Progress blurs history and communities, fatally so at Mahakan Fort, but at Valley of Hope in Malaysia, there's still hope
Low Seng Hoa looked at the sketches the volunteers were making of her dilapidated house and kidded them that the drawings weren’t as beautiful as her actual residence.
The artists – actually architects – took the jibe in stride, knowing “Auntie Ah Hoa” wouldn’t say that about their finished Vernadoc, which is the short form of “vernacular architecture documentation”.
Detailed Vernadoc drawings (vernacular architecture documentation) made by volunteer architects could help save the Sungai Buloh “Valley of Hope” settlement, a decadesold community for former leprosy sufferers near Kuala Lumpur. /
Photo courtesy of ASA x SRW Vernadoc 2018
The architects were participating in a recent two-week Vernadoc camp at Sungai Buloh, a settlement in Selangor state northwest of Kuala Lumpur that, in less compassionate times past, would have been called a leper colony.
The goal was conservation, both of the worn-out structures and the community itself.
Professor Sudjit Sananwai, founder of Vernadoc Thailand, led the camp, which had the support of the Association of Siamese Architects, Suriwong Marketing, Hospital Sungai Buloh and the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council.
On the final day there was a Vernadoc exhibition at the settlement, where thousands of recovered leprosy sufferers have lived over the past several decades.
The community is also known as Valley of Hope, part of the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium. Founded in the 1930s, it’s more recently been eyed for demolition. The Malaysian government owns the land, which is zoned for medical purpose, but would have preferred a posh medical hub. A portion of the leprosarium had already been turned into a residence for hospital staff.
“We hoped the exhibition might change the perceptions of the hospital’s management,” said Professor Sudjit after her team had documented a section of the settlement, including six chalets and its Rehabilitation Club.
Vernadoc, which entails careful measurements and meticulous drawings, is intended to raise the “historical value” of the vanishing community.
Unfortunately for residents of Bangkok’s century-old Mahakan Fort community, the tool failed to convince the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) that the residences there were worth saving. After a 26-year battle to preserve the community was lost in the courts, the bulldozers are poised to make way for a park and residents were to have cleared out yesterday (Wednesday).
The community was built along one of the city’s protective walls more than 200 years ago, but the BMA coveted the five-rai site for a showpiece park. Evictions and demolition began even as dwindling groups of residents swore they’d never leave. The BMA cited a 1992 royal decree ordering the land expropriated, and in 2004, the Administrative Court sided with the city.
In a fight for survival, members of the community worked with academics and other experts, trying multiple strategies, ultimately betting their fate on the concept of a “living museum” of history open to the public. Not even the oldest houses could be saved, however.
Sudjit sees comparisons between the Mahakan predicament and that of Valley of Hope, for which optimism still lingers.
In the latter case, widespread public opposition has succeeded in shelving the high-end medical hub. Though portions have already been demolished, a civic organisation formed in 2007 – the Solidarity Group – is still trying to convince the authorities of the site’s heritage value. It was this group that persuaded the government to list Valley of Hope as an example of national and world heritage.
“You can’t just take away 200 people,” said Assistant Professor Teoh Chee Keong of UCSI University’s School of Architecture & Built Environment. He said it’s unacceptable that people who broke free of a serious disease and lived all their lives in a single community should be moved elsewhere.
Homeowner Auntie Ah Hoa enjoys lunch with the architectparticipants in the Vernadoc camp. /
Photo courtesy Soong Khang Wei
Auntie Ah Hoa, 75, overcame leprosy. Her father abandoned her in 1957, but she persevered in her studies, got married (to another former leprosy sufferer), had two children and opened a shop selling plants. All this happened at Valley of Hope.
“I never left and I never wanted to,” she said, apart from vacations abroad.
Until 1962, it was universally assumed that a person remained infectious even after they were cured. Valley of Hope is full of people who were successfully cured and yet never overcame that stigma, particularly the ethnic Chinese who regard the disease as a curse.
The leprosarium was home to more than 2,400 people in its heyday and there are still several hundred. Vocational training in raising plants has long been offered under government subsidy, bringing income and an enhanced sense of dignity. Kuala Lumpur city dwellers make the trek to buy garden plants from the nursery.
It’s a planned town plan, Teoh pointed out, with a market at the centre encircled by residential chalets. The inhabitants feel more humanely treated than at any other time in their lives and they share a sense of belonging.
“It gives a sense of attachment,” said Teoh, but too often the community’s historical and architectural values are overlooked.
According to Tan Ean Nee Tan, a journalist-turned-social worker who joined the community in 2007, the hospital management was initially opposed to its conservation.
Tan has been able to show the administrators a human angle by reuniting the residents with long-lost families. Touching stories emerged. The residents’ struggles were recounted in books, on CDs and in a permanent exhibition in the Story Museum inside the community hall.
“Their perceptions gradually changed,” said Tan, who was recently named to the community council, one of only two members not originally from the settlement.
As perceptions about the community and its history shifted, attitudes at the hospital softened. The medical hub was shelved and the remaining 116 people long cured of leprosy have been given permission to live out their days in the settlement.
That doesn’t mean the community is safe, though. There are 64 chalets surviving from the original 200, and they’re in bad shape.
Last year the council launched a petition to have Valley of Hope conserved under the government’s National Heritage Act. More than 30 international scholars have signed it. Next, the council plans to nominate the settlement for Unesco World Heritage recognition, backed by the Vernadoc documentation.
The process could take years, but Tan is optimistic. The youngest resident cured of leprosy is a healthy 66, she said. The group still has time to win the battle.
WHAT THE ARTIST SEES
- The Vernadoc drawings will be exhibited at Architect Expo ’18 at the Impact complex in Muang Thong Thani from May 1 to 6.