Bok House: End of a Legacy

KUALA LUMPUR (Dec 15, 2006): The legacy of Bok House or Le Coq D'Or on Jalan Ampang came to an end Thursday, with it crushing all hopes and fervour of heritage activists.

Burning questions now await the authorities that be for allowing something so beautiful and beloved to be forever erased.

The building's roof tiles were the first to be taken down on Thursday morning and hoarding on the Jalan Ampang frontage was put up from 6pm that day. Friday saw the destruction of sturdy pillars which held up the house.

Badan Warisan Malaysia council said the demolition of Bok House, despite persistent and dogged attempts to nominate it as a national heritage, demonstrates its failure in getting its appeal recognised and endorsed by the government.

In a statement Friday, it said: "We had high hopes for the protection of our historic built environment when the National Heritage Act 2005 - gazetted on 31 December, 2005 - was effected on 1 March, 2006."

While the Act was not in the form preferred, Badan Warisan said it was relieved to see a force of law championing the nation's heritage cause and it wrote a letter to the Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Utama Rais Yatim on April 12, 2006 nominating the Bok House as national heritage (Section 68).

"The basis was articulated in an in-depth Statement of Cultural Significance stating its architectural, social and historical values and the persona of Bok House expressed in published public documents, historical essays and other records over the past few decades," the council said.

If the Bok House was a heritage building, it should have been accorded protection under the Act's provisions and would have been gazetted, regardless of financial implications, the council observed and raised these questions:

  • Why was it allowed to be demolished?
  • The laws offer recourse for landowners and if there was objection to gazetting it, the law should take its own course or were there no powers to gazette it?

"We can only presume that City Hall decision-makers approved the demolition and can we also assume that its highest authority would have deemed it expedient to refer to his superiors before making this momentous and unpopular decision?" the council asked.

The council said it was made to understand that an agency of the ministry wrote to the Chua Cheng Bok Estate Trustees on Feb 28, stating that at a Feb 22 post-Cabinet meeting, the ministry decided it was no longer interested to take over or gazette Bok House as a Heritage Building, and did not have any objections to the development proposals for the site.

"If this is the case, we would like to know what the government's definition of heritage is and what criteria were applied for this decision," the council said.

Lilian Tay, a practising architect and a Council Member of Badan Warisan Malaysia, said: "It is a pity that the contractor did not seem to appreciate the value of the old roof tiles which could have been salvaged and used for restoration of other heritage buildings."

Tay, who works near the area, said the loss of the significant heritage building raises question on the effectiveness of the National Heritage Act which was enforced in March.

"Everyone would be very disappointed. We have been waiting for a heritage and conservation act for years, but we are surprised this can still happen with the existence now of conservation legislation.

"There should be no question about the heritage value of Bok House and there are not many of such historical buildings left in the City," she said.

"Besides, gazetting a building does not mean obstruction of development, only that development would be partly restricted or guided to enable the preservation of some essential parts of the building with heritage value," she said.

Tay asked why the parties involved were unable to find a solution to allow the owners to rightfully develop their land yet preserve some part of the building in a way that the public can still enjoy a remnant of the city's history.

The onus, Tay added, lies on the local authority and the Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry in negotiating with building owners in coming up with a win-win solution.

She said Malaysians believe in progress and moving ahead but what perhaps is needed to encourage owners to keep some part of their buildings, is compensation of development incentives such as increased density or building height, relaxed setback requirements, reduced carpark requirements and development charges and other financial or tax incentives.

"City Hall and the Ministry needs to relook at how to deal with the responsibility entrusted on them, and not give the wrong impression to owners that heritage conservation would obstruct development.

"It is very clear that Bok House is beloved in the city but somehow, it is disappointing to note that there are some who do not feel the same way," Tay added.

The fate of Bok House was brought to light in mid-June but on Aug 29, the ministry refuted claims of a development order approved for a project.

Instead, the Heritage Commissioner was reported to have written to the Estate Trustees, declaring the ministry's intention to gazette it as a heritage site.

The Bok House was designed by Swan and Maclaren in 1926 and was completed in 1929 for Cycle and Carriage empire founder Chua Cheng Bok.

Chua and his family lived in the house which was later occupied by the Yokohama Specie Bank in 1942 and later, turned into a boarding house by the British Administration.

When the main house was used as a restaurant including the Le Coq D'Or which opened in 1958 and wound up in 2001, the Chuas occupied the rear quarters which was demolished in 1999.

In 1992, a proposal to the Museum and Antiquities Department to develop a hotel or service apartments was rejected.