When local heritage becomes world heritage

Bringing Penang’s capital, George Town, to UNESCO World Heritage status.

Khoo Salma Nasution is a fifth generation Penang peranakan and an author, publisher and heritage advocate. 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 asked her to tell us more about her background.

I am a writer and publisher and I have been active in the heritage movement since 1989. As you know, George Town and Melaka are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But it happened quite differently. In Melaka 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.

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

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.

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

Penang Heritage Trust has cultural heritage tours, and can also recommend certain tours or tour guides. There are a few dozen hotels in heritage buildings. Depending on the size of a group, 20 or 40 people can be booked into a few different places all adjacent to one another.

How is the perception of George Town changing?

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.

Hall 26a / Stand 117 


Photo: Khoo Salma Nasution Author, publisher and heritage advocate