Nostalgia for fallen dragonFebruary 4, 2018 @ 9:43AM
By Sulyn Chong
THE enclosed area, including the floor, is painted a pretty shade of teal from wall to wall as homage to the original colours of Razak Mansion’s interior.
Although the artist, Leon Leong, who’s here to walk me through his exhibition, Cracks in the Wall, argues that it’s more a shade of turquoise, I couldn’t help but disagree. But this is probably an argument that neither of us will win, for those walls are now lost in the rubble that once used to be a milestone in architecture and town planning, located just off Sungai Besi, Kuala Lumpur.
“When I first visited it (Razak Mansion) in November 2016, I didn’t plan on staying there for as long as I did. I was there for six months,” confides Leong with a chuckle. Neither had he expected that he’d one day be paying tribute to the public housing project — the first in the country to adopt the walk-up typology — as it meets with its demise to make way for modernisation.
Hung along one side of the wall are Leong’s paintings featuring some of the residents who used to make their homes there and whose hospitality left a lasting impression on him.
The exhibition has been designed in such a way that it resembles one of the blocks at Razak Mansion. The floor area replicates the block’s floorplan with each unit corresponding to a painting of the occupants who once resided there.
“The floor plan was pretty simple back in the 1960s with only slightly over 37 square metres to play with. But it was innovative for its time.”
Leong’s voice is the only sound echoing through the hallowed halls of Balai Seni Negara (National Art Gallery) in KL this early in the morning.
His exhibition, which is located in a secluded corner on the second floor, is one of the many being showcased at the inaugural Kuala Lumpur Biennale 2017, which carries the theme of BELAS or BE Loved that recognises, embraces and echoes societal values. This international exhibition ends on March 31.
A palpable silence suddenly descends as we pause to pay tribute to the now fallen structure and the people who were once housed in it. Every smile and tear, joy and pain, every minute detail on the faces of those whom the artist has immortalised on his canvas tells a poignant story — one that spans more than half a century and across many generations. In silence, we soak it all in.
“This wasn’t something I’d planned,” confides the 47-year-old, continuing: “But something nudged me to do it. It was like a calling and I’m glad I listened. But I’m no hero. It was just something small I thought I could do to preserve what will be gone.”
INNOVATIVE PUBLIC HOUSING
The construction of Razak Mansion dates back to the early 1960s, first under the supervision of architect Eric Taylor and later, S.P. Chow for the city of Kuala Lumpur. The final phase of the site was inaugurated back then by the-then deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who later became our country’s second Prime Minister. He’s also the father of our current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak who has continued the legacy with the construction of the newly developed 1Razak Mansion located on a nearby site.
The public housing comprised 15 blocks of four-storey walk-up flats. It was this feature that gave it its popular Cantonese moniker Sei Lau. Its innovative typology of space, green focus and ventilation would eventually become iconic and replicated across other public housing projects throughout the country.
It also remained as affordable as previous projects thus providing reprieve to the working class and rural folks who had started to toy with the idea of migration to the city, where a new economy was an attraction. The mansion’s unique brise-soleil feature, the French perforated brick walls that block excessive sunlight while allowing ventilation, became a feature that was synonymous with this country’s 1960s and 1970s architectural design.
However, the harsh realities of modernisation and a booming population were to signal the end of Razak Mansion, which is still viewed by many today as an excellent example of modernist architecture.
Owners of the fallen low cost flats were compensated with a unit each at the new 1Razak Mansion project (which comprises 658 three-bedroomed apartment units near the original Razak Mansion flats), while those who didn’t own a unit previously were forced to move to other affordable public housing in different locations across the city.
“There’s a boy called Nazrika, whom I grew close to at Razak Mansion. He has had to uproot and leave his familiar life behind. Although he was quite noisy and disturbing at times, he’s my source of inspiration. Imagine him having to move away from his best friend who lives on the same floor and leave his school behind. It’s very tragic for a little boy,” says Leong.
NEW FOUND FRIENDSHIP
“What I miss the most about the place is the hospitality of the residents. I guess it reminded me of the kind of connections that were built in the village I grew up in, in Ipoh. We were like a big family at Razak Mansion and despite only having been there for a short time, I felt included, cared for and much loved,” confides the affable artist.
His eyes take on a faraway look when he says: “I’ll never forget my amazing neighbour, Makcik Noor, and her Melayu-chic home (all lush rugs and wood-engraved furnishing). She and her husband welcomed me in as if I had always been there. She used to call me her anak angkat (adopted son). They even entrusted me with their house keys one day when they were away and I needed to continue painting their living room!”
Leong adds: “That kind of trust they had with me is something you don’t find in the city anymore. People are just too suspicious and that sense of camaraderie is hard to come by. Their laid-back and carefree attitude somehow reminded me that I needed to loosen up and not be so rigid all the time.”
There were other small gestures that have left an indelible mark on Leong. Such as the time when he was looking for a place to rent and Mr Harris, the chap fan (mixed rice) uncle, helped him locate one within a week. There was also the yok choi (traditional medicine) brothers who remained forever grateful to him just because he helped them paint a new, signage for their shop. “I felt at ease with all of them. Life was just so simple,” says Leong, his voice trailing off.
A Cantonese by birth, Leong says he isn’t one to hanker for the past or appreciate things gone by. “I am not a nostalgic person. Once I move onto something new, I never bother to look back. Every time I get into something new, it will always be bigger and better. Maybe it’s a typical Chinese mentality.”
However, when he moved into Razak Mansion, located 10 minutes away from his current apartment in Taman Desa, he felt a wave of nostalgia wash over him. “I believe it’s more than just a building, or a group of people who have been living there for many years. I was intrigued to find out what it was. I hope I’ve been able to capture it all in my canvas.”
The six months he was there was an emotional roller-coaster, admits Leong. “I can’t even explain it. I had this intense feeling of curiosity which in turn prompted me to find out more about the people who lived there. And the deeper I went, the more I found and the more emotional I felt,” confides Leong. His brows furrowing, he adds: “Honestly, I don’t even know what message I’m trying to convey in my work. I don’t even know for sure what’s right or wrong. But I do believe that there’s always a grey area and my paintings usually come in 50 shades of it and every other shade that’s in between.”
Suffice to say, it’s his most challenging undertaking yet.
“The demolition of Razak Mansion is symbolic of a fallen dragon,” muses Leong, his expression solemn.
“The perforated bricks used to project a scaly shadow just like what you see on a dragon’s back. It was always so majestic.”
The momentary silence that descends between us is suddenly broken by the sounds of thunder and the pitter-patter of rain. Not wanting to be trapped in the building, Leong and I proceed to make our way to the exit.
As we’re walking, Leong confides: “Half the pain of losing Razak Mansion — the people, the atmosphere, the life it held — is akin to the pain of seeing my father dying in hospital all over again and there’s nothing I can do about it. Although I did get to tell him that I loved him, I also knew that I’ll never get him back.”
Tears welling in his eyes, Leong concludes: “I never knew the importance of the past but I do now. Having it entirely erased like it never existed is what gets to me the most. When you erase something entirely, no matter how you talk about it later, it’s just going to be merely words and nothing more. People don’t realise that once something’s gone, you’ll never get it back.”