Welcome to a pocket-sized Malaysia rich in culture and history

  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 31 Aug 2021

The 14cm Tunku Abdul Rahman figurine at MinNature Malaysia keeps the Merdeka spirit alive this National Day. Photo: Wan Cheng Huat

The legendary figure of Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaiming “Merdeka” is standing proudly on a podium, forever crystalised in an iconic pose.

Just a stone’s throw away, Dataran Merdeka is seemingly busy with National Day activities, complete with a gigantic Jalur Gemilang blanketing the freshly cut field, parade floats and a projection mapping light show.

But unlike the first Merdeka day in 1957, with adoring Malaysians roaring on Tunku Abdul Rahman at Stadium Merdeka in KL, the 14cm figurine of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and the Dataran Merdeka diorama (1/87 scale) have yet to meet the public. These works are a part of thousands of miniatures at MinNature Malaysia (MinNature) in Kuala Lumpur, which has been closed for over 18 months due to pandemic restrictions.

Not quite the National Day spirit we Malaysians are accustomed to.

MinNature Malaysia, a miniature heritage gallery located on the first floor of Sungei Wang Plaza in KL, opened to the public on March 3 last year.

It took close to 22 months to be completed, with six core members and 32 miniature artisans.

It was supposed to be a new art heritage highlight in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

What was built to be a one-stop centre for tourists (local and international) to learn about Malaysian culture and heritage ended up as another casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns that followed.

Just two weeks after its opening, MinNature was forced to close down due to the enforcement of the movement control order (MCO).

Catch a three-minute Merdeka lightshow at the Dataran Merdeka diorama to keep up with the National Day spirit. Photo: Wan Cheng HuatCatch a three-minute Merdeka lightshow at the Dataran Merdeka diorama to keep up with the National Day spirit. Photo: Wan Cheng Huat

But that has not stopped Wan Cheng Huat, who co-founded MinNature with two friends, from carrying on with the Merdeka spirit this year.

“Yes, it has been a difficult time for us at MinNature to have been closed for 18 months now. We were so excited to showcase all that we have made to Malaysians and foreigners alike. Wan, 39, added, “But we are not going to let this bring us down. We just want to spread the Merdeka spirit to everyone through our Independence day dioramas and much more.

“I think it’s important to bring Malaysians together to enjoy a dose of our beautiful country’s culture and heritage in miniature forms. To reminisce how we overcame our struggles and hopefully bring some positivity and lift our spirits during these trying times.”

He doesn’t know when the heritage gallery can reopen, but that isn’t stopping the MinNature from sharing what they have on offer in a series of virtual tours, which look set to give the masses a glimpse of the place.

So, raise the national flag, listen to Sudirman’s Tanggal 31 Ogos and turn up the Merdeka cheer with MinNature’s aptly named Celebrate Malaysia virtual gallery tour.

Celebrate Malaysia, which will be streamed live via Zoom, promises to give Malaysians a feel-good boost with a series of “virtual walks and cross-border stops” through a landscape of intricately designed miniature figurines and dioramas.

“Malaysia is so rich with heritage, culture and history, and we thought it would be nice to give a little reminder of what makes us Malaysians.

“Since we are not able to travel around Malaysia, we thought that we could bring Malaysia to you through our mini stories of Malaysia, in the comfort of your own home.

This Merdeka, you can still fly the flag proudly even if you are part of a miniature diorama series.  Photo: Wan Cheng Huat  This Merdeka, you can still fly the flag proudly even if you are part of a miniature diorama series. Photo: Wan Cheng Huat

“Let’s take our minds away from the pandemic, the lockdowns, the depression, and just have a little hope that Malaysia will pull through this together. Perhaps, this is the little distraction everyone needs right now,” shared Wan, who has been doing odd jobs since the start of the pandemic to earn an income, since the gallery is currently on hold.

Still, there is a sense of excitement for him to finally get the word out on MinNature.

With more than 34,000 miniature replicas of different scales spanning over the 1,207sq m gallery space, you know you are in for a ride in this cultural wonderland.

Take a virtual peek at Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge No.5 in Batu Gajah, Perak – the last tin dredge in the country – or hover over to Penang’s iconic Fort Cornwallis, and discover Kedah’s historic Bujang Valley archaeological site.

If you have been missing your hometown, you don’t want to miss out the gallery’s small town Malaysia collection, depicting dreamy dioramas of kampung life with paddy field sceneries and village folks enjoying kopi at a warung.

You can also get a bird’s eye view of Selangor and Negri Sembilan in MinNature’s longest diorama on display. Measuring 30m in length, this cross section of the two states features nearly 11,000 miniatures and cost RM80,000 to build.

The diorama took three months to complete and features Batu Caves complete with kavadi bearers and devotees carrying milk pots, as welll as railway lines and a view of Port Klang with the nearby Mah Meri village, among others.

A marketplace miniature display seen in Part 1 of 'Celebrate Malaysia'. Photo: Wan Cheng HuatA marketplace miniature display seen in Part 1 of 'Celebrate Malaysia'. Photo: Wan Cheng Huat

“Actually, walking through MinNature is a very unique way to discover Malaysia. Our dioramas are very much visual documentations that break the barrier of formal education.

“As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words,” Wan said, adding that the dioramas can complement what you read in history books.

A tiny Malaysia for all

In MinNature’s Celebrate Malaysia virtual tour, viewers can catch a glimpse of a Kedahan “angkat rumah” tradition, a community-based practice of physically carrying a kampung house from one location to another, popular among rural communities.

Dock by a Johor shoreline to view a kelong (fishing stations built on stilts) or travel to pre-Ikea times in Penang where furniture was made and weaved from rattan.

In keeping things accessible, the hour-long ticketed virtual tour, which will be hosted by Wan himself (Bahasa Malaysia or English) will be divided into three parts on different days. The sessions will begin at 5pm on the virtual tour dates.

In Part 1 (Aug 31 and Sept 4), find out how MinNature started, get to know the artisans behind the figurines and dioramas and have a scrumptious tour of the miniature food displays.

For a throwback experience, Part 2 (Sept 5 and 11) lets viewers get up close and personal with detailed dioramas depicting the kampung life, complete with padi field settings, road side stalls and warung stalls. Not to forget even children playing “tarik upeh” (a race and tumble game where kids sit on coconut tree fronds and get pulled around by friends), and Chinatown scenes depicting Chinese opera performances and the dying art of lantern and lion head making.

A scene featuring a Chinese opera performance in the Celebrate Malaysia virtual tour. Photo: Wan Cheng Huat A scene featuring a Chinese opera performance in the Celebrate Malaysia virtual tour. Photo: Wan Cheng Huat

For the heritage trail enthusiast, Part 3 (Sept 12 and 16) offers virtual visits to an array of heritage buildings such as Perak’s Teluk Intan Leaning Tower, Johor’s Royal Grand Palace and Penang’s Masjid Kapitan Keling.

MinNature offers four virtual packages for home viewers, with tickets starting at RM25.

Memories to keep

“Malaysia is so diverse and culturally rich that it will actually take a lifetime to experience the entire country and if we do not protect it, it will disappear forever.

“The team at MinNature Malaysia is just taking the step we believe will have an impact to make people realise how important it is to preserve our heritage and culture.

“The realism concept of our diorama will give people a very different perspective and hopefully trigger them to have deep thoughts about memories and what will be,” said Wan.

Besides miniatures that celebrate the nation’s heritage buildings and hidden gems, Wan shares that creating dioramas that showcase scenes such as lion head-making, keris-making and traditional lantern-making were important to remind people to value these traditional crafts.

In filling up MinNature’s exhibit area, Wan recalled his team spent months researching a particular traditional craft in the hopes of making the dioramas as accurate as possible.

“We hope that one day we will be able to build a diorama (area) to represent each of these dying handicraft works and tell the stories behind the craftspeople and their skills that can still be found throughout Malaysia,” he shared.

A miniature exhibit showing kavadi bearers and devotees carrying milk pots during Thaipusam in the Batu Caves diorama. Photo: Wan Cheng Huat A miniature exhibit showing kavadi bearers and devotees carrying milk pots during Thaipusam in the Batu Caves diorama. Photo: Wan Cheng Huat

With the changing landscapes in small towns and cities, Wan strongly believes Malaysians should start actively discovering the diverse cultures and heritage in the country before they disappear.

In KL, many old businesses and (heritage) kopitiam establishments have permanently shut down during pandemic, and Wan feels we have not felt the full impact of these losses, with more places (with rich community history) at risk.

“At MinNature, we will continue to find more creative ways to create awareness of Malaysia’s disappearing heritage.

“We will continue to build and add in more and more of these hidden gems every year, in hopes that we are able to capture as much of Malaysia in miniature form for people to come and reminisce.

“Essentially, we want to create miniatures that people will never forget,” said Wan.

Celebrate Malaysia also acts as a fundraiser to keep MinNature afloat in these trying times. Besides ticket sales, there’s also a tiered sponsorship programme.

Wan revealed that since the gallery is so new, it does not qualify for any government aid or relief package.

With overheads and expenditures piling up every month and most of the recovery and financial aid applications rejected, MinNature’s staff of eight were let go last October.

“We have been trying to do a lot of things to pivot, but unfortunately we were not able to turn things around with this prolonged closure,” Wan said.

“Rather than asking for donations from the public, we thought that it would only be right that we did something, hence this idea of a virtual gallery tour.

“If this is successful, we do hope to have more of such events to help us stay afloat. We really hope that this can provide us a lifeline,” he said.

Wan can’t wait to welcome back visitors to the gallery once travel restrictions are lifted.

“Hopefully by next year, Malaysians will be able to travel freely. After two years of being stuck at home, you may have forgotten about all the historic and heritage sites in Malaysia.

“Make a stop at MinNature and get to know our country again albeit in miniature form. It will be a great start,” concluded Wan.

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