George Town: Heritage conservation for whom?

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Himanshu Bhatt, writing in theSun, worries that George Town’s traditional residents are being forced out by boutique hotels, pubs and restaurants. Whatever happened to the Heritage Master Plan, which stresses the importance of preserving the living culture and traditional trades of the historical city, he wonders.

All brick and no soul

by Himanshu Bhatt

IN NOVEMBER 1999, I was covering the general elections as a reporter for theSun, when I watched Lim Kit Siang campaign vigorously on a small lorry parked in the compound of the 19th century Khoo Kongsi – the grandest Chinese clan enclave in the country.

Surveying the audience before him, the DAP secretary-general exhorted the enclave’s residents on the ills of the impending Rent Control Act repeal, which was threatening to displace them from their inner-city homes in George Town.

If Lim were to visit the Khoo Kongsi today, he would find that none of the residents he had preached to that night are still around. They were all told to leave once the repeal was made effective.

If you enter the clan compound now, you would be greeted by a ghostly emptiness; in place of the age-old inhabitants one finds an attendant waving at visitors to stop to pay an entrance fee. The ancient houses that once teemed with the city’s traditional people are planned for conversion into commercial premises like hotels.

Now, a decade after Lim gave that memorable speech, George Town is facing yet another painful round of mass ejections of its original inhabitants. The supreme irony is that this time the exodus is being precipitated by the city’s listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site – the very status that is meant to conserve its culture and traditions.

Since the Unesco listing was announced in July, scores of communities across the inner-city are being forced to vacate their premises to make way for businesses like boutique hotels, pubs and restaurants.

Tenants in at least five neighbourhoods, who have been plying their trades since before the Second World War, have been told to move out by landlords. The areas include historic quarters like Armenian Street, Carnavon Street, Beach Street, Campbell Street and Stewart Lane.

Just last week, residents of a terrace block in Armenian Street, where Anna and the King was filmed, moved out after the owner transferred the property to an Australian who plans to develop it as a boutique hotel. More evictions are in order following an escalating trend among property owners to jack up rentals and commercialise their premises.

What is most tragic about the situation is that there is complete misinterpretation by our bureaucrats of what this Unesco heritage status is really about.

The listing was meant to foster conservation of living culture and streetscape for the intrinsic purpose of preserving such rich legacy. It was by no means aimed at opening doors for modern businesses to come sweeping in over the old trades and lifestyles which characterise the soul of the inner city.

Of course there should be economic growth. But it should be managed with sustainable development that is compatible with the Outstanding Core Values of the city. But that is not what is happening. What we are seeing is a trend where businessmen are now leaping into the inner city at what appears to be a golden opportunity to make a good tourism buck.

So we now have old buildings being repainted and refurbished to bring in modern businesses, replacing the traditional people that are part of the original character of the city.

All this is happening despite the fact that the Unesco evaluation of George Town has emphasised the critical importance of preserving living cultures, while warning against the negative impact of commercial tourism.

In fact, the dossier on George Town and Malacca’s World Heritage Site status has cautioned that increasing tourist arrivals would impact the sensitive character of the cities. According to a crucial Heritage Management Plan (HMP) in the dossier, the rising numbers of tourists would cause a strain to the city’s “carrying capacity”.

The Penang government has formed a highly touted Heritage Steering Committee following the Unesco award. But after six months, there has not been as much as a whimper from the committee, which happens to be only “advisory” in nature, about implementing the HMP.

None of the issues recommended by the HMP – the core document which Unesco has referred to in approving the heritage status – have been acted upon. The committee has made no mention of cultural mapping, of cultural impact assessment, of traditional trade incentives – all key actions the HMP has outlined.

The actual reason for the Unesco status – to preserve our unique living cultures – may be difficult for some to swallow or even comprehend. But if our heritage, which we have fought so long to preserve, has any chance of being salvaged, there must be urgent initiative from the authorities to address this matter – and fast. The alternative would be to just watch in horror as the historic soul of our precious city rapidly drains away.

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Grandma

With the Federal Govt squeezing Penang, how on earth can we be like Singapore if we don’t have money and no investors. Appreciate what LGE is trying to do for Penang, that is by not bringing Penang to the level of the poorest state in Malaysia. As for those pigeon holes at Macallum, for your info Ms. Lilian, many of them were (some,like my mother had passed on) evicted from the Maxwell/Prangin Road pre-war houses which were torn down to make way for the Komtar complex. And that walk-up 3-room pigeon hole cost over RM80,000. That was in the 70’s.… Read more »

K

A few days ago read with alarm that LGE justifying the building of new hotels and other structures within the heritage enclave. In fact LGE has latched upon the Heritage status like a kid to his lollipop. He has been over-selling the business aspect of if from the very beginning. This is ironic when considering DAP had been fighting for years on the repeal of Rent Control, which if I am not mistaken almost dethroned the BN govt in 1999. Another thing that I noted with deep sadness is the invasion of new business which are driving away the old… Read more »

Ron

The Penang Government has yet to make visible changes to Penang that we can see. Can’t find trashcans. Majority of bus stops have no timetable or shelter. Buses never arrive on time. Illegally parked cars on every road. No policemen in sight. Taxis that refuse to use meters. Dirty restaurants, roads, hawker centres, etc.
So what else is new?
This DAP Government whom we voted for bringing change, hasn’t made any changes. Maybe they can do only one thing at a time. 4 years later, at the next election, they’ll make promises again.

Jambo

i prefer nice and “CLEAN” surroundings with new coat of paint !!! no..i dont want any heritage thingy to be slow down the development for the whole island.. as a compromise.. there should only be a huge chinatown like heritage kampung.. thats all.. this is either a like it or against it thingy.. and im for it.. well.. they r bound to be ppl who will not be happy.. but if everything is heritage and unexciting.. i’ll not be happy. im selfish enough not to support your full scale heritage goal.. cant have the whole of penang suffering from these..young… Read more »

Jason

“Inner George Town today is full of run down buildings and an eye sore. If having new businesses can help revive and preserve these heritage buildings, so be it. There is nothing wrong with boutique hotels, pubs and restaurants so I don’t understand what Himanshu Bhatt is getting at. Does he expect these poor Penangites to continue their non-profitable trade just so we can claim to have a “unique living cultures”?”

-Sunny

Exactly my thoughts.

looes74

Affordable public housing! If only if LGE and its state government have a hand in the EPF contributed by Penangites

Singapore HDB’s success story due to CPF. At times, 25% by companies and 25% by employees. Malaysians included.

mut

Affordable housing is precisely my point. With its capacity and landbanks, governments can undertake such projects for the benefit of the needy. They do not have the pressure of making a profit, just enough not to turn it into a loss. Subsidising the poor is a hallmark of a caring government. What we see now is the alienation of land purely for profit, and many times we see the government taking a loss in onesided deals ! Penang must develop, but must not leave anyone behind. Change in thinking is needed; if we apply the “rustic charm” argument what kind… Read more »

ANDY

lilian on January 9th, 2009 at 12.49am SAY… Our previous (and maybe new) state Government put very little concern in the welfare and wellbeing of the people. Built hotels, built shopping malls, built fancy parks and then, dump all the people living in pigeon holes. U need to WAKE-UP stop dreaming la…. firstly Penang island is so small, cost of living very high.. To have a ‘pigeon holes’ that can be call as ‘HOME’ is better then staying in a house made from boxes right? And do you think this group of people can afford to purchase a etter place… Read more »

I Do

Penang …. its time to move on to become like Singapore … sacrifices are NECESSARY …sorry this is the price as a Penangite I am willing to support.

We don’t want to be living in Kampungs ….and become a sorry state for retirement folks or people who are having ‘retirement’ syndrome while blogging…

Sunny

Inner George Town today is full of run down buildings and an eye sore. If having new businesses can help revive and preserve these heritage buildings, so be it. There is nothing wrong with boutique hotels, pubs and restaurants so I don’t understand what Himanshu Bhatt is getting at. Does he expect these poor Penangites to continue their non-profitable trade just so we can claim to have a “unique living cultures”?

Fi-sha

Dear Anil, it is sad…what is a city without its soul..what attract tourists to come is to experience what it used to be. No more hotels for PG Island please Mr LGE.Any spillover should be well addressed by Hotels in the mainland. Inject more souls by helping the existing tenants to carry on with their livelihoods that make PG island so special. Restrict conversion of private houses into commercial establishment. Im scared it is too late to save PG island. If modernisation is what tourists want, they might as well fly down to SG. What makes PG special is the… Read more »

mut

Which reminds me of a joke about Singapore : Q : What’s the difference between yogurt and the city state? A : Yogurt has live culture….. The direction that Penang is taking might suit some but not others. It is up to everyone to make their feelings and aspirations known. I am in support of the repeal of the Rent Control Act, but I am also a believer that the state has the duty to provide decent, affordable housing for all. The direction the heritage status takes is indeed interesting; the concerns of the all stakeholders must be heard. When… Read more »

lilian

Anil, the next time you are free to take a ride around Penang, do visit the Jelutong Expressway around the Macallum Flats there. Those low cost flats plus luxury homes give me claustrophobia. I have some photos in the URL of my site. I cannot imagine what will happen in the next 10 years in such a densely populated area. Our previous (and maybe new) state Government put very little concern in the welfare and wellbeing of the people. They just stuff and shove the humans around like they are pieces of chips on the Monopoly game. Built hotels, built… Read more »

Han2

Coming back to Penang today after a week working in KL< I suddenly it very dirty. Yes, Penang is dirty.