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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Garden of Hope

For those living in or visiting Kuala Lumpur, it sometimes seems as if calmness and serenity is distant memory in this burgeoning metropolis. Yet, for one in search of such standars, a window lies within easy reach - in fact, a mere 20 minutes from the city centre. We leave KL in the early hours and soon arrive at our first checkpoint: the Genting Sempah rest area, at the foot of Genting Highlands. Instead of taking the uphill climb, we keep going along the sea-level route, which eventually tapers off into a single lane. After about 30 minutes of tree-line serenity, the off roadside kampung (village) house and numerous slip roads marking the entrances of sleepy rubber and fruit plantations, we arrive at the laid back township of Janda Baik.
Syed Hussien Al-Attas, or fondly known to the villagers as Pak Habib, is on hand to greet us at the entrance to Taman Hana, which is named after his beloved wife. “Arches mark the start of a civilisation or an era,” Syed explains when he notices us admiring the hand-carved wooden structure marking the entrance. Inside this eight-acre compound is a collection of five dwellings that include the home of the Al-Attas family as well as accommodqation for his helpers and occasional guests. The main house stands beside the treelined earthen driveway and there’s more than enough room for a brace of SUVs. Arranged in a stepped fashion along the riverbanks are the other houses, each with its own outdoor, roofed living room.

Taman Hana is the result of Syed’s ongoing efforts to create a kampung retreat where one can enjoy quiet moments to reflect and be inspired by being close to natural and scenic surroundings, yet remain within easy reach of the city. It was a childhood dream of his, inspired by his grandfather’s sprawling home in Johor Baru, where he grew up. “It was a huge house, with a lovely garden, but sadly, after he passed on, no one took care of the place and so they tore it down,” Syed recalls. The loss planted the seed of an idea to rebuild a home that he could pass down to the future generations, and ambitiously, he not only wants to leave a legacy that reflects him but also that of Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage.

As you look closely at the architecture and details of each structure, different cultures come to mind - Indonesian style architecture, coloured earthen tiles, traditional Malay woodwork and shuttered windows, doors and also generous balconies that remind one of colonial British plantation houses. “You can say this place is truly Asia,” he says proudly.

The University of Life in the Making

An even greater source of pride is the fact that Syed single-handedly built Taman Hana and interestingly, it was the garden that he built first and his family home last. “You can see beauty in many things, but when someone wants to see your idea of beauty, they look at your garden.” His family home is in itself statement piece: traditional Peranakan tiles decorate the porches and the whole structure is capped by a horn-shaped Minangkabau-style roof. “Over the years,  I kept on adding different influences that please me - the various ornamental and fruit trees and of course the different architectural motifs, odds and ends - so that I can be mentally refreshed and motivated to attain greater levels of creativity and awareness,” says Syed. “This is an ongoing project, mind you. I started building the structures that you see here in 1982. I spent a lot of time sourcing for the odd bits that you see on every house from quaint shops all over the country and abroad.”

While Syed doesn’t live on the compound ful ltime, he tries to make the commute during his free time or when he requires the calmness and serenity - which is quite often, as Syed is a well-known writer with over 50 books to his name to date. “At the moment, I am working on two new books, so the peacefull surroundings actually make things a whole lot easier - I mean, if you wake up in these tranquil surroundings, you’ll be able to do a whole lot of rewarding things with your time.” In fact, his other objectives for building Taman Hana is to serve as a writer’s retreat, a place where artistic souls can be surrounded by inspiring elements. “There are a few spots in this compound where I love to sit and work, one of them is the main balcony of my bedroom,” says Syed. “It’s a great vantage point - I can see the moon rising from behind and watch it go down on the other side in the morning. At night, I can savour at least four different scents from the flowering blooms around the house.

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As we sit down to tea at the main living area, we are lulled by the pleasant sound of running water splashing against the rocks in the stream, just a few feet away. Taman Hana is open to visitors daily and in a single month, Syed receives up to 2,000 guests. The paved walkway bordering the riverbank and the houses within the compound are arranged in a steeped fashion, and this is just not purely for aesthetic reasons. Syed goes on to reveal a secret: “Viewed from the outdoor living area, you can see that every level has different coloured tiles and rocks in them and I got the inspiration for this from the countless fanciful and fantastic descriptions of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in numerous books.” Syed says that the multitude of different influences built into every corner of the compound was similarly inspired by what he had read or experienced in the past, and sometimes, inspiration can indeed come from the most unexpected places. In a corner of his garden, we see what appear to be a work-in-progress featuring a stone archway that leads to a series of cobbled stairs. “What I want to build here is a life-size ‘snake and ladders’ game,” Syed explains. “It may seem like a simple game, yet it’s a reflection of reality - in life, there are ups and downs.”

Inside the house, odd bits of traditional wooden, rattan and comtemporary furniture collected over the years intermingle to create a comfortable arrangement. “The rooms inside the houses function to provide privacy and shelter. As you can see, we spend most of the day outdoors, or in the roofed rest areas along the stream - here, you’re supposed to enjoy and be inspired by living amidst beautiful natural surroundings.”

Affording shade all day long is a generous collection of trees, some of which stood there even as Syed was clearing the land to build the place. Others have been carefully planted to decorate the compound with beautiful, colourful flowers. The garden is also an orchard of sorts, with durian, pulasan and mangosteen trees among them. The durian trees bear fruit nearly all year round and visitors to Taman Hana are welcome to feast on this “King of Malaysian fruits’. The walkways around the houses and paving the banks are constructed from stones found in the stream. “My philosophy is to use what is on hand in the surrounding area and recycling odd bits from all over. That’s why you’ll notice that there are lots of mismatched items, each with its own history, in and around the houses in this compound,” says Syed.

As you wonder around, it does strike you that everything seems so haphazard and that there is no particular theme to the design or construction. But Taman Hana is not a place where you can take it all in at one glance. Rather, it’s an experience meant to be savoured bit by bit, as how its owner built it, and you will see the plethora of influences - culled from Malaysia’s multi-faceted history and Syed’s personal experiences - that have come to shape the place. Syed has a two-prong idea of Taman Hana’s future: that it be maintained as a national heritage and on a more personal note, to preserve the life and memoirs of a literary figure, as how the home of Ernest Hemingway in Florida, USA has been turned into a museum. But what about his books, surely those would make for more lasting legacies? “With books, you can only read,” he explains, “Taman Hana, on the other hand, is something you experience with all your senses.”
The Garden of Hope

Going Places March 2008

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