Keepers of Heritage

Suffolk House, the Carpenters’ Guild Loo Pun Hong, Han Jiang Ancestral Temple… the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) has been a bastion for Penang’s cultural and built heritage since 1986. Focus was primarily on the preservation of single units of heritage buildings, but PHT’s advocacy role soon evolved because “we realised that buildings without people are like bodies with souls, and so the preservation of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) also came to form a very important aspect in PHT’s advocacy campaign,” says current president Lim Gaik Siang.

She recalls PHT’s intervention of the Yin Oi Tong Chinese Medical Hall. “The Cheah Kongsi-owned pre-war shophouse previously housed one of the oldest medical halls in South-east Asia. But with the hike in rental and because business wasn’t doing so well, the owner had no choice but to move out. That’s when PHT came in; we found Cheah Kongsi new tenants and also paid for the building’s restoration, but on one condition: a small space must be reserved for Yin Oi Tong to continue operating as a medical hall.”

As a charitable NGO, PHT also organises cultural, educational and public awareness programmes; and to ensure awareness of heritage conservation is maximally promoted, information is also communicated in multiple languages. “In the past, PHT’s efforts for heritage conservation were only able to reach the English-speaking Penang public. But within the George Town World Heritage site, it is the Chinese community that owns many of the heritage buildings and temples, and most are uncomfortable conversing in English. This resulted in unintentional marginalisation which we’re trying to reverse.”

Getting George Town Listed

A chance visit by Dr Richard Engelhardt, the former Unesco Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific, during a joint Chinese New Year-Thaipusam celebration in Penang assured George Town’s potential as a world heritage site, says Lim.1

Lim Gaik Siang, the current president of the Penang Heritage Trust.

Lim has been working closely with the local Chinese media to promote awareness of heritage conservation.

“Engelhardt was taken to visit the Street of Harmony where he witnessed two cultural occurrences: the Indian chariot procession paying its respects in front of the Goddess of Mercy Temple, and the lion dance stopping its performance midway to bow three times to the deities in the Sri Mahamariamman Temple. He was visibly impressed and said, ‘This is not only multicultural, it’s a fusion of cultures’, and suggested that George Town tried for the Unesco listing.

“But alone, Penang wouldn’t have stood a chance. Our history only dates back to 1786; Melaka was founded much earlier, during the fifteenth century. It was then proposed that both Penang and Melaka be submitted for the Unesco listing – which proved to be quite ideal since Penang’s heritage conservation efforts were bottom-up while Melaka’s was the inverse.”

Once the aim became concretised, a heritage committee was created under the direction of Penang’s then-chief minister, Koh Tsu Koon, and after years of meticulous planning and countless back and forth from the drawing board, George Town and Melaka were designated as world heritage sites in 2008. “But the thing about the Unesco listing is, it was not meant to attract tourists. It was to preserve the heritage and the community of George Town; tourism is just a by-product of that, and unfortunately, many tend to link tourism with the Unesco listing,” Lim says.

As buzz about the newly inscribed world heritage site swelled and began to spread worldwide, Lim and a few PHT members instrumented the set-up of state heritage agency George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) and were appointed as its consultative panel. “In 2012 PHT spearheaded the inventorying of Penang’s ICH. We covered 92 sites consisting 505 addresses, interviewed over 3,000 people and sent out about 200 more to identify Penang’s many traditional trades, artisans and artists. We hoped that the government would play a pivotal role in their safeguarding and preservation, but there was a change in state government and the initiative was unfortunately discontinued. But we would be very happy to work with GTWHI again in the future.”

The discontinuation of PHT’s ICH inventorying prompted the trust to establish the Living Heritage Treasures Awards (LHTA) in 2005 to honour, acknowledge and give long-overdue recognition to Penang’s master craftsmen and women who have dedicated their lives to using traditional skills to create tangible and intangible products that form an important part of Penang’s culture.2

Songkok-maker Haja Mohideen receiving the PHT-LHTA plaque and prize from Datuk Maimunah Shariff, the former mayor of the Penang Island City Council.

“How this goes is that the public can nominate candidates for the LHTA, and their qualifications as potential recipients will be assessed by an independent panel of council members. If successful, the recipients will be allocated a certain monetary fund annually until their passing. A maximum of 10 recipients are awarded the LHTA; once a recipient passes away, only then will we open up the LHTA applications again,” explains Lim.

“We also have the Penang Apprenticeship Programme for Artisans, or PAPA for short. It’s a community-based project conducted by the craftsmen and women of George Town through a series of workshops for our youngsters to learn and put to practice the traditional trades and skills. One of the students who came to our woodcarving workshop has gone on to nurture his passion since mastering the skill.”

Changing Perceptions

PHT also organises workshops such as the Chinese Opera Workshop to expand participants' creative potential, talent and imaginative power.

Lim says that she’s aware of PHT being viewed as elitist and not in touch with the grassroots, but reasons that “conservation efforts are not an elitist movement. We’ve been talking to the grassroots albeit on a low profile. At one time, there was a proposal to demolish the clan jetties because the residents were without a land title – they are still without one today.

“From the heritage standpoint, the jetties are historically very important because they witnessed the migration of the Chinese to Malaya. But with help from the media and Didier Repellin, a consultant from Unesco, in 2007, we successfully managed to avoid the intended demolition. This was just one of the initiatives PHT worked on to protect Penang’s heritage, as well as the traditional trades and artisans who are members of the grassroots.”

Community engagement is part of PHT’s two-prong approach in conservation management; the other is documentation. “I think documentation is important. To me, it’s the first stage of any conservation initiative. I’ll give you an example: I was asked to narrate the ritual of Chneah Hoay which takes place on the 14th night of the Chinese New Year for a Chinese TV channel a few years back.

“While at the celebrations, I noticed youngsters partaking in the procession as well. Curious to know how they knew to properly conduct the procession, and why when it turned into Lebuh Gereja did the procession suddenly pick up momentum, I asked them. They were taught these practices by their elders, but had no inkling about the stories behind this and that action. They didn’t know that the procession is very much tied to the 1867 Penang Riots, and the fierce feud between the Ghee Hin and Hai San secret societies – the Hai San headquarters was located along Lebuh Gereja.

PHT site visit to St Anne's Church at Bukit Mertajam in 2014..

“These traditions have been passed down, but people only see them superficially. In my capacity as the president of PHT, I try to educate these youngsters on their history through story-telling. It engages their attention and interest. Many see George Town and Penang as a food paradise, a tourism hotspot, but there is much more than that. Both are infinitely rich with values and histories to be discovered. The ICH, even more than the tangible aspects, stands a higher risk of disappearing if not properly documented and safeguarded.”

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.
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