Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Kundasang War Memorial now a wonderland


By Mary Chin

AUSTRALIANS who re-visited the Kudasang War memorial, perched on a hill some 1,200 metres above sea-level, stood and stared unbelievingly at the remarkable change. Given a major facelift, the entire grounds covering an area of six acres have been brought to life with about 500 new plants in four Gardens.

In a nutshell, the badly vandalized, fort-like memorial at the foot of Mount Kinabalu has been transformed into a beautiful tourist attraction.

When illuminated at night, the place appears to be a “Wonderland ‘ in fine weather.

But just a year ago, the first War Memorial Garden in North Borneo (now Sabah), established in 1962, was an unsightly run-down place, according to them.

The man instrumental in carrying out its restoration and transformation is computer analyst-turned entrepreneur Sevee Charuruks, 55.

A Thai Chinese, he has lived in sabah for the last three decades.

It is now open daily to the public form 9:30am to 5pm. Entrance fee is RM2 per person (local) and RM10 per person (visitor). Entrance is free for children and students.

It is popular with students, especially those involved in school projects.

“If there is a demand, we will also open our doors at night,” he says.

Special visitors who came a-calling one night described the memorial garden as exuding soothingness, inspiration and serenity.

While acknowledging the State Government’s efforts in maintaining the war memorial for decades, Charuruks laments that vandals, who lost their sanity, had relegated the place to a sorry state.

According to him, the State Government carried out repair works prior to the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two.

Subsequently, the memorial was again at the mercy of vandals and its condition gradually deteriorated.

Two years ago, when he visited the memorial, he was shocked at its deplorable condition.

A sea of rubbish and debris greeted him – thousands of empty beer bottles and glue cans, plastic bags, animal droppings and even human faces.

A urine stench emanated from the Australian garden, the English Garden, the Borneo garden and the Contemplation garden and Pool.

He soon discovered that faucets, toilet covers, doors and window-panes had been carted away. Even the flowers were not spared. Other than those stolen, orchids and roses had perished in the tropical heat.

Dozens of stones had been forcibly removed from the stone walls partitioning the Memorial garden.

Some of the 52 Corinthian columns had fallen apart while others were rotting. “Apparently, the vandals were trying to uproot some of the columns but they carry too heavy to be removed from the site.”

Almost immediately, Charuruks wrote to the State Government seeking permission to carry out repairs works.

Following his retirement last year, he embarked on the monumental task to restore the Kundasang War memorial to its old glory after being given the mandate to be the memorial custodian.

It took him and a team of 35 workers one year to create the metamorphosis. The coast is colossal too.

“The project generated employment opportunities for the locals here. It took us three months to clear up the place before we could start renovation works.” Among the first steps taken was to put up temporary fencing to ward off intruders.

The restoration exercise entailed repair works, re-planting in the four gardens, land-scaping, re-painting and re-connection to the power transmission lines. The tower was repaired with its interior being given a fresh coat of paint.

According to Charuruks, stones were procured from Tamparuli to fill the holes in the walls while new plants were sourced from nurseries around Kudasang.

It’s 100 per cent new soil and almost 100 per cent new flowers. Fifteen thousand bags of black soil had been used up.”

Roses dominate the English Garden, being the national flower of Britain.

“I was requested by Lynette and her group to put in more of the wattle (or acacia in Sabah) which is the national flower of Australia.”

The Borneo Garden is home to Sabah’s endemic and rare Borneo orchids and the pitcher plant.

Asked why the tapioca plant is given a place in the garden, he says: “We are giving a special honour to the plant because it was a staple food during the war.

“For three years, the Japanese fed the Australians and British with tapioca.”

Fourteen blue and white ceramic pots now line both sides of the main entrance. There is new turfing for the gardens; likewise, a new lighting system is in place. And there is the brand new visitors’ lounge. In addition, new toilets were fixed and five new water tanks each with a capacity of 400 gallons were also installed. On top of it, round-the-clock security is ensured with two work shifts.

Restorative work was not devoid of problems. At one stage, “insects’ that looked like mosquitoes “invaded” the memorial, seemingly in search of shelter due to the use of pesticides in the surroundings.

“Initially, I had to use more than 10 bottles of pesticides every month to eliminate the unwelcome visitors.”

On other occasions, efforts to provide shedding for the Borneo Garden hit a snag when strong winds blew the covers away, not once but several times.

Summing it up, Charuruks says : “Sometimes it was most frustrating… restoration was a painstaking and time-consuming process,”

Far from expecting any remuneration in return. He says he hopes to be rewarded spiritually.

“It’s a family contribution to society and the State. We want to contribute in appositive manner but we don’t expect anything in return,” says Charuruks, husband of Datuk Irene Benggon who is the Sabah Tourism Board’s (STB) general manager.

“I am a gardener,” he adds in jest.

He is grateful to the State Government for allowing him to start gate collection. “At least, it will help defray the coast of maintaining the memorial in the years to come.’

The project was completed this month just in time for the 60th commemoration of the end of World War Two. In fact, the participants of the reenacted Sandakan-Ranau Death March will converge on the war memorial on August 25 (last day0 for a special gathering in the evening. Members of the KK Symphony Orchestra led by Liaw Lam Thye will be in attendance.

Courtesy of Daily Express

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