Grand past but uncertain future for Malaysia's Carcosa

by AFP/Romen Bose, Jan 7, 2010 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur

KUALA LUMPUR - The future is uncertain for Malaysia's Carcosa Seri Negara, the 111-year old grande dame of colonial Malaya. Once home to the country's former British rulers and now an exclusive hotel, it is up for redevelopment.

The centre of colonial social life in the early 20th century the hotel -- which is an amalgamation of two stately bungalows, the Carcosa and the Seri Negara -- will close its doors on December 31, 2009.

Its many admirers are concerned over the fate of the national landmark, which in its heyday was a symbol of colonial power and a location where the nation's history was made.

"We were told by the government it is giving a tender to a company that is interested in redeveloping this site so we don't know what its going to be," says hotel manager Caroline Filtzinger.

Run by the GHM group of luxury hotels since 2004, the management was informed of the government's decision in October by the Economic Planning Unit, which handles the property.

Despite enquiries made by AFP to officials in several departments within the EPU, no one was able to shed light on plans for the Carcosa.

Filtzinger admits the place is in need of a facelift but patrons keep coming back regardless, for functions and the trademark sumptuous afternoon tea on the veranda.

"It's also the premier wedding location in the country and everybody wants to get married in this historic location, on the lawns, it is really sad to see it closing down."

She says the hotel's main business has been hosting events rather than filling its 13 guestrooms -- elegant but somewhat faded suites ranging in price from 1,100-3,500 ringgit (325-1,030 dollars) a night.

Carcosa Seri Negara occupies 40 acres (16.19 hectares) with the land around the Carcosa plunging straight into the jungle before opening onto the Lake Gardens parklands below.

Construction of the Carcosa began in 1896 by the first Resident-General, or chief British adviser to the then Federated Malay States, Sir Frank Swettenham, who named his new home after a fictional city.

The total cost including the building of numerous winding roads and outbuildings came to 67,300 Straits dollars -- worth about 13.9 million dollars in today's money.

Completed in 1898, the half-timbered house was built in High Victorian style, with ornamental designs incorporating a Elizabethan gable and an ornamental "medieval parapet" adorning several of its sides.

Inside, the entrance hall is large and airy, opening up to the roof with timber buttresses giving it a church-like feel, the larger windows sporting Anglo-Saxon cross lattices, topped off with lancet arches from the Regency period.

After Swettenham, Carcosa was occupied by the country's top British civil servants and in 1913 the government built the King's House on the property, as a guesthouse for the Governor of the Straits Settlements who resided in Singapore.

During the second world war, the Japanese military used the two buildings as an officer's mess, and upon liberation it was taken over by the British military.

By 1946, Carcosa reverted to its original use and was the scene where on January 21, 1948, representatives of the Malay Sultans and the British government created the Federation of Malaya, giving the country limited autonomy.

The Communist insurgency that began in June that year saw the grounds encircled by barbed wire but by 1956, with the communist threat on the wane and a push towards independence, the building's future was in question.

However, on September 12, 1956, Malaya's Chief Minister and Malaysia's first premier Tunku Abdul Rahman presented the deeds of Carcosa to the British government as a gift.

On the lawns of the King's House on August 5, 1957, just before independence was declared, the Malay Sultans along with Malaya's last colonial administrator Sir Donald MacGillivray signed into creation the new nation.

King's House was later returned to Malaysia and renamed "Seri Negara" or "Beautiful Country."

Carcosa however was occupied by a succession of British high commissioners, and an invitation for dinner or to a tea party in the grounds was the height of social ambition.

Malaysian veteran educationist Rasammah Bhupalan remembers elegant evenings in the early 1960s when Viscount Anthony Head and his wife Dorothea resided there.

"There were many functions at the Carcosa, formal and informal and you would feel at once in awe of the stately events held in what was also a home," she said.

"Lady Head loved birds and I remember having tea with her at the Carcosa and these large number of birds chirping and keeping us company."

However, the pleasant days at the Carcosa ended as relations between Malaysia and Britain soured once Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister in 1981.

Shahrir Abdul Samad, a cabinet minister at the height of the anti-British fervour that infected trade and diplomacy, said the idea of handing over the Carcosa was conceived at this point.

"The British high commissioner came to see me to ask what would be the way forward to resolve the worsening situation," he told AFP.

"I told him that as he had been complaining about the costs of managing Carcosa for so long, why not consider returning it to Malaysia as a gesture of goodwill."

"In May 1984, Mahathir announced the British were returning Carcosa but it was done in a gradual manner sometime in early 1987."

Shahrir said the cabinet then decided to convert the buildings into a hotel for visiting dignitaries, and the first official guest was Queen Elizabeth II who was attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

While plans for the hotel and the two buildings are still unclear, many hope the buildings will be preserved.

"We should not get rid of Carcosa or demolish those historic buildings as it is a part of our history," said Shahrir, who left the cabinet earlier this year. "It is still very much an important part of the Malaysian story."

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