However this weekend our story goes a tiny bit further back than the heritage status it goes to the fascinating and somewhat conflicted restoration of the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple , the oldest temple in town and the sort of jiannian, as Robert Kelly would say, “one of the most beautiful art forms and one of the least known”. It all started with a jiannian restoration video, and Robert Kelly, that has explored the Taiwan temple arts widely and has tried to bring them to the wider audience, got us to meet the Malaysian Heritage group , the exquisite Mr Tan and knowledgeable and pleasantly determined Ms Chua. (It turns out that Mr Tan is doubly exquisite since his restaurant Riverine not only has one of the most pleasant river settings in town but also boasts a fine and strong Nyonya cuisine). Ms Chua oversaw the restoration of the Cheng Hoon Temple being in the committee for it.
So, jiannian refers to the porcelain shards cutting and pasting to decorate temples and wealthy chinese shophouses: as Robert would say, it is a threedimensional mosaic and it is stunning for its liveliness, playfulness as long as sheer beauty. The little shards have a unique, exuberant and yet graceful way of capturing the light and of seeming truly alive and on the point of moving.
However, whereas before i attributed this unique vitality and beauty to the work of composing and pasting porcelain shards, to their color and their manufacture (unfortunately cheap hasty recent works rather use glass or prefab pieces), this time I came to understand that also the plaster work below is crucial and I realised that what I like the most, that sort of tension of the dragons radiating in all directions like sunrays, the lightness of the phoenixes and their apparent swiftness is all in shaping the plaster below, and in giving to the statuettes limbs that dramatic twist that makes it alive.
Cheng Hoon has actually been restored in 2000, which is before the heritage status attribution. Today Malacca is undergoing a gentle facelift where many of the old shophouses are renewed and restored. Part of this is due to the number of new hotels and restaurants for the tourists: I cannot really see any of this as a bad thing, since at least it keeps the city alive and not a pretty zombielike town. Besides, in the end, Malacca conception and thriving happened because of business so let this happen again. Yet we came to know that a number of local hawkers and food stalls lost their license under the current mayor or simply could not afford to renew a lease; we met a curry stall owner that lost its place after 80 years of his family in the business. I hope that somebody sooner or later reminds the clever politician that heritage is above all made of people , the new coming (again Malacca fortune was largely due to migrants ) and those that were there keeping the traditions alive.
In the restoration trend, many of the shophouses friezes have been redone: unfortunately none matches the grace and beauty of the originals, yet some of the new ones are quite well done. Yet craftsmen skilled on pasting the porcelain can be found with a little effort, but it is much more difficult to find those that can mould the plaster to infuse that vitality. So even the best recent jiannian are a bit flat and the worse ones show phoenix looking fat and clumsy as if they were chicken.
Here there are some pictures of the old and the new. Can you tell which one look like chicken?
After training our eyes on the shophouses friezes, the temple was a riotous, happy feast of shapes, color and light. It felt as if my eyes were now free to dance in the blue sky with those dragons, deers , qilims and characters. Look at the figures looking down from the roof, isn’t it as if they were about to bounce off the roof and roam around?
There are so many other works of art that you could spend hours looking at , such as all the woodwork details and the sculptures surrounding the temple.
A funny story goes that the architect commissioned for the restoration had insisted on painting the temple blue, with large indignation of the restoration committee (and righlty so): he maintained that originally the painting must have been a blue color, obtained by the creepers flowers nowadays still used for kuih (cake) in nyonya cuisine. It appears that indeed there is a blue layer when one peels off the whitewash from the old chinese buildings but the locals, that have seen during the whole life building and rebuilding in town, would tell very easily that it is a pigment mixed with white to achieve more brilliance that eventually through the years migrates to the back of the whitewash and gives the false impression of a blue layer. That is the problem of many academics that lose touch with the reality and the fact that somehow all folk arts and have their roots in the traditions that locals practice day by day.
Instead Chow Fatt Tze mansion came out indeed as blue as the sky in Penang , not having anybody to object at the right moment. I wonder then whether they did use the blue flowers from creepers , it would have been a huge amount to harvest to do so.