Monday August 7, 2006
Lunas and the rubber connection
By Su Mei Toh
You don’t often hear someone say: “My grandfather built this road?” And if you did, chances are it may sound affected or conceited. Coming from Laurence Loh, however, it is just a simple fact. Loh is an architect: not a stranger to building things himself, and he is giving us a whirlwind tour of downtown Lunas in Kedah, where his grandfather not only built the main road (known, simply, as Jalan Raya!) but also was one among a triumvirate of early planters who built Lunas, the town.
Tucked away in the southwest corner of Kedah bordering Penang, Lunas, like most small towns in Malaysia, makes the news only when drama of national-scale unfolds. Its time in the limelight was nothing less than spectacular: the murder of its State Assemblyman in 2000, which led to the shock upset in a by-election that saw the opposition snatch the polls by the skin of their teeth in a seat that had been secure in the hands of the ruling party since independence. In the then-Prime Minister’s home state. Raised hackles and a media circus were the least to be expected.
Beside these little intrigues, most Malaysians know little else about Lunas. Indeed, why would they. As even Loh jokes: “Don’t blink or sneeze when you turn off the highway into Lunas ... you might miss it!”
Today, the main street is host to a line of bumper-to-bumper cars crawling their way in or out of town, most bearing Penang registration plates (because these, according to Loh, fetch higher second-hand prices). Lunas is only 45 minutes out of Penang, and lies between Butterworth and Kulim, the latter being the location of a hi-tech park and an industrial park, and thus the thriving machinery of modern development in the area – which explains the smoky crawl on the thoroughfare. The one-blink description obviously doesn’t apply during peak traffic hours.
“Most small towns in Malaysia have been left to rot,” says Loh of the impact the North-South expressway has had by effectively bypassing hundreds of small towns like Lunas, and of highways that cut right through the heart of these towns. “Let’s not forget that the cultural history of small towns contains the microcosm of what Malaysia is today: the colonial history, the migrants’ story? all of it encapsulated in one-street towns like this.”
The vulnerability of our cultural and built heritage has concerned Loh for a long time. It started in the mid-80s when he was involved in a conference on urban planning and conservation in Penang. “If you’re an architect, you’re trained to forecast, and I forecasted something dreadful happening,” he remembers.
The rubber connection
The road that Loh’s grandfather built is the main thoroughfare that cuts through the centre of Lunas, namely two rows of pre-war shophouses facing each other, still occupied by businesses that speak distinctly of the past: rubber dealers and pawn shops.
Loh’s grandfather, Loh Boon Ngee, arrived in Malaya via Sumatra from a town near Swatow in Guangdong, China, as there was abundant work to be had in British-owned rubber estates in the peninsula. It was the early 1920s. “I’m sure my grandfather still had pigtails when he arrived!” quips Loh.
The elder Loh started as a plantation labourer, was quickly promoted and eventually offered contracts by British companies to clear the undergrowth of “hundreds of acres” of rubber land.
He employed villagers to work for him and was soon looked upon by the community as a benevolent figure. His rubber business flourished, and as his work and reputation grew, he also built up Lunas, first by erecting two shophouses bang in the centre of town (that are still owned and used by Loh’s family rubber business), and of course, building that main street.
Two other prominent families also made their names here – the Soons and the Lims. But senior Loh did not stop at Lunas. Having developed the town on his rubber business, he remained involved with his hometown in China where, strikingly, he played a similar role as he did in Lunas. “There was a real continuity,” says Loh, of his grandfather’s activities. “He was going back and forth between here and China, where he built a row of shophouses exactly like the one he built here!”
If Loh’s grandfather helped built Lunas into a thriving town in the heyday of rubber, then Loh is trying to build up a cultural and historical respect and pride of the small town. Now a veteran of numerous conservation projects, he says, indicating the row of original shophouses in the centre of town: “If we concentrate (heritage conservation) on big towns only, all this will go.” Some still bear the original, typically Chinese-style façade; others show heavy borrowing from different traditions: mixtures of Chinese, Malay and European.
Loh calls these “ensemble buildings”, and describes to us the differences and possible beginnings of each one based on structure and style. But buildings alone “have no meaning”. According to Loh, it is by understanding buildings (our tangible heritage) in the context of the people and culture that built them (intangible heritage) that true heritage conservation can be achieved.
Lunas is the last location for DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians programme this year. Titled The Heritage Architect of Kedah, the project will see Loh guide 80 local schoolchildren to produce a cultural map of the town. The mapping will involve both a photographic survey of the old buildings as well as interviews with locals to unearth and document old stories on the beginnings of the town. These will be compiled into a book and presented to the residents. “This will make the children take ownership of their town, and help the locals see the importance of their town in the bigger picture,” explains Loh.
It is about planting a seed of awareness for their heritage, Loh says. “It will take a generation for people to take hold of an idea. I know I won’t see the changes in my lifetime, but these children will be the future guardians of heritage.”
The idea of the mapping exercise was something Loh had discussed with the Soon and Lim families for years. However, the idea had remained simply that: something he would like to do. “I’ve always been fighting for other people (the most recent example being the Bok House in KL, in his capacity as deputy president of Badan Warisan Malaysia), and I’ve always told people to go back to their roots, so that’s what I’m doing now ... coming back to my roots.” For that, he thanks DiGi for giving him the required push to get cracking.
While the trees that one sees around Lunas now are mainly coconut and durian, and oil palm plantations, there is no missing the rubber legacy. A short walk out of the centre of town reveals several old rubber smokehouses beside the busy road swathed in a haze of vehicular exhaust; derelict and obsolete because “rubber is now sold directly to glove factories in the form of jelly (collected straight from the collecting cups). It is no longer made into rubber sheets and smoked. We may have to take the kids to Thailand to teach them how rubber was originally processed here!” Loh laughs half-jokingly.
One of these smokehouses, built by Loh’s relatives in the 1950s, will be converted into a local heritage museum with features on the rubber and tapioca industries.
“Buildings and historical places are symbols of cultural identity that can inspire all our five senses. History is experienced through them, unlike conventional textbook methods of learning,” says Tunku Alizakri Raja Muhammad Alias, DiGi’s Head of Corporate Affairs who is caretaking this project for the telecommunications company. In a speech later that night on the grounds of the disused but still stately Soon mansion, he tells the children: “We should never forget that our cities are built on the backs of industries like rubber in towns such as Lunas. The importance of towns like Lunas as the basis of our nation’s identity cannot be denied.”
The area around the smokehouse was fenced and padlocked, and we didn’t risk crossing the busy road to try to get a closer look. We didn’t need to. From across the road, the smell of rubber is surprisingly distinctive, striking home the past. Earthy, slightly nutty, and still pungent, it is also my past, as it evoked warm memories of idyllic balik-kampung days – my grandfather also had a small rubber smokehouse behind the old family home in Muar. Loh must have had similar thoughts as he took a deep breath and said: “Today, when I tell my children Lunas was built on rubber, it doesn’t have the same meaning for them. They never smelt the rubber. I can still smell it. It’s the most beautiful perfume there is.”
At the end of our tour, Loh leads us, in time-honoured fashion, to an old kopitiam. “The end of this project will be the start for Lunas,” he says.
For all our sakes, I hope it will be – the start of an enduring consciousness of our collective Malaysian story.