Sunday, March 14, 2010

Timeless in Kuala Terengganu

Timeless in Kuala Terengganu

THINGS tend not to happen quickly in Terengganu.
This never used to be a matter of note — the fishermen of the coast and the farmers of the hinterland have been bound for time immemorial by the schedules of tides and seasons, not annual budget allocations and five-year development plans.

For all the familiar, steady, stately rhythms of Terengganu, though, these days change also seems to happen overnight. The regular but infrequent visitor to Kuala Terengganu sees a magic-lantern show of change: a stop-motion animation of frozen frames.

Flying into KT’s Sultan Mahmud Airport just two years ago was all the more spectacular for the splendid view of the then spanking-new Stadium Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, completed just in time for the 2008 Malaysia Games, on its showcase site in Gong Badak.

Today, arriving air passengers see the RM300 million stadium in the same state as it was on the morning of June 2 last year, when the east awning crashed down on the (thankfully, empty) tiers below.

The roof collapsed barely a year after the stadium’s completion. Almost as much time has elapsed and it’s still wreckage: empty, silent; as frozen in time as a broken clock.

The Crystal Mosque shimmers in the night on Sungai Terengganu.

A similar desertion afflicts the RM250 million Islamic Heritage Park on its 23 hectares of Pulau Wan Man in the Sungai Terengganu estuary. Here stands the famous new Crystal Mosque, along with scaled-down replicas of 21 other iconic examples of Islamic architecture from around the world.

Not all of them are places of worship, however, which makes of the Crystal Mosque something of an anomaly. Viewed from the village across the river it is also a theme-park centrepiece, and this sits uneasily with the religious sentiment, deeply rooted here, of transcendent humility.

And so the grounds of Pulau Wan Man are empty too, save for the occasional busload of package tourists. But even they are absent from the Ri-Yaz Heritage Marina Resort & Spa on Pulau Duyong, where the echoes of visitors’ footsteps on the gleaming floors bounce like trapped birds about the cavernous spaces.

Built for the Monsoon Cup sailing regatta in 2005, these premises have since come alive but once a year with the moveable feast of the Swedish Match Tour circuit. Otherwise, they lie fallow. The ground-floor retail outlets are empty; the terrace café serves warung food to random sightseers; neighbourhood children fly kites in the parking lots.

Moored at the Ri-Yaz marina is a wooden schooner of traditional Terengganu perahu besar design, being fitted out by its German owner. He is hoping someone will buy the vessel, into which he has sunk a million dollars and a decade of his life, but which he now has little hope of operating himself.

Pointing out the cabinetry and carved teak panelling, he laments that the skills for such work are vanishing. “The master doesn’t want to work any more, not even to teach his apprentices, and the apprentices are no good.”

Pulau Duyong is indeed quieter now than it was a generation ago, when the riverine isle was a gamelan of hammering and sawing amid the fragrant wood shavings and sawdust of 30 boatyards. Only three remain.

Last weekend, work proceeded desultorily on just one boat. (It was a blooming beauty, though, the graceful curve of its hull sanded smooth as a woman’s cheek, its raw wood glowing ruddy in the hard and angled light of the afternoon sun.)

The expertise and labour for such work is harder to find now, and more expensive. Although demand for the boat-builders’ services remains respectable, and despite late-breaking fame having quadrupled fees, prospective clients grumble of reluctant workers and declining skills.

A measure of prosperity has come to the Terengganu coast, and any working fisherman knows the finest thing money can buy is leisure.

It was a shame, the German skipper said. Ten years before, he had thought getting his schooner built in Duyong would help boost this unique and valuable Malaysian artform among boating and sailing enthusiasts the world over. But it had emerged that enthusiasm was easier to raise among foreigners than locals.

Perhaps that was why the Monsoon Cup, Taman Tamadun Islam and even the Gong Badak stadium, the broken bird’s nest, were built for people coming to Terengganu from elsewhere.

Sound enough in theory — the Terengganu designed by God Almighty remains serenely beautiful, with its high blue skies, starry nights and clean sea breezes — but nothing has turned out as planned. These places are not drawing the people for whom they were designed and built.

Perhaps they were the wrong people. Perhaps these things should not have been erected to outlandish specifications on reclaimed sand, but rooted in Terengganu’s traditions of cultural continuity and craftsmanship of such mastery as has endured for centuries.

The wind sighing in the stays of the shrouded skiffs at the deserted marina, the tide rising and falling alongside the empty promenades of Pulau Wan Man — these remain the same.

Also recognisable is the steamed fish at Restoran Tian Kee — but that venerable eatery used to be on the Kampung China waterfront, and now the water is invisibly distant across another wide strand of reclaimed sand, awaiting some other startling new thing to materialise from the silent, shadowed void.

- NST Online -

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