George Town Caught in the Crises and Chances that Change Offers

Saleh Rawther on Lebuh Queen has been providing stevedoring and ship chandler services for over 60 years.

In the beginning, George Town was a trading port. It strongly linked the Malay Peninsula to resource-rich areas in South-east Asia and the European market in the period of booming spice trade. Under British colonisation until 1957, it functioned as a free port where goods could be traded without the imposition of taxes, duties or tariffs.

In 1970, however, its free port status was officially removed, and with that began the waning of the city’s significance on the seafaring route. Penang’s economy shifted away from the port area to the south, to Bayan Lepas, which later came to be known as the Silicon Valley of the East.

Many of the inner city’s businesses, which were very port-centric, were devastated. Stevedoring and ship chandelling services were among them. In 1985 the Penang Port Labour Board, which regulates the entry of all port labour for Penang port, trimmed down its workforce to promote higher productivity and greater efficiency.1 Many historic communities who owed their origins to port operations – which provided jobs for stevedores and ship chandlers – gradually vanished when port operations shifted almost entirely to Province Wellesley and when barter trade ceased in the 1980s.2

According to the 2012 Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, four related companies were recorded, but only two remain today. SM Mohamed Yusoff Rawther & Co., located on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, is the oldest, and has been supplying labour for the loading and unloading of ships for a century. Saleh Rawther on Lebuh Queen has also been providing similar services for over 60 years. But with new technologies and automation, their future in the coming decades is uncertain.

Chulia Street is one of the most vibrant streets in George Town. The number of food operators has increased by 10% compared to the previous inventory record in 2012.

The demand for cane and rattan goods has also plummeted, and rather surprisingly, this had to do with the removal of George Town’s free port status as well. During their heyday, rattan makers made big baskets that could securely pack over 200kg of food and supplies to be shipped abroad. Another bestseller were the lantern-shaped bumpers that were tied to the sides of ships to protect their hull. These are no longer relevant today. Shortly after 1970, in a bid to sustain their dwindling business the rattan makers also made pig baskets; but even those were soon replaced by iron cages, which were more durable.

Seang Hin Leong’s third generation owner, Sim Buck Teik.

The leather goods maker, blacksmith and wooden blinds maker that are still open for business on Lebuh Chulia.

Are we going to revive the glory days of the port, rely on the current tourism trend or create other possibilities? The answer will determine the future of George Town and its industries.

One of the two existing cane and rattan shops in George Town, Seang Hin Leong, currently in its fourth generation, started diversifying its products and services around the 1970s. The trend these days is to use rattan products as decorative furniture or as fashion accessories. Apart from supplying raw rattan materials and customised rattan goods, Seang Hin Leong also sells imported rattan lampshades, bags, utensils and small souvenirs to cater to market demands.

Trades in Transition

Now that George Town has become hip again – much thanks to its Unesco World Heritage site listing and its Instagrammability – it is experiencing a great influx of tourists. They flock here for unique experiences, and its much-raved street food.

And this means that the trades in the city have also changed. In a recent survey done on Lebuh Chulia, one of the most vibrant parts of the city, the number of food operators had increased by 10% compared to the previous count in 2012. Cafes and bars occupy heritage buildings around Lorong Love, stretching all the way to Jalan Penang, the cause of much consternation among locals because of the traffic woes caused.

Establishing eateries is not the only way to breathe life into heritage buildings though, and many business owners have looked for ways to improve their lot. Some craftsmen have creatively improved their operations and adapted well. In the past, leather goods makers used to produce leather bags, shoes, belts or hajj belts, but they have now altered their services to repair expensive leather bags and suitcases instead. Electroplating shops function dually as antique shops through purchasing eclipsed gold, silver or copper antiques, and restoring them with the help of technology to be sold off at a better price. Chinese medical halls sell their products with multilingual instructions; coffee factories introduce instant coffee that come in an array of flavours; and food trucks have become the trend, increasing the variety of food available.

From a different perspective, the thriving bars, cafes and restaurants serve the needs of the contemporary George Town population, providing travellers, locals and the younger generation alike with places to relax. In fact, they fill up the vacant spaces left behind by failed businesses such as internet cafes, sundry shops or unlicensed hostels, while continuing to maintain George Town’s vitality.

The city’s development is inevitable. Its inscription as a World Heritage site may help it resist economic decay, but conserving its heritage in its original form may prove impossible. There is a need to explore alternatives to strike a balance between preserving the past and catering to the needs of the future – which industry will drive the city’s development, and how it can be properly managed are issues that need to be addressed.

Lim Sok Swan is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.

1“Labour Board to boost productivity.” Business Times, 25 February 1985, p 17.
2Rejuvenating the City Together. Think City, 2017, p 56.

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