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The mortality of heritage

Angkor Wat - Photograph: Wikipedia

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Our universal humanity is reflected in our common yearning to be able to relate and return to something, through a path illuminated by the different heritages we claim ownership of, says Nicholas Chan.

Angkor Wat - Photograph: Wikipedia
Angkor Wat – Photograph: Wikipedia

I always loved the title Unesco World Heritage Site. It implies civilisational heritage as one that should be rightfully shared not by some, but all of humanity.

That is why I watched in contempt when the Buddhas of Bamiyan was destroyed by the Taliban, and gnawed my teeth at stories of museum-plundering in war-torn Middle Eastern countries which are supposed to be the Cradle of Civilisation.

But is this romantic idea of universal humanity and collective history really true? As a born and bred Penangite, I don’t think quaintly, colonial George Town would mean the same for me as compared to, let’s say, a US tourist.

So, how can history be seen as a common heritage without any pride or prejudice from people divided by many heritages? What is the importance for us in stressing such universality of heritage, ultimately pointing towards the infallible fact of history that everything converges in the beginning? What is the practicality of it other than from a story teller’s perspective? Can such monuments of the past resolve our differences or is it merely a documentation of our divergence?

Backpacking such questions, I set off to Cambodia to become one among flocks of tourists to witness the ancient citadel that is foreign yet familiar, thanks largely to the popular media (remember Tomb Raider) and vacation advertisements. Angkor Wat with its swelling popularity is no doubt THE world’s heritage, but does it feel like my heritage? That is something I need to find out to set as a precept to examine the concept of heritage itself.

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At first glance, the pilgrimage to the temples by visitors of diverse nationalities seem to augment my fantasy about universal humanity and collective history. But observations and conversations with the people whom Angkor should have meant the greatest paints a starkly different picture. I found it perplexing that, despite enviously enjoying free access to the temples, the locals regarded these monuments of the past more as a territorial feature than as places of veneration and reflection as would be expected.

It is as if the temples were in their initial state before their excavation by French explorers, blending nicely and quietly into the habitat as indigenous elements of the landscape. All the magnificence of the Khmer architecture in carving out huge man-made reservoirs did not seem as appreciated as compared to its functionality as a natural bath for the locals seeking respite from the scorching heat.

No doubt the importance of the temples of Angkor Wat (and also Angkor Thom) is tightly intertwined with the Cambodians because of the thriving tourism industry. My observations, however, lead me to believe that Angkor did not serve a nostalgic purpose as much as George Town does to young and old Penangites. The people, by large, did not view the Khmer Empire as a place to return to.

As far as a documentary I stumbled across by chance tells it, a misguided and futile attempt to reinvigorate such dreams came at a grievous cost. The Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, mistakenly taking the vast network of channels and reservoirs as indicators of the Khmer Empire as a successful paddy planting agricultural empire, sent millions of people to hard labour in hopes of restoring the agrarian utopia. Hundreds of thousands died of overwork, malnutrition and disease but the dream was never realised as the climate conditions of Cambodia and poor irrigation design back then proved insurmountable.

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Nevertheless, it would be absolutely ignorant of anyone to blame the Cambodians for their indifference towards the remnants of Angkor without understanding the historical circumstances for it. I have learned (and I stand corrected) that with the abandoning of the Angkor Wat during the Siamese invasion in 1431, memories of the Empire faded with the people of present Cambodia, like a forgotten city swallowed by the forest.

It didn’t matter that, at its height, the Empire controlled most of Thailand and even northern Malaya under its control. Subsequent periods of colonisation and civil wars naturally wouldn’t be conducive for historical soul searching. As I was told by my tour guide, the history of the kingdom only formed a small part of their history curriculum. More diligent tour guides would have to resort to their own devices to brush up their knowledge and satisfy the curiosity of the tourists.

What is clear to me now from the visit is that heritage like many other things, no matter how majestic, is just an artificial construct. Put in anatomical terms, it is like an arm. It can be dislocated – albeit painfully – or even brutally maimed at will. Malaysia is certainly not alien to this as the state and religious apparatus has been fervently erasing or downplaying the varied cultures and histories of the Malay race (which has a vividly rich heritage) to serve their onerous purpose of hegemony.

It also explains the frailty of heritage in the face of inter- and intra- state actors. Although unthinkable for proud Penangites currently swamped by a tide of pride after George Town’s recognition as a Unesco World Heritage site, this living remembrance of our past, like all memories, may be easily forgotten and erased and rendered meaningless by a replacement narrative.

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The cruel fact that strikes us is that with or without a particular heritage, life will inevitably move on for the people. The beauty of heritage does not lie in the eminence of it but in our humane efforts to presenve it.

I suppose this is what universal humanity means: our common yearning to be able to relate and return to something, through a path illuminated by the different heritages we claim ownership of. This paranoia of losing our past can be easily found in the restlessness of Penangites in the face of landscape-changing development projects.

This is understandable because as we start to take for granted our past, there is a great chance we might also take for granted the prospects for our future too. For heritage is more than a history textbook; it is the solid footing a nation builds its identity and prosperity upon.

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