THE restoration of Sri Aman’s Fort Alice, built 150 years ago, is likely unprecedented in this part of the world as far as its level of attention to details go.
Workers on site are using replicas of the traditional tools originally used to build the structure. Perhaps the most odd-looking one is the adze — an ancient edging implement to smoothen or carve wood, believed to have been first used during the Mesolithic times.
Basically a rough blade mounted perpendicular to a handle, the adze is not unlike a flat-looking axe and it comes in all shapes and sizes.
Watson Gindal, who is among the 10-person crew working on the restoration, is using a very large adze and by saying large, the blade is wider than his foot while the handle is half his height.
The 53-year-old needs a big tool because he is working on belian, known as one of the hardest of tropical hardwoods.
“Some of the tools here have never been used before. Modern tools are faster, but for this project, we are using these traditional tools to replicate the (original) methods so as to produce the same outcome,” Watson spoke to The Star in a thick mixture of Iban and Bahasa Sarawak, during a site visit recently.
He pointed to a section of a belian column he was working on, which was marked by several chiselled cuts. Had the crew used modern tools — a circular saw, for instance — the finished column could have been straighter, flatter and smoother, but doing so would have betrayed the intended spirit of the restoration.
In mid-last year, Fort Alice was taken apart piece by piece. The 9,900sq ft, two-storey wooden building consisted of 88 columns, of which 74 were carried through to the second floor. In weight, the belian — which was used extensively, from columns, wall panels, floor boards to roof beams — weighed an estimated 100 tonnes.
The original builders had the ironwood columns buried metres deep into the earth as the foundation. Above, pegs were used instead of nails to hold the structure together. In the era before oil-based paints, Fort Alice was coated in a varnish of glistening bitumen. The only objects harder than the building itself were the 14 cannons around it. It was here where the White Rajahs, staked their claims aground. The British battled against local tribal warriors like Rentap along the Batang Lupar and expanded the state’s territory northwards and eastwards from the Sarawak River, charting the modern day boundaries.
With such legacy, the restorers of Fort Alice carry the heavy weight of Sarawak history on their shoulders. Watson, like other crew members, has been coaxed out of retirement for this project.
For heritage restorer and architect Mike Boon, he is keenly aware of how rare an undertaking like this comes along.
On a hot day, Boon — in his T-shirt, jeans and hard hat — was excitedly pointing at some mud.
“Almost all the bases of the columns have rotted away,” he said. “Here, we have quashed the myth that belian doesn’t rot. What we can document from this restoration is that belian will rot, except that the process is really slow. In this environment over hundreds of years, the wood has decomposed in sandy clay. The finished restoration must reflect this.”
According to Boon, all original columns deemed restorable are being cut and rejoined with new timber. Later these “hybrids” would be installed to recreate the mainframe of the fort as it used to be.
“We are going to leave a section of the base exposed. A part of the ground floor will be sunk to allow visitors see the cross section,” he said.
The pieces of original belian will also be turned into furniture, of which the design will be based on old photographs. Boon said the restored fort would include living quarters, office spaces and an internal courtyard.
“There are also plans for local communities to donate or share their family heirloom items for display at the fort.”
Boon was hopeful that this RM5mil restoration would serve as a benchmark for coming heritage projects and more importantly, it could serve as the basis for future heritage policy improvements.
In a state where heritage restoration is not always given priority, Boon has been both a proponent and agitator. On the budgeting for this restoration, he said a lot of convincing was needed.
“We worked out our costs as best as we could with the Public Works Department, which has pretty good procedures. But for this type of work, it (cost) is quite hard to gauge. There is an element of figuring things out as we go along. In a way, they (Government) just had to trust the project team.
“At the end of the day, the client (Sarawak Museum Department) will have to make good use of the restored building, together with the support of local communities,” Boon said.