From "The World At Your Fingertips"

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MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12
A City At A Crossroad
Caught between the past and the future, can George Town preserve its unique qualities?

By ARJUNA RANANAWA George Town, Penang



Asiaweek Pictures
A rooftop view across to the bridge to peninsular Malaysia

Things are looking grim for Daisy Chuah. The fiercely independent 63-year-old spinster has lived on Bangkok Lane all her life. But now her rent has been tripled. With an aged mother to look after, and with insufficient funds to pay the new rate demanded by her landlord, the retired clerk is facing eviction. She says she has nowhere to go. Chuah's dilemma is typical of what may be in store for several thousand residents of George Town, capital of the Malaysian state of Penang, in the wake of controversial plans to renovate the historic heart of the city.

Conservationists fear renovation will drive out locals, killing George Town's unique cultural heritage. With its Chinese shophouses, colonial bungalows and Anglo-Indian mansions, the city has no peer among the region's ports. The central district is an Asian kaleidoscope, housing rich and poor, skilled and unskilled, and people worshipping a variety of gods and plying different trades. Living cheek by jowl are the descendants of immigrants from China, India and Indonesia, along with Burmese, Thais, Europeans and Arabs and more.

A mosque built for convicts and soldiers brought from Bengal by the British colonialists is within shouting distance of a temple dedicated to Wu Chi, the Chinese deity and patron of goldsmiths. The temple is next to an old athletic association where the Shaolin martial arts have been taught for more than 150 years. A fashion boutique run by a thoroughly modern Chinese couple stands alongside an ancient barber's shop operated by two men whose ancestors came from West Bengal. The boutique would fit into any upmarket area of Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, while the barber's - well it seems to have been plucked from another time, another place.

The food gives a taste of the ethnic mix, with stalls hawking authentic recipes from the region: meats cooked in the Mughal style or shredded and stir-fried as in China, plus spicy Tamil curries, hot-and-sour assam laksa and Malay char-grilled satay. And then there are the art forms. One is traditional opera called Bangsawan, which has its roots in Indian drama, but is now uniquely Malaysian. A new production being planned will be a version of the Chinese opera Liang San Peh Chu Eng Tai, which itself is a Chinese take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It will be performed in English.

But now much of George Town's special Straits feel could be in jeopardy, following the abandonment of a 40-year-old law that controlled rents and protected tenants from eviction. The change came into effect at the beginning of this year. A study done in February for the Consumer Association of Penang indicates that, as a result, fully a third of the inner-city could empty if the currently threatened evictions are eventually carried out. Says Ong Boon Keong, a young activist mobilizing the tenants: "If all of them go, George Town will finish up a dead city. It is already dying. The cultural and economic activity that made the place what it is, it's disappearing."

The Penang Heritage Trust is the prominent non-governmental organization involved in preserving George Town's past. Its chairman, Choong Sim Poey, says the trust has realized it is no longer enough simply to preserve buildings. "We have to keep society and communities intact. With the end of rent controls, it is particularly important that we ensure that, along with retaining the rich cultural heritage, the people are allowed to live in the inner-city." Trust secretary Khoo Salma Nasution, who owns an outstanding old property, says: "We want to protect the cultural diversity. Everybody has a place here - and there is a unique interface between the various communities."

The man tasked with solving the problem, Penang Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon, told Asiaweek: "The inner-city is the historical and heritage enclave. I would like to see it properly conserved and redeveloped according to certain well laid-out guidelines. I want to keep the living heritage, the special multicultural mix so unique to Malaysia, particularly in Penang and Malacca." Koh says the appeal of the central area is one of the main reasons George Town receives 3.5 million tourists a year, more than 60% of them from overseas. The Penang government, with help from the Heritage Trust and others, is putting up a joint bid for George Town and Malacca to be accorded World Heritage status. At the moment, George Town appears as one of the 100 most endangered heritage sites on the list maintained by the New York-based World Heritage Watch.

Koh says he has to deal with extreme points of view. "There is a developer who says, let's demolish all the old buildings, let's get the maximum. I would oppose people who want total destruction. Then there are those who are very academic, who have no economic viability in mind and who say, preserve everything, don't touch anything. That view, too, I would be against. Heritage is an evolving thing; it reflects the living creativity of different people in different periods." The chief minister says he is working out a set of guidelines for what he calls "adaptive re-use" of heritage buildings. "This means we preserve the buildings and use them for another purpose, or we can preserve the facades and allow the building of three to five stories at the back, depending on the heritage and historic value of each building."

Many developers are now using the term adaptive re-use. One of the biggest landlords in the city, Khoo Kongsi - the clan association of the Khoo family - has a scheme for the 24 houses that surround the historic Khoo Kongsi temple (see story below). "We plan extensive renovations," says trustee Khoo Kay Hock. "We want to use the bottom floor for shops and restaurants and offer budget accommodation upstairs. We are willing to negotiate with tenants who want to run that kind of establishment, but if extensive renovations are called for, they will have to go." For 27-year-old Goh Hun Meng, a graphic designer, this is terrible news. "Our family has lived here for 91 years," he says. "This is our village. The children play safely on the road. All of us are like one big family. This is a very human living space. Perhaps I can adjust to living in a cheap high-rise, but for my grandmother, it will be like death."

The Khoo association, which has raised rents by 50% on 119 other houses it owns in the city, insists the renovation plan will preserve the entirety of the temple area in its original form, while increasing its economic viability. But heritage activists are opposed to this approach. Says Salma: "They want to gentrify the buildings. We don't want theme parks here, with one calligrapher and one artisan retained just for show. What's the use of buildings without people?"

So will old George Town die? Chief Minister Koh insists it won't. He says the population of the inner-city has been declining anyway and the government has been forced to close down two schools in the past few years. He maintains his plan for adaptive re-use, which will come into force sometime in the middle of this year, will preserve around 5,000 houses and buildings. He is armed with a $60 million federal government soft loan, plus a $5 million Penang government grant. These funds will be given to landlords - part grant, part soft loan - to help them renovate their buildings and also to try and retain as many tenants as possible. Koh says: "We are in the process of identifying those trades that are essential for the preservation of the characteristics of George Town. Maybe old people and the poor will have to move out to state housing projects or to low- and medium-cost housing, while through a process of conservation and re-development, some other people will move in."

Local politicians as well as citizens' groups such as the Consumer Association have brokered meetings between long-time tenants and their landlords. Chuah and her fellow residents along Bangkok Lane are to talk with the trustees of the Chia Kongsi, a clan association that owns their houses, to try to reach a compromise. Teoh Poh Huat, a director in the Penang office of Property Consultants Henry Butcher, Lim and Long, says the local real-estate market is stable, and he does not expect large rent rises. Some landlords may see a chance to make money after many years of restrictions, he acknowledges, but if they force their tenants out through exorbitant rent increases, they may not easily find others to replace them.

In January, over 600 George Town tenants received eviction orders dated March 31. It seems there will be resistance to the move, particularly from a group called "Save OurSelves." On March 17, three of its members were arrested after they burst into a meeting attended by Chief Minister Koh. They were released on bail. More protests are now threatened.

Toh Kin Woon, an executive committee member of the Penang government, is in no doubt that a key moment in George Town's history has arrived. "The city is at a crossroad," he says. "We can go the Singapore way and try for super-development, or we can try to retain the soul of George Town. If we destroy that, then we - the government and the people of Penang - will have to bear the responsibility."

Polishing A Chinese Jewel

A clan temple is one of Penang's treasures

They emerged in the 17th century from southeastern Heng Lin district in China's Fujian province - tough, pig-tailed sailors who navigated their junks through the South China Sea to Burma, Malaysia and on to Indonesia. These hardy adventurers were from the Khoo clan. By the time British colonialists chose to set up a trading post on the island of Penang in 1786, many of them were already well settled there. Today they are a thriving community, owning substantial property in George Town and perhaps best known for their Khoo Kongsi temple - one of the finest heritage buildings in Malaysia. It receives some 800 visitors a day all year round.

The Khoos' Kongsi - or Clan Association - was formally established in 1884, when one of its first decisions was to build a great temple to replace the modest one where the family had prayed for the previous 50 years. This magnificent structure was finished by 1901, but burned down soon afterward. It was replaced by the current building, which was completed in 1906. The work was carried out by master craftsmen, artisans and artists brought from China. With them came the building materials.

For the past 100 years or so, the temple has been used for worship and for special Khoo clan celebrations. The building is inside what the British termed Canon Square, which was designed with security in mind. There is only one principal entrance, wide enough for just a single vehicle. The other passages are so narrow only one person at a time can squeeze through. On all four sides of the square are houses that members of the Khoo family originally occupied. Most now have tenants, the prosperous Khoos having moved out and up in the world. Inside the temple are altars to the God of Prosperity and for honoring the many Khoo ancestors. On the walls hang wooden plaques with the names of family members who have been recognized for special service. Only menfolk are treated this way - even today.

At the moment, the temple is covered with plastic sheets and ringed with scaffolding. It is undergoing a $1 million restoration - the first time any major work has been carried out. Temple trustee Khoo Kay Hock told Asiaweek that teams of artisans have been brought from various parts of China. "One of the most difficult projects is the restoration of the roof," he says. The century-old beams are being replaced and new ones are being hand-carved. Terra-cotta tiles manufactured to original specifications in a rural Chinese kiln have arrived and are waiting to be laid.

After considerable deliberation, the trust decided not to repaint the works of art on the walls. Instead, members of the Indian team that restored the murals in the Taj Mahal are due to begin work sometime in May, to return each one to its original sheen. "The paintings have been blackened over the years," says Khoo. "We hope that the soot and damage from bat droppings can be cleaned off." The plastic sheets are scheduled to be removed from the Khoo Kongsi temple in the middle of next year, when one of George Town's architectural jewels will glitter again.