From original power house to Kuching’s first purpose-built shopping centre, this spot has seen several icons in the city’s urban development.What does the future hold for this monument to modernity?
TEXT BY ALAN LAU
Mention Electra House to any Kuchingite over a certain age, and a certain neon-inflected glow flickers in their eyes. They animate, gesticulate, and narrate enthusiastically; long-dormant stories of school life, first crushes, and languid afternoons resurface, like sunken sea treasure rising to the air. The breadth of people living with fond remembrances of Electra House is remarkable, even for a town that’s as marked by nostalgia as Kuching. Of all the inheritances left us, first by the Brookes and then the Brits, nostalgia is probably the most potent of them all.
Electra House today is a frequent topic of ambitious council plans for urban renewal, which only goes to show how sorry a state it currently is. Unsympathetic renovations in the 1990s closed off the modern facade, once proudly open to the surrounding streetscape, with the current faux-classical confection. The shops inside are now a dreary clutch of cheap fashion and knock-offs, the plasticky bottom-sludge of modern consumerism.
When Electra House first opened in August 1965, it was a completely different affair. Sarawak had been part of Malaysia for a mere two years. Thousands of commuters from all over the area still passed through the bus depot that stood in what was once the centre of town. And on the site directly adjacent, in an act of urban planning brilliance, Kuching received its first purpose-built modern shopping mall, designed by Singapore architects Swan and Maclaren.
Electra House was not the first pioneering structure to stand on that site. The very name Electra, as well as the name of the street before it (Jalan Power) are vestigial clues. In 1922, the town council embarked on an ambitious plan to install permanent electrical street lighting in the town centre, which necessitated the construction of a power station. The Public Works Department offered to build it on an empty lot near Khoo Hun Yeang Street, once occupied by the Government Sawmill. And so Kuching’s first electrical power station went up, its twin chimneys reaching a dizzying height of 68 feet, easily the tallest structures in town. Older denizens still remember the rhythmic “whump” of the turbines, audible as far as the bus depot.
It’s difficult to appreciate the impact of the new Electra House, for those of us who were practically raised in modern air-conditioned shopping malls and therefore impervious to its novelties. But for Kuchingites then, it was a revelation that changed the cityscape forever. Prior to that, shopping meant trawling the dusty provisions shops of Main Bazaar, or one of the pungent food markets in town like Cekor. Apart from a few scattered shops which tolerated rather than welcomed loitering youngsters, shopping was largely a matter for grown-ups.
Electra House changed all this. Suddenly, here in the heart of the city, was a bright, modern metropolis, its lower storeys open to the city streets, like a sort of giant concrete verandah or a theatre stage.
It was right next to the bus depot, where hundreds of students poured in from the surrounding countryside, and opposite the culinary delights of Open Air market. It was practically handmade for the young, and therefore an instant success.
There you met friends, scoped out rival schools, played truant, and enacted all kinds of purposeful loitering. After school, it was thronged with shoppers and young people, who promptly made it their de facto home. Territorial teenagers carved out parts of the mall following school allegiances, which changed regularly according to some kind of unspoken dynastic rule; for a while Josephians hogged the front steps, while their Thomian rivals peopled the internal staircase. They regarded each other warily, all the while watching out for the popular girls as they shopped.
The wilder kids hung out at the back, where shady characters might sell you the odd Rothmans or Lucky Strike for a princely 10 cents a fag.
During its heyday, Electra housed the most prestigious and most utterly cool shops Kuching had to offer. At one end, like a ship’s proud figurehead, was the MAS office, with its iconic supersized airplane model prominently displayed. On the other was the famous Kodak shop, where countless families had their pictures taken, and where reams of memories were committed to paper. In between were a range of quality shops, including a watch shop, shoe shops (remember when Bata was posh?) and a pharmacy.
On the first floor was Ngiu Kee, Kuching’s first departmental store, which pioneered ready-to-wear fashion in a time when clothes were usually custom-made. Many today have fond memories of buying their first pair of jeans there. For those still suspicious of such new fashion trends, there were the traditional tailor shops on the second floor. For the teens there was Borneo Records, purveyors of all things vinyl and musical; they sat and squatted right outside, enjoying the flow of free music and air-conditioning.
While teenagers had the run of the lower storeys, the upper levels were a sober mix of government offices, including the early incarnation of SESCO. There was even a restaurant on the top floor, Le Coq d’Or, which served not French but hybridised anglo dishes complete with soft rolls and butter knives. Notable for being the poshest restaurant in Kuching, it also had indisputably the best view of any eatery in Sarawak. Expats and government types dined there, as did couples and families seeking a more rarified dining experience, cheek-by-jowl with regular wedding and birthday dinners.
Though off-limits to regular shoppers, this expansive view over Kuching from the upper levels could still be enjoyed for free, if you were somewhat intrepid. One person remembers creeping surreptitiously up the carpark ramp – itself a novelty in Kuching – to the topmost level to watch the famous sunsets over the Sarawak River, and to feel the guttural “boom” of the daily cannon from Fort Margherita.
Electra House’s reign as a vibrant, indispensable haunt lasted well into the 1970s. A trickle of other modern malls such as Kuching Plaza began to erode its client base, and by the 1980s it was in full decline. As the nucleus of young energy spiralled further and further out into the suburbs, the fortunes of Electra House, and indeed that of the entire old town centre, waned into obsolescence. The pioneering cool shops moved out, replaced by the mediocre, obscured by so much commercial kudzu.
Today, Electra House poses a kind of conundrum to city planners, as do many other landmarks in Kuching. Such buildings embody both obsolescence and significance at the same time. Some, like the Old Courthouse, propelled to the first rank of monuments out of sheer age and historical significance, are thus protected. Due to the paucity of heritage laws, other less venerable structures like Electra House are at risk. Even in countries with more progressive conservation laws, heritage protection is very rarely bestowed on modern structures.
The odd nostalgia-bitten politician today might suggest that Electra House be restored to its former glory, but that means revitalising the entire old town centre as well, by attracting investment, updating infrastructure and encouraging sustainable development. Piecemeal efforts are unlikely to be successful on their own, as the ham-handed makeover Electra House received in the 1990s has shown. Barring that, it could just as easily be demolished tomorrow.
Perhaps the value of writing articles like this is to start a conversation about what “cultural significance” might mean.
Should buildings deemed worthy of conservation be restricted only to those with History (with a capital H) or should much-loved, pioneering structures like Electra House be included? Jane Jacobs, the great urban theorist who revolutionised the idea of what makes vibrant cities, wrote: “While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can’t afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost.” Memories of Electra House will last a while more yet, as long as there are people to recount them. And the fate of the actual building itself? That remains to be seen.