George Town a work in progress — Rosalind Chua
GEORGE TOWN, June 1 — A recent public forum on heritage brought together local and international experts and some important but all too familiar issues were raised. The big question remains: where is the George Town World Heritage Site headed?
“I received so many calls and texts asking me if I’m for development or whether we want to stunt growth,” said Suraya Ismail, the moderator of Think City’s public forum, “I think we’re going to have a full house.”
She was right.
“George Town after World Heritage Inscription: Are we on the Right Track?” packed together expatriate property owners, local authorities, business owners and heritage advocates among others, for a two-hour dialogue that promised a juicy Q&A session if my acquaintance was to be believed. “I know many working people who are very unhappy with the NGOs and how they keep saying we can’t knock this down, have to preserve everything. How are we going to progress if this is the case?” he stage-whispered.
Rather disappointingly the local and international panellists had all done their homework and were familiar with many of the specific issues faced by George Town, including, ongoing gentrification, increased tourism into the World Heritage Site (WHS) and the haphazard restoration of heritage buildings. The positive experiences of well managed international WHSs — including Quito and Lindos — were discussed, leading Suraya to observe that, “We need to be open and flexible when developing the George Town WHS and adapt (best practices) to our own circumstances.”
Creating a proper framework for built heritage conservation was discussed at some length, and Peter Romey from AusHeritage stressed that “government needs to set the example for private stakeholders to follow. Encouraging examples of good conservation is more effective than just setting guidelines.”
The state government’s commitment to the WHS led to its establishment of George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), which is tasked with the management of the site. Lim Chooi Ping, the acting general manager of GTWHI who was sitting in the crowd, explained to the audience that GTWHI has no provision for enforcement and has to work together with the local authority (the Penang Island Municipal Council or MPPP) to manage the entire WHS. This is no small undertaking considering that George Town is a sprawling cosmopolitan city with a very diverse ethnic, religious and cultural mosaic, unlike a culturally homogenous, compact site like Lindos, that draws visitors to its acropolis.
The Q&A session threw up the twin challenges of non-compliance and lack of enforcement, as a number of homeowners and business owners shared their frustrations publicly (and later privately).
These individuals had tried to do the right thing i.e. follow procedures for renovations, obtain the correct business licenses, etc but were ultimately penalised by the system; while those who flouted laws and guidelines appeared to escape censure. Lisa Findley from the California College of the Arts observed that “if regulations are not applied uniformly, this eventually creates instability within the WHS.”
So, is George Town on the right track?
Heritage specialists believe that the UNESCO listing has bought the city more time and without it there would be little to stop developers from creating a little Singapore or Hong Kong; a scenario that a property appraiser actually spoke in favour of, citing both cities as examples of “progress”.
Between these two sentiments are the onion-layered aspirations of the city’s inhabitants who don’t own property or a business, as well as the individuals who want to invest or live in the city. Does everyone want the same future for George Town? From the small cross-section present at the forum it would appear not, and it would be simplistic to expect this.
Defining the future of the George Town WHS will always be a work-in-progress and one that goes beyond the city’s architecture, or else there is the risk of ending up with a heritage theme park, a beautiful façade frozen in time. The city’s true soul resides in its people, the hawkers, stone carvers, boutique hotel owners, beggars, designers, prostitutes, trishaw men, lawyers, each with their own delicate strand woven into George Town’s tangled web (neatly encapsulated in UNESCO’s three criteria for inscription).
It’s this ongoing ebb and flow of humanity, ideas and creative tensions that makes the city so maddening and so fascinating at the same time. In every nook and cranny, everything appears to work in its own mysterious, often unspoken way. Untangling the strands to create some sort of artificial orderliness could end up collapsing the entire fragile ecosystem. Like a spider’s web, George Town will continue to evolve, and hopefully it can do so in its own time.
Since 2008, George Town and Malacca have been jointly inscribed on The World Heritage List, managed by UNESCO’s World Heritage Center. These two historic cities of the Straits of Malacca were judged to have outstanding universal values (OUVs) by virtue of three criteria:
● As exceptional examples of multicultural trading towns permeated with many layers of history;
● As living testimony to the multicultural, tangible and intangible heritage and traditions of Asia (including their European colonial influences); and
● As historic cities that reflect a mixture of influences which, by virtue of their unique architecture, culture and townscape, are without parallel in East and South Asia.
* Rosalind Chua would love to live in George Town, but doesn’t like the idea of killing rats.
* This article was taken from the latest issue of Penang Monthly.