Sharing Saved Stories Saves Identities

loading A pre-war shophouse in Kajang.

Tales of Kajang’s history link its peoples together.

Lee Kim Sin.

Whenever Malaysians think of Kajang, they think of satay. People come here to eat satay, and in turn, satay shops here have expanded to other parts of Malaysia.

“Well, satay is one part of Kajang’s history,” says Lee Kim Sin, 64, as we sat down to a meal of what else but sticks of smoky chicken skewers dipped in spicy peanut sauce.

It is admittedly a delicious heritage.

Relatively few, though, know about the other parts of Kajang’s history, or that its tin-mining past predates KL. Many don’t realise that Kajang still has beautiful pre-war buildings where the old trades still flourish.

Fondly addressed as Cikgu Lee, this former teacher said even locals don’t really know these stories. Not surprisingly so, as these tales are hardly told, at least not until Lee put together his Kajang Heritage Centre 18 years ago.

“I started it as a research project of sorts because I had found so many old stories from the local people, and I also tried to collect artefacts before they were thrown away,” he says.

History has always been a passion for Lee who grew up in Lembah Bujang among the historical candi. He credits his social science courses as an undergraduate at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang for stoking that interest.

He moved to Kajang in 1986 to work as a teacher, and liked it so much that he stayed on even after leaving the profession in 1996. He was also the Kajang assemblyman for a term but is no longer active in politics.
His interest in a history gallery, however, had less to do with history than it has to do with community building. Local history, he thinks, can bring people together when it focuses on stories of the places in which they live. These stories link them, give them pride in their homes and, perhaps, may inspire them to do something for their homes.

Art installation in Kajang.

Street art in Kajang.

Local history can bring people together when it focuses on stories of the places in which they live. These stories link them and give them pride in their homes.

The Kajang Heritage Centre started in 2000 as an ad-hoc gallery in a meeting room in the Merchant’s Club, funded by the Federation of Chinese Associations in Hulu Langat.

In 2015 it moved to its own space after the New Era College students in Kajang helped to create a new exhibition based on their cultural mapping project.

The students interviewed local residents and tradesmen for their stories, and researched the architectural history of the town centre. Since then, other student groups have undertaken similar projects and, increasingly, Lee is working to branch out to other community activities including interfaith events, and environmental awareness and youth projects.

The space has been used for interfaith talks, history seminars and also permaculture workshops. Last year, a lively Kajang heritage carnival was the highlight of their calendar.

Children playing with traditional toys.

Lee’s cramped gallery is reminiscent of an old-style curiosity cabinet filled with a quirky collection of items. Locally made aerated drink bottles rub shoulders with lumps of tin ore, next to a large antique plaque. In one corner is a stash of homemade toys made from string and a flattened bottle cap, stacked on antique furniture.

Lee will be more than happy to tell you the stories of these items, and of Kajang’s place in the tin mining route of central Peninsular Malaysia. There are stories about the local Malay community, the Mendaling and Javanese community, the Chinese and even the Americans prospecting for tin.

Interfaith talk.

The Kajang Heritage Centre is one of the older independently funded heritage galleries, and it’s in good company. Lee fished out a pamphlet listing the Chinese-related heritage centres around Peninsular Malaysia (36 on the list), and acknowledges that this isn’t complete by any means. And not to mention the many galleries set up by other communities.

To Lee, it is a search for identity. “I would call it an identity crisis! As society gets more educated, they become more conscious of their identity, and anxious that the younger generation should not lose their cultural heritage,” he says.

It doesn’t help that official accounts of history do not resonate with many. Their stories aren’t part of that official narrative – at least not in the way that they saw it. These small heritage galleries, he says, tell the stories of local histories which, when combined, tell the larger story of Malaysia.

“People have the right to tell their own stories, and everyone sees a different picture,” he says.

Lee doesn’t view it as being divisive in any way because knowing one’s own personal and cultural story often leads to reaching out to create a sort of enlightened multiculturalism. The search for identity starts with history, and leads to building linkages with those who share this story, and in this case, the story of Malaysia.

People gain stronger pride in their homes when they know these stories.

Exhibition set up by New Era College students.

These little galleries do make for interesting halts around the country, giving visitors a reason to stop a while in towns they would normally zoom by. They are a fun way to discover the stories of local places, and to see how similar we are in so many ways.
Such galleries don’t often get a huge number of visitors, unsurprisingly. That doesn’t faze Lee, who regards his gallery as more of a community hub, and a place for the local people.

The local government in Kajang, however, sees its tourism potential. It has expressed interest in setting up a regular Kajang heritage walk to create more tourist-related activities, especially as the town is now conveniently linked to KL by a new MRT train line that whisks people here in half an hour. The Kajang Heritage Centre is barely a two-minute walk from the MRT station.

Perhaps, soon, people may make their way here for more than satay!

Carolyn Hong lives in Ba Kelalan sometimes, in KL sometimes. A former journalist who once chased the big stories for a regional newspaper, she now hunts for the small stories in Malaysia’s smallest places.

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