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“The Day Bok House Died” December 16, 2006

Posted by elizabethwong in Heritage, Malaysia, Readings.

Demolition in progress, 15 December 2006 copyright Badan Warisan Malaysia

(Note: An Open Letter by ‘Badan Warisan Malaysia’ or Heritage of Malaysia Trust.  Photos are from BWM. Emphasis and annotations belong to the poster) 

After labouring to promote a specific law since the early 1990s, Badan Warisan Malaysia had high hopes for the protection of our historic built environment when the National Heritage Act 2005 (NHA) – gazetted on 31 December 2005 – was effected on 1 March 2006. Albeit this Act was not in the form Badan Warisan would have preferred, but finally, there appeared to be a force of law which would champion of the nation’s heritage cause.

On 12 April 2006, the President of Badan Warisan wrote to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage nominating Bok House as national heritage as provided for under Section 68 of the NHA. The basis for this nomination was articulated in an in-depth Statement of Cultural Significance which clearly stated its architectural, social and historical values – and which referenced the persona of Bok House expressed in published public documents, historical essays and other records over the past few decades. This request to the Minister was to be an acid test on the effectiveness of the NHA.

We have pursued the matter rigorously after the law was enforced, using all means open to us in seeking the opportunity to explain to all levels of government the unique position of Bok House in Malaysia’s national heritage continuum.

The demolition of Bok House, despite our persistent and dogged attempts, sadly demonstrates our failure in getting our appeal recognized and endorsed by Government.

Bok House, morning of 16 December 2006 copyright Badan Warisan Malaysia

Let us ask one simple and basic question which must be at the forefront of everyone’s minds – is Bok House a heritage building?

If the answer is yes, then it should have been accorded protection under the provisions of the NHA, and in this event, protection would have been in the form of gazettal, regardless of financial implications. Why then has it been allowed to be demolished? If there was objection to its gazetting, the laws of the country offer recourse for the landowner, and logically, the law should be allowed to take its own course. Or were there not powers to gazette it?

We can only presume that the decision-makers at Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) have approved the demolition. Can we assume also that the highest authority in DBKL would have deemed it expedient to refer to his superiors before making this momentous and unpopular decision. DBKL could not but be aware that Bok House, and its future, was already an issue, expressed not only in a letter from our President to the Mayor, but in the innumerable letters, and public discourse in the national press? It is a subject within the public domain.

In the final analysis, can we assume Bok House has been deemed to be NOT a heritage building?

We have been given to understand that an agency of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage has written a letter to the Trustees of the Estate of Chua Cheng Bok on 28 February 2006 – precisely one day before the NHA came into force. Supposedly the letter stated that at a post-Cabinet Meeting on 22 February 2006, the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage decided it was no longer interested to take over, or, to gazette Bok House as a Heritage Building, and it therefore did not have any objections to the development proposals for the site.

So, if this building which is of such great historic prominence and provenance has been deemed by the authorities not to be a Heritage Huilding, Badan Warisan Malaysia would like to know what the government’s definition of heritage is and what criteria were applied to arrive at this decision.

Sadly, we cannot but come to the grave conclusion that the demolition of Bok House within the first 12 months of the life of the NHA is an omen of things to come.

The Council of Badan Warisan Malaysia
15 December 2006


1. Geovanni - December 16, 2006

It’s really a shame in our so called “Cultural Rich Malaysia”.

2. freelunch2020 - December 16, 2006

is it too late?
what can we do??????

3. sam - December 17, 2006

Heritage? What heritage? If heritage is on those fella’s minds… KL will be a much interesting place to stay and visit.

4. Seri Naga - December 17, 2006

How sad! It’s really a nice building. This leave me guessing, why enact such laws when it’s not enforced?

5. sage - December 18, 2006

I love this image; very poignant, thank you for sharing!


6. Ali Imran - December 18, 2006

it makes me physically sick looking at people who blatantly destroy something so beautiful as that. It is as bad as destroying our forests. What a bunch of w**kers. Turning it into a restaurant, art gallery or even a club or bar would’ve been so much better. Makes me so angry!!

7. 蔡正木故居006 « 大题小做 - December 18, 2006
8. 蔡正木故居005 « 大题小做 - December 18, 2006
9. ram - December 19, 2006

Hi guys,

Its a terrible shame – really , but if this were a Minangkabau house with a Malay historical legacy , it would have been a different story. I do not mean to bring this issue up but it is happening all over already. This is a racial country, whether u like it or not this had no significance to the authorities because it is a Chinese mansion, that truth simply will not go away – we should all publicly and continually shame Rais Yatim and state our displeasure in this horrid act.

I was in Victoria Institution during the 80’s and the Ministry at that time had proposed to change the name to Zaaba or something else as the reason given was that it was not a local name and that we should embrace local sentiments, we all protested as all of us were not going to buy this nonsense from a Ministry official whom dismissed historical significance and legacies.

My point is detractors of history fear the significance of past historical culture as it has no meaning for them, this attitude is prevalent in decadent societies…e.g – Taliban(who bombed statues).This clearly indicates the level of education and maturity as a society, we are but a retrogressive society in some aspects.We have much to learn and grow before this silly fear of history is embraced for what it is – a celebration of cultural diversities and beauty.

If you Do Not Stand for Something then you will Fall For Anything , Stand for the TRUTH , that’s all we have sometimes as a culture !

10. Just call me 幽子~ » “能”对比。 - December 19, 2006

[…] 更多情看: “The Day Bok House Died” @ elizabeth wong。 Last remnant of bok house @ elizabeth wong。 The Final Moments of The Bok House @ smoothriver.net。 Thank You For The Fond Memories @ Jerry’s Alter Ego。 […]

11. peranakan - December 22, 2006

It is indeed sad to see such rare beauty gone to the wind. There are so few Malaysian-built pre-war bangalows standing now and hardly any that can be compared with Bok House. The house represented an ingenious blend of classical and Malaysian architecture that was built by a local Malaysian. Cacosa Sri Negara, if to be equated, however was built ty the British. Sad indeed to see it gone …….

May I request that a full scale picture of Bok House be posted so as to keep its memory kept under this blog? Thank you.

12. kervinchong - December 23, 2006

Rais Hitam’s response that there was no cultural and historical value for Bok house is a farce. If age is deemed to be the only criteria for deeming something worth conserving many important heritage buildings will be gone. The ministry must realise that histroy encompass any time period past of the present and significance is not only measured in age but in the case of bok house, its identity to Malaysians, the property of a Malaysian who through rag to riches made his fortune and can be of inspiration to future generations as well as its architectural and social role in Malaysian heritage. It is a shame and sad day for Malaysia that monetary interests once again fell an important heritage component and another monotonous modern skyscraper will take its place. KL look set to become a sterile and monolithic cultural desert in the near future. this so near after the fracas where public opinion was taken lightly to the siting of a new tower in the cultural and historical district of Malacca, the culture and heritage minsiter should step down for failing in his role of heritage protection and promotion.

13. tapele - December 23, 2006

To Mr Ram (Dec 19), I don’t see anything to do with race or creed. Just down the road, if I recall correctly, there is one similar type mansion that has turned into a restaurant (Saloma restaurant, I believe). My opinion of Bok building is, it neither looked Chinese nor Malayan but rather European with Roman-style columns. But whatever it looked like did not matter. As long as it was built during the olden days, it IS CONSIDERED HERITAGE. The trouble with Malaysia today is, many Malaysians are simply NOT interested to give FULL SUPPORT to the various organisations involved in preserving heritage buildings, or whatever some people choose to call them. In the U.S. one must admire greatly the painstaking job most Americans put to preserve even their great-great-grandparents’ tableware, laces, furniture pieces up to this day! Talk about tearing down just ONE block of row homes & they are all up in “arms” – that is how much they care for old buildings. And their support of heritage organisations is simply tremendous. Organisations involved in heritage buildings must work alongside Malaysian people to get them involved in the fight for preservation as well as the love of it. They must give full backing in order to help the respective government officials see it in a better perspective. Organisations & the people are what make things work here in the U.S. Hopefully the same will work in Malaysia too.

14. pango - December 23, 2006

How come it was DBKL that did the demolition? If the property is privately owned, shouldn’t it be done by the current private owner? Hmmm ….. ????

15. Pat Tey - December 26, 2006

Heritage is deemed by the malays who have it all to easy. It is general knowledge their shallow mindedness and tidak apa attitude is contributing to the so called Malaysia Boleh culture. So, Malaysia Boleh tear down what they consider not important. Maybe Rais pocket is so heavy that his mind is ‘adjusted’.

16. undergrad2 - January 21, 2007

This is not about the preservation of buildings of ‘historical’ significance – heritage and all that shit!

It is about dollars and cents and someone profiting from the destruction of this old building associated with the early years of Kuala Lumpur. It is too expensive to let it remain. It is as simple as that – it is all about economics, and not history!

Stuff it!

17. The I’mPerfect Mom » 50 years: Time for change - March 12, 2007

[…] how buildings of heritage are being torn down for big […]

18. martin - August 13, 2007

As a history buff and frequent visitor to KL, part of me has also been traumatized by the razing of the Bok House as one of only a few grand monuments to KL’s prewar days.

At the same time, I notice that contributors to the thread above tend to blame the government. Certainly the heritage ministry seems to have given in to pressure from private commercial interests too quickly and easily. But who were these private interests? As far as I understand, it was the direct descendants of Bok House’s original owner who insisted on demolishing the house and were asking for RM72 million to preserve it.

Obviously the grandkids and great-grandkids of the Chinese tycoon who commissioned the building back in the 1920s cannot see beyond the “revenue per square foot” equation. Where was their patriotism? If they were not at all driven by a sense of Malaysian-ness, then surely the idea of preserving a grand slice of KL’s Chinese history, and especially their FAMILY legacy should have meant something?…

And if this wasn’t the case, where were Malaysia’s dozens of Chinese billionnaire tycoons? The Robert Kuoks and Lim Goh Tongs who built fortunes on import and gambling licenses, and whose business empires now criss-cross the world? Where were the developers who keep choking KL with more and more, ugly/minimalist malls and condos, stripping the city of its character and slowly turning its architecture into a B-grade version of Singapore/Hong Kong?

The government, as lethargic as it may have been, cannot be the sole protector of a country’s heritage, and throw dozens of millions of taxpayers’ money on every endangered Tragic events such as the death of the Bok House are the result of hundreds of decisions, made and unmade, values and attitudes of elites, businesses and ordinary citizens. The obsession with money, as demonstrated both by the owner’s family and KL’s biz community, clearly was the No.1 factor that broke this heritage building’s back.

19. Art Martin - September 1, 2007

One of my favorite thngs when in KL was to eat at the Bok House when it was LeQDor. The place was steeped in cultural history linking current Malaysia with British Malaya. It is sad indeed that this icon is gone.

20. Johnny - January 5, 2008

Malaysian government is STUPID….one word says it all

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