Call it nostalgia or call it a self-awakening, but Asians are rediscovering the value of their architectural heritage. From ancient police courts in Shanxi, China to forest temples in Thailand, from colonial quays in Singapore to the brick kilns and iron smithies of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, the word is out that preservation is in.

In the well-maintained Palace of the Winds, a beautiful facade of bay windows once concealed court women watching goings-on in the street below.

The urge for profit and a misconceived notion of progress have always been the past’s main enemies. In the rush to replace the old, to build modern nation states with improved infrastructures and social programs, urban preservation was seen as a hindrance and preservationists as sentimental obstructionists. The money to be made from real-estate dealings paved the way for entire historic districts to be razed, with anonymous public-housing projects and groves of featureless, private high-rises springing up in their place. Improvements in road systems, while helping traffic flows, have also spelled the end for many outstanding heritage sites. One imminent victim of plans to build an expressway close to the Siam Square district of Bangkok is the Jim Thompson House, named after the American responsible for almost single-handedly reviving the Thai silk trade. The complex of wooden buildings that form the nucleus of the canal-side house were transported from Ayuthaya in the 1950s and have been part of Bangkok’s cultural itinerary for years.

The economic slowdown of the 1990s, which affected urban projects in countries like Thailand, provided a temporary respite from the fixation on development at all costs and a window of opportunity for preservationists to make themselves heard. Now, Asians are realizing that older neighborhoods not only provide an attractive backdrop to their lives, but are part of a cultural identity that is increasingly at risk from Western-style modernity.

Asia does have some good preservation models. In India, the palaces of the maharajas and princes of Rajasthan in northwest India are an example, albeit an exceptional one, of how buildings can be put to good use, serve tradition and at the same time turn a decent profit. In the early 1970s India’s “royals” became financially accountable for themselves, losing their rights, privileges and the state-provided system of privy purses. Reluctant to sell off their inheritances, and desperate to maintain the substance of their threatened titles, Rajasthan’s aristocrats hit upon the idea of turning their rambling palaces, with their lush gardens, hectares of rooms and whole households of servants and attendants, into luxury hotels. Some early attempts at conversion were only partially successful: Journalist James Cameron, visiting the Ajit Bawan Palace in Jodhpur in the early ’70s, described his room as having been “apparently furnished by the Public Works Department.”

Things soon improved, however, and Rajasthan now has some of the best hotels in India, including some quite unique ones, like the floating palaces on Lake Pichola in Udaipur, much appreciated by those who stay there or just visit for afternoon tea.

A nicely weathered old storefront in the Little India district

Another Indian success story is Jaipur, a city whose magisterial architecture, fashioned from sandstone, rose and honey-colored stone, was designed by the warrior-astrologer Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh in 1728. This walled city, a unique synthesis of Jain, Hindu and Mughal styles, is bisected by broad avenues. But the orderliness of the city, which is broken into nine zones symbolizing the nine divisions of the universe, has been disrupted by a population increase of at least 1 million in the past decade. Fierce competition among traders for sidewalk space saw the virtual disappearance of Jaipur’s historic verandas, shaded walkways forming a contiguous frontage to shops in the old quarter and originally designed for pedestrians. City officials evicted the illegal traders last year, then had the covered colonnades and arches cleaned and restored. This success has led authorities to plan other renovation projects, including the restoration of the Jal Mahal, an 18th-century water palace at the heart of a man-made island currently being used as the town’s urinal.

The key to successful preservation efforts seems to be the ability to anticipate what buildings or areas are next in line for the wrecking ball. In Hong Kong, concerned grassroots groups have been able to head off plans to raze what’s left of the ancient walled villages of the New Territories and replace them with housing estates and factory plants. In Bandung, an Indonesian Art Deco city built by Dutch colonists, an organization calling itself the Heritage Foundation has saved several buildings from demolition and sparked public interest in preservation at the same time.

Yet basic misconceptions about “heritage” still persist. Hotels are a good example of the liberties sometimes taken in its name. The Raffles Hotel in Singapore underwent a long and much-publicized renovation, only to emerge with a shopping mall that purports to be part of the original. The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, although intact, has had a monstrous new high-rise annex tacked on to the rear of the original building.

A good half of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang’s Georgetown Hotel, — built in 1885 by the Starki brothers, who commissioned the construction of the Raffles and the also recently renovated Strand Hotel in Yangon — has been redeveloped. A row of colonial-style bungalows next door to the hotel were also bulldozed by developers who claimed that they wished to build a “heritage hotel” on the spot. Elsewhere in Penang, a city where descendants of Chinese, Indian, Burmese, Arab, Western and Indonesian immigrants live side by side in shop-houses, colonial bungalows and old Anglo-Indian mansions, a law controlling rents and protecting tenants’ rights has been dropped, raising the specter of eviction. Renovation can also have unintended consequences. While the Penang Heritage Trust has saved some buildings by turning them into galleries, museums and cafes, the renovations have increased their value, which in turn has attracted well-to-do outsiders to those areas; some concerned groups feel this could threaten established neighborhood communities.

For many city planners, preservation is analogous with the promotion of tourism. The expectation that quaint old districts will generate profits — that heritage can be retailed — can turn once vibrant streets into mere cultural props. Singapore, which has spent millions of dollars to reverse the trend toward building more and more of the featureless glass and steel buildings that have repelled so many visitors, is an interesting case in point. Much of historic Singapore disappeared in the years after after independence. In the scramble to build new roads and large-scale housing estates, whole areas representing examples of a strong colonial and indigenous architectural heritage were destroyed. It was only in 1989 that the government, alarmed that the city state’s cultural heritage was about to vanish and linking demolition directly to the decline in tourism, finally implemented a preservation program.

Strict preservation laws have helped to save what remains of Singapore’s once extensive Chinatown but, strolling around the district, with its spruced up shopfronts, brightly painted facades, tourist cafes and immaculately swept streets, one must question how successful this restoration has been. The city’s efforts to save Chinatown illustrate that preservation combined with the profit motive can smother a once vibrant neighborhood. The result, more of than not, is gentrification, a kind of architectural taxidermy.

By contrast, Singapore’s Little India district, with few of the preservation grants or other marks of official approval that have helped to embalm Chinatown, is a healthy, bustling organism. Conspicuously untidy, its shop-houses spilling over with merchandise, its restaurants crowded with customers eating off banana leaves, it is a far cry from the souvenir shops, boutiques and designer cafes of Chinatown or the shopping malls of nearby Orchard Road. The existence of Little India in the midst of a counterfeit version of the past is a reminder that heritage preservation is not a beautification program, but an effort to preserve and protect a way of life.

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