Tiong Bahru, a Thought on Heritage

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Singapore’s first public housing project surprisingly retains the textures of the then emerging international style and Art Deco movements in architecture. Tiong Bahru is a true heritage spot and an exceptional example of a planned urban space that is still glossed over by most who visit this bustling city in a garden.

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There are two reasons that I can think of for this:  the area hardly makes it to guidebooks, which sadly reflects the truth that what gets written in the pages are simply those that the writers just want others to see and know and there have been cases that they do NOT really know enough; and, more importantly, modern architectural movements still rarely appeal to many in ways colonial Straits shophouses do, as in the cases of Chinatown, Kampong Glam or Little India. It seems that the lack of “romance” and “ancientness” around the former hinder the interest of the average person towards them.

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In an advanced city now known for its modern marvels, how much attention and appreciation can really be accorded to the last remaining built-heritage around? It seems that turn of the 20th-century architecture suffers the most undervaluation and apathy, and Tiong Bahru’s case illustrates this phenomenon clearly.

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But how did I get there, to begin with? A friend took me there primarily for the food offering in Tiong Bahru market — which is amazing! The buildings were really a big surprise to me as I did not know anything about them beforehand.

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Melaka and George Town: Trade Hegemons of Colonial-era Southeast Asia

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Since there is not much noise being made about George Town while unanimous praises are given to Melaka (Malacca), I was surprised to find out that the former component-city would be the highlight of Malaysia’s first UNESCO cultural world heritage site that was inscribed in 2008. The character of George Town is definitely more presentable.


Melaka has a rich cultural and trading history, and the role it once played in regional commerce cannot be underestimated. Its current condition, however, does not live up to its glorious past anymore. Without knowing its history, the city simply looks like any other Chinese-Malay trading town.

The red Dutch Square, the most recognizable exponent of Melaka.

Its history dates back to the well-networked and influential Malaccan sultanate, and later gained greater worldwide interest when it was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch successively. Though Melaka was never made as a capital of the Dutch East Indies (VOC), it served as the most important Dutch-controlled port-town between India and Batavia (present day Jakarta), monopolizing the trade movements over the narrow Straits of Malacca. Melaka was such a strong city then that it even rivaled the might and wealth of Ayutthaya in Thailand, yet it fell with the rise of the British control over the peninsula.

Porta da Santiago, or A' Famosa, is the only remaining section of the old walls that once protected Melaka.

This ancient city’s important monuments  can be easily explored in a day, on foot. I started off in the residential/commercial district of the core zone, just across the bridge over the Melaka River. From how I recall, nothing really stood out in that area, and its main thoroughfare Jonker Street (popularly pronounced nowadays as /djongker/ despite its original Dutch pronunciation /Yongker/) was a bit sober and empty during my visit as it was post-election time; most shops were closed in protest against the recent results. The spirit of Jonker Street, nevertheless, went to life when I visited some of the shop houses, learning some few things from store-keepers about the items that they sell. Only then can one feel that he is truly in a multi-cultural trading town.

Shop houses along Jonker Street in Melaka

The Street of Harmony, situated parallel to Jonker Street,  is nice, but its religious monuments are not as spectacular compared to those of George Town. The urban planning concept of putting houses of worships along one lane is one of the unique features of the two historic cities.

The oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy (Cheng Hoon Teng Temple)

The Dutch Square, also called Red Square, is small but very recognizable. While it is indeed picturesque, there is not much that the plaza has to offer other than four monuments: the Dutch Stadthuys  and Christ Church, Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, and the British Queen Victoria Fountain. The red color of the city is often seen as impressive, but I’m not quite sure if I share the same assessment. After all, the old historic Dutch buildings were originally painted white. 

The better exponent of Melaka where one can feel its colonial past more would be the A’ Famosa – St. Paul’s Hill area. Inside St. Paul’s ruins, there are numerous 16th to 17th century Dutch gravestones on display. This site was also the first resting place of the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier before it was transferred to Goa in India. It is said that during the canonization of the saint, the Vatican asked for his right hand as a relic for its safekeeping. Interestingly, the statue of St. Francis Xavier in front of the ruins is missing its right hand! Apparently, a branch of the tree fell over and broke it.

Dutch gravestones inside the ruins of St. Paul church.

The St. Paul ruins also offers a commanding view of the city and the straits. Other interesting monuments in Melaka would be the watermill along the river, just beside the ruins of the old Portuguese and Dutch ramparts, and the small windmill near the Dutch Square.

The Malacca Sultan Watermill along the Melaka River.


George Town, on the other hand, was a real surprise. Historically, this British-era city rose to prominence with the decline and demise of Melaka. Without expecting much, I originally planned to stay there just for a night. But, seeing how lovely the place was, I ended up staying for three days. I enjoyed going around the city on a bike. Aside from surveying the main sites, there are other things to do here like checking out the street arts (which became a big craze after a Lithuanian artist did some wonderful works in the city), as well as treating oneself with the famous Penang dishes like Penang laksa and char kway cheow.

Georgian architecture-inspired George Town City Hall.

There are more monuments in George Town, and they are more grand, colorful, and definitely better maintained than those in Melaka. Key British legacies include the impressive Georgian-inspired City and Town Halls, the bit worn-out and empty Fort Cornwallis, the two mid-sized churches, and the colonial-era buildings along Lebuh Pantai, the old business lane of the city. By seeing some old photos of George Town, I was surprised to learn that there were more British colonial buildings that stood there before, creating a real “Little Europe” atmosphere during its heyday.

mix-architecture houses in George Town. Most are shop houses.

George Town was intended to be the successor to Melaka’s trade hegemony, as well as the crowning glory of the British empire’s might and supremacy in Southeast Asia. In comparison to Melaka, the historic centre of George Town is larger and that there are more shop houses around.

Fort Cornwallis, a brick fortification built upon the site where Sir Francis Light first landed in Penang.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the city a lot as local colours are much vibrant there. Its Little India, for example, is one of the better Indian quarters I’ve seen so far in the region; Muslim communities (Southern Indians and Malays alike) are largely concentrated around George Town’s three mosques; and the Chinese clan temples are richly decorated. In experiencing the straits Chinese-Malay culture, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in George Town appears to be better than the Baba Nyonya Museum in Melaka. Also, George Town’s Teochew Temple and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion have been conferred by UNESCO Asia-Pacific with the Best in Heritage Conservation Awards as well.

Masjid Kapitan Kelling along the Street of Harmony in George Town

Melaka is one reminder of Asia’s close contact with the Portuguese and the Dutch; George Town, with the British. Key to a better appreciation of these sites is to see each city holistically and to understand the diversity and cultural uniqueness that each has to offer.

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As with any South and Southeast Asian trading town such as Vigan, Hoi An, Macao and Galle, the biggest threats at present to the two cities are urban developmental pressures. Buffer zones are obviously weak in some areas. The waterfront face-lifting of the Melaka River and the intrusive development plan in the historic enclave of George Town have been frowned upon by the World Monuments Fund and other international organizations.

Street art in George Town - this is the biggest! Here's a photo of my newly found friends doing some rounds around the city at 2AM (after a night of booze!) :p


PS. Is it possible to have Singapore inscribed, too? Trade control in the Straits of Malacca started in Melaka, then transferred to George Town, and eventually ended in Singapore. It would be nice to see Singapore alongside the two inscribed sites in representing the complete trading history along the straits. The difficulty with Singapore, however, is that much of its old district landscape has already been altered, modernized and compromised.

** Visited George Town and Malacca in May 2013

Temple of Preah Vihear: Sacred amidst Tensions

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When I found out that it was possible (albeit near-impossibility at that time) to visit this sacred temple on a day trip from Siem Reap in 2012, I immediately grabbed the opportunity to see it while it was then — once again — enjoying a short “time of peace”. For a very long time in the past, as a disputed territory, the promontory of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its environs have had some serious history of crossfires between the Cambodian and Thai military forces. In fact, a few months prior to my visit, several soldiers from both camps were killed in an unexpected clash.

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The iconic first gopura, which contains some of the most impressive carvings in the temple complex.

Three years after that brave trip, as I look back, it is still perhaps the single most unique experience I have had in visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back then, it took me nearly four hours on a private vehicle to reach the temple from Siem Reap. Given recent road constructions, the travel time is now reduced to nearly half of what it took when I went there.

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The second gopura: the carving style of the pediment is different from the first one.

The Temple of Preah Vihear never failed my towering expectations, to say the least. After all, it was confidently inscribed on only one criterium: “(i) as a masterpiece of human creative genius”. So far, only this temple, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House are inscribed solely on this basis.

The third gopura as seen from the elevated fourth gopura that encases the main sanctuary of the Preah Vihear Temple.

The third gopura: the walkway leading to the fourth gopura prior to the main central sanctuary is dotted with lingams. One lingam near the portal can be seen in this photo.

In my opinion, the temple rightly deserves to be on the same ranks as Angkor Wat and Bayon, if not even better. The incomparable beauty of this site stems from the following:

1. its history – older than those in Angkor, dedicated to Shiva and, according to some sources, is also one of a few that has a history of critical lingam worshiping;

2. its location – situated right beside a cliff, on top of the Dangrek Mountains to a height of nearly 600 metres. From the temple, one can already gaze at the Golden Triangle, an area shared by Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos;

The Infamous Golden Triangle: transnational boundaries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.

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3. its relevance – a major pilgrimage site for Khmer kings, as well as a rare key temple off-route the Angkorian Royal Road;

4. its architecture – the extensive 800m-long layout of the temple is unique, the galleries surrounding the central sanctuary served as inspiration for the arrangement of Angkor Wat 300 years later, and the carvings offer a different style from those in Angkor (notice the style of its nagas, and the impressive quality of its carvings can only be compared to those of the much younger Banteay Srei); and, lastly,

5. the geopolitical struggles and controversies associated with its WHS-inscription in 2008, and the earlier landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1962. More recently, in 2013, another ICJ ruling finally awarded the contested peripheral forest zone of the temple to Cambodia, putting an end to the long-standing dispute between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms.

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As a military zone, several soldiers are stationed in and around the temple complex. A political statement such as that in the photo clearly asserts Cambodian ownership over the promontory and its immediate vicinity.

As the Temple of Preah Vihear lies in an active military zone, it comes, then, as no surprise that not many travelers take the effort in seeing this site when I made my visit. In the five pleasurable hours that I spent there, I only managed to see about three other civilians — who might just be even locals — in the temple complex.

The central sanctuary guarded by a military personnel

The central sanctuary that is guarded by chanting monks. Outside, a soldier is also on guard.

Aside from the breathtaking view from the top, I truly enjoyed receiving blessings by chanting monks guarding the central sanctuary; as well as exploring the interior of the largely ignored vegetated Tower of the Long-haired Lady that is reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Angkor.

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The tower of the long-haired lady, an isolated structure that has been overgrown by plants and a tree.

Clearly, I got the strong impression that the Khmer people are indeed proud of the Temple of Preah Vihear as suggested by the displaying of the flags of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage Committee not far from the first gopura. Such subtle declarations never fail to get noticed.

The temple of Preah Vihear together with its brother temple atop Phnom Chisor in the province of Takeo, which I also got the chance of visiting back in 2010, will always have special places in my heart for the wonderful experiences they have left me. In sum, the Temple of Preah Vihear clearly and easily justified itself as being one of the best single sites I have seen so far.

Just behind the temple: one simple mistake and I am history. The cliff drops to a height of 600 metres.

A view of the plains of the Preah Vihear province. This was taken at the edge of the Dangrek Mountain cliff.

There is no entrance fee to the temple. But, at the base camp, visitors have to pay for the motorbike that will transport them to the top for a fairly reasonable price. On this trip, I also went to the nearby town of Anlong Veng, visiting some ‘Khmer Rouge’ related sites such as the house of Ta Mok and the final resting place of Pol Pot.

The Philippines through the Hands of Ten Filipinos

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A Tingguian bamboo split weaver in the province of Abra in the Cordillera Administrative Region. The Tingguian people, also known as Isneg, are a lowland indigenous people group that traces their ancestry to the much older Itneg group of the highlands.

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Hand of a Tagbanua bird’s nest (an expensive ingredient for an exotic soup) hunter holding a locally-prepared torch used to lighten up the deepest parts of the caves in Coron Island of Palawan. Gathering bird’s nest is known to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The Tagbanua people are sea-dwellers and are some of the first to occupy the archipelago.

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A traditional healer performing “bulo-bulo” (a form of cleansing done by blowing a water-filled glass containing an amulet) to a curious patient in Siquijor. Sometimes, just right after the ritual, foreign objects — such as sand, pebbles, and even worms — emerge inside the glass! This small island is notorious for its history of sorcery, witchcraft and the dark arts.

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A Taubuid Mangyan showing a pipe he made using a bamboo twig and clay with some tribal etchings. These people inhabit the central parts of Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, and are some of the oldest known groups in the Philippines. They have an ancient writing system identified as a paleograph and is registered in the Memory of the World list.

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A local potter in the “Pagburnayan” village in the historic town of Vigan, a World Heritage Site. Pottery was introduced by Chinese merchant-craftsmen who have been trading with earlier Filipinos since time immemorial. The Pagburnayan village is home to one of the longest extant dragon kilns outside mainland China.

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An Ifugao preparing a “moma”, a bettelnut chew in Banaue. The Ifugao are the same people who constructed the world-famous rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras (a World Heritage Site), and are, likewise, the guardians of the “Hudhud” chants (a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity).

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An Iraya, a lowland Mangyan sub-group, making a broom out of tiger grasses in Tamisan, a village on the foot of Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, an ASEAN Heritage Park. Even with extensive and heavy use, these local brooms are known to last for years.

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Hands of a Maranao woman inlaying mother of pearls to a wooden chest. The Maranao people of Tugaya beside Lake Lanao are some of the most artistic groups in the Philippines. Nearly all households in town are engaged in various traditional ‘okir’-based crafts such as wood carving, weaving, brass-ware making, among others.

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An Ilocano showing an heirloom “abel” textile from Paoay in Ilocos Norte. The half century-old textile featured in this photo follows the “sinukitan” technique. Abel are loom-woven textiles that are known for their versatility, sturdiness and creative patterns, as well as the critical role they played during the galleon trade years with Mexico and Spain.

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A Tagalog tourist holding a newly hatched Hawksbill turtle in Puerto Galera, a declared World Biosphere Reserve. The Philippines is recognized by the scientific community as the center of the famed Coral Triangle, a region home to the highest concentration of marine biodiversity in the world.

A Maranao Woman in Tugaya

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Largely unheard of even among fellow Filipinos, the Maranao of Tugaya in Lanao del Sur are some of the most artistic groups in the country. The humble town beside the ancient Lake Lanao (one of the oldest known lakes in the world) is nearly purely composed of artisans in various pursuits.

The lady in this photo was inlaying shells to a newly constructed wooden chest. This, together with weaving local textiles called ina-ol, is one of the few things that women are permitted to do for work in this still gendered community.

Their unique artistic concept of okir manifests in their wood works, metal crafts, textiles, paintings, and even house decorations. The okir happens to be the strongest component in its nomination to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Their epic, the Darangen, is already proclaimed in 2005 as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. 

As it was in the holy months of the Ramadan — in fact a few days before Eid’l Fitr — when I did this site visit for a project, she was on fast since sunrise and made some short breaks from work only at prayer time until the fasting ends at dusk. Such display of obedience and faith never fails to inspire me.