Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Ailing Mousedeer

I don't know why I'm furious over this (hat tip to the Bangsar Boy). But I am. And not just because of the guy in the picture.

There's a few things I've heard about Malaccan Chief Minister Ali Rustam - namely his political ambitions - but none I can substantiate. And that's not the issue here. But that article just ticked me off.

Because I feel there's so much that's wrong about it.

First, why would a mere facsimile of an Arab neighbourhood be of any micron of satisfaction to anyone willing to put in the money and effort for the real thing? They have a tourism industry over there, don't they? Isn't it a self-defeating move to bring the Middle East over here, when they can spruce up what they already got at home, brush up the security and roll out the welcome mat for tourists - for less? As for the high exchange rate and costs of living, well, not much can be done about that. Where travel is concerned, we pay to play.

Another thing is, I'd think that any Arab who wants a slice of home - hookah and all - while he's travelling abroad is just plain rude, especially when he's in another Muslim country. How hard is it to walk the straight and narrow in Malaysia? I think back to the OIC delegate who reportedly had reservations coming here because there's no camel milk - what I wouldn't give to hurl a store-full of shoes at that person now!

At the same time, it is equally rude for Malaysians to expect Penang char koay teow - halal or otherwise - in Riyadh, or kuih talam in Fez. Isn't the whole point of travel to get away from the familiar, and experience the new?

(Even at home the kuih talam of my youth is elusive. Our heritage is under siege.)

If the Arabs who are coming here are from Dubai, let me just say that I'm not enthusiastic about their "culture". Especially the glitzy, towering, superlatively opulent monuments to excess that is now coming up in Dubai. The Burj al-Arab, the Palm, World Islands and the Dubai Festival City... that's not culture. They're abominations - big, grotesque and soulless. We can do that already. As investments they're flawed, as demonstrated by the recent financial crisis. If things don't get better soon... I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Not many have heard about the island nation of Nauru, but it has much in common with the Middle East. Years ago, Nauru was rich. After being shat on by birds for aeons, the island is literally covered in phosphate, a key ingredient in fertiliser. But the islanders weren't smart with their money. Corruption, profligate spending and unwise investments (such as the Nauru House in Melbourne), combined with the near-exhaustion of its phosphate resources eventually took their toll. The island now lies scarred by years of rampant mining, and is virtually broke. I see the Middle East going the same way if they don't get smart.

But you say, hey, it's a billion ringgit. And sure, I wouldn't mind having an Arab enclave around if I get curious about their cuisine (I've yet to experience the Arab Walk at Bukit Bintang). And - well, cultural transplants are an ongoing process, you'd say. If not, you and your bak kut teh, char koay teow and tau hu hua wouldn't even be here!

But Malacca is not the place for them, not in the historic heart of the state. And certainly not in the hands of those who have devastated the historic heart of the state.

After many years I returned to Malacca, only to have my heart broken by what I've seen. Canto- and Mando-pop in Jonker Street, which looks more like Petaling Street South. Christ Church and Stadhuys infested by kitsch-peddlers and rickshaws with garish, eye-gouging decorations even more tasteless than what's in any Burj al-Arab suite; at night, they're traffic hazards with their blinking lights and all. A cannon next to the clock tower had garbage inside; has anything been done about that since I left? Parts of the surrounding area reminds me of my hometown Penang, and not in a good way.

Free from the confines of a tour bus, I walked the Jonker Street neighbourhood. It's grubby and worn down in places, no air-conditioning and whatnot. But it was beautiful. I felt like a kid again, even though as a kid I never traipsed the old Penang neighbourhoods on foot. I used to see more sky whenever I cycle from home to the city; now I can't. I actually wept.

Can the current administrators of Malacca be trusted not to screw up with these new projects the way they screwed up with the historic heart of the state?

This year I was driven around Penang island by an aunt; what I saw made me mad. Most of the beaches are now covered with rocks, concrete or mud. Underutilised and abandoned hotels. I remember walking on sand and picking seashells on what is now the rock and mud hellhole that's Gurney Drive today. The aunt thinks that development (by E&O, I think) made the waters there stagnant and kept the tide away.

And some lecturer said the ecosystem there is clean because of the presence of thousands of freaking mudskippers! Go there and take a breath, for goodness’ sake. It’s freaking Funky Drive now! Who cares if they’re mudflats and they’re clean? We had a beach, which we did not respect even back then! And it’s gone!

Mr Amir Muhammad, please, please, please put the joker’s quote in Volume 3 for posterity. We owe her at least that much.

By some fluke of fate, my work put me on the path of two codgers whose work included documenting some of Malacca's history from an architectural perspective, with graphics. The sketched structures were clean, neat. Almost surreal. And although free from garbage, kitsch and tasteless works of art, are still beautiful. That's the Malacca I want to see, and preserve.

Look up the Malacca Sketchbook at your nearest bookstore, by the late Chen Voon Fee and Chin Kon Yit, because soon it will probably the only existing record of what Malacca used to be like.

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