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Restoration of Rubber Smokehouse, Malaysia (shortlisted 2008–2010)

The city of Lunas is a small two-road township, near Penang; it is situated in the Kedah district of mainland Malaysia. Lunas has a multi-ethnic community that consists of the majority Chinese, as well as minority Indian and Malay populations. The town was established at the end of the 19th century to service the rubber plantations; it therefore reflects Malaysia’s broader history of colonialism, plantations, and migrant populations (Mostafavi, 2011b). The rubber industry was of vital importance to the country’s economy for much of the 20th century, thus the Lunas Rubber Smokehouse is a prime example of Malaysia’s colonial and industrial heritage. Lunas’s economic decline, due to the drop of rubber’s global price and the introduction of synthetic rubber, has been reflected in its present impoverished physical circumstances.

For the smokehouse restoration project to work effectively, it had to be rain-proofed; this is very important in Malaysia’s tropical climate and daily downpours as water dilutes latex and lowers its quality and price. Smokehouses were traditionally single-storey timber buildings, with corrugated iron or asbestos pitched roofs, a large door on one side of the building, and no windows. However, unusually, the Lunas smokehouse is built of both brick and timber and consists of three storeys that required an exceptionally large volume of latex sheets. Reinforced concrete was used as a structural core at ground level to support the timbered upper levels that carry the weight of the rubber sheets. The building roof was made of corrugated sheets of asbestos (Barakat, 2010). After operating for decades, the Lunas smokehouse finally closed sometime in the 1980s, after which it stood abandoned and under the constant threat of demolition.

In 2005, DiGi Telecommunication sponsored a corporate social responsibility programme to celebrate Malaysia’s diverse cultural heritage. They asked the public to nominate five “Amazing Malaysians” who have made a special contribution to cultural heritage. Kedah’s heritage architect Laurence Loh was nominated; Loh was asked to propose a project that would involve schoolchildren. In response, Loh called for the preservation of the abandoned smokehouse because of its culturally significant characteristics (Barakat, 2010). He highlighted the structure’s architectural uniqueness, in which its peculiar eclectic column system, a pair of columns with a Roman capital and a Siamese base, held up the roof.

The project converted the abandoned rubber smokehouse built in the early 1960s in the small township of Lunas in the Kedah district, just east of the border to Penang State, into an interpretation centre (museum) (Figure 3.11). The museum now houses a permanent exhibition showcasing the history of the rubber industry with a specific focus on the architectural and

Restoration of the Rubber Smokehouse, Lunas - Kedah, Malaysia, by Laurenc

Figure 3.11 Restoration of the Rubber Smokehouse, Lunas - Kedah, Malaysia, by Laurence K.Y. Loh urban history of Lunas itself (Barakat, 2010). The project involved children between the ages of 10 and 15 from three ethnically segregated local schools, Chinese, Indian, and Malay. The schoolchildren participated in cultural mapping and videography training every weekend for three months. One of the aims of the project was to teach the children about the importance of intercultural and interfaith tolerance. They were also shown how to document and interpret their cultural inheritance by gathering and recording oral histories of the town (Mostafavi, 2011b). While the main programme objective was to increase the residents of Lunas’s awareness of their past and to highlight the importance of intercultural tolerance, other key project objectives including preserving an important example of Malaysia’s industrial heritage, addressing cultural barriers and polarisation between ethnic groups, and encouraging youth empowerment.

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