WORLD FOCUS

Unesco listing both a boon and bane for George Town

Tourism has boomed since city was named a heritage site in 2008, but locals lament gentrification and rising costs

Arriving by land and sea, thousands of tourists flock to Penang's century-old clan jetties every day. These were once a collection of ramshackle huts on stilts - the oldest examples of Chinese settlements in Malaysia - on the verge of being demolished by property developers. But they are now filled with colourful homes peddling souvenirs, snacks and lodgings to the cultural traveller.

Since the island's capital George Town was listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site in 2008, the number of visitors to the six jetties has soared, their prying eyes and invasive selfies the bane of local residents.

Homestay operator Chew Siew Pheng admits the jetties "would be a pile of planks" today if the Unesco prescription had not halted bulldozers from razing what are technically squatter homes. Two similar jetties were demolished in 2006.

"But during peak season, the Chew Jetty is barely liveable," she tells The Straits Times.

Like other Unesco heritage sites before it, George Town's "outstanding universal value" has been both shielded and threatened by its new status. Over 1,000 locations have been designated as heritage sites by the United Nations, but the prestigious label draws a stampede of visitors and the inevitable rush to capitalise on tourism dollars.

This phenomenon of "Unescocide", argued sociology writer Marco d'Eramo in 2004, preserves buildings but erodes the communities around them.

Sites such as Laos' Luang Prabang, the Vietnamese old town of Hoi An and even Venice in Italy now host millions of visitors a year who come to gawk at their historical architecture. Yet, many of these buildings now house cafes, hotels and tourist shops similar to those which now line the streets of George Town, showing little evidence of the living, human heritage that has shaped each distinct site over the centuries.

  • 3.3m

  • Number of air passenger arrivals to Penang in 2016. This is more than double from 2007, before the Unesco listing.

    9,300

    About half of the 18,660 residents in the 260ha George Town World Heritage Site have left since the area's Unesco nomination in 2007.

    20%

    Percentage of traditional traders and craftsmen - charcoal makers, rattan weavers, wood carvers - who have disappeared since 2012 when an inventory was taken by George Town World Heritage Incorporated.

TOO CROWDED

During peak season, the Chew Jetty is barely liveable.

HOMESTAY OPERATOR CHEW SIEW PHENG, on how the number of visitors to the century-old clan jetties has soared.

TRANSFORMATION

There's going to be a big change. You won't be able to recognise George Town later.

MR R. SARWAISVERAN, honorary secretary of the Penang Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, on the shrinking community of people who have lived and traded in the city for years.

PRESERVING HERITAGE

The fear (of losing the living heritage) is real. At this point, we have to seriously check the continued gentrification of the site.

MR CHOW KON YEOW, state executive councillor for local government, on plans to restore more heritage buildings.

Mr R. Sarwaisveran, 65, is part of a shrinking community in the city centre who lives and trades where he was born.

"There's going to be a big change. You won't be able to recognise George Town later," says Mr Sarwaisveran, honorary secretary of the Penang Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He is a fifth-generation migrant who was born and raised in the family's 79-year-old home in King's Street. He and his wife live in the shophouse in Little India and run a textile and beauty business from it. But soaring property prices and rising living costs mean his days there are numbered.

"A lot of tourists are coming in and restaurants and hotels are making money. Textile merchants are not," he says ruefully.

Tourism now accounts for more than 40 per cent of Penang's economy. Its airport is bursting at its seams, with arrivals more than doubling from 2007 - before the Unesco listing - to 3.3 million in 2016. This has led to gentrification, and the culture and traditions that made the city unique are slowly being replaced by lookalike boutique hotels and "Instagrammable" cafes.

Official data shows that tourist accommodation in the city has grown by 60 per cent between 2009 and 2013, and activists believe there has been similar growth in modern cafes.

Meanwhile, about half of the 18,660 residents in the 260ha George Town World Heritage Site have left since the area's Unesco nomination in 2007. According to George Town Heritage Action Group spokesman Mark Lay, a survey that the group conducted in 2016 found about 20 per cent of traditional traders and craftsmen - charcoal makers, rattan weavers, wood carvers - have disappeared since 2012, when an inventory was taken by George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), the official site manager set up by the state government.

But GTWHI general manager Ang Ming Chee points out that in addition to traditional heritage, the site is also recognised by Unesco as an "exceptional example of multicultural trading towns in the East and South-east Asia" showing "successive changes over a long span of time".

"We are a trading town but a lot of people confuse this with traditional trades. Trading towns change all the time but the whole city is alive and people still trade," she tells The Straits Times.

A key factor driving gentrification is the increased cost of living and working in George Town. Along with the heritage status comes rules on how buildings are to be preserved, including strictures on the materials used, construction techniques and whether fixtures like staircases can be moved.

With many of the buildings in a dilapidated state after four decades of rent control laws, property owners are baulking at restoration bills of up to RM500,000 (S$158,900), about 10 times the amount normal repairs would have cost.

Instead, they have cashed in on foreign and local investor demand for the 3,771 buildings within the heritage zone, where a two-storey terraced shophouse currently costs up to RM5 million - three times the pre-2008 values.

With higher cost comes higher rental and the need for businesses that yield returns far higher than barber and coffee shops. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has acknowledged the problem, but tells The Straits Times that his government could not stand in the way of "willing buyer, willing seller" transactions.

Some quarters have made an effort to intervene in this free market.

Mr Tan Shih Thoe's family own several properties in and around the Unesco site, including the Hin Bus Depot, now one of Penang's top arts and events space. They, like some other landlords, have offered staggered rental hikes for existing tenants, despite having to pay huge restoration bills upfront.

"We focus more on tenants that bring value to the area. I want to help and support someone who is passionate and professional," he says.

In addition to local gestures of goodwill, the federal government's urban renewal agency Think City, run by sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional, has also made inroads.

In 2010, it embarked on the Hock Teik Initiative, a pilot Community Development Fund (CDF) project to restore the 150-year-old Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple. The temple's landlords were handed a US$15,000 (S$20,000) matching grant - after they agreed to put up the same amount - to undertake structural repairs to the premises, which house 36 tenants, some of whom have been living there for three generations.

The grant was conditional on tenants being given the security of a 10-year lease. On their part, the tenants agreed to pay a slightly higher monthly rent of RM400, which would also finance minor works within their own lots such as paintwork, pest control and fixing leaks.

The project's success spurred the Penang state government to pledge RM3 million in its 2018 budget to expand the CDF concept to other heritage buildings.

"The fear (of losing the living heritage) is real," Mr Chow Kon Yeow, state executive councillor for the local government, tells The Straits Times. "At this point, we have to seriously check the continued gentrification of the site, maybe through licensing or precinct zoning."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2018, with the headline 'Unesco listing both a boon and bane for George Town'. Print Edition | Subscribe