Saturday, February 14, 2009

Macau's Favorite Wedding Photo Site.

A favorite venue for the newly weds to have their wedding photos taken in Macau is the St. Francis Xavier Church in Coloane.

Ailee and I found this out when we were visiting the century old chapel after we had the famous Lord's egg tarts a short walk away. We had decided on a full day at Coloane to get away from the crowds and casinos so common in this former Portuguese enclave but also to see for oursleves the last remains of rustic Macau before they too disappear in time.

For many locals looking for a European flavor in their wedding pictures, the location with its distinctive Iberian influenced architecture fits perfectly into the plan. The church despite its historical significance, it is also far from the main tourist hunts, and is not swarmed by maddening crowds.

I suppose if my wife and I are Macaunese and we want a wedding photo with church and all that, then the Coloane Chapel wins hands down too.

We were also pleasantly surprised by the peaceful surroundings and we stepped in to the church we felt like miles away from the loud dings of the city.

There are statues and wall murals depicting St. Francis Xavier and his endeavors in the Far East everywhere but a small gallery next to the main hall is where we found maps and more captions about the saint. It is inside this gallery that I read they kept a piece of St. Xavier bone but we missed it on our visit.

Victoria Institution Now a National Heritage.

Victoria Institution or VI, one of the premier education hubs in Klang Valley and the alma mater for some of the most influential and powerful Malaysians have beat the odd again when it was reported(The Star, Feb 14,09) that the century old school has made it to the National Heritage list.

It is the first time that such honor is given to a school. The annoucement by Shafie Apdal, the minister in charge of the heritage, is bound to invite criticisms because some argue that there are other notably more established and successful schools which deserve the honor.

KEKWA, by according VI the status, have not learnt from the earlier flaks received by Pos Malaysia over its decision to include VI in a special issued stamp series of Malaysian schools. It drew strong words from alumnus over the country, particularly Penang Free School and Malacca High School, about their choice or lack of it.

Maybe, Shafie Apdal was more inclined to please fellow cabinet collegues like Zulhasnan Rafique (FT Minister) and Rafidah Aziz (UMNO Wanita Supremo) and tycoons Francis Yeoh and Ananda Krishnan than to take into considerations the historical signifance and the contributions of other equal if not better schools when enlist VI into this honorable roll.

Nevertheless, there must be some good in this move. I hope that now that VI has this special status, it can stop property magnates from eyeing the school and turn it into a prime property estate.

History has being hard for urban Malaysian schools and more will suffer the same ill fate of schools like Bukit Bintang Convent and Seremban Convent if the government takes the side of the overzealous developers. Both fell under the demolishing balls without even arousing a single word from the Heritage Minister.

Macau's Evangelical Icon.

The Ruins of St. Paul's is the iconic landmark in Macau and it tops our must-see list when Ailee and I went there in Oct. 25, 08. Like most tourists we found the ruins the perfect location for plenty of photo opportunities.

What the Macau Tourism doesn't tell us much is the fact that the ruins was part of a burnout catheral centuries ago, but they sure have a way in turning the ruins around and sell it as a major tourist draw.
A major facelift was taken during 2004-05 and managed to bring back some lustre to the fading facade.

In fact, locals now proudly wear the ruins as their badge of nationhood. It is everywhere and on everything that represents this tiny former Portuguese enclave, from T-shirts, shopping bags, greeting signs to the 5 patacas coin.

What we like most about our visit there is to witness how Macau conservation experts worked successfully to preserve the rich Christian heritage of St. Paul's and their efforts to bring back some dignity to the sacred place. And personally, I find the experience most rewarding and a highlight of my visit.

The project architects have put a great deal of thought to preserve the rear side of the facade in a form of a modern square.

Here, visitors should able to get the full view of the catheral scale, and if they probe further they will find glass floorings to view the catheral foundation.

Step towards the far end and you should will find the entrance to a small but intriguing museum - The Museum of Sacred Art-located at a level below the square. The museum comes with two main galleries to exhibit Church praying paraphernalia and a crypt housing the remains of Christian martyrs. (Admission - free)

The Ruins of St. Paul's to many may be their mark that they have came to the Las Vegas of the East but personally, the place offers me rare insights and now I have a better appreciation of Macau as the powerhouse of Evangelicalism in the Far East.

Train Spotting At DMZ.

There is plenty of train activity in Korean DMZ and a trip to the border is a must for die-hard train spotters. I went to Imjingak in Sept. 17, 08 to see for myself what has been described as one of the most dangerous places in the world!

There are South Korean Army everywhere and barbed wires on the banks of Imjin River to remind you just how fragile the place is. A likely flashpoint that can nuke out the entire peninsula at the whims and fancy of the dear Comrade Kim up north.

As you can imagine, Imjingak is a heavily fortified border town and visited by visitors to see the DMZ and on a clear day, Communist Korea somewhere beyond the hills.

The town was an important train stop for the Pan-Korean Railway before the outbreak of the Civil War. Back then, the train line was linked to Pyongyang and ultimately to Bejing and the Siberian Line.

However, the war put a stop to it and it was left to ruin for decades until early 2000 when it was put back in use to show how the two Koreans can be united again. The whole affair is more like a charade since their Northern cousins have last thing in mind for peace.

There is an old iron horse near the observation building and it tells you how important railway services was to the Koreans.

However for the best thrill, go to the other side of the building for the real train spotters delight.

Several trains ply on the single track across the Friendship Bridge to hear further north but stopping short of the border area around Panjummon.

The service is popular with several tourist groups. First for those who are keen to see the 3rd Tunnel and other North Korean military madness, and secondly, those who prefer to dice with their life just to see the Northern Koreans in their eyes.

Me? Well, I thought I've done rather well too to have seen a Korail diesel loco chugging back from the north.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Discover Ifugou In Bontoc Museum

In Dec. 2, 08, we arrived at the town of Bontoc, in the Philippines Mountainous Territory. Despite being one of the largest settlements in the area, there is nothing for visitors except the quaint museum.

Bontoc museum is regarded by many as a must-see repository of Ifugou culture and heritage, and the place for some serious stuff about the mountain people and its history.

In my view, it is the best of its league and the only reputable establishment highlighting the communities in all of Cordilleras. (Admission – 50 pesos)

The museum is located next to the post office and it has an unique traditional roof. It was established by Belgian missionary in the early 20th. century. There are galleries to showcase intricate traditional costumes, hunting and farming tools but we had a shock of our life when we encountered very graphic black and white photos of a headless victim.

The museum’s main draw has to be the Ifugou village replicas just outside the museum. Step inside these well preserved stone structures and you find rewarding experience to see Ilis - the tribal homes up close and without the need to conquer the hills to see one.

Like many traditional communities, tribal house is more than a home. Each home has a stone pit for pigs and household animals, and storage for farm produce.

The curator has done a splendid work in this department and the replicas also come with a meeting ground - a must in many Ifugou villages.

Sadly, Ilis are rare sights now in the mountains. With modern ways making inroads into the highlands, many Ifugou villagers have replaced almost everything old with new and the traditional wooden houses now come with zinc top and modern amenities.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bukit Malawati - The Selangor Raden's Domain

Bukit Malawati, the popular Kuala Selangor outcrop with the domineering century-old lighthouse, has a chequered past that is worth telling.

Early Bugis raden or rulers were quick to see that the hill, overlooking the Selangor estuary, was strategic to their power base. By the 17th. century, Kuala Selangor was a thriving port and a powerful domain of the raden.

Not surprisingly, it invited prying eyes and sowed the seed for many invasions to come.

Soon, bloody tussles between the Bugis warlords and Dutch invaders erupted over the ownership of the hill and the lucrative tin trade. With each warring tide wavered, the hill namesake too moved back and forth, Malawati and Bukit Belanda -Dutch Hill -in Malay.

Three hundreds years later and much of the history have disappeared with time.

For years, the hill suffered one lacklustre attempt after another, like the few cannon replicas at the hilltop. They are a dismay sight and fail to provide accurate glimpse to the violence that once plagued this former military stronghold.

However, with the boom in tourist arrivals, Kuala Selangor soon found fame as the newest cash cow, and suddenly history now has an economical value.

The state museum board - Perbadanan Muzium Selangor is amongst the first to join the fray - and opted for a brilliant plan to excavate the entire hill. Few artifacts were found i.e. musket balls, broken chinaware and old coins. They were placed in a museum housed in the former home of the District Officer, next to the iconic lighthouse.

All five galleries in the Historical Museum (Muzium Sejarah) are devoted to the hill’s tumultuous history, and why Kuala Selangor is touted as the cradle of Selangor Sultanate.

However, the displays illustrating the chaotic events leading to the attacks and sieges on Bukit Malawati can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. The museum is also let down by the lack of historical artifacts, like weapons and archaeological findings, to add weight to the message about the turn of events.

Another of my bane is the dioramas inside the galleries. Two of which depict the early trading days and the battles between Dutch and the raden’s men. However, the results are amateurish, and worst, historically inaccurate.

You wonder why the curators overlooked the diorama showing European galleons berthing at Kuala Selangor when no record of such event. The other diorama depicting Dutch soldiers wearing cowboy hats and jackets and slaughtered in gruesome bloodbath by the locals, also begs for answer.

Despite these hiccups, a visit to the historical Malawati Hill and the museum offers a great weekend getaway for those looking for an adventure with Selangor history.

Monday, February 2, 2009

New Museums to Usher Year 2009

Despite the gloom in Malaysia’s economical outlook, heritage aficionados and museum goers might have plenty to cheer for in 2009. Grabbing the headlines are new museum openings and they should provide some excitement and more importantly, generate impetus for a more heritage conscious society.

Based on the main dailies, there are 3 new museums in the pipeline and a further two including the national museum at its final stage of refurbishing.

According to the Museum Department Director General, Ibrahim Ismail, two museums – the Malaysian Textile Museum and the Natural History Museum will open its doors to visitors by the middle of the year.

The textile-themed museum, as I best recalled, was a brainchild of Pak Lah’s late spouse, Datin Seri Endon. She had vigorously promoted and encouraged batik –a traditional Malay textile art form- as mainstream fashion and an icon of Malaysian creativity, much to chagrin of the Indonesians.

Needless to say, with such strong backers for the project, it is no surprise to see KEKWA playing a huge role in this museum.

The museum venue will be at the Moorish designed building which formerly housed Kraftangan, next to Sultan Abdul Samad Building. My guess is that a substantial portion of the exhibition will be devoted to Batik legacy. According to the DG there will be a gallery to showcase Baba Nyonya fashion lineage but in my view, the gallery comes amidst too little and too late.

Malaysia found its tail caught between its legs in a race with our southern neighbors across the causeway to ride on the popularity of the Baba Nyonya heritage. Singapore has not only beaten us in 2008 with the establishment of a Peranakan Museum in the island republic but adding salt to injuries, a major portion of its collection were bought from Penang! (For more about this, please read “Cultural Coup by Singapore Peranakan Museum” posted on April 24, 2008)

In Putrajaya, work on the new Natural Science Museum is progressing well and is expected to receive its first visitors in the second quarter of the year. The multi-million ringgit museum will be the showpiece of Malaysia’s natural richness and lauded by its founders to rival the best in the world.

A symposium in 2008 on the museum generated a lot of excitement amongst Malaysian scientists because many shared the view that the establishment of the museum is not just timely, but perfect as a springboard for those who keen to know our rainforests.

After a two-year hiatus, Muzium Negara and its four main galleries now come with new DNA for their exhibition themes. The revamp was a question of life and death for the national museum.

It needed quick remedy to maintain its role as the nation’s leading repository and to safeguard its relevance to the Malaysian public. The RM20 million major facelift was the first for the national museum since its inception in the early 60s.

The reviews so far have remained surprisingly silent but I am fascinated with what I have discovered from my recent visits to the new Galleries D, C and A despite my concerns with some of exhibits.

Gone are the old musty feel and depressing displays common in the old gallery. The new ones reveal fascinating aspects of Malaysian history in bold and captivating display and dioramas. Each theme takes you across Malaysian subjects and issues spanning the millenniums from the cave men dwelling in Niah to colonialism and to Proton cars.

Bank Negara is also joining the fray with a new Numismatics Museum expected to open its doors in July. This central bank initiated project will have a new home within the vicinity of the former Prime Minister Office in Bukit Perdana.

It is purported to be larger than its predecessor in Bank Negara and comes equipped with interactive exhibits.

Up north, renovation work at the Taiping Museum is expected to be completed in the second quarter of the year, and the new exhibitions will set to thrill visitors when they visit the oldest museum in Malaysia. (pls read article “Taiping Museum To Be Revamped - Dec 1, 08”)

Nevertheless, with all sectors of the economy coming to a gridlock, it is not surprising if heritage related development and conservation efforts for the coming months take a backseat in the government list of priority. However, these museum openings will cast a welcome rainbow for the country’s heritage scene for the meantime.

New Heritage Enclave In Klang

2009 will be an awakening year for Klang for a few reasons, and if the Sultan of Selangor has his way, the royal town will have a heritage enclave to call its own in a year or two.

The successful opening of the Sultan Abdul Aziz Royal Gallery in 2008 (pls read my blog article posted on Apr 17, 08) in the old quarters of Klang town has propelled new interest to preserve other similar colonial buildings there.

Numerous royal dignitaries and visitors have made a beeline to view the royal gallery including Sultan of Kedah and royalties from Negeri Sembilan.

However, the best PR success of the gallery, in my view, lies with its growing popularity with locals.

Based on my earlier visit, the gallery opts for a visitor friendly policy to encourage the general public to discover the gallery for themselves. Despite some of the valuable exhibits inside, visitors can roam at their will and if there was security barrier, then they have done a splendid job of concealing them. The gallery staff are generally well trained to ensure visitors have an uninterrupted visit.

Klang is moving in this new interesting direction as a heritage center and much of the credit should go to the Selangor Royal family.

They have played a key role by spearheading buyouts (?) of buildings with significant historical value adjacent to the Royal Gallery. These buildings now used as commercial lots will be given a new lease of life by converting them into museums.

They will be the new attractions in town and the exhibits will usher new interest in royal family and its history.