Travelling down memory lane

By Jone Luvenitoga

Sunday August 16, 2009

Fiji Times

One of the 46 buildings declared a heritage site is now the GRIC building. It stands surrouonded by skyscrapers in Suva.Our partially documented history and what remains of it since our colonial beginnings stands proud in our country today. It has become part of the relics of our past. Standing among skyscrapers and air conditioned hotels within the capital city are 46 properties already declared ‘heritage buildings’.

They hold memories of a time long gone.

What is written of their construction is usually based around expat post cards, and personal memoirs. Personal photos are now part of our history preserved at the National Archives and at the museum library.

Of the properties entrusted to us since independence, a few issues have been raised in the past, questioning the aspects of our care and respect for our national treasures. But more so of the older generation we are so fortunate to still have around us, who once worked in these buildings of history.

Noel Douglas Kilmer, 80, and Viti Poly Eyre now into her 85th year are spending their days of retirement at the Pearce Home in Suva.

A homestay with its neat and tidy oasis with banana trees and different coloured flower beds and creepy plants with ferns in the middle of a capital city – it is home to a group of elderly time seems to have forgotten about, shut away in a little corner of over a quarter of an acre of land.

As simple as it might look, it is home to a few of our remaining elders who still hold rich memories of our heritage, similar to that of which a national archive would preserve for future generations.

But as time flies so do the steps they take each day on the final chapters of a life lived well and enjoyed at a time so different from ours today. It is a time and a place they would rather remember of our city when considering the ‘wreckage’ they say we are all in today.

“If only my mind could project the beautiful pictures, sights and memory of the Suva I remember, you would be overwhelmed by what you see compared to the stage it is in today,” Mr Kilmer says.

For Noel and Viti, their lives weren’t meant to cross but time and work drew them together for a journey that started in 1946. A time where they spent a year working at the first wireless telephone exchange in Suva. It remains where it was erected, at the corner of Thompson and Scott streets.

The building still stands today as one of the remnants of a past that has stood the test of time since it opened on February 2, 1911, when all others fell to the hands of change, making way for high rise metropolitan styled buildings and hotels in the Suva of the 21st century.

The construction of the building, as recorded, came through the colonial local auditor acting as the receiver general when the old post office building needed expansion. The country was progressing through the years. Letters went back and forth between the local auditor’s office, the secretary of state and the legislative council that later approved £1657 for the construction of the building.

An announcement was made on the Fiji Times of March 12, 1910 of installment plans that took a year before its construction just months before it opened in 1911. Over the years various changes were made in the function of the exchange and the agriculture ministry who shared the building.

It was later in the early forties when Noel and Viti had their stint as telephone exchange operators working in the building where men took over the night shift from women who worked throughout the day.

He still remembers a female daytime supervisor who was in her early twenties on the day they met as telephone operators. A young woman whose hair hung down in big black curls with the most beautiful face releasing a breath of fresh air to those gloomy nights, stuck behind the switch board transferring calls.

They parted again a year later when he went out to sea pursuing his ticket in captainship before joining the merchant squadron.

Spending the next 63 years apart they met again at the Pearce Home where they now live out their final days. What remains of their working days are only the stories to tell.

And the building that saw thousands of faces through the 109 years it has served the country. The millions of words it heard spoken across its rooms and corridors and the tears of those who sort the privacy of the empty rooms remain her secret. What stories would the walls tell if they were once given the chance to speak?

The building was declared a national heritage under the Suva City scheme statement in 1991.

It was occupied by the Fiji Visitors Bureau from the early 1980’s until 2009 when it changed hands again. It is a one stop focal point for the provision of information dealing directly with government departments and complaints. Its is a far cry from the beginning of technology in our country where calls were manually dialed with radio codes and connections to change from one switchboard port to the other.

Scattered around the outlines of the capital are 46 properties conserved as part of our national heritage.

They would be the remains of what began from a village before it was settled by whites to a small town as a port for both whalers and seafarers before the first stones were laid for the new capital since 1877. There were Australian styled cottages of which government officials and businessmen made their offices with billiard rooms of the early 20th century.

Talking a walk around Suva one encounters the remnants of her history.

Ministry of national heritage, culture and arts principle cultural development officer Adi Meretui Ratunabuabua said the lack of proper representations in the fields of maintaining our national heritage is as critical as losing out on the remaining historical sites in the country.

“Places are torn down and restructured without informing the ministry first which could be very critical because of the methods used when these constructions are taking place. There is lack of consideration where hammering and knocking of walls with painting that can all contribute to very devastating effect if the wrong tools are used,” Ms Ratunabuabua said.

She said despite the good changes taking place in our country, there are proper methods to follow and respect to show all of which could only come from well trained people who are more frequent with ideas and knowledge of handling such issues.

“Our lack of representation at this level is perhaps one of the most telling drawbacks in preserving our national heritage that warrants a major re-introduction of what our history and cultural values mean to us,” she said. In Schedule 1 of the laws protecting declared sites, maintenance in its clause need the inclusion of the local ministry of culture and heritage before any work is carried forth.

This is a major issue to handle for those who really cherish and respect history.

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About Dulcie Stewart

#TeamFiji based in Brisbane. Artist/blogger/family historian.
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