By Dr Fiona Wong E Chiong, Lecturer at the Department of Art, Design and Media, School of Arts, Sunway University
Cultural heritage, as I understand it, is the inheritance of living traditions that encompass everything from history, practices, expressions, values, places to objects of a community or society from past to present, passed down from generation to generation.
Cultural heritage is considered an invaluable resource and a cultural legacy of a people, nation, and country received from the past, brought to the present, and carries on to the future. It connects members of human society as a whole, as one.
UNESCO recognizes two types of cultural heritage: tangible and intangible. Tangible cultural heritage includes not only artefacts and objects, but also historic or archaeological sites, built structures, monuments, graves, and cultural landscapes.
Intangible cultural heritage, on the other hand, is referred to as “the non-physical characteristics, practices, representations, expressions as well as knowledge and skills that identify and define a group or civilization” (UNESCO, 2010).
This includes language, oral histories, beliefs and practices, rituals and ceremonies, customs and traditions, music and dance, art and crafts, among others.
Sustainable Development Through Preservation
My first encounter with local cultural heritage was when I embarked on my postgraduate journey with a reputable conceptual artist and art critique, the late Redza Piyadasa.
Under his tutelage, I rediscovered the multiple facets and developed a deeper understanding of Malaysian and Southeast Asian arts and culture.
One of the most unforgettable experiences and an eye-opener for me was when I began researching on the late 19th- and early 20th-century Malayan Chinese shophouse façades in the country by travelling to every major town in Peninsular Malaysia (West Malaysia), capturing thousands of shophouse façade photographs in my fieldwork.
Sadly, many of these historic structures have ceased to exist. The old two-story shophouses in many towns and cities in West Malaysia, with their brick structures and fire-walls, presented in an assortment of colours and varied stylistic designs, embellished with beautifully crafted relief plaster images that are symbolic in meaning and portrays the syncretism of the Chinese, Malay and Western cultures, reflecting the people’s lives and aspirations of that time.
With the demolishing and destruction of old historic structures as more lands and newer structures are being developed, we are wiping out a part of our past, stories, and values.
Historic preservation is, therefore, a form of residential development which maintains its value and appeal on already developed land. From the social and ecological perspectives, preserving these older structures would benefit communities in a multitude of ways.
These cultural heritages are architectural narratives of who we are and remind us of how far we have come as a nation, and offer to mean to the present and future generations.
By preserving our architectural heritage, we could lessen our dependency on new materials for new building projects, and even save energy from manufacturing activities.
It is evident that cultural heritage creates unique tourist attractions for a place or country which in turn creates jobs and spur economic growth for its people. Preservation and restoration create skilled jobs which increase surrounding property values and encourage development of communities within these areas.
Future-Proofing Our Society
I met Professor Dato’ Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, an internationally and locally renowned expert and scholar in Malay traditional theatre, who inspired me to embark on the highest degree of academic pursuit, and research.
My in-depth research on the Kelantan shadow puppets led to my realization that traditional puppet-making craft was becoming extinct along with the diminishing of the Kelantan shadow play performance, or known as Wayang Kulit Kelantan.
From the visual appearance of the puppets to the characterisation and representation of the characters in the story, I observed and analysed the different design styles of the puppets made by several reputable puppeteers (dalang) in Kelantan.
The performance, as well as the craft, are regarded as intangible cultural heritage in our country which are passed on—by way of oral tradition—from teacher to apprentice, from one generation to another.
I also delved into the research on other traditional art forms such as batik, woodcarving, kite-making, among others.
I am keen to explore the peripheral areas and topics relating to the arts and crafts of other cultures within the country, such as the Ramayana characters represented in the shadow puppets, as well as the Malaysian 24 Chinese festive drums.
In addition, I researched local cultural heritage particularly associated with my Chinese cultural roots as well as my birthplace, Sarawak (East Malaysia).
Being fascinated with the intricate motifs and symbolisms embedded within the indigenous Dayak tribes’ cultural beliefs and living traditions, I have also presented papers on these topics at international conferences and produced research creations of illustration works portraying such themes using digital or mixed media in both local and international exhibitions.
What I have learnt and gained from researching on these various cultures is that each has its own philosophies, personal perspectives and problem-solving methods which helps widen our thinking as an individual and a society.
In the present constantly technology-driven and evolving world of work, we see higher demand and pursuit for technological, social, emotional, and cognitive skills.
Through immersing in cultural heritage, once could draw important cognitive skills such as critical thinking, agile thinking, storytelling, creativity, and imagination which would future-proof our society.
I believe in continuous scholarly research and incorporating my knowledge into my teachings to the younger generation as a means to contribute to the sustenance and preservation of our local cultural heritage.
However, as a community, society, and nation, perhaps more government funding and more collaborations with stakeholders such as property developers and tourism players could render more support and efforts in preserving our cultural heritage.
“Our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our nation.” – Nelson Mandela
Dr Fiona Wong E Chiong is a lecturer at the Department of Art, Design and Media, School of Arts, Sunway University. She has been teaching for almost two decades in tertiary art and design degree programmes.