The Long Journey To World Heritage Status
 
Sunday July 13, 2008-The Star / By NEIL KHOR JIN KEONG
 
 
SOME eight years ago, this paper, together with the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT), organised a project called the Penang Story. Its objective was to stimulate public interest in the history and heritage of Penang.
 
At that time, George Town and Malacca were being jointly nominated for Unesco World Heritage Listing.
 
Well over 50 articles were published in the weekly column, Penang Story. The Star also published Glimpses of Old Penang to commemorate the paper’s 30th anniversary and its historic origins in Penang.
 
Penang Story was but a small step in the long journey towards the World Heritage Listing of George Town. That move began as early as 1986 when a group of concerned citizens pooled their resources to form the PHT.
 
Led by Datuk Lim Chong Keat, the PHT was originally concerned with the conservation of buildings.
 
According to member Datuk Nazir Ariff, it was George Town’s collection of pre-World War II buildings, the largest in South-East Asia, that attracted most concern.
 
“Penang was developing at a massive rate and we were worried that our built heritage was going to be threatened,” he said.
 
In 1988, Khoo Salma Nasution edited and published the Pulau Pinang magazine, which drew attention to the living heritage of George Town. This approach highlighted the culture associated with the inner city.
 
Unique city
 
She followed up with the Streets of George Town and what were once dilapidated buildings now had new life.
 
In a way, George Town is unique not only because of its built heritage but because of the different ways of life those buildings represented. Over the years, this living heritage has attracted the world’s top scholars.
 
World-renowned anthropologist Janet Carstens finds George Town simply inspiring.
 
Australian Rick Atkinson, who first came as a backpacker in the 1980s and now teaches urban planning at the University of Adelaide, brings 20 students to George Town every year.
 
Penang’s very own Wazir Jehan Karim still conducts research here because of the rich fabric of its multi-ethnic community.
 
In reality, for most of the second half of the last century, George Town has been in economic decline. A port city where the harbour is no longer its chief economic focus meant that only the working class remained in the city.
 
In 1999, with the repeal of the Rent Control Act, George Town began to empty as rents went up.
 
Today, some parts of George Town are slowly returning to its original state. The Khoo Kongsi, for example, has restored its clan temple and surrounding properties.
 
The Teochew Association galvanised the entire Teochew community by restoring its clan temple. The dynamo behind it all was its youngest trustee Lim Gaik Siang. For their efforts, the association won a Unesco Conservation Prize last year.
 
Other restoration efforts have been funded by the state as well as foreign organisations.
 
The Acheen Street Malay Mosque and the Kapitan Keling Mosque, together with the Waqaf properties in the inner city, have all been brought back to life. This returns pride of place for George Town’s Muslim community.
 
Middle-class homes in Muntri Street and Armenian Street are slowly being restored.
 
Christopher Ong, a fifth-generation Penang Baba and winner of the Unesco conservation award for restoring a mansion and transforming it into a hotel in Fort Galle, Sri Lanka, invested in a shophouse in Muntri Street.
 
“My grandfather used to live here when Muntri Street was a middle-class Straits Chinese neighbourhood. I felt that if I was going to encourage others to invest, I had to show what was possible,” he explained.
 
Others did follow suit and now four other shophouses along Muntri Street are being restored.
 
“What is important is that we do not pickle George Town in aspic. We must maintain the facade and the roof-scape. But inside, owners must have a free hand to adapt the building to modern needs,” Ong added.
 
Perhaps the most spectacular personal contribution to George Town’s listing as a world heritage site is symbolised by the restoration of the Cheong Fatt-Tze Mansion.
 
Laurence Loh and Lim Lin Lee, the grand couple of heritage conservation, were awarded a Unesco Conservation Prize for their efforts. The Blue Mansion has put Penang on the map. The movie Indochine featuring superstar Catherine Deneuve was filmed there.
 
Also at the forefront of George Town’s bid for World Heritage Listing is Dr Choong Sim Poey, PHT president, outspoken critic and heritage activist. Not forgetting the indomitable Anwar Fazal, whose knowledge of George Town should qualify him as a living heritage.
 
The award of the World Heritage Status is the culmination of the efforts of the people of Penang but one must not forget the government of Dr Koh Tsu Koon.
 
It is now up to the Lim Guan Eng government to maintain and make the best of this wonderful headstart.
 
Neil Khor is the author of ‘Glimpses of Old Penang’ and with Khoo Salma Nasution, helped organise the Penang Story Project.
 
 
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