Government quarters and company houses were once the mainstay of housing across Kuching. Small clusters of these properties, built to accommodate public servants and company officials of all ranks and responsibilities, peppered the landscape from Jalan Bampfylde to Batu Lintang. Numerous families passed through each and so many Sarawak residents remember time passed in at least one, either in residence or simply in fellowship with friends. But, as with most countries around the world, the taste for public ownership of properties has passed and most here have disappeared, either derelict and disused or else converted into condominiums. But, the rule in life is that every exception tells an interesting story and 11 Ridgeway is no exception.
Jalan Ong Tiang Swee once had these properties stretching down each side of its length. Half have gone under the hammer, taken down to create a landscaped park on the precipice of being developed into luxury houses. How the times have changed! Meanwhile, truer to original purpose, a handful have been reincarnated, housing homes for the blind, schools for the disabled and headquarters for associations and conservation societies. But one in particular has seen a transformation, resurrected from the dead into a community space which combines traditional form with modern function. It even recalls the original name of the road, reborn as 11 Ridgeway.
The first name was, of course, eclipsed by the fame of the Ong family. The ancestral home of Ong Tiang Swee stood on Rock Road on a gigantic piece of land stretching all the way back behind the current teacher training college at Batu Lintang. Directly behind 11 Ridgeway today stand 3 gravestones, graceful yet somewhat ghoulish reminders of the history of this site. These were once the final resting places of the first three matriarchs of Ong Tiang Swee’s line – his grandmother, mother and wife – though the remains were removed around thirteen years ago to a new location to allow for redevelopment. As the Ongs donated the land for the school, however, and moved out of the area, its heady days at the heart of one of Sarawak’s first families gave way to government housing. 11 Ridgeway became quarters for SESCO, the state electricity company, and finally went into decline, stripped bare, abandoned, and empty.
But then, at the brink of annihilation, it bucked the trend. Two tourism professionals were looking to create a community space and, instead of taking the easy route of pre-built and ready made, they made the extraordinary decision to enter into two years of renovation and restoration. “We first laid our eyes on this location back in June of 2016,” said co-founder Fiona Marcus Raja. “The place was once an abandoned building and left idle for a number of years. At first glance, many would have thought it would be impossible to turn such a space into a platform to house innovators and creative thinkers. Though it was not an easy task, we were more than determined to complete this project so that others could use it as a platform to spread their talents, to inspire and empower others.”
The new 11 Ridgeway is far from an exercise in heritage conservation and, in reality, there is no reason that it should be. The government quarters have no such status, being simple structures suited for the purpose of providing public housing. But here in Sarawak they represent part of a passage of time, lending a longevity to the landscape and giving a nod to nostalgia. For this alone, perhaps, they deserve to be preserved. In 11 Ridgeway, the renovation has seen all modern fittings and the addition of a space behind, a new take on the ruai for communal gatherings. But the skin of the property remains and, more importantly, its original heart and soul.
While its reinvention is an exercise in adaptive reuse, at its core is public ownership of space, albeit with a commercial basis for sustainability. The idea is to provide a place for meetings, events and gatherings at preferential rates for organisations providing a public service and “to create a venue, a safe space and a home for creative minds to work in peace or to network with one another, and to collaborate, to create and to innovate.” Beyond that, Fiona and team have pledged 5% of the property’s rental earnings to Royce Foundation to raise awareness of and support the community of Kuching’s carers, a response to Fiona’s own struggles acting as carer to a child with cancer.
For Sarawak, it is now an example of what can be done when one has the mind to. In 11 Ridgeway, the old is made new and, most importantly, the purpose preserved. As the last remaining government houses pass into memory, this one will remain as a reminder of the architecture of an age, of the intentions of a time, of the ongoing Sarawak spirit of sharing and communal exchange. From Ridgeway to the Ongs and back again, the story has come full circle.
“to create a venue, a safe space and a home for creative minds to work in peace or to network with one another, and to collaborate, to create and to innovate.”