Partner country feature: Penang – when local heritage becomes world heritage

Khoo Salma Nasution, or “Ms. George Town” as many people in Penang playfully call her, is the former president and current vice-president of Penang Heritage Trust. For the past 20 years, she has struggled, but succeeded in conserving and revitalising much of George Town’s heritage, culminating in the significant role she played in George Town’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. We met with her in the charming setting of 23LoveLane Hotel – a “pearl” in terms of restoration in the heart of the old town. We asked Ms Khoo to tell us more about her background…

KSN: Actually, I am a writer, and I am also a publisher, and I have been active in the heritage movement since 1989. As you know, George Town and Malacca are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But it happened quite differently, because in Malacca at that time, the government was pushing for it, whereas in George Town, it was always the NGO, the civil society pushing for it. We had a rent control act, which kept many of the buildings intact. We knew the rent control act would be lifted sooner or later, and in the year 2000 that’s what happened. So, we needed some sort of heritage protection to replace the Rent Control Act. Luckily, the building boom, that had escalated until around 1997, crashed, so we still had a bit of time between 2000 and 2008, the year it was finally listed. Three operational criteria were included: the built heritage, which is the shop-houses and the townscape. Secondly, there’s the intangible cultural heritage, which is the community. They are still practicing the festivals, the traditional trades and so on. People are modern, many work in offices, but when it comes to festivals and religious celebrations, they all get involved. The third one is the trading history, which is the basis for this multi-cultural history, because we are a trading port. We are very outward looking with connections with many parts of the world.

So, there’s a change of paradigm here?

KSN: Yes. In the past, when people thought about Penang, they would think about beaches, Komtar, and the long bridge; but today, Penang has changed a lot. A main attraction is the George Town World Heritage site, and while a number of new hotels are opening, there are also many heritage buildings being repurposed for accommodation.

How did you become involved with the Heritage Trust?

KSN: I was in my twenties when I came back from the US, and at that time, in the 1980s, there was a kind of industrial Penang, as we have our own kind of ‘Silicon Valley’, and we had tourism on the other side of the island. In the 70’s, we were a free port, but we had to find a new basis for our economy. So, this was a two-pronged thing: one was tourism in the northern beaches area, and the other was industrialisation on the east coast. And the old city was completely neglected. In the 1990’s, I used to take a lot of photos, and people would say, ‘What are you looking at?’, and I would say, ‘I’m looking at heritage’, and they would reply, ‘But these are just old buildings!’. This was the ‘old Penang’ that people wanted to get away from, because they wanted to modernise, as modern was good. They wanted to demolish all the old buildings and build high-rise. That was progress to them. So we had to change that paradigm, and say, “No, we need to keep our history. Yes, you can have development, but have it elsewhere. Don’t mix things up. Then you will have a mish-mash which is neither modern nor old. It took us a long time, but finally the government accepted this vision, and then they went for the UNESCO listing. They wanted tourism, and they thought this could bring them tourism, but they also had a kind of mixed idea about tourism. George Town is really ideally suited to cultural tourism, but we need a diversified vision, identifying cultural tourism, eco-tourism and mass tourism. Cultural tourism is about heritage and tourism, but it’s very sympathetic tourism. Rather than people flying in, moving around in a bus, seeing the sights and rushing off, we need a more thoughtful kind of cultural visits; a longer stay, with more thought put into what people buy, avoid the cheap plastic souvenirs (laughs)… This is the kind of tourism we want to grow. Of course, at the Penang Heritage Trust, we are very careful about tourism, because we have seen the bad side of tourism, but we appreciate that the good type of tourism can bring benefits. But the benefits must be channelled towards conservation and the local community. Profits should not flow out to foreign entities.

What is happening to the heritage buildings now? Are many being repurposed?

KSN: It’s inevitable. A lot of people have moved out, and these buildings have to find a new purpose. But at the same time, there are still some small numbers of people staying here. What we don’t want is that people buy up and then evict the existing people. But if a building is empty or derelict, of course we want them to try and save the building. It’s inevitable that there are going to be new users. We have a lot of cafés and there is some gentrification, so it’s a kind of balance between the new and the old.

At the moment, you still see some of the old things hanging on, like the traditional tradespeople and the artisans. We are trying to stretch it for as long as possible so  the old things can still continue as long as possible, and we try to reinforce the social memory. A lot of people used to live in George Town. If not them, then their parents, or their grandparents. That’s because in the past, there was hardly any housing outside of George Town. Everybody was crammed into the city. There is a very strong social memory… like, ‘This is where I want to school,’ or ‘This is where we used to eat together’, and so forth. So, we try to keep that going as well, so that it means something to someone, to the extent that when they come here, they can still recognise places. The streets haven’t changed, and the buildings, because of the heritage protection, under the Special Area Plan, which is really like a local plan, keeps the buildings more or less the same, although there is a lot of gentrification, and sometimes, over-restoration – like they sanitise the whole building. Things like that are very difficult to teach, so we try to intervene in those cases.

What’s the role of the Heritage Trust?

KSN: It’s public education really. The Penang Heritage Trust has been educating the public about heritage conservation and also history – the history of Penang.

How can tourists discover the best places to see when they come to George Town?

KSN: Penang Heritage Trust has cultural heritage tours, and can also recommend certain tours or tour guides. There’s also a lot of information on the internet now, where people can find ideas of what to do and where to go.

This place is in fact a hotel. Tell us about this property.

Fauzi Abdul Razak – Hotel Manager

Fauzi Abdul Razak – Hotel Manager

(Fauzi Abdul Razak – Hotel Manager answers): The buildings within the walls of 23LoveLane Hotel were constructed at different times beginning from the 1800s, representing five different architectural periods. The 10-room hotel is situated in the heart of George Town and was originally a private residence owned by a European and later by a local family. Along the way, it became the Oasis Hotel, until it was bought by the present owner in 2007.

A renowned conservationist joined the team of architects and consultants and lovingly brought the buildings back to life in a three-year project. 23LoveLane Hotel opened for business in December 2011.

We have since added Muntri Suites, a 3-room pre-war shop house a few minutes’ walk from the main building, and another stand-alone heritage unit named Stewart Suite just around the corner. To serve our guests better, we opened SteakFrites@23 Restaurant adjacent to the hotel.

Non-guests also come in?

(Fauzi Abdul Razak): Yes, people come in for coffee, and there is a store as well on the ground floor.

How many places like this can one find in George Town?

KSN: Overall, there are a few dozen hotels in heritage buildings, but good ones like this, with luxurious rooms and attached bathrooms, there are just a few.

How can travel agents or tour operators in other parts of the world work with places like these?

KSN: Depending on the size of a group, 20 or 40 people can be booked into a few different places all adjacent to one another.

Is this typical of the repurposing in George Town?

KSN: Everything is different, because people have to be faithful to the heritage here, so they look at the existing building and see what they can do, complementing it with some new amenities.

Who has to approve that, if someone has a plan to repurpose a building?

KSN: The City Council. I am a councillor as well, but I am not on the approval committee. Various aspects are taken into account, such as the suitability of the building, the engineering required, and so on. Only certain kinds of places can be repurposed into hotel-style accommodation. This is my favourite boutique heritage hotel, because they did the conservation the right way. A close British friend of mine was the conservator for this building.a

How is the perception of George Town changing?

KSN: Street food and street art are attracting a lot of younger people to George Town. We try to balance that, because you still have to keep the heritage intact. Young people are not necessarily attracted to national heritage buildings per se, but more as a streetscape; as something out of the ordinary. I think they probably absorb a lot of things unconsciously and then slowly, this may deepen their interest in heritage.

Khoo Salma Nasution is a fifth generation Penang peranakan and an author, publisher and heritage advocate. She has written or co-written more than a dozen books on Penang and Perak, on the subjects of social history, cultural heritage and sustainable development. Some of them are published under her publishing house, Areca Books www.arecabooks.com. She is currently vice-president of Penang Heritage Trust and custodian of the Sun Yat Sen Museum, Penang, at 120 Armenian Street. She has been involved in sustainability initiatives, cultural entrepreneurship and capacity building for heritage networks in Southeast Asia.