Towards the end of my teenage years, I relocated to a contemporary Malay kampung in Ipoh – Kampung Sungai Rokam, situated roughly 6km from the Ipoh Railway Station. The name came from a fairly large-sized river that wound its way through the village. From what I recall, the houses in Sungai Rokam reflected the social standing of its occupants, ranging from pretentious stone and brick mansions to humble, modest sized dwellings. Coincidentally, the second house in Ipoh where I lived, which my dad named Istana Wazirul Akzam was located in Taman Golf, a stone’s throw away from Kampung Sungai Rokam.
The architecture of the houses in Kampung Sungai Rokam were pretty much ‘standard’ affairs. Wood and concrete were the main material. The house featured at least two entrances, a main one in front and up to three or more in the rear portion, usually for the sleeping areas and the kitchen. The house was divided into three main areas, the verandah and reception, the scullery and the sleeping area. A passageway (sometimes called the selang) is the short passageway linking them.
For the raised floor of the main structure,
The front verandah is where it lowers,
The elevation then shifts towards the scullery,
Where it is raised a level in the Telo Tengah.
(from Tenas Effendy’s Rumah)
Some houses also seal the lower level (where the stilts are) to convert the space into a basement or store. As the temperature here was slightly lower than the rest of the house, it often served as a welcome respite from blazingly hot afternoons. The majority of kampung houses are designed locally, and it is not surprising that the rest of the village helped out with the construction itself.
My neighbor was none other than Malaysia’s most recognizable cartoonist – Lat. He was seldom home as he worked in Kuala Lumpur, and the house was occupied mostly by his mother and his younger brother Mamat, himself a character in one of Lat’s cartoon series. Mamat had something which not many Sungai Rokam youths had – a turntable, a cool stereo and several psychedelic avant-garde albums. Many afternoons were spent with Mamat and his LPs, but only when his mother wasn’t home, as she hadn’t quite gotten used to the peculiar and otherworldly noises emitted by Mamat’s esoteric taste in music.
Like the Istana’s Balai Rong Seri, the ‘Ruang Muka’ of a kampung house is where all notable events, such as weddings and kenduris take place.
The staircase’s collar latches onto the threshold,
Its head rests beside the door frame,
Its stair-treads set in tiers and layers,
Where the Adat ascends up high,
Where heritage treads lightly down,
Where heel dust is scraped away,
Where feet are washed and cleansed.
(from Tunas Effendy’s Rumah)
Significant events, like birthdays, Hari Raya and weddings are a time of getting together for the family and friends. Participation, it goes without saying, is practically obligatory.
A place where kinfolk gather,
A place where the wise and sagacious confer,
A place where the learned and pious chatter,
A place with Adat and Keturunan.
(from Tunas Effendy’s Rumah)
The actual construction date of the istana is unknown. However, blueprints indicate that the building was designed sometime in 1922, so it can be surmised that the building it at least 90 years old. The first occupant of the istana was my grandfather, Sultan Abdul Aziz, then the Raja Muda.
Its architecture was reminiscent of a European-style ‘Classical Revival’ villa with a central entrance doorway fronting a columned portico and features such as a grand balcony, pilasters and joist with stucco epistyles and arched windows. The lower floor comprised three sitting rooms, one reserved for VIPs, a bar, a bedroom, a dining hall and a barber’s room. In the early 70s, an unexceptional but functional ‘cubist-inspired’ wing comprising four rooms was added to the original structure. Three units were used as bedrooms and one as the Raja Muda’s office. Despite modifications made to the old wing to accommodate the new, the disparity in architectural style of old and new was still obviously apparent, when viewed from either the front or the back of the building. Still, several parts of the old wing retained their original designs.
A traditional Malay house usually starts off with the rumah ibu, its size growing in accordance with the number of its occupants. A florid description of the features of a traditional Malay house is found in Rumah:
That which has undulating doors,
With tall fretwork windows,
With cross-timbers and Anjung Tinggi,
With Selembayung and Sayap Layang,
With Perabung of Kuda Berlari,
With lathe-turned outer window railings,
With pierce-work inner window trellises,
Its gable wall in layered tiers,
Its fascia set in waves,
With orchards and yards.
The istana was vacated sometime in the late 1980s and has never been occupied since. Rumors of rejuvenation and adaptive reuse never materialized, and it is has been left in a sorry state of disrepair, all vestiges of its former glories literally extinguished. Because local laws and regulations prohibit a direct demolition of these significant buildings, the old istana has been left to slowly crumble.
In an age of modernist architecture, the expertise, wisdom and lore involved in the construction of a traditional house is almost a dying skill. As the reader can deduce from the Rumah poem, the painstaking precision and curious rituals involved in the construction makes it an anachronistic oddity, out of place with today’s cut and dried methods. The emphasis on minimal ornamentation, and metal and concrete, is the complete antithesis to the kampung house described within the stanzas of Rumah. While one stresses a cold and clinical emphasis on usability, the other juxtaposes aesthetics with function, culture with form, and superstition with religiosity.
All is not lost however. The lessons contained within the Rumah poem are still relevant, not just from an architectural perspective but from a humane one as well.
- The End -
Written by: Y.M. Raja Abdul Razak bin Raja Muda Musa