a new Sarawak Museum Campus and Heritage Trail.
“The project is of paramount importance that will enhance the standing of the Sarawak Museum to that of a global institution since its inception 128 years ago.
“It will ensure that our heritage, in the form of a wide array of collections, is well stored, documented, curated and exhibited for our local and foreign visitors,” he was reported as saying.
On the Heritage Trail, he said the trail is expected to start from Padang Merdeka to the Kuching Waterfront and it is expected to be linked to the other side of the river via the new upcoming pedestrian bridge.