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.