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Wednesday, November 05, 2003  

From THE STAR By Neil Khor Jin Keong

On the heritage trail


THE inner city of Penang's capital, Georgetown, resonates with a colourful and multicultural heritage.

A stroll along one of Penang's oldest roads--Farquhar Street, for example--leads you to East Asia's first girls' school--the Convent Light Street founded in 1852. The school is but one of the many historical structures that dot the charming city.

The City Council building situated on the Esplanade is another interesting historical site, but what really amazes are the various clan houses, 19th century mosques and Indian temples that allow the visitor to experience nearly all of Asia in one short stroll.

Penang


Penang's George Town grew around the island port and Fort Cornwallis. The interesting buildings seen here along Penang Road in 1930 are still relatively well-preserved today. Notice the few cars on the road.Georgetown will be 215 years old this Aug 10, but the history of the island goes back longer than that.



The Penang Government still pays Kedah the honorary $10,000 that was agreed upon between Captain Francis Light, representing the East India Company (EIC), and the Sultan of Kedah.

Light, however, recorded that he was greeted by Penang's Malay inhabitants when he first landed on the island on July 17, 1786. There was also a Chinese village nearby and Light wrote that they gave him fishing-nets as gifts.

Penang was originally intended to be a trading post for the EIC and it is safe to say that its early history under British rule was characterised by economic difficulties. However, it managed to attract trade in pepper and tin.

Immigrants flocked to the island and thus began the island's unique multicultural community.

Penang


Penang has always depended on its port for its development.


Much of Penang's history is contentious. It is therefore not surprising that conserving heritage sites raises the ire of developers and conservationists.The former will object due to the obvious reason of losing a profit-making opportunity and the latter will object because they cannot agree on the history of the site.

George Town , for example, is claimed by many groups and reviled by an equally vociferous opposition. At some point in its municipal development--Georgetown was declared a city in 1955--the city status no longer applies because it does not fulfil the requirements set out by the Federal Government. This is another sore point with Penangites.

Conservationists cannot reconcile themselves with a shared heritage, often pitting one interpretation of history against another.

There was, however, one development that brought the heritage issue to the forefront of Penang society. When Georgetown was included in the list of the World's 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund, Penangites suddenly realised that they were about to lose their unique town. In the wake of the repeal of the Rent Control Act and with developers' insatiable appetite for prime land, the heritage of Georgetown is now in danger of being destroyed.

Thankfully the feisty northern Malaysian state is a hotbed of social activism. In the area of heritage conservation, the Penang Heritage Trust, a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving Penang's rich cultural heritage, is recognised internationally as one of Malaysia's most active conservationist groups.

The Trust seeks a common vision and innovative strategies that will allow urban revitalisation to be achieved through the efforts of government, the communities, commercial and local groups as well as national and international agencies.


Penang


Centennial celebration of Francis Light's landing in Penang. Light arrived on July 17, 1786 but only hoisted the Union Jack on Aug 10. The picture depicts Malay participation in the festivals.


However, conservation efforts are not without detractors. Various groups have come out hard against conservation efforts in Penang by highlighting that these efforts actually limit the rights of owners to earn rent from their properties. Other groups have also pointed out that the proposed Heritage Guidelines are too rigid and they will affect George Town's economic growth. Some point out that conservationists are not inclusive enough and compound the issue with a narrow reading of history that favours one community over another.

The result is the damaging accusation recently highlighted in an international magazine prompting the question: Whose heritage is being conserved?

The Penang Heritage Trust therefore decided to take the bull by the horns and initiated the Penang Story project. The Trust hopes to compile and document Penang's history free from the narrow confines of ethnocentricism. This is necessary firstly because there is a dearth of historical works on Penang.

Historians have traditionally downplayed Penang's role in the region due to its secondary position to Singapore in the Straits Settlements (1825-1948).

Yet recent research reveals a surprisingly vibrant history tracing movements of commodity and communities in the region to Penang.

Penang


The famed Chowrasta Market looking clean some 30 years after it was first built. This photo of the market was taken in 1950.


According to the Trust's president, Dr Choong Sim Poey, in order to obtain World Heritage Status, the documentation of historic sites is as important as the actual physical conservation itself. The project's aim is therefore to help document historic buildings in George Town and allow these sites to tell their unique stories.

Another important objective for organising this project is to rally Penang's urban community towards greater awareness of their history and heritage.

Admittedly, the Trust is limited by lack of funds and manpower and thus cannot document the heritage of every community as well as it would like to, therefore earning it bad feelings from those who were left out.

"One of the key objectives of the project," stressed the Trust's honorary secretary, Khoo Salma Nasution, ''is to highlight histories that have until now been neglected.

"One of the project's key aims is to collect oral histories and record them for posterity. People and their memories are our biggest assets."

If we can get everybody to contribute, then none would feel left out.

The project has two phases. The first will highlight a series of one-day seminars and colloquiums. The project's schedule (below in the box) promises to be interesting as this is the first time Penang's diverse communities are being invited to celebrate their culture and history together.


Penang


Eurasians in Penang can trace their roots back to the very founding of the Settlement. Francis Light's wife, Martina Rozells, was said to have come from Junk Ceylon (Phuket). There used to be a big Eurasian `village' in Pulau Tikus.


What is more important is that the seminars and colloquiums will be conducted in the various languages of these communities and thus help reduce the sense of alienation certain quarters have been subjected to because of the subordination of their mother tongues.

The project also involves the organising of an international conference celebrating the cultural diversity of Penang's history. Salma, speaking for the committee members of the project, explains that the adoption of the theme, the "Penang Story", instead of the "Penang History" conference is to provide more space for the inclusion of alternative histories and research in the conference.

"Penang has always been a melting pot of multiculturalism and therefore it is important that we celebrate its cultural diversity," she explained.

Furthermore, this will be the first place-specific conference in the region.

Indeed there is much that the Trust needs to do if Penang and Malacca are to be declared World Heritage sites. Thus far the Trust has done admirable work.

In 1993, the Trust lobbied the Government to carry out restoration work for the residence of Syed Mohamad Alatas--a good example of 19th century traditional Muslim residence. The Trust is also responsible for the restoration of the historic 18th century Francis Light Protestant Cemetery, and the repair of the Carpenter's Guild temple. The Trust restored and is currently housed in an early 20th century shophouse, formerly used as a mariner's lodge.

Penang


Penang nyonyas in traditional costume. Like the other Straits Settlements Penang boasts a multicultural heritage. The Chinese who settled here adopted local customs and dressing. The `sanggol nyonya' and kebaya are still popular among older Penangites.


Currently Muzium Negara is also involved in the restoration of Penang's heritage sites. Dr A. Ghafar Ahmad of Universiti Sains Malaysia spearheads one of the most interesting restoration projects. Dr Ghafar is currently leading the restoration of Fort Cornwallis. His earlier work included the prize-winning restoration of the Acheen Street Mosque, a unique heritage space for the Malay community in Penang.

More importantly, heritage sites without the support of the communities who live there are empty symbols. One of the reasons George Town is so popular is that its urban community has remained relatively unscathed by Malaysia's rapid industrialisation in the last decade.

The Rent Control Act and suburban expansion indirectly preserved the city. Although it is now impossible to keep things the way they are, the Trust and its supporters hope that some sort of middle ground can be achieved.

Thus the Penang Story series will highlight not only restoration works or historical pieces but also grouses from developers and the problems heritage building owners face in light of the repeal of the Rent Control Act and pressure to develop their properties.

At the same time, the series will also highlight how heritage sites can be re-used and how it is possible to sustain Penang's rich cultural diversity.

So next time you take a stroll down Farquhar Street, hopefully there will be notices explaining that you are actually walking on heritage trail that can lead you to the doors of the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel or the Syed Alatas Mansion. Then perhaps Penang will be truly a kaleidoscopic adventure.

posted by asam | 10:12 AM
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