Handling the Intangibles: Heritage Management in George Town

The road to becoming a World Heritage site was not easy for George Town and Melaka – the paperwork, inventorying, filing and so on all required exhaustive work. Dossiers submitted to Unesco in 2004, for example, were deemed incomplete, and it took four years for them to be revised and evaluated. But finally, the joint inscription of both cities as World Heritage sites in 2008 became a reality.

While the initial exuberance has since faded, many have ridden on the popularity of both sites. Tourism numbers have risen over the years – Penang registered a record number of visitors in 2017 – and tourism-related outlets have mushroomed in the inner city.

At the same time, George Town has seen the migration of its population to the suburbs, which has led many to lament the gentrification effects of the World Heritage listing. Penang Monthly explores the truth of this, and discovers how heritage management is not just about the buildings.

Plans, plans, plans

The Special Area Plans (SAPs) for both George Town and Melaka were created to guide and control development within each city. Originally known as the Conservation Management Plan (CMP) when submitted to Unesco, it was, in the beginning, a plan that covered both sites. Its evolution into the SAPs, to be gazetted under the Town and Country Planning Act, saw the two states developing their own separate methods of managing their respective World Heritage sites. (George Town’s SAP was gazetted in 2016.)

Penang Island Mayor Datuk Ar. Yew Tung Seang.

The most obvious aspect within the SAP is building conservation, which is clearly outlined. “In terms of tangible heritage we’re not so worried,” admits Penang Island mayor Datuk Yew Tung Seang. “After so many years, we know our buildings, our architecture, typology. There are more and more architects who understand how heritage works and follow the heritage guidelines. In that aspect, we’re almost there.”

Even before restoration begins, a baseline study is carried out to go over the building’s characteristics, the purpose it serves and its significance to the local community. “This is to identify the building’s historical value, aesthetic or architectural value, social value, and scientific value – whether or not it was innovative during the era it was built in terms of construction, etc.. There is also the rarity or uniqueness of the building to consider; sometimes, the aesthetic value isn’t that high, but the social value is. You don’t only look at one aspect, you have to adopt the holistic view,” says architect Tan Yeow Wooi, of Tan Yeow Wooi Culture and Heritage Research Studio.

On the bright side, being inscribed as a World Heritage site has given George Town’s pre-war buildings a lifeline – Yew says that prior to 2008, there were more than 500 dilapidated buildings in George Town; today, there are 37.

This reduction in number comes at a heavy price: Preserving heritage buildings entails significant cost in the form of building material, manpower and rather specific skills – all of which on occasion need to be imported. Each aspect of building restoration –from procedure and material to types of alterations allowed – is carefully stipulated in the SAP; non-compliance can result in the owner being slapped with a stop-work order or court action.1 Building owners who could ill-afford the cost end up selling off their properties.

Masjid Kapitan Keling's dome was restored with funds from Think City.

As a shortcut, many of the uninitiated turn to modern materials such as cement without understanding that that can bring further detriment to the integrity of the building – not to mention the authenticity of it. “For a cement tile, you can just fix it with cement – it depends on the kind of material. For terracotta tiles, you shouldn’t use cement. To touch-up you need to use lime, which requires a lot of experience and isn’t easy to work with,” says Tan, who has written Penang Shophouses: A Handbook of Features and Materials – an excellent reference that catalogues and represents the vast array of features and materials used in the buildings.

The skills needed to work with such material, however, are hard to find. “If we’re lucky, we get some senior workers who know how to work with lime. Otherwise, we have to teach the workers,” says Tan, pointing out that construction workers come and go.

Dr Ang Ming Chee (fifth from left) with George Town World Heritage Incorporated staff and members of the George Town community.


In countries like China, owners of heritage buildings can apply for grants to alleviate restoration costs. George Town has the RM3mil Heritage Habitat Seed Fund from the state government which aids participating owners of heritage buildings in the World Heritage site who are hosting long-term tenants, to repair and restore their heritage buildings in exchange for long-term tenancy at subsidised rent.2

“We launched the George Town Heritage Habitat Seed Fund last year and are now working with the owners who have rented out their premises to long-term tenants at very low rates,” says Dr Ang Ming Chee, general manager of George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), the state heritage agency spearheading efforts in safeguarding the Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs) of the George Town World Heritage site.

We have so many different people who live here and work here. Many are willing to move back, so the incentives should be shared with all to encourage everyone to get involved in heritage management.

Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi chairman Peter Cheah Swee Huat.

“A lot of them are trustees, kongsi, wakaf; and they are really very generous. We want to acknowledge the contributions of these owners and we want to preserve the second OUV – living heritage. We are using the money to help these owners restore building structures, to make them safe, in exchange for six to 10 years of subsidised rent. This is a very new project but you can think about it in terms of affordable living, safety of the building structure, sustainable cities and equal opportunities for everyone,” says Ang. 

For the past 11 years, federal funding has been channelled through Think City, a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad. “We want to drive urban regeneration, urban policy thinking and urban solutions. This is what we feel now represents us,” says conservation architect Prof. Ar. Laurence Loh, who is a director at Think City. Among the projects the organisation is involved with are restoration works of the town hall, the east seafront masterplan and the upgrading of the Dewan Sri Pinang.

“Funding from (the federal government) would definitely help because it’s expensive to maintain a world heritage site. It would be very encouraging as well because it’s not only resources that they’re giving out; it’s also recognition that they’re showing us,” says Ang.

“We have so many different people who live here and work here. Many are willing to move back, so the incentives should be shared with all to encourage everyone to get involved in heritage management. We hope the government will look into the bigger picture for tax reduction and incentives for those who contribute to heritage conservation,” she says.

Rent: A Misconception

While there has been much buzz over evictions in George Town, there are of course differing views on the matter – some move out in search of a proper upgrade of their living conditions.

In an earlier interview, Ang shared that GTWHI performed a house-to-house survey in 2016 and 2017 which revealed rather surprising findings. “We checked all the ownership records. Less than 1% of the buildings here are owned by foreigners. You’d think that there are a lot, but actually, no. And within that 1%, a lot of them were purchased in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Ceiling-high rent takes much of the blame, especially with the repeal of the Rent Control Act in 1997. “Rent is a touchy subject,” says Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi chairman Peter Cheah Swee Huat. “As one of the oldest establishments in George Town, Cheah Kongsi wants to offer support by keeping rent low. But in doing so, some occupants abuse it. We rent to them at RM800; they sign the agreement and sublet the building for RM1,800.

“We’ve also met a lot of tenants who refuse to hand over the premises even though their businesses can no longer survive. We are sympathetic, but some tenants owe up to RM20,000 in rent arrears, which is too much. We are a society and a trusteeship; we are answerable to our members.”

Cheah Kongsi, restored to its former glory.

Not all tenants leave unwillingly. Cheah observes that residents have been moving in and out of Cheah Kongsi properties even before 2008. “Some move because their family business has no successors – nowadays youngsters tend to go for white-collar jobs. So when the family economy improves, they move out to the suburbs, not necessarily because of the increase in rent.”

Loh, whose family owns a few properties in George Town, has also seen tenants returning their keys. “There was an old lady who didn’t want to move out, so her son paid her rent until one day, he suddenly stopped – his mother had passed on. Another case was a shoemaker. He said he’d been making shoe soles for many years, but these days you can just print one out using a machine. He said he couldn’t even make enough to pay the rent.

“If you look at the history of a commercial street – Jalan Penang, Lebuh Bishop, Lebuh Chulia – they may have changed hands several times over the past two centuries. There has always been an evolution of businesses – businesses that didn’t do well, died off. Some (traditional trades) may last another 10 or 20 years, but they may eventually also head the same way.”

Loh is conscientious about who rents a property. “There was a tenant who used the building as a storehouse. They didn’t take care of the property – there were rats and everything. It wasn’t our cup of tea, so that was the only one we had to evict.”

Brisk Businesses

The coming and going of people, businesses, trades, lead to the question of the gentrification of George Town. With the World Heritage site listing, tourists – both locals and foreigners – have poured into the city’s quaint streets, some in search of its famed street food, some for its heritage. In the process, a plethora of hotels, cafes and entertainment outlets have mushroomed over the years, generating income for business owners.

“People see opportunities. We have the SAP to control matters like the boutique hotels. There are certain areas where you can have hotels, and certain areas where you can have other forms of activities. We’re not so worried about cafes as it is determined by supply and demand. It is a very fast-changing game – today you may have a cafe; tomorrow, if there is no business, then a new commercial activity will come in and replace it,” says Yew.

“In terms of building usage, we don’t want to see the whole city converted into a hotel; that’s why we’re encouraging private owners to go for residential units instead. State-wise, we’re open to working with stakeholders. We’re quite happy with the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT), for example, in terms of their will for conservation and how they work together with us. We also work together with GTWHI and anyone else. We go down to the ground and talk to the building owners – instead of leaving their buildings underutilised and abandoned, why don’t we do something with them?” he says.

And as a city moves with the times, its very nature will inevitably see change. Eventually, the cafes and boutique hotels will also have to make way, should demand for them decrease. In that sense, the trendy businesses today are similar to the traditional trades of old – the kopitiams, the shoemakers, rattan weavers: they wax and wane with each passing generation. They can only be sustainable if locals frequent them enough, or offer enterprising ways to diversify the business.

Street vendors selling nasi kandar, part of George Town's food heritage.

In terms of building usage, we don’t want to see the whole city converted into a hotel; that’s why we’re encouraging private owners to go for residential units instead.

Students trying their hand at blinds making.

“Let’s take it from the government’s point of view, or from an institutional point of view,” offers Loh. “Can we nurture them, bring them up a notch? Some do well and expand because they’re more enterprising – they go into mass production, they have a production centre, they distribute. It nurtures a new generation of entrepreneurs.

“I think what the state should have done is that as much as they nurtured science and industry, they should have found a way to teach our people how to carry out business in a cultural context. But then you can argue that Penang never really had that sort of talent – it was a trading town. So we should have taught them how to be better traders, trade new things!”

(Re)populating George Town

In light of the changes George Town is seeing, an update of its SAP is due – something Yew says that the council is working on. “We have to be practical, and we’re currently reviewing the SAP to suit current demands, such as the more practical usage of buildings. I see George Town as a mixed development area that will transform organically so long as we retain the people.”

But what sort of new residents does George Town today attract – perhaps more importantly, who do the state want to attract?

“We want to start with the students first,” says Yew, “so that with support of the youngsters, we can have a vibrant and smart city full of young talent. There are two purpose-built student accommodation projects coming up – one at Lebuh Kimberley and one at Lebuh Acheh. The Lebuh Kimberley project will be completed soon and we hope that the first batch of students can then move in.

“Hopefully the young can help pull in their peers together to make the city workable and liveable. If it’s cleanliness and safety, you can talk to us and we’ll help you. The important thing is that the young must come in – we need more talents for the future.” says Yew.

SENTRAL College Penang is one of the educational facilities located within the World Heritage site, having been around long before the Unesco inscription. Its tourism management students in particular enjoy direct exposure to the heritage site. “Some students find part-time employment in the cafes and restaurants. It’s good for their development; they can spend their time productively,” says Dr Chiang Geok Lian, SENTRAL college’s principal and CEO.

Into the Future

Apart from the necessary documenting of intangible heritage that the various groups – from GTWHI to Think City and PHT, to name a few – are doing, it is crucial that for intangible heritage to survive, the younger generation has to get involved.

One of the ways this can be done is through heritage education. Organisations such as Arts-ED, a non-profit organisation which aims to provide innovative community-based arts and culture education in rural and urban communities, are trying to build awareness – and it begins with breaking the stereotype of “heritage” among the young.

“They’re kids, you know?” points out Chen Yoke Pin, senior manager of Arts-ED. “We try to use ‘cool’ ways to make heritage attractive, such as drama and photography.”

Culture comes from our thoughts, from our thinking processes, and that changes everything. The next generation will never witness what we have seen unless we transmit, which is the most important part. If we fail to do this, then all the protection you have is useless.

Foo Wei Meng at work.

Arts-ED’s programmes “focus on the theme of arts, culture and heritage and utilise creative educational approaches that encourage learning around real issues.”3 Since its inception in 1999, it has worked with at least 16,000 young people in Penang.4

Its Cultural Heritage Education Programme, for example, has been running since 2016, and revolves around the “concept of sustainable heritage by educating and encouraging young people (aged from 10 to 18) to connect with their culture as well as environment.”5 “For the past three years, 35% of schools have continuously signed up for the programme,” says Chen.

There’s a stark difference when it comes to cultural heritage education in other countries. “Taiwan and Hong Kong already have very matured courses looking at interdisciplinary areas such as architecture,” says Chen. “They actually study cultural heritage, social science – incorporating these elements into their profession. In Malaysia, I think it’s only Universiti Teknologi MARA and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia that have architecture and conservation programmes, and they don’t even talk about conservation,” says Chen.

Students interviewing this secondhand bookstore owner about his trade history.

In order for the learning to have a prolonged impact, it cannot be just about getting the grade. “The thing with culture is, you can’t just talk about it and not do it,” says Foo Wei Meng, programme manager at Arts-ED. “It’s a way of living. You can’t just tell the kids, ‘Learn how uncle does this.’ They’ll only do it for fun one time – there’s no sustainability. This is the reality of kids nowadays – they’re learning it to get it over and done with.”

“So we’ve turned it into a value-based approach – let’s take a dance as an example,” says Chen. “You don’t necessarily have to maintain the form; you have to understand the value of it first. It’s the adaptation, expressing the value of whether it should remain the same, and whether it means something to you today. It’s not about copying it 100% – how it looked like 100 years ago – and then executing it. For us, the authenticity always changes – kids change.”

What’s important now is not just emphasising the importance of heritage to the young, but how the young can take ownership of heritage in their own personal lives; and how they can come up with their own ways to appreciate and to write the next chapter in the story.

“For sustainability, you have to involve the people. If people don’t have that sense of ownership – if they don’t feel it’s theirs – then they won’t do it. In George Town, after we committed to creative industry projects, we found that it works because the people we engage want to do this. They feel like they aren’t just doing it for their job; it’s more sustainable and you fulfil the UN's Sustainable Development Goals,” says Ang.

“Culture comes from our thoughts, from our thinking processes, and that changes everything,” says Loh. “The next generation will never witness what we have seen unless we transmit, which is the most important part. If we fail to do this, then all the protection you have is useless.”

Jeremy Tan is a mass communications student whose passion lies in Japanese language and culture. He hopes to one day visit the land of the rising sun. He is also frighteningly fond of cats.

2Melaka’s state government works with the Museum Department to allocate funds for house owners.

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