Random Books on “Colonial” towns

Old colonial towns add character to a city. It’s a history lesson you could touch and even smell. I’ve always been fascinated by heritage conservation efforts. How cities has managed to conserve historic structures, leave out old neighborhoods and how communities cooperate to preserve them.

In one of my random visits to the local library I read “Muar: Tributaries And Transitions,” a book about the history of a coastal town in Johore. The project was carried out by students from NUS and University of Malaya. The book sheds light on what was life like in old Bandar Maharani (Muar today) and what it looks like now. I have been to Johore but I have not heard of Muar. Next time I drop by I’ll do so with a curious mind. The heritage mapping part of the book was remarkable—a great activity that deserves to be emulated.

I stumble upon another interesting book about heritage called “Harbin to Hanoi,” a collection of articles about colonial districts in Asia. It’s a great read if you’re studying cultural and cross-cultural influences on architectural heritage. The book discussed the colonists attitude towards their new found possessions. Like how the French abhorred the old city of Hanor—reason why they “attempted to remold it.” It was a place “not to be enjoyed but endured,” according to early French accounts. They attributed their desolation from its unclean environment and its torturous tropical heat. And they were afraid of almost everything: fire, tropical fever, stench, pollution and even stray dogs—realities of native everyday life in Hanoi. All these made them create a blueprint that is based on their preference and taste. There were other factors of course but it’s interesting to know that a colonists ideas of comfort and security greatly influenced town planning. The Vietnamese people had placed great effort in the conservation of these colonial buildings.

Random books on colonial towns

Former colonial towns in Asia are among the most captivating urban environs I have seen anywhere in the world. They embody the merger of west and Asian cultures. The word “colonial” is a misnomer when applied in general as not all were wholly colonialized like Hanoi and Shanghai. A significant observation the book made was how “encounters between the colonizers and local populations also depended on the choice of geographic location,” like how “Shanghai was a trading center on the Yangtze River since the thirteenth century, becoming a major cotton and silk production” during the Ming dynasty. Hanoi was established in the 11th century before the French came. Other cities where literally “built from scratch.” Harbin in China was “a small village when Russia” established the Eastern Railway in Manchuria in the late 1800’s. The British built their modern Hong Kong from “a handful of fishing settlements.”

The book put forward that “building on a sparsely populated location often proved to be an advantage to the colonizers as they did not have to deal with strong resentment from settled local communities with established traditions.” This brings to mind Manila which was captured from the Mohammedan natives in the 1500’s by the conquistadors. Was the native community scattered and disorganized? Was there no cohesive tradition, religion and army that would have been able to repel the invading westerners? Were the leaders and their religion unable to effectively put up a fight that would have bogged down the invasion? The success of the Spanish was not only because they had superior arms. There were other factors that favored them and these deserves to be studied for it reflects our ancestors attitudes when confronted by foreigners.

Another book I had the pleasure of reading was Bridget White’s “Kolar Gold Fields.” It was a “nostalgic journey right from the days of the origins” of the mining town up to its “gradual decline, and its final closure” in 2003. Up until I picked this book up I have never heard of Kolar. White’s book reminded me of Paracale and the stories of Pio Andrade about it. It was once the richest town during its gold boom then sunk right back into being a poor provincial town after big mining left. Kolar was “a small desolate part of south India” that attracted not only the British prospector but “Germans, Spanish, Italians, Scottish, Irish, Welsch” who flocked the town to work its mines. It was one of the first industrialized towns of India. It had one of the biggest golf course, a skating rink, a pioneering sailing club in a man made lake and almost all the conveniences that could be found in England.

“Little England” had a Christian population of 5000 people which was among the highest in that continent during those times. Churches, clubs and associations and educational institutions were built to accommodate its population. When the British left both the provincial and central government tried to run the mines but failed which led to its decline. Sad was even the oldest school which was in operation for a century had to be closed down. Other public services suffered too and the town’s heritage buildings are almost all neglected. All of these makes one wonder what’s the point in taking over towns and enterprises only to lose and eventually destroy everything in the process? Bringing in locals to run things sometimes doesn’t work—we Filipinos know this from experience.

I credit my reading exercise as of late to the accessibility of the local library here. We live just a few blocks from it. I could not say enough praises about Singapore’s library system. They’re open everyday, including weekends, and they close late, 9PM. All these gives people time to drop by from work or school. I would see people returning books in plastic bags. Parents coming in with their children. They have great activities for arts too. Just the other week there were workshops for watercolor painting which I regrettably missed. I wonder if we’ll ever have a national library system like theirs. We’re just not going to have a good future if our children are obsessed playing computer games, watching dramas and noon times show, we have to get them to read!

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November 2014


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