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Sunday December 3, 2006

A place for history

THINGS seem to be a little topsy turvy in the small town of Lunas, Kedah: while the adults are watering down the town’s architectural heritage in their pursuit of “progress”, it is the kids who are running around trying to treasure them. 

The last time Lunas had a claim to fame was for another against-the-grain event, the Barisan Nasional’s by-election defeat in 2000.  

This time, some 80 students from two local schools have, in the past few months, been studying the town’s heritage.  

Yes, there still are many well-preserved gems such as shop houses, a traditional “wooden bungalow on stilts” post office and the colonial-style Soon Cheng Sai mansion. Plus, the famous “living heritage” of Lunas’ roast duck rice.  

Norsyadila Shazwani Mohd Shukri now knows about the dancing dragons and three-day long opera shows at the Chinese temple in Lunas.
In spite of all this treasure, the students also found a lack of love and appreciation. While their grandfather’s generation built shop houses to be well ventilated for the tropical climate, their fathers “modernised” them by reducing ventilation and replacing charming wooden windows with anonymous glass and aluminium ones.  

So one wonders what will be left for future generations. Will these children grow up to cherish their small town’s uniqueness or hurry to forget their roots enroute to the big cities?  

Wan Hafizuddin, one of the 50 Form Two students from SMK Jalan Paya Besar who participated in this DiGi Amazing Malaysians* programme, can now rattle off architectural features that help cool shophouses, including clay tiles, slatted wooden windows, ventilation holes and even “jack roofs” (a smaller roof that sits on the main roof to allow heat to escape).  

“I live in a warm concrete house nearby. I now understand the use of ventilation holes,” he says.  

Laurence Loh, the Heritage Architect of Kedah, by the road and row of shophouses his grandfather built in Lunas.
And Wu Li Yen, one of 30 Year Four and Five student participants from SRK Cina Hua Min, speaks of the lovely antique-style jewellery produced by local goldsmiths. 

The students’ chief “rabble rouser” has been Laurence Loh, one of DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians and, under the project, officially designated the Heritage Architect of Kedah.  

“Lunas is like many little towns in Malaysia which have character, special buildings and unique stories. But nobody has paid any attention to our little bits of history,” he says.  

And he fears this chunk of history will disappear forever once the older generation passes on. And so, with help from DiGi and Badan Warisan (Heritage of Malaysia Trust), he decided to unleash 80 young souls upon the town to photograph its time-honoured buildings and, more importantly, record the “people’s heritage” through videos and interviews to tell the “story of Lunas”.  

The students’ heritage map of Lunas.
Why here? 

Well, if someone scolded Loh for jaywalking in Lunas with “Oi! Your grandfather’s road, ah?”, he could actually, rightfully, retort, “Yeah! What’s your problem?” (Not that he would, I’m sure.)  

His grandfather, Loh Boon Ghee, came to Lunas from China as a labourer; gained experience; started his own business to clear land for the European estates; saved money; became owner of several rubber plantations himself; built much of the early Lunas town; and set up the local temple and Hwa Min School. His was the classic rags-to-riches immigrant’s tale. 

“If he knew what I’m doing, he’d roll in his grave,” jokes Loh. “People those days would just work hard and shun all publicity.”  

Students Mohd Adli Hakim Dzul Kama (left) and Loh Yee Shuang check the horizontal chimney inside the rubber smokehouse. – Photos by MUSTAFA AHMAD
Yet publicity about the past is exactly what is needed here.  

The students certainly seem eager to share their news with anyone willing to listen. It is heartening to hear them acting as “heritage tour guides” to us visiting journalists and sharing their adventure of discovery with us.  

Adli Hakim testifies: “I live around Lunas, but I don’t know about its heritage. It’s syok (exciting) for me also to learn.”  

Firdaus Idris, says, “The teachers don’t know much about Lunas because they come from elsewhere.”  

The Soon Cheng Sai mansion.
Intan Fazliana Azlee points out the home called Strong Wall – a wooden dwelling which was fortified with thick walls in the early 1950s after its owner’s father was shot by communists. 

Mohd Khairul Anas tells us how the house called Rumah Siam has a foundation pillar as large as sepemeluk (one hugs’ width).  

And in light of recent controversies, it’s refreshing to see that these children here have no problems learning about other religions.  

Firdaus can explain how the deity Kali, whose statue in the local Hindu temple is adorned with 10 hands, is believed to mete out punishments for bad behaviour.  

The students’ heritage record of a goldsmith shop that has most of its traditional architecture intact.
And Norsyadila Syazwani, after explaining the virile dancing dragons and three-day long opera shows at the Chinese temple, reveals that she did consult the ustaz (Islamic teacher).  

“He said, if it was to learn about another culture, boleh (it’s allowed).’’  

The students’ photos, interviews, videos and “heritage trail” maps will be displayed at an old rubber smokehouse, which has been derelict for 20 years.  

“When DiGi first wanted to do this conservation project, the walls were totally covered with soot. There was so much rubbish, even cobra’s eggs inside,” remembers Loh.  

Even though the place has been scrubbed and repainted, a hint of smoked rubber lingers in the air.  

“Now imagine having to hang heavy rubber sheets on bamboo poles here?.” he tells me.  

I am standing three storeys up on a narrow walkway. There are no guardrails or safety harnesses. And the workers of old would have had to balance themselves precariously on bamboo poles tied together.  

“One worker even lost his foot while working here. This is also a tribute to our long forgotten workers who built our economy,” says Loh. 

When ready, early next year, this special place in Lunas will be a rare example of Malaysian “industrial heritage” being preserved. In contrast, there seems to be no place where we can see a palung (sluice boxes), once so common at tin mines, today.  

More importantly, to know Lunas is to love Lunas. After having visited many small towns in Malaysia, all too often I ask: “What’s interesting here?” and the locals’ despairing reply is: “Ta’da apa sini-lah” (“Nothing much lah.”)  

Not with these students.  

“Now, I feel some pride knowing the town’s history,” smiles Firdaus.  

Noor Maizura Mohd Yusoff, says: “Last time I used to pass by this smokehouse, I thought it was a dirty old house. Now, if my relatives from Kuala Lumpur visit Lunas, I can bring them here.” 

*This is the second year of DiGi's Amazing Malaysians Programme, which honours individuals doing great heritage work with the country’s youth. 

Time to party

THE DiGi Street Blast will hit the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Dec 9 with an explosive combination of music, sports and fashion in a youth street festival. 

Highlights of the event will include 12 hours of extreme games, a treasure hunt, dance competitions, fashion shows and a flea market.  

There will be music galore from international artistes like Gary Chow and Lin Yu Zhong, as well as local bands Disagree, Pop Shuvit, OAG, Liang, Plothrown, 6ixth Sense and DJs Jungle Jerry, Ray Soo and Anatta. As a bonus, DiGi’s Celebriteens and the cast of local sci-fi series Ejen 016 will make a special appearance at the festival.  

For those with artistic flair, DiGi is having a T-Shirt design competition with fashion label Radioactive.  

The sporty ones can pick and choose from loads of mini-tournaments. Teams can try futsal, basketball, and paintball while individuals can have a crack at X-Games, mountain-scaling, obstacle courses, the Dunking Machine, a Bungee Run, Titanic Slide and even ... Sumo Wrestler!  

The action will be at Jalan Bintang, KL (in front of Low Yat Plaza), from noon to midnight.  

For more details, check out digi.com.my/mtv


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