Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reminiscence of bygone days - The Sarawak House

When I was a young boy, the tallest building in Sarawak was the Sarawak House.

It was an outstanding landmark - a complex that consists of a hotel, a shopping arcade, a multistorey car park, a cinema and a restaurant, all in one. As a young child, I was, of course, impressed.

The hotel was called Premier Hotel and the restaurant, the Blue Splendour. I liked the names given to buildings in Sibu in those days (eg there used to be a discotheque was called "Confetti" and a restaurant called "Villa by the Grand" at the Grand Merdin Building - these are by-the-way thinggy, anyway).

I recall in the 1970s and early 1980s, "Blue Splendour" restaurant (together with other similar restaurants) was the place where wedding banquets were held, replacing old time favourite restaurants like Hock Chiu Lau. I thought it was a posh restaurant then.

Malcolm MacDonald (1901-1981) , the once powerful British Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia based in Singapore during the days of British Empire, stayed at the Premier Hotel when he came back to visit his good friend, the late Tun Jugah, in the 1970s. Malcolm's father was a former Prime Minister of United Kingdom. Malcolm MacDonald played a central role in the decolonization of the British Empire and wrote a beautiful book, "Borneo People"- a book that I like very much. He was instrumental in shaping the destinies of former British colonies at that time: Burma, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong at the tail end of the British Empire. Someone mentioned that he listened too much to Tun Jugah which was the reason Sarawak ended up being part of Malaysia as Malcolm has the ear of the colonial office in London. But that story is for another posting on another day!

As a young boy, we would climbed up to the upper floor of the multi-storey car park and have a vantage view of Sibu town (rivalled only by the Bukit Aup watch point) or loitered in the hotel lobby for the air-conditioned, a luxury at that time.

I remember the escalator very well. It was the first escalator in Sibu and also Sarawak (I was told). The escalator was just one way: going up from the ground floor to first floor. As a child, my brothers and I would used the escalator to go up and then walked down using the stair nearby and then up again and again.... until the supervisor, an elderly man, reprimanded us. The supervisor had a key and whenever someone accidentally pressed on the emergency button, he would used the key to restart the escalator. The escalator only operated at night and was initially like a "tourist attraction".

There was a popular night hangout called "the Bamboo House" at the ground floor of the Premier Hotel and one could hear Taiwanese singers crooning out their numbers (they were replaced by Filipino singers in the 1980s). In those days when Taiwan was still a poor developing country, Taiwanese were all over Southeast Asia, especially in Sarawak to earn a living, very much like the mainland Chinese today.

I also remember the cinema very well. It was aptly called, the King's Theatre. It was the place where my father took me to watch the movie "The Sound of Music" and other popular movies of the times. Later when I was in school, I continued to watch many movies there including those by Jackie Chan.

One morning, years later, on my way to school, I heard that the cinema was on fire. Later in school, students and teachers would peeped out of the windows to have a look at Sarawak House as my school was nearby and within eyeshot.

The cinema was, however, restored but fire broke out again at least twice a few years later. Legend has it that a lady commited suicide and her ghost continued to haunt the cinema. I have even heard of story that there is a seat in the cinema reserved for the ghost in order to appease her!

The building continued to be the tallest in this land of the hornbill until the 24-storey Wisma Bapa Malaysia in Kuching took over. Today, the Sarawak House still stands majestically in the heart of Sibu even though it is no longer the tallest in either Sibu or Sarawak. That honour has since been taken over by Wisma Bapa Malaysia in Kuching and now Wisma Sanyan, Sibu.

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