They say that when one door closes, another one opens. In the case of the long standing Rumah Pusaka Chow Kit, or more fondly known as Rumah Degil (the Stubborn House), it was decided that the entire house, door and all, be taken down and rebuilt in a location where it can be preserved, appreciated and protected.
This story is one that began way back in 1926, when the house was built on Chow Kit Road, but was only told when, in 2013, architect KC Tan was brought in to design a new building in place of the house. When he arrived on site, he was intrigued by it and had a feeling that there must be more to the two-storey Malay house that still stood its ground in the middle of other brick and mortar three-storey shoplots that surrounded the lot. Although he had a plenty on his plate at that point in time, he knew that something needed to be done and roped in his cousin, James Chong, as they had both grown up in the area.
Chong immediately got to work and reached out to two key people who would later prove integral to the project. The first was Fatulrahman Ghazali, known as Fatul, who worked on a short documentary on the house in 2007 – it was there that the term Rumah Degil was coined. The 11-minute video explored the story of the last inhabitant of the home, Norma Manjawali, known as Nenek Norma. She had been living in the home since the 1930s, right up until the time the house was sold to make way for the office building that Tan was brought in to design.
The second was Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, a conservationist who, in 2013, had written a paper on the founding of Kuala Lumpur and how it was linked to an individual by the name of Sutan Puasa, who had arrived in the city in the 1830s and, subsequently, had four generations of his family live there. At the very end of the paper, it mentioned that one of the last legacies of Sutan Puasa was a lone Malay house on Chow Kit Road and, as fate would have it, Rumah Degil was that very abode.
“We had a look at the house and it was not your traditional, grand old building, but it had a certain charm, an understated one. For it to stay there for so long without being turned into another brick building took a lot of guts,” Chong explains.
As the years went by, more people began to involve themselves in the effort to save the house. In 2015, it had to be dismantled and the contractor that had initially gotten in touch with Tan graciously agreed to do so without a fee, and they all pitched in for the rental to store the wood from the house. The cost to do so rose over the years and they finally gave themselves an ultimatum – if nothing was to be done with it by June 2017, all efforts would have to cease.
“We had been trying for two years and the escalating cost was making things difficult. We gave it one last shot and put up posts on it on social media, and this got the press’ attention, and the historical value of the house made it even more valuable. There were many interested parties and we even had offers to rebuild the house in Penang, but that would have defeated the purpose as this house is part of the heritage of Kuala Lumpur. Finally, Jabatan Warisan Negara (JWN) contacted us to express their interest in working with us.
“We have to give them credit because, as a body, JWN is tasked with preserving the heritage of the country and it has so much to work with. This, however, was a first for them – their usual work consists of preserving buildings that are in place, and this would be the first time they would be rebuilding an actual piece of property. They officially acquired it in September last year,” Chong continues.
It was then decided that the house would be rebuilt in Balai Seni Negara and the initial team would take a step back and take on a consultancy role, led by Tan.
SLOW AND STEADY
Although the ending of this story is a happy one, it was not always the easiest journey to be on through the years. For most, the outcome seemed pretty bleak in some stages, but their intention of preserving one of the remaining pieces of the city’s culture and heritage was stronger than the seemingly unending roadblocks.
“Persistence pays,” Tan smiles. “When you have a strong desire to get it right, you have to be stubborn enough – like the house itself – to do what it takes and you have to be resourceful. After we were aware of how important it was, it was about how we could leave a legacy for the next generation. We did a remarkable job of saving this house, which is not even a century old. When the people around us started to lose faith, I told them that the moment people see the significance of what we are doing, it will become priceless. Just have faith.”
For Fatul, who had been invested in the comings and goings of the house for the last decade, the theme of survival was important to him. “It was a good opportunity to see how many people loved the house, its survival and even Nenek Norma’s story – there is so much to be told. It is also an opportunity to tell the story of Kuala Lumpur, even though it is not a very old city if you compare it to many others in this country. I want to make sure the story is told in the right manner to the next generation. It’s not about who did what first, but about telling it right,” he explains.
TALES OF THE CITY
The house is now in its initial stages of being rebuilt and is slated for completion at the end of the year. The following year will see the release of a documentary by Fatul, which will focus on the founding of Kuala Lumpur – complete with behind-thescenes footage of the efforts to save the house.
“There are always recorders of history at different points of time, where writers put down what happened and it becomes something that people will refer to in the future. What Fatul is doing is similar: the video may not be historical now, but 20 to 30 years down the road, I can foresee people who intend to study history will be watching his video as part of their work,” Chong gushes.
“We all love the house – what it represents, rather than what it looks like. It is the embodiment of a few things – our city’s past, how our forefathers there lived, an actual physical milestone in its short history and, most importantly, the spirit of defiance and resilience of the city and of a single lady right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur,” he continues.
“The house deserves to be preserved. There are often times you look at something and think ‘if only’, but in this situation, we decided to act on it. We wanted to know, at the end of the day, if things didn’t work out, at least we gave it our best shot. Often, we hope somebody else would do it but, sometimes, we realise maybe we are that someone else.
“So we did it. We did not have the money, but we had our areas of expertise and a bit of time. We didn’t do it expecting financial gain, fame or recognition – we did it because we believe what we saw should be preserved and shared with others. This reward is something money can’t buy, and is something that stays in the heart because it came from the heart.”
TEXT GRACE LIM
PHOTOGRAPHY ROBIN LIEW
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW
LOCATION JAO TIM JAMES CHONG