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Tuesday March 27, 2012

Heritage at a crossroads

IN THE 1980s, when I’d go home to Penang once a year for the holidays, I would always visit my old amah, who was retired and ran her kongsi on Love Lane.

She would ask me in her characteristic, deadpan manner, “What are all these scruffy white people doing in my neighbourhood?”

This was obviously the start of the budget backpacker onslaught into that part of town and well-heeled Penangites began to avoid if they could.

Fast forward to 2012. The article “Skyrocketting Shophouses” by Johnni Wong in MetroBiz on March 21 says it all.

It may sound really strange and inexplicable that people would pay RM3mil to buy three derelict shophouses on Rope Walk and do it up with another RM10mil, but this phenomenon of young or not-so-young professionals moving back to “old towns” is actually quite common in many cities in Europe and even in the hutongs in old neighborhoods in Beijing.

So, as a true daughter of Penang, despite having left Malaysia some 40 years ago to work for the United Nations (UN) in Africa, Switzerland, Italy and the US, I feel excited and proud that this phenomenon is happening in good ol’ Penang.

I believe the root cause of this awakening is the fact that Unesco bestowed the honour of World Heritage Site on Penang in 2008. This status is a godsend in many ways.

Firstly, it provides George Town with breathing space and a sort of legal basis to stop the wanton destruction of many of its treasures with deep historical significance reflecting the many waves of migration, and yes, even the different periods of colonisation with its effects, both good and bad, which contributed to the rich and unique heritage of this Straits settlement.

Good prices: The yellow-and-white shophouse in Lorong Carnarvon sold for RM1.2mil while the derelict unit on the left fetched about RM700,000.

Secondly, it became a wake-up call for Penang’s citizenry, rousing them from a sort of comfortable lull and apathy (chin-chai mentality), to one of cultural and environmental consciousness and pride. “Hey the world recognises us, the world actually sat up and noticed us! Wow we do have something unique to offer the world!”

And, thirdly, it had a spillover effect onto other parts of Penang, raising people’s consciousness on environmental and aesthetic issues ranging from the decrepit and horrible living conditions of the poor in Ayer Itam, for instance, to the overdevelopment of mega-complexes on hills, cliffs and beaches in Batu Ferringhi.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not against developers or development. We do not need to live in the past.

We do not have to romanticise the past to the point that time stands still nor, as a friend of mine put it referring to overzealous heritage types, should we “live like folks in the 18th century!”

Penang’s citizenry have the gift, and a reputation, of sometimes being overly frugal, but, at the same time, they are generous, enterprising and savvy.

Surely the heritage types and developers can rise above their differences to recognise the comparative advantages Penang has — a unique heritage history, the best food in the world, rich cultural diversity and beautiful hills and beaches.

Instead of an antagonistic relationship, developers and conservationists should have a grand alliance, exploiting our comparative advantages for the sake of the prosperity of our citizens through more and better tourism products.

Although Penang has been successful in attracting foreign direct investment and the creation of manufacturing jobs, we may no longer have the comparative advantage of cheap, quality labour with competition from the Indonesias, Vietnams and Myanmars of this world.

Tourism, on the other hand, will only grow as more countries become developed and rich and choose leisure and wanderlust over labour.

Sometimes tourism can wreak havoc on a country by affecting local mores. But quality tourism, the kind that comes from well-educated, history- and culture-loving tourists who can afford to spend more than a few days exploring the cultural wealth of a country, can prove to be a wonderful engine of growth.

But you need something to attract these quality tourists — and we have it all in Penang!

Four years after the Unesco recognition, we are, I believe, at a crossroads, one that will be painfully clear in hindsight.

We may find out too late that we took the wrong course. Penangites, we have a choice — we can have a bustling, prosperous planned city, with architecturally aesthetic buildings and charming heritage quarters or we can have a haphazardly put-together city, with a lot of the charm of its heritage replaced by random buildings, incongruously placed here and there.

In the Penang Heritage Trust, we have a group of dedicated, brilliant historians, culture experts and conservation activists.

Georgetown has an organisational structure dedicated to conservation matters.

We now need an umbrella organisation to bring together all stakeholders — conservationists, developers, businesses, the diaspora and interested citizens to create a sustained heritage movement for a good 10 years when it will hopefully put itself out of business because there will no longer be a need for such an organisation.

Judy Cheng-Hopkins is the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support and has over 30 years experience in key UN organisations.

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