A city without history
Writer: Wong Chin Huat
Published: Fri, 23 Mar 2012
I love Berlin for her history. You don’t have to go to the Brandenburg Gate, Berliner Dom or Charlie Checkpoint to feel it. It’s everywhere in the city.
Just around the corner, in my neighbourhood U-Bahn (underground) station, Fehrbelliner Platz, you can find photos of the train station in the 1900s.
As I travelled in the city every day and marvelled at her charm and the Germans’ achievements in the past seven decades after the end of World War II, I couldn’t help remind myself of the history of the city.
The roads that I walked on were previously used by East Germans (if in the old East Berlin) just some 22 years ago, or by Nazi Germans just some 67 years ago, or by Weimar Germans some 90 years ago, or Prussians some 150 years ago, or by Napoleon’s invading army just 206 years ago.
The list goes on and on for the German capital city that was built in the 13th century, which now includes some older small towns like the picturesque Old Spandau.
History is not pleasant for the Germans. Many still feel guilty for what their forefathers had done in the war. And many former East Germans had to deal with the pain of betrayal by families and friends who spied on them as informants for the communist one-party state.
Typical of Central-Eastern Europe, Germany has had countless changes of boundaries. Many places that were historically German (of course non-German if you go back in time a bit further) are now foreign land.
Remember the great philosopher Immanuel Kant? He was from Konigsberg, then the capital city of Prussia. You still find the name of Konigsberg in Berlin’s train stations, but for the wider world now, it is called Kaliningrad, Russia.
Once the backbone of the German Empire, Prussia has now completely disappeared from the Germany map. The old territories of Prussia are now partly Lithuanian, partly Russian and partly Polish. Only Brandenburg remains in Germany.
My point is: history is messy. It is bitter-sweet. It disturbs you. And it can make you cry. But you can’t live without it. A city without history is a metropolis without soul.
Running away from your past will only haunt your present and future. Erasing or distorting history is denying your soul of memories.
Unlike the Japanese whose war criminals were revered in the Yasukuni Shrine, the Germans only have a solemn memorial for the Holocaust victims and a fascinating museum for the persecuted Jewish.
War. Peace. Human Rights. Nationhood. Philosophy. Art. Culture. Walking on the streets of Berlin gets me thinking of all these.
What gets you thinking when you walk on the streets of Kuala Lumpur? Do the street names mean anything to you?
Have you stopped by the bridge on Lebuh Pasar Besar, looked at the beautiful Masjid Jamek and reminded yourself that is the cradle of our city?
Have you ever thought of who walked on Jalan Raja Laut a hundred years ago? Who was Raja Laut anyway? For one, I don’t know much about the son of Selangor’s third sultan.
Have you wondered who was there in the colonial Coliseum Restaurant on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (then Jalan Batu) to talk politics about 60-70 years ago?
Among those who were there was Dato Onn Jaafar, the organiser of the demonstration and civil disobedience campaign who also founded Umno. Nothing in the restaurant now points to the corner he and his friends sat. I found out about this only from his biography by Ramlah Adam.
Well, so, who is Haji Abdullah Hukum? This leader of the Kerinchi community who now has a village and a LRT station named after him. And who is Chan Sow Lin, and who is Thambypillai? Have you thought about this when you drive through the roads named after them?
We know so little of our city, not because our city has only about one fifth of Berlin’s age, but because the city does not evoke our recollection as we cannot wait to erase those bygone days.
Forget about mansions like the Bok House or the soil of Dataran Merdeka.
As if the city does not have enough shopping malls, we can’t wait to tear down the walls of historical Pudu Jail.
Sometime ago, developers wanted to turn the green lung which housed eight cemeteries and crematoriums into another commercial district. There is nothing we can’t sell or won’t sell.
I am annoyed every time my foreign friends praise the Petronas Twin Towers, as if that is the most beautiful thing in town.
I was therefore thrilled to see thousands of Malaysians flood Jalan Sultan on the eve of Chap Goh Meh. This was no ordinary Chinese New Year celebration officiated by your ministers and whatnots.
The lantern festival was organised by artists and community groups to protest against the acquisition of Jalan Sultan for the Mass Rapid Transit project.
The participants wanted the MRT to use an alternative route which would go beneath Jalan Cheng Lock without affecting the historical houses on both sides. They invited the prime minister to come and listen to the public voice.
He did not, probably believing that the protest would end the same way as the Pudu Jail demolition protesters. After all, they say “Malaysians mudah lupa”.
Among the protesters was a kompang team from the Kampung Pantai Dalam community, who fought off acquisition by standing together. A teacher from the kampung said it so well: the Jalan Sultan heritage does not belong to only the Chinese community. It belongs to all Malaysians.
Well, according to conservationist Teoh Chee Keong, the street was named after Sultan Abdul Samad when he travelled from Klang to Kuala Lumpur. He was housed on the hill, near Stadium Merdeka now. The hill was called Wong Kah Shan, which would be Bukit Raja in Malay, and incidentally, Konigsberg in German.
We probably won’t have our Immanuel Kant if we can’t wait to do away every Konigsberg we have to – sometimes just to build an ugly 100-storey Mega Tower.