Local government development minister Nga Kor Ming tried, on July 18, to explain the mystery behind the vanishing Taiping market but only managed to further fuel suspicion.
Taiping residents and heritage lovers feel there’s more to it than meets the eye in the wake of Nga’s explanation that the dismantling of the oldest wet market in the country was part of its restoration process.
“During the restoration process, it is necessary to dismantle and rebuild some sections to restore (the market) to its 19th century architectural splendour.”
This contradicts what he said early this year. On Jan 14, Nga said renovation work, which began in January 2021, was taking time because the government wanted to maintain the market’s unique features.
“It took some time to design the market. We cannot simply tear it down and rebuild,” he had said of the two buildings making up the market, one built in 1884 and the other a year later.
Now he says the original plan was to dismantle and rebuild.
Taiping residents I spoke to are wondering if the authorities are hiding something from them. Some are asking if the two buildings had to be dismantled due to incompetency or poor supervision on the part of the Taiping municipal council or others.
One resident told me: “If one building had to be dismantled, I may not be suspicious. But both buildings were dismantled at the same time at the height of restoration work and that makes me suspicious.”
Some residents want to know if the best possible experts and contractors had been employed to do the restoration work or if cronies had been given the task. Some are even wondering if this may not be an excuse to use the prime land for some other purpose.
This is because residents saw the superstructure remain intact while restoration was proceeding from 2021 until April when the two sites upon which the market stood became flat, except for a very small section of one building.
During my visits to Taiping last year and early this year too, I saw restoration work in progress with the superstructure for both largely wooden buildings intact. In fact, a large part of the restoration work on one of the buildings appeared to have been nearing completion.
When I visited Taiping last month, I found both buildings flattened and only the portion that was once the siang-malam food section still standing.
I understand that a dilapidation report was prepared by an architect before restoration work began.
A dilapidation report is an independent assessment of the condition of a property giving details about repairs that need to be carried out to restore the property to its original condition. It includes the unforeseen or unintentional impact of construction work on the infrastructure and its surroundings.
If the superstructure was crumbling or the foundation was weak or had rotted, it should have been mentioned in the dilapidation report. I was told by a source that this was not the case and that is why restoration work proceeded. I’m still trying to confirm this with the architect concerned.
One of those who is puzzled by the suddenness with which the two buildings were dismantled is Taiping Heritage Society president Yeap Thean Eng.
“As far as I know, the authorities were supposed to restore the two buildings without tearing them down. The iconic buildings are more than 100 years old.
“Residents are concerned about what is going on and so are we because it was supposed to be restoration not rebuilding. It has become an emotional issue for Taiping residents.”
He noted that the market had been serving residents from the early days of the establishment of Taiping town and had been in use every single day.
“My friends have been contacting me about it and I don’t know how to answer them,” he told me.
Asked if he knew what had happened, Yeap said: “We did enquire (from the Taiping municipal council and others) about why the entire structures were brought down. We were told the beams below ground were rotten – either due to termites or wear and tear – and that the main pillars were unable to hold up the structures.”
Yeap said the council did engage the society and other NGOs in talks before restoration work started. At these meetings, which were also attended by professionals, it was proposed that a dilapidation study be undertaken and all procedures for restoration of heritage buildings be strictly followed.
“But then this happened. If rules were broken, whoever is responsible should be held accountable. Action must be taken if it was due to someone’s fault or negligence,” Yeap said.
He hoped the contractor doing the work would adhere to all the proper heritage conservation laws. “I hope they do a proper job of putting it back and that we will see the old design maintained when they rebuild the market. Residents won’t accept a modern design.”
Resident Ainol Ahmed is another of those who are suspicious of the sudden dismantling of the Taiping market.
Ainol – who is one of countless residents who saw work progressing well on the two buildings and then, one day, found the structures gone – has reason to be suspicious.
She told me: “When I was in my late teens, my brother-in-law Mustafa Kamal , who was a municipal council engineer, mentioned that the council intended to tear down the market and convert it to a parking lot and there was nothing he could do about it.”
An angry Ainol wrote to the New Straits Times and Malay Mail in order to bring attention to the inane proposal. Not long after, she was contacted by someone from the office of Muzium Negara director-general Shahrum Yub to say he would like to meet her.
“I can’t recall the exact date as it was a while ago. Anyway, Datuk Shahrum came to my house and spoke with me. He assured me that my letter had brought the planned destruction of the market to the notice of the antiquities department and that the market had now been gazetted as a national heritage building. He said it would never be destroyed.”
Now, however, the national heritage building has been destroyed.
Businessman Mohaideen Mohd Ishack is also upset over the sudden disappearance of the market.
“My shop stands right next to the dismantled market and I’ve been doing business here for about 70 years. The market was a landmark and tourists came to Taiping to see it.
“The authorities keep saying they want to preserve or conserve our heritage, our old buildings but then they go and do something like this. So, what is the heritage preservation you are talking about?
“Taiping residents are upset about what happened. The authorities should rebuild the wet market as it was prior to the start of restoration work.
“We don’t want the authorities to use this as an excuse and put up some other structure here or sell the land to some developer. We want the Taiping market to be fully restored and according to the original plan.”
Mohaideen said the market had a long and colourful history and was an integral part of the lives of Taiping residents – especially those living or working near it and those who used it – for more than a century.
In the early years, it was the central meeting point where people would exchange news and gossip as they did their marketing.
“It still was for those who came here to do their marketing. I am sad but I have to accept that the market has been dismantled. However, I hope it will be rebuilt exactly as it was before, and it must remain a wet market.”
But going by what Nga said on July 18, I’m not sure about whether it will still remain a market.
The minister was reported to have said: “(Rest assured) it will be preserved, rebuilt and made into a ‘tourism product’ in conjunction with Taiping’s 150th anniversary as a heritage town.”
I wonder what he meant by ‘tourism product’. I guess Taiping residents will be kept in the dark until, one fine day, the minister or the council decide to reveal it out of their loving kindness and graciousness.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.