When living in a big, sprawling city like Kuala Lumpur, it is easy to feel small. The buildings dwarf anyone navigating their way around the city, each taller and shinier than the last, their towering peaks lost in the clouds and the glare of the sunlight. That is, at least, until you take a trip to the KL City Gallery and stand in the darkened room, observing the whole of the Klang
Valley stretched out before you, the Twin Towers mere inches high, and the 200-year-old raintrees that gather around Merdeka Square seemingly minute in the shade of the lofty office blocks.
"Every city should have one,” declares Andrew Lee, the man responsible for KL's only scale model of its own environs. “It's the past, present, and future together." He gestures to the crystal towers sitting amid the careful coloured buildings, all hand-assembled and fitted with lights. “The crystal ones are future buildings before construction has yet begun; we will make them coloured when they are completed.”
It will be, one assumes, a never-ending task as the city continues to develop – “My model makers have a job for life!” Andrew laughs - but it was the past and not the future that first attracted Andrew to the model-making life, and it was an interest that took hold when he was still but a young boy, growing up in Chinatown.
While his father was cooking steaks for the British, Andrew was roaming the streets, wide-eyed in wonder at the old buildings and their intriguing architecture. “I was always observing," he remembers, “and was so interested in the heritage of the country. I took photographs, and when I compare my photos to the way it looks today...?” He trails off and shakes his head sadly.
A CITY PAST AND PRESENT
Andrew is passionate about preservation, especially in reference to the architectural heritage of old KL, and he fumes in frustration as we speak about the grand colonial mansions and palaces that were lost in the rush to develop the city in the boom years. "We never protect, never preserve, never announce these wonderful buildings." he laments. It is this frustration that drove Andrew to suggest, in a meeting with the Mayor of KL, that he might take the lease of the old printing press on the edges of Merdeka Square and open a gallery that would let tourists know about the historical significance of the area, providing nuggets of history and fact amid the sea of photo opportunities in the vicinity.
"He was delighted," explains Andrew of that fateful meeting with the mayor, "and when I told him I wanted to call it the KL City Gallery, he was thrilled!” The KL City Gallery has now become a place of preservation, inside and out. Andrew has meticulously protected the old printing press building that the museum calls home, and filled it with maps, photographs, newspaper clippings, and models of the city and the area, the last of which are made by his company ARCH in a workshop inside the gallery.
MODEL MAKING MASTERS
It is with ARCH that Andrew first began his heritage crusade - a model-making company that he set up in a 150ft office, on his own, back in 1989, and one that has now grown to such a scale that the team undertakes multiple projects for companies all over the world. Despite some wobbles during the Asian financial crisis, ARCH has gone from strength to strength under the tutelage of its inspired leader, who moved from making the models himself to overseeing the team and pushing the company into new realms, gaining prestige both home and abroad.
ARCH sprung to fame when it turned its attention - after the financial crisis saw its number of contracts drop from 60 to zero - to souvenirs, and opened its first outlet of charming keepsakes in the thennew KLCC. “I realised that tourists were coming and admiring our buildings," he explains, “but they couldn't take anything away with them except photographs.” Andrew and his team began designing and creating handmade models of iconic buildings in the city, presenting them as pictures, key rings, and other forms of tourist paraphernalia.
These became popular with companies as corporate gifts, and attracted attention beyond the limits of the country – Andrew soon found himself making tourist gear for countries as diverse as Dubai and the US. This side of the business still continues to blossom, especially as ARCH products are now the official souvenir of KL, but Andrew is keeping himself busy with his latest, mammoth task.
The sprawling Klang Valley lies out before the visitor in the darkened, cool room on the first floor of the KL City Gallery, and while it wasn’t completed when I visited at the end of last year, already the city centre was there to behold, complete with the green grass and trees of the Lake Gardens, the flashing Twin Towers, and the iconic reddish-brown of the historical buildings that line Merdeka Square.
“It was much harder than I expected,” admits Andrew with a chuckle, “and much slower!” The task of turning every single building in the Klang Valley into a model is a huge one, and while some blueprints of buildings and plans can be obtained from DBKL, many months were spent taking photographs from all angles and physically measuring buildings – especially the old ones – in order to generate a design that could then be cut out and crafted completely by hand. It wasn’t enough just to complete the model: it had to be exactly right. “It’s all in the detail,” declares Andrew, as he points out how each building is in the correct colour, each tree is in the right place, and a light flashes and whooshes along each of the train lines that snake the sprawling area.
Once completed in February, the model will be truly impressive, and it already attracts a stream of tourists with cameras, emitting chuckles of delight and awe. Sound and light effects will be used to show a short presentation of “a day in the life of…” when the full model is complete, beginning with the red sun rise and rushing through the day before a thunderstorm and a sunset rounds the proceedings off.
Man On A Mission
It is yet another stepping stone on Andrew’s journey to preserve and celebrate the city, educating visitors and reminding local people what they have. It is especially important that the older buildings get their place on the map, and the older neighbourhoods of town – where this city truly began – don’t get forgotten in the rush to build taller, bigger, flashier.
At the end of the day, it comes back to Chinatown – the place where KL turned from a muddy swamp into a city – which lies just moments from the KL City Gallery. “I want to be a councillor of Chinatown,” jokes Andrew. “I want to beautify it, put up signs; if we don’t start now, people will forget!”
He is not, thankfully, one man against the world, and admits to being heartened by how many local people he has met (thanks to the KL City Gallery) that share his enthusiasm for architectural heritage and are just as keen as he is to preserve the buildings that are left, and the history that exists within their walls. “We have to do more,” he declares, “we may not be that old as a country, but we have to start now or it will all be forgotten!”
KL City Gallery is located on Merdeka Square (beneath the flag pole) and is open 9am-5pm daily. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.klcitygallery.com.
Source: Senses of Malaysia Jan-Feb 2013