Saturday, June 28, 2014

George Town’s heritage tag may be double edged sword, warn conservationists

As a Penangnite, just talk about Georgetown Penang to any tourist and what will you say?

Street art!!

Yes, the image of the the 2 children on bicycles comes to mind when talking about visiting Georgetown heritage areas!

Everyone seems to be mural hunting now and all waiting to press on that "upload" button to show the whole world the awesome photo they took at the murals on social media sites!

Now, as the "likes" start poring in, and the comments keep growing..
BUT what lies beneath the surface of the whole scenario?

This articles tells a sad, frightening, alarming yet very real tale about the "heritage" status of Georgetown and according to the will the story of Georgetown heritage city end?

George Town’s heritage tag may be double edged sword, warn conservationists
BY LOOI SUE- CHERN | Published: 25 June 2014

Penang Heritage Trust president, Khoo Salma Nasution during an interview with The Malaysian Insider reporter in Lebuh Acheh in George Town, Penang. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Hasnoor Hussain, June 25, 2014.Penang has been enjoying a steady growth in its tourism sector since George Town earned Unesco's recognition as a world heritage city six years ago, but heritage conservationists are also getting worried about unrestraint tourism development in the sensitive area.

Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) president Khoo Salma Nasution said the heritage city may also suffer negative effects from what is done, not so much for tourism than in the name of tourism.

She said unrestraint tourism development, the rises in property prices and rental has seen the original residents pushed out of the city.

"We now have less than 10,000 residents, like in the days of Francis Light (who founded the British settlement in Penang in 1786). Previously, the population in the city was 50,000 to 100,000 people. It was a bustling city where people lived.

"Now people still work here but the city is more geared towards tourism until we have lost our own living and working city. It should be our city, a place where tourists can come and visit.

"This has happened to many world heritage sites, where they have become a playground for others and no longer the people's city...I worry that we may be repeating the same mistakes as other tourism destinations if we are not careful," she told The Malaysian Insider in a recent interview.

Khoo Salma said local Penangites are saying that they do not go downtown or to 'Tanjung' (George Town) anymore because there are more tourists than locals while many things have become expensive.

"We still have this cluster of real local businesses like Chinese medicine halls, Indian spice and traditional wear shops, and florists that locals still go to because of the Masjid Kapitan Keling, Goddess of Mercy Temple and Arulmigu Sri Mahamariamman Temple, which attract many devotees during festivals.

"Some of the people running the business used to live in the neighbourhood, like the joss stick sellers outside the Goddess of Mercy Temple. I don't know about now.

"They may still be selling joss sticks but the items may be manufactured by a big company elsewhere. Some of the businesses may had been taken over and turned into franchises," she said, also citing how some saree shops in Little India could be owned by the same owner from India.

Khoo Salma cautioned that this happens because the original residents can no longer afford to live in the heritage city, causing the stakeholders to switch from locals to people who are not from Penang.

She said this is true for most tourism resorts, like in Bali, where people say most of the five-star hotel owners are from Jakarta.

"We should be looking more at local participation in the tourism industry. Local businesses should be more of a sustainable type. They should be protected and supported but sometimes, too much local participation may also present problems. It is a bit complicated.

"Take Chew Jetty – one of the heritage clan jetties in Pengkalan Weld – for example. It used to be a real residential area but the atmosphere has changed. The local community there have opened tourist shops.

"Although it is good that locals are benefitting from the businesses, the character of Chew Jetty has changed. It feels like a tourist arcade instead of a place where visitors can go and see how the people there live. This is the impact of mass tourism," she said.

Khoo Salma also cautioned how places have become tourist attractions too fast before many issues are worked out.

The city experiences an influx of tourists and old houses and shops in town are turned into boutique hotels, hostels, restaurants and cafes, while prices become inflated and the original communities are displaced, she said.

"A little gentrification can be good but too much is grotesque," she said.

She said this may all be part of a cycle, which will one day reach a point where there is a new hot destination elsewhere and Penang's tourism will no longer be talked about.

When that time comes, she said we could have already destroyed our own city while the people whose livelihoods are dependent on tourism will suffer a drop in their income.

"At some point, it will all stabilise then things will not be so exciting anymore. It is impossible for it to keep growing. It is not sustainable.

"When heritage people talk about sustainability, it is a way to get people to be involved in the cultural industry while keeping the local involvement and quality so businesses can be sustainable in the long run.

"When you talk to the business community, sustainability means the businesses keep growing and growing. It cannot be...nothing keeps growing forever," she said, stressing that business gains must also be for the improvement of the local communities, not the short-term gain for property speculators and investors, who may take the money they have made in Penang elsewhere later.

Khoo Salma said George Town needs to have real indicators and information like how many boutique hotels are there in the city, the number of people still living in the city, how many had been displaced, who and how many are engaged in the tourism and culture industry, and whether they are locals or outsiders.

Such information, she said, is needed for the authorities to make or modify policies and determine the long-term direction of the Unesco heritage city of George Town.

"We need the authorities to share with us these indicators if they have them. For now, I feel we do not seem to have policies in place to make sure that the benefits reaped from our tourism also go into heritage conservation support and the sustaining of local communities.

"We need a mechanism for it. Everyone is just capitalising on it now," she said.

The Malaysian Insider also met three people in the heritage city, who can attest to what Khoo Salma said.

Yin Kok Sin repairs vintage furniture at his workshop at Armenian street in George Town, Penang. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Hasnoor Hussain, June 25, 2014.Yin Kok Sin, 76, who repairs rattan chairs in an old shop house on Lebuh Armenian, said he was born in a house on Lebuh Chulia in town and lived there until more than 10 years ago.

With the Rent Control Act, which previously kept rental rates in town low, was repealed in 2000, after which he could no longer afford to live in George Town and moved to a flat in the suburbs or Farlim.

"It got too expensive to live in town, so we moved. But I am still renting a small space in this shop for my furniture repair work. It is a small business but it helps me pass time," said the grandfather of two.

Retired teacher Mohamed Yahaya, 76, was born at his ancestral home at 69, Lebuh Acheh, just next to the heritage mosque there. He is the fifth generation descendant of Acheen Street Mosque imam Sheikh Omar Basheer, who lived in the same house, and is chairman of Badan Warisan Masjid Melayu Pulau Pinang.

His village is over 200 years old, Mohamed said, and he still lives there holding on to the history and heritage of the place and its forefathers.

"The village used to have over 200 residents but now they have about 60. Young people don't want to stay, but they all come back during holidays like Hari Raya to see the place and listen to old stories about their ancestors.

"This village was the 'Second Jeddah' because pilgrims from Kelantan and the northern states congregated here before leaving for Mecca by ships in the 19th century," he said.

Mohamed said tourists, who go to see Khoo Kongsi nearby, would visit the mosque but many of the foreign visitors are not well-versed with local customs and etiquette when entering the 206-year-old mosque.

"Some don't know they have to take off their shoes and come wearing shorts. I hope the relevant authorities can station a guard who can also act as a guide to advice tourists and tell them a brief history of the mosque," he said.

Toy museum operator and antique trader Mohd Ariffin Ahmed Tahir, 49, whose business on Lebuh Acheh is three years old, said "things are pretty much the same" with the Unesco recognition and business is only good during holidays when people go to see the street art in town.

"I feel that the heritage city status was just a hype in the early stages. Now people are here for the city's street art. Many young people come to my museum to rent bicycles to explore the area. They are mostly local visitors.

"I hope the relevant authorities can organise more events and festivals. It will bring people here and help support the local businesses," he said.

George Town, together with Malacca, received the Unesco World Heritage site inscription on July 7, 2008. Both cities were jointly recognised for their living multicultural heritage communities and architectural treasures.

Both cities met the Unesco World Heritage Committee's 'Outstanding Universal Values' – a set of ideas or values which are universally recognised as important or as having influenced the evolution of mankind as a whole.

Both cities represent exceptional examples of multicultural trading towns in East and Southeast Asia due to their exchanges in trade and cultures of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans, and are also living testimonies to the multicultural heritage and tradition of Asia.

The cities are home to both tangible and intangible heritage, particularly the different religious buildings that reflect the religious pluralism of the region. They also reflect the cultural elements from the Malay archipelago, India and China in their architecture like old shop houses and townhouses, cultures and townscape.

Khoo Salma said the Unesco inscription has brought paradigm shifts to Penang, like reorienting the building industry to be part of restoring, preserving and conserving heritage buildings, which are now here to stay.

"One of the intentions of the heritage movement is to mainstream heritage. To do that we also need a heritage industry, recognising that the heritage building stock is aging and always needs maintenance repairs and revitalisation.

"That is why you need to make heritage mainstream so that a small part of the building industry is also geared towards maintaining and servicing the heritage buildings. Previously, the building industry was mainly focused on replacing old buildings with new ones," she said.

Khoo Salma said the Unesco recognition also steered some of the state's tourism focus towards cultural tourism, as well as create new interest and passion in learning about heritage.

There has been a shift in cultural values, she said, with people seeing heritage and cultural learning as continuous education and as also something shared by everyone, with George Town itself being a multicultural city in the past and will continue to be in the future.

Owner of BEN Toy museum, Mohd Ariffin Ahmed Tahir seen at his shop in Lebuh Acheh, George Town. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Hasnoor Hussain, June 25, 2014."Heritage helps us understand our own culture so we stop seeing it as something that belongs to another ethnic, religion and so forth. We see it as a shared heritage.

"So this has created a new platform for shared values. In that sense, all three paradigm shifts has been achieved in a very broad sense."

However, the city still faces other challenges, such as institutionalising heritage conservation – a task the government and cultural institutions must take on, Khoo Salma said.

While everyone has a role to play in maintaining heritage, she said the government remains to be the authority that makes sure that is done, monitoring and managing such efforts.

"That requires the government to build institutions that can take on this challenge and role. In the past, the NGOs played the role of watchdogs and issues were dealt with on an ad hoc basis.

"On some occasions we succeeded while other times we failed. But now we have to get a system created to monitor and manage heritage conservation. We must have information, policies, administration and enforcement.

"That is in the process but there is a long way to go because heritage is very complex. The issue itself is still something new to us and we may not fully understand the full impact of tourism yet," she said.

In some countries, where heritage conservation had been part of the people's culture for a long time, such institutions are running well and buildings that has been around for hundreds of years are still standing because they have the people with all the skills and knowledge for the job, she said.

Khoo Salma said the situation is more challenging in Malaysia because heritage conservation is not in our education system, just like how environmentalism was lacking in the system previously.

"Right now, heritage is not as mainstream as environmental education. We need to put it into the system so when children grow up, they know they should be concerned about heritage...that has to create a new generation of heritage conscious citizens," she said.

Khoo Salma also said children today do not know their local historical figures like Kapitan Keling of George Town because such characters are not part of their history lessons.

With hopes to help encourage better heritage appreciation and conservation understanding, PHT has been providing civic cultural education, she said.

Retired teacher Mohamed Yahaya, has lived in his ancestral home for more than 76 years. He is also the fifth generation descendant of Acheen Street Mosque imam Sheikh Omar Basheer, who also lived in the same house. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Hasnoor Hussain, June 25, 2014.Some of PHT's programmes are also geared towards keeping the traditional and heritage trades and skills alive, such as bead show making, wood carving and rattan weaving – which are fast dying with the old generation of artisans and craftsmen – through the Penang Apprenticeship Programme for Artisans (PAPA), she said.

"The apprenticeship programme has gone quite well. The students are those genuinely wanting to learn the skills and make a living out of it. They are also paid an allowance to learn the skills."

The state government-set up George Town World Heritage Incorporated, has also been organising educational programmes in town for locals and visitors.

"We have been getting foreign and domestic tourists and even university students, who come here to conduct researches. In that sense, everything is positive," she said. 

– June 25, 2014


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