August 18, 2016

WWWarisan #1: August 2016

WWWarisan : Heritage Sites # 1

A love letter from Penang / Yangon on the downlow / The ghosts of Singapore past / Sydney's falling star / Will we always have Paris?
Hello, and welcome to the first installment of WWWarisan. This newsletter will feature pieces on built + urban cultural heritage from across the internet. While there'll be a strong slant towards regional content from ASEAN and Australasia, I plan to include at least one or two pieces from further afield each month.

First up, Penang, where public transport plans have put the state at loggerheads with civil society groups. In June, a coalition of NGOs called Penang Forum wrote to UNESCO to request an investigation into the impact of a proposed transport masterplan on George Town's World Heritage Site. UNESCO promptly contacted Malaysia's federal heritage body for a full report. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has described the Penang Forum's letter as 'a stab in the back'. Since then, others have chimed in -- from politicians to the Consumer Association. Penang Forum argues it was 'duty-bound' to alert UNESCO before the state committed itself to any building work, particularly at Sia Boey -- an archaeologically rich area just next to the World Heritage Site. For now, the war of words rages on.

On a happier note, a new Penang Hokkien dictionary has recently been published. The result of four years of research, the book is the work of former lecturer Tan Siew Imm. The dictionary comes at a time when linguists have raised concerns about the extinction of Penang's distinctive dialect.

In Yangon, a former Burma Oil Company building is set to become a new National Library. Yangon hasn't escaped the seismic changes in Myanmar's politics and society. As the nation opens up to the world, its historic buildings are increasingly under pressure from development -- so much so that Yangon currently has a moratorium on new high-rise developments.

A recent forum highlighted Singapore's lost Panggong Negara (National Theatre). The event brought together architectural historians and former performers in conversation with the theatre's architect, Alfred Wong. What is clear is that the demolished theatre was truly a 'people's theatre' -- one built and cherished by citizens from all walks of life. If you couldn't make it to the seminar, you can still check out the architect's new memoir.

Roadworks, namely the construction of the CTE tunnel in 1986, played a role in the demise of the Panggong Negara. Thirty years later, another Singapore building is making way -- at least temporarily -- for a new highway. Today it was announced that parts of the Ellison Building will be demolished and reconstructed to facilitate the construction of the North-South Corridor. This is despite the building, built in 1924 by the Romanian Jew Isaac Ellison, being gazetted as a conserved structure. The Singapore Heritage Society has expressed its disappointment with the decision, and called for demolition plans to be reconsidered. The Ellison Building is a reminder that even listed buildings aren't always safe, and that the growth of cities can put new pressures on historic areas; conserving heritage is a continuous, active process -- not a passive one.

This month, Chinese communities around the world mark the Hungry Ghost Festival, a time when the lines between this world and the next are said to be blurred. One place you can glimpse this eerie underworld is Haw Par Villa. Built in 1937 by the Tiger Balm tycoons, the park's garish folklore dioramas provided Singaporeans with a unique public space that was both educational and recreational. After decades of decline, there are now moves to bring the park back to life. The National Heritage Board has just closed a tender to study the park's thousands of sculptures. A recent escape game showed the potential to reactivate old entertainment spaces, making them relevant to a new generation. With proper management, maintenance and vision, the Tiger Balm Gardens may draw crowds once again.

A Sydney landmark will soon be no more after NSW's Environment and Heritage Minister denied Sirius a listing. Heritage bodies and artists alike have largely condemned the decision. The imminent demolition of this iconic building is a reminder that much of our modernist heritage is still unprotected -- a point underscored in Kuala Lumpur by the demolition of the brutalist offices at Pusat Bandar Damansara, which is nearing completion.

And finally, we might always have Paris -- but what about its kiosks? Mayor Anne Hidalgo's plan to replace the city's repro-Haussmannien news kiosks with a modern design has people up in arms. The Mairie says the new designs will help newsagents, who are struggling with declining sales. Heritage groups, however, argue that the 'sardine tins' will make the city 'as ugly as London.' (Oh là là!) At the time of writing, a petition against the new kiosks has garnered over 18,000 signatures. The debate raises interesting questions about authenticity: while some view the replica kiosks as a falsification of history, one Haussmann expert rather glibly pointed out that 'you could say the same thing about Notre Dame.' (Take that, Viollet-le-Duc!)

That's it for this edition. Do get in touch if you come across anything you think should be in the next newsletter. Till next time!