Thursday, January 19, 2006

Malaysian Institute of Architects Buildings

If walls could talk...

By Sager Ahmad

NOT many people know that the stately colonial mansion across the road from the Bank Negara was formerly a noble house and two hotels.

Today, it is the office of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), a restaurant, an art gallery, an animal clinic and a shop.

The minute one steps into the pretty garden of the building, one feels transported back to the colonial era as the interior has neo-classical ambience with touches of Straits Chinese architecture – airy high walls, recessed large windows at the front, a short passage with a round-column "arch" leading to a cosy internal courtyard.

Many Malaysians learned that the building was formerly a hotel only in June 2000, when the New Straits Times highlighted the story of a British woman, Marjorie Bell, who had come in search of the home where she spent many happy years of her childhood having fun and games with her friends. She spent six days walking the city in her search, accompanied by her husband and armed with only an old photograph. It seemed hopeless as apart from the faded photograph, she had no address or any other information. No one recognised the place and a few even suggested that it might have been demolished

Having waited 50 years to return to Malaysia, Bell was dismayed. On the sixth day, while walking at the edge of Dataran Merdeka (near the Royal Selangor Club) she looked up and saw a familiar sight across the busy road.

This was it. Her childhood home – a beautiful, sprawling mansion where Bell lived when she was six years old, together with other children whose fathers served in the British Army.

Despite it being the Emergency (1948-1960), a time when the authorities were at war with the communists, the children spent two years filled with indelible memories.

In fact the mansion has a history as rich as Bell's memories. Built in 1907 by prominent tin-miner and municipal councillor Loke Chow Kit, the place became a town house as well as office for his mining ventures. (Jalan Chow Kit, off Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman in Kuala Lumpur, is named after him).

It designed by Anglo-Indian architect A.K. Musdeen and was known as Loke Hall. Chow Kit and his friend Loke Yew had visited England and must have been inspired to build the house in Regency style.

A European group later bought it and turned it into the Empire Hotel, to house the families of the British Army. Then it was renamed Peninsular Hotel in 1919 but it ceased operations in 1970.

The hotel was just a hop away from the Royal Selangor Club, another favourite watering hole for the early expatriate community.

PAM was given tenancy of the place for an initial two years from 1973, and when the owners tried to sell it for redevelopment, PAM orchestrated a campaign to save it from demolition.

Kuala Lumpur City Hall eventually acquired it and PAM was entrusted with the restoration and refurbishment. Galeri Tangsi was setup in 1998 and the first exhibition was of works by local and foreign artists, including prints by Picasso, Henri Toulouse Lautrec and Bernard Bouffet. The locals included AP Gallery owner-cum-printmaker Rahime Harun and Iskandar Mat Harris Iskandar. The gallery has hosted many art exhibitions since, including one themed "Scream" that was well received by the art community in Malaysia.

The shop and animal clinic next door formerly served as a stable for horses and as a garage. PAM Centre is at 4-6, Jalan Tangsi, Kuala Lumpur.

*articles appear from Travel Times-NST*

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