Subang Airport circa 1965 Image source: Ron Pratt via KLAF
‘The Merdeka Interviews’ by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong is a poignant tribute to the modern architectural wonders of the country in the pre-independence era. Architect ANG CHEE CHEONG tells us about the importance of architecture in the Merdeka Era and its legacy.
On the importance of the architecture in the Merdeka Era
In my field as an architect, the idea of grounding, of context, plays an essential role in practice. What is this ground beneath my feet, how do I belong and where do I fit in? After some time away from pursuing my education, and simply by growing older, I began to wonder about the idea of home, of this country I called home.
In many ways, returning home with new knowledge made what was formerly familiar, strange. I wanted to have a better idea of my country, and in the following years, a sense of casual curiosity arose. I began looking at the city somewhat more closely than I had before.
Malaysia was inaugurated and launched from the moment [of her independence] to larger progressive ideals and universalist aspirations, which makes ours a nation born of modernity. However, layer after layer of Kuala Lumpur was being erased and consigned to fragile memory in the rush towards some notion of progress and profit. [Upon my return], the threads that bound the contemporary [architectural landscape] with the moment of our origination in 1957 were already slowly and surely being severed like an umbilical cord.
I recall the demolition of Subang Airport with an enveloping sense of loss and some despair. Subang was for me one of the earliest definitions of an architectural project announcing the arrival of our nation, a building I innocently admired and played in as a child.
Together with the remaining structures of that moment; the Masjid Negara, Parliament House, and the two stadia, [Stadium Merdeka and Stadium Negara] — the architecture of Merdeka retains a waning yet persistent presence, reminders of an architectural golden era that I would argue has never been repeated since.
“I recall the demolition of Subang Airport with an enveloping sense of loss and some despair. Subang was for me one of the earliest definitions of an architectural project announcing the arrival of our nation, a building I innocently admired and played in as a child.”
On the lack of discourse surrounding Malaysian architecture
The dearth of thorough historical research and publications to provide clarity and illumination in this area added to the incoherence and opacity. Architecture as it was taught then and now, in almost every school here and beyond, starts from a line drawn in antiquity towards the modern period and is heavily premised on a western axis.
Thus the void and amnesiac oversight only compounds the difficulty for the development of a Malaysian architectural discourse, which would have aided in a better understanding of the country itself. [I felt that] there was a need for a more concerted effort towards the reporting and retelling of our historical architectural narratives, beyond the trite platitudes offered from misuse of fact and fiction.
From this instinct and developing obsession, a new line of interest and inquiry resulted. In 2017, I led a team of likewise curious individuals towards the research, curation and presentation of an exhibition entitled ‘Manifest: Modernism of Merdeka’.
The show, part of the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2017, delved into the architecture of ideas, dreams and forms that shaped Malaya in that period of historic transformation.
Manifest explored the significant relationship between architecture and nation-building and sought to reproduce the tableau of modernity as a realised speculative vision. That project was made possible with the assistance of one of the few specialists in this area, Dr Lai Chee Kien, my collaborator for this book.
On the making of The Merdeka Interviews
I first met Chee Kien a few years earlier. Friends had suggested that we meet years before but circumstances only allowed an introduction in 2015. I was familiar with his ‘Building Merdeka’ publication and exhibition in 2007, and a friendship developed through a common interest in the specificities and peculiarities of architecture, and other rather strange things.
In one of our many conversations, Chee Kien itemised the voluminous materials (termed the mountain!) that he had collected for his doctoral research thesis which formed the archives for this project – texts, drawings, documents, photographs, first-day covers, site diaries, stamps, postcards, brochures, etc. And the tapes – audio tapes resulting from interviews with the surviving individuals featured in this book, whom he travelled the world to seek out.
In late 2016, we explored the possibility of working together to publish the interviews. We both readily agreed that a book of interviews would allow the subjects to be heard in their own voices and resonances. We thought this an important undertaking as we both believed in the power of the interview medium and the role publications play.
We had completely underestimated the demands of the book and its production. At various points, this book was planned around a selection of seven interviews, then enlarged to 12 interviews over several volumes, then down to a two-volume set. In the end, we settled on a single volume containing all 17 interviews and in their current structure. The project took on more significance as we realised that we had to ultimately finish the work in order not to let down the many architects, engineers and artists who had given time and occasion to speak of their experiences, the roles they played and their accounts of what transpired. In the hundreds of hours of taped conversations, there lied the aural testimonies to much that was previously unknown and unacknowledged.
On the legacy of the book
To pursue a history is to search for commonality. While this book sets out to reconstruct the context of the period, the discussions establish a deeper context from which the reader will be able to locate new understandings and discoveries.
In the current perpetually circular discourse of identity, participation and equity, [the book]
underpins the notion that architecture is derived from its contexts and from it, also forms new scenarios. Malaysia as a nation, a concept, and just over six decades old is not altogether an epoch. There are new chapters to be written, new stories to be told and I hope that the book will be an effective text for those wishing to understand further our independence and the history preceding it.
On the Kongsi Women
As we were reviewing the materials one day, Chee Kien and I stumbled upon the vital and critical role played by a group of hitherto unheralded and unacknowledged participants. A surprising, silent yet uniquely important group of committed and tireless contributors — The Kongsi Women. Surprising, in that they were the ordinary women on the frontlines of our nation-building, absent and unrecognised in the texts and records.
Today KLAF2018 launched a publication, "The Merdeka Interviews : Architects, Engineers and Artists of Malaysia's Independence" by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong.At the launch, Ang and Lai presented a startling observation to the gathered audience, that the architecture and nation building project of Merdeka owed a great debt to a group of unacknowledged and tireless contributors; faceless individuals who each collectively laid the foundations of the nation. And to these silent participants, a belated appreciation… #TheMerdekaInterviews #KLAF2018#PAMpublications #pertubuhanakitekmalaysia
Posted by Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival on Monday, 2 April 2018
If you were to look at the section dedicated to the Kongsi Women, you’ll find that over 60% of the workers on construction sites were women and these women played a big part in building the country. The reviews from the interviewees were unanimous – they were ‘strong, talented’ and ‘the buildings couldn’t have gone on without them’. It is to this group of unnamed women, the ‘lai sui mui’s’, here collectively known as the Kongsi Women, and also the ordinary men that laboured on the muddy fields to build a new future, that Chee Kien and I have dedicated this book.
‘The Merdeka Interviews’ by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong is available at most major bookstores in Kuala Lumpur and online at www.pamonlinestore.com.
This article was originally published under the now-defunct ‘Think City Channel’.