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Drawing on heritage

Street art ― some as high as 15 m ― is drawing droves of visitors to Malaysia’s old towns. Many have catapulted the buildings that serve as canvasses to fame while others have drawn the public’s ire.

Last month, Ipoh launched a mural art trail amid allegations that one particular painting by Ernest Zacharevic resembles ex-Malayan Communist Party leader Chin Peng.

No stranger to controversy, Zacharevic’s knife-wielding LEGO mugger in Johor Baru has been painted over following claims that it portrayed the town in a bad light. However, in George Town, the Lithuanian’s gigantic murals that have adorned the historical city walls since 2012 continue to attract visitors from around the world.

Recently, Urban Xchange ― Malaysia’s first street art festival featuring Zacharevic, had artists like prominent batik and watercolor painter Datuk Tay Mo Leong, questioning whether the new murals were connected with Penang’s culture.

While Malacca’s heritage precinct murals are a hit with tourists, Malaysian Heritage and History Club founder Bert Tan insists they have marred the buildings’ facades and should be confined to the interior.

The Malacca-born heritage enthusiast, whose Facebook group has some 7,800 members, equates street art with tattoos on a beautiful body.

“The character, details and history of these old dames should be highlighted, not the add-on murals that don’t belong.”

Malacca heritage proponent Josephine Chua tells artists not to rob the historic city of its nostalgia as the locals are attached to their childhood memories and family traditions.
A mural in George Town. (The Star)
A mural in George Town. (The Star)

Be mindful of what you paint, she advises.

Complimenting Zacharevic’s “Little Children on a Bicycle” in George Town, she wants art to reflect local culture.

The Mirrors George Town street art project was created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. Bits of wax are still stuck on the painting.

“Even then, it should be limited to the back lanes, not cover the building’s entire facade.

“In Malacca, there’s been a gross interpretation of history when it comes to our street art,” the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple restoration project coordinator observed.

The temple was awarded the UNESCO Merit Award for Restoration in 2002.

Chua prefers the heritage buildings to be left alone, especially if there are delicate textures on the lime plaster walls.

While admitting that street art draws attention, she compares it to a “heavily dolled up old lady with orange hair.”

“People will take notice but for the wrong reasons. A well-restored heritage building will tell its own story. We don’t need murals,” she said with a shrug.

Datuk Dr. Anwar Fazal, chairman of Think City ― the subsidiary of government investment arm Khazanah Nasional, which spearheads urban regeneration in Penang ― describes art as a powerful tool that communicates beauty and touches the heart.

“Artists capture the past and bring it into the future. Such creativity was recognized by UNESCO, which listed George Town and Malacca as World Heritage Sites in 2008,” he said.

Acknowledging the importance of street art, he says it reaches out to people in a way museums cannot and is accessible 24/7.

“Some of Zacharevic’s works which reflect the Penang story have a huge following. Those in abandoned areas now attract hundreds of (daily) visitors,” he said, cautioning that graffiti, however, can interfere with our heritage legacy if not carefully monitored.

He says those who want to express themselves should be given the space to do so but there must be a balance between creativity and history.

“The state’s Public Arts Review Panel must ensure that the paintings add value to our built legacy.”

While happy that more young talents are using art to promote heritage, Penang Heritage Trust president Khoo Salma Nasution warns against treating the walls like blank canvasses.

She says the walls, which were painted using natural pigment colors, are works of art that must be respected.

“Street art has helped attract tourists to the state but we have to be very careful when approving designs for the walls.

“For instance, if you want to paint on a low-cost flat facade to uplift the place, that’s all right but you must be very careful if you want to paint on a heritage wall with textures. The artwork must blend in,” she said, adding that there is much more to be done for heritage conservation.

Calling for strong, detailed policies backed by political will and tighter restoration regulations, she says it will be too late once the damage is done.

Citing Koh Shim Luen as an example, she says artists have an important role to play in heritage conservation because they see things most of us miss and immortalize these precious details in their paintings.

Koh, whose “The Straits Shophouse: George Town & Malacca” exhibition featuring 40 mixed media pieces was held recently at The Star Pitt St in Penang, had spent more than a year holed up in her studio painting the gems.

“Art in every form ― not just murals ― is important in heritage conservation,” she said, pointing to how heritage buildings from an artist’s perspective are enhanced so that the details become more obvious and easier to appreciate.

While Koh’s shophouses do not boast extraordinary tales, they are still precious, Khoo stresses.

“Families going about their daily chores and rituals like praying outside the house reflect the inner city’s outstanding universal value which gave rise to the UNESCO listing. These are our intangible heritage.

“The rapid growth of tourism has caused many families to move out of the heritage enclave as boutique hotels and cafes continue to mushroom. If we are not careful, there will be no more families living here by the year 2020.”

Koh, born in Perak, has amassed some 200 photographs and sketches of Malaysian buildings over a span of 30 years, and is keen to preserve the nation’s heritage buildings through art.

The Universiti Sains Malaysia fine arts graduate began her “labor of love” in 2012.

“I used everything from watercolor to ink, color and graphite pencils to create a 3-D effect and stay true to the texture, form, shape and color. Evoking nostalgia and romance was a challenge,” she recalled.

When she was finally done painting last year, the avid traveler revisited the buildings and what she saw left her heartbroken.

“Less than half of the old buildings in George Town and Malacca resembled what I remembered.

“Some were beautifully restored but others looked like a woman who had too much plastic surgery done ― modern fittings were added to the original structures and painted in rainbow colors. The result was garish,” she opined.

In George Town, she says, most of the buildings she painted were either neglected or deserted, and some of those that were restored had lost their nostalgic feel.

She laments the use of bold, contrasting colors that rob the buildings of their essence and soul.

Her voice cracks a little reminiscing about a double-story shophouse in Lebuh Melayu.

On the pillars outside are big Chinese characters that tell the occupant’s story, she says.

“The carvings read: ‘People praise me because I can heal but I am ashamed because I cannot cure everyone ― there are too many diseases in the world.’

“From these carvings, we know that a very humble Chinese ‘sinseh’ once lived here. But today, the pillars are dirty and pieces of rusty iron lie scattered around.”

The retired art teacher’s eyes light up, though, when she points to her painting of a shophouse a few doors down the street.

Currently occupied by a fellow artist, the green and gray shophouse remains unscathed by the passage of time.

Reluctant to compare the success of heritage conservation in George Town and Malacca, she says the former is huge while the latter only covers a few streets.

“The old Malacca buildings, especially those along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, are so beautiful. Unlike those in George Town which are of subtle hues, Malacca’s buildings are brightly colored, reflecting the rich mix of Baba Nyonya, Chinese, Indian and European influences.”

She ponders over the future of other prewar buildings in places like the Klang Valley and is concerned over how old landmarks like Hotel Lok Ann and the Pudu prison have become victims of modernity.

“Old buildings in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown are crumbling. There was a building in Petaling Street that was whitewashed and along with the dirt, its heritage disappeared.”

Alan Teh, who co-organized Koh’s exhibition, believes that the skills to construct prewar buildings are lost: “Using materials like stucco plaster and timber, these craftsmen constructed buildings that reflect a way of life, showing us how the previous generations lived.”

Unlike in George Town and Malacca, where heritage buildings have gotten a lot of attention because of UNESCO, shophouses in old towns like Seremban, Ipoh and Taiping have been neglected, he laments.

An architect by profession, he encourages investors to explore.

“Don’t just think of George Town and Malacca when you are looking to invest in heritage buildings. Ipoh too has the potential to be a UNESCO heritage site. It’s a tin mining town with so much history and many nice buildings,” he offered.

Meanwhile, Dr. Anwar says a Think City office will open in Kuala Lumpur this month.

“The Klang Valley has seen unprecedented growth. We don’t want to see its rich history obliterated. The stories of the past must come alive again.

“For every RM1 ($2.80) we invest in restoring a building, there’s a return of RM6 because the entire street is rejuvenated,” he says, adding that the challenge is to ensure that a building’s legacy continues well into the future.

He muses about how the iconic Petronas Twin Towers will one day be considered a heritage building.

Citing George Town’s Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak (Komtar) which was built in 1974 and completed in 1986 as an example. He points to how the tallest building in Southeast Asia at one time is today considered by many to be part of the state’s heritage.

“The late R. Buckminster Fuller, a 20th-century genius and the Leonardo da Vinci of his time, was instrumental in the construction of Komtar’s iconic Dewan Tunku Geodesic Dome.

“Like Komtar, the Twin Towers will one day be an important part of our history.”

By Christina Chin

(The Star)