29 Sep GEORGE TOWN: BACK TO THE PAST
With George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage Site classification n 2008, the local businesses of the city are now reaping the rewards from this benefit. The city grid houses many endless shophouses, temples, ornate mansions and other structures that signify a rich colonial history. However, as much as the city prides itself on its picturesque architecture, the city lives and breathes through the lives of its people, some of which are struggling with the ways of old to keep their trade.
In one corner, flammable crafts of all shapes and sizes known as oblation are created by members of Penang’s Chinese community as a typical offering to the Gods and to deceased family members, usually during a funeral of said member. Down the other side of the bustling street, another quiet shophouse hosts a past signboard maker who now cuts his cloth with miniature trinkets, as his age struggles to keep up with his past trade. A few blocks away, a sturdy but sprightly elder citizen creates giant joss sticks, made to burn as an offering to the Chinese deities. In the nearby Clan jetties, their senior residents either forbid eager tourists to take photography around their residence, or just simply go with the flow and adapt to the tourism trade.
All of these underdogs give George Town its secret life as an old but energetic dog that is slowly learning new tricks, with its master eager to restore each structure within its Heritage Zone back to its architectural glory. “… Once you save the physical structure, you also help to save the intangible heritage”, says Penangite Chris Ong, a former investment banker who now makes it his personal mission to rejuvenate previously derelict properties, such as the Jawi Peranakan Mansion.
Alas, there are some concerns that such efforts will turn George Town into a glorified museum. A few individuals, such as the activist group George Town Heritage Action, dedicate themselves into preserving the city as it originally stood, without the bulk of outside investors buying up city blocks and retrofitting it as they please, such as turning past Straits homes into high-end hipster coffee places and boutique hotels. These people cooperate to ensure that their neighbourhoods still have homes for its oblation makers, rattan weavers, signboard makers, and so on. They want to ensure George Town does not lose its roots… and more importantly… its heart and soul.
Perhaps it is a testament to George Town’s new life that the clashes of ideologies between older and newer generations have indeed brought more attention towards the city as a whole. Its people, both young and new, are fighting hard to preserve the city’s structural integrity; only debating on whether to carry on its original function like the good ol’ days, or move onwards and change for the future.
Whatever the case is, these people fighting to preserve George Town’s place within all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites play essential roles in retaining the city’s ever-changing cultural landscape, while offering its visitors a savoury taste of its beauty and heart.