The old and the new


I READ somewhere that “to build the new we have to destroy the old”. What a disturbing thought. In fact after reading that I had nightmares about a world with nothing but clinically buildings of cold steel and glass, like some of the spanking new buildings (most of them hotels) in our city. It was like I was transported to the world of the Ice Queen. (In the Chronicle of Narnia, a series of fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis, the Ice Queen turned the kingdom of Narnia into an endless winter with no other colours but white and black.)

Thus, it is with great relief and no little bliss that I sit here in this magnificent place, Hotel Majapahit, drinking my coffee, and looking at a tranquil garden – indeed savouring the elegant charm of an age gone by. Hotel Majapahit is an oasis in the frenetic city centre of Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia. It is exactly a century old and it is magnificent. I found out the between the present owner and the previous one they collectively spent a whopping US$44 million to conserve and restore the place to its original grandeur. It is now a National Heritage Landmark of Indonesia.

Had the owners been mere crass businessmen, driven only by profit, they would have leveled this historic building and built a 30-story monster structure. Thank God, there are still romantic and responsible multi-millionaires around.

The “to be or not to be” of the preservation the old, the tangible evidence of the past, has been a question that has vexed man for many years and in many places. These are not just old things but fragments of our past life, memories captured. However, it is a privilege that carries with it a hefty price tag. (I hesitate to use the word “luxury” for that implies a superfluous need). In the case of Hotel Majapahit the restoration alone cost RM45 millions. I shudder to think of the actual price of the whole establishment.

Sometimes the decision (to destroy) may not be that difficult to make but do take time to execute. Such was the case of the famed Walled City of Kowloon, Hong Kong. This 6.5-acre enclave was a military outpost and can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279). However, over the centuries it has evolved into a densely populated, largely ungoverned settlement in Kowloon. By the 1950s it had fallen into the control of the Triads (Chinese Secret Society) that governed it with their own brand of laws. It was said that it was a place where even the police feared to tread. The British colonial administration, which governed Hong Kong for over a century Hong, had always wanted to demolish this city within a city. But they were thwarted by historians, romantics and human rights activists. It took Beijing, which got back sovereignty of Hong Kong, to send in the bulldozers and resettled the 33,000 long time residents of this historic walled city. Now it is a pleasant park and appropriately named the Walled City Park.

Recently, Kuching also faced this dilemma. The wet market in Gambier Street, one of the old streets of the city, had been around since the beginning of the state of Sarawak. Its location by the bank of the Kuching River attested to the importance of rivers as the natural means of transport in the relatively undeveloped Sarawak. This is a situation that gets increasingly less so with the building of roads. One can easily imagine in this historic market and its wharf fishermen delivering their catch from the sea, merchants receiving their goods, and seeing to their jungle products being loaded onto ships to be transported to the outside world. It was an important part of our history. Unfortunately, it stood in the way of the plan to beautify Kuching and the creation of a scenic water front promenade along the Kuching River.

Of course, there were protests (muted by world standard but vociferous by the usually compliant Sarawak population). Of course, it was to no avail. Ours is a state in a hurry and we cannot afford the luxury of consultation. We are more of the subscribers to the motto of the famous shoe company — “Just did it”.  The historic structure was wiped out and in its place now stands a pleasant esplanade which gives us an unobstructed view of the grand structure of the new Dewan Negeri (state assembly) building across the river.

The tactic of “shoot first and question later” is one that has been employed by the “new over old” “pragmatism over sentimentalism” proponents worldwide. There was a case (by no means the only one) in London where a historic church was demolished over a weekend by a determined developer. The local council was about to slap a conservation order on the building that next Monday. The bulldozers were sent on the Saturday before. The rub was that the British don’t work during the weekend. Anyway by the time the council delivered the letter it was already fiat accompli. I recall a similar feat was achieved by a developer in Penang some years ago.

So far was have been talking about buildings. It gets even trickier when we start to consider land and forest. Sarawak is one of the few places in the world that richly endowed with tropical rainforest. We have millions of acres of this fast dwindling commodity. It is said that the rainforest can act as a carbon sink, thereby helps to slow down global warming. Beautiful as this assertion may be but how does it help Sarawak in its economic growth? How can Sarawak help Malaysia to achieve the holy grail of a developed nation status as expounded by our nation’s vision — Wawasan 2020? Can we not convert part of our immense forest into economically lucrative oil palm plantations? Of course, tropical rainforest is an emotive issue these days. Many will blanch at the idea that the pristine virgin forest with its  of flora (and fauna) transformed into neat rows and rows of just one type of plants.

Yes, “new versus old” issue will always be the challenge that will plague man. The world is dynamic. It cannot stand still. There will always be changes. As the poet Kahlil Gibran said, “For life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday”. Perhaps it is a question of moderation and discernment. That statement in itself is fraught with ambiguity. In the meantime, I am thankful that there are people like the owners of the magnificent Hotel Majapahit who believe that a piece of history is worth all the millions of dollars to maintain.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]