George Town’s Road on Urban Regeneration
What Kuching could learn from George TownBy Patricia Hului
BEFORE IT BECAME a pop-culture reference originated by Miley Cyrus, a wrecking ball was simply a giant metal ball being swung from a crane into a building to demolish it.
It used to be most popular answer to the question of how to regenerate old parts of city urban centres fallen into neglect or that didn’t fit the needs of the current demographic.
In most countries, urban regeneration often involves relocation of residences and businesses and demolition of structures, bringing something new into the cities like shopping malls to replace old shoplots.
Increasingly, urban regeneration today does not simply mean swinging a wrecking ball into an old building and building one on top of it out of the rubble, it means repurposing the old building in tandem with the current community’s needs.
A building does not just house occupants. It is a repository of history, childhood memories and most of all, heritage.
I had the opportunity to learn about Urban Regeneration during a workshop for journalists in George Town, Penang on Oct 2 to 5 organised by ThinkCity, a subsidiary of Khazanah Nation Berhad to spearhead community-based urban regeneration in Penang.
The trip gave me the opportunity to meet numerous urban regeneration experts; listen to them talk passionately about their work, admire the beauty of both the tangible and intangible heritage value of George Town and of course converse with a few proud Penangites about their heritage buildings.
The first chapter of Penang’s story was written more than 200 years ago when Captain Francis Light, British East India Company’s trader founded a new settlement on Penang Island.
In honour of King George II, the reigning King of Britain at that time, he named the settlement ‘George Town’.
Over the years, George Town accumulated residents and its unique culture from all over the world such as Malay, Chinese, Indian and European.
Fast forward to July, 7 2008, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) inscribed George Town and Melaka together on the World Heritage List as Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca.
The whole island of Penang spans an area of 29,300 hectares while the UNESCO World Heritage Site only covers the inner city of George Town which is 259 hectares.
To manage and monitor the heritage buildings, the heritage site is classified under two zones; the core zone which is the confirmed UNESCO Heritage Site (109 hectares) and the buffer zone (150 hectares) a protected zone not yet under heritage status.
Altogether there are 5,013 buildings in George Town WHS but only 3,853 are considered heritage buildings.
These heritage buildings are differentiated into Category 1 (82 buildings) and Category 2 (3771 buildings).
Category 1 heritage structures are monuments and buildings of exceptional interest and registered as National Heritage under the National Heritage Act (2005), an example being St. George Church.
As for Category 2, these are buildings or items that permit preservation effort. These buildings are usually the shophouses where their facades, five-foot ways and compounds, decorations, and materials used should be maintained and restored.
Speaking of shophouses, heritage shophouses in George Town are differentiated by six styles; Early Penang Styles (1790s-1850s), Southern Chinese Eclectic Style (1840s-1900s), Early Straights Eclectic Style (1890s-1910s), Late Straits Eclectic Style (1910s-1930s), Art Deco Style (1930s-1960s) and Early Modern Style (1950s-1970s).
Each has a unique appearance and history that have merited their preservation.
While George Town is a unique success story on how a modern, cosmopolitan city can work towards preserving its built environment, it is not the only city that has landmark buildings in its city centre. Kuching also has a collection of buildings and shophouses that give the city centre its unique, historic flavour.
The question is how do the rest of us go on to regenerate an urban area and try to preserve our heritage buildings?
The Turning Point
Looking into the case of George Town, the biggest turning point for regenerating the George Town urban area was not when it was declared a World Heritage Site (WHS), but the abolishment of Rent Control Act.
The pre-war properties of George Town were protected under the Rent Control Act by the British in 1948. It was enacted to protect low income tenants from high rentals by landlords during post World War II war period.
Over the years the act was subsequently used by main tenants to sub-rent the premises to more people at much higher rental rates. Imagine having 30 people living in a narrow building lot sharing one – perhaps two – common bathrooms?
The act was repealed on Jan 1, 2000. In late December 1999, just before the act was formally repealed, 33 tenants were evicted and 14 pre-war buildings were demolished.
Although the then Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon said the demolishment had nothing to do with the repeal of Rent Control Act, its abolishment has resulted in a shift of the overall demographic and architecture of George Town.
It caused the loss of local community since a lot of tenants had to move out when the rent was raised.
“After the abolishment of the Rent Control Act in 2000, people used to say George Town was a haunted city. People moved out from the city because the rent was higher,” said Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Mayor of Municipal Council of Seberang Perai as she reminisced on the difference between George Town then and now.
“Now, we can see that activities are coming back into the cities. There is more awareness about heritage.”
With or without Rent Control Act, urbanisation all over the world – including Kuching – is facing almost the same issue; people moving out from one place to another.
Whether to leave old buildings abandoned or demolish them to build a new one which could arguably bring in new business and thus revive that old part of town is a key question about urban regeneration.
Demolishing any old building also runs the risk of wiping out part of our cultural heritage.
The Heritage Warden
For most home owners, if you wanted to renovate your house you can just go ahead and do it, whether it’s just changing a window, giving it a new paint job or even laying down new tiles.
But living in a WHS, renovating your property requires you to follow a set of guidelines.
George Town World Heritage Inc (GTWHI) is an organisation set up by the Penang state government to safeguard, manage and promote the George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site as a living cultural heritage city.
Lim Chooi Peng is the current general manager of GWTHI working with various shareholders from government agencies and the local community to plan and organise education outreach programmes.
“One of the main challenges is site monitoring because some of the property owners are not well aware of the conservation guidelines that we have to follow to qualify for WHS status,” Lim said, citing an example where some owners might find their facades a bit run down and upgrade them with modern materials.
“That is why we have constantly giving and expanding our awareness programme so that the property owners are well aware of the principles and UNESCO guidelines.”
Assessments are done every two years on every UNESCO world heritage sites, and failure to follow its guidelines may result in that site being crossed off that list.
For instance, property owners are not encouraged to change their wooden shutter windows into glass windows or traditional door into roller shutters.
Back at home here in Kuching, you’ll notice that although Padungan Road was developed in the 1920s, most of the shoplots have let go the original façade.
Only a few have retained the original wooden shutter windows which are similar to the ‘Late Straits’ Eclectic Style of heritage buildings found in George Town.
Imagine how Padungan Road might look today if those old the buildings that now house many iconic eateries including Noodle Descendent would look if we had maintained their original façades.
George Town has been seeing a line of boutique hotel and artisan café owners slowly making their marks within its boundaries.
Pro-heritage conservationists might argue these boutique hotel owners and fancy café owners are not capturing the true essence of George Town’s heritage;
George Town in the 1890s did not offer macchiato or cappuccino, nor did they offer a luxurious experience of staying in a Peranakan-inspired hotel 40 years ago.
What is the point of preserving a heritage building, evicting its original traders and replacing it with fancy hotels and cafes, right?
On the other hand, these boutique hotels and cafes seem to be bringing new life to the area, attracting young bloods and tourist to these areas.
In Kuching, The Ranee at Main Bazaar used to be a warehouse, but since then has been rebuilt into a boutique hotel.
How many of us notice how empty the few streets we have in old downtown Kuching like Carpenter Street is except for tourists? How many ‘For Sale’ or ‘For Rent’ signs have we seen being put up at the old shophouses in Kuching?
Which is better? An old building with new occupants or an old building with no occupants at all?
Regenerating an urban area and keeping its physical form intact is not an easy task.
If ordinary construction contractors are general doctors, heritage contractors are like specialists, concentrating on the field of heritage buildings.
In other countries such as Ireland, heritage contractors are certified contractors under The Register of Heritage Contractors.
They even have a strict code of ethics in order to conserve and restore heritage properties or sites.
Since we have no such things here in Malaysia, the code stuck by the local heritage contractors in George Town is glibly called ‘trial and error’.
Local heritage contractor TC Kew from KATS Engineering Management Design started doing conservation work on heritage building in George Town about four years ago.
Kew mentioned that he learnt about conserving heritage buildings through trial and error and also by joining workshops organised by GTWHI.
Kew stated, “We did a lot of trial and error. There are a lot of challenges and we learnt from all of these challenges.”
Heritage buildings are traditionally made of timber, stone, clay and lime. For heritage building repair work, it is essential to match the original materials.
Kew admitted, “We made a lot of mistakes. Some of the mistakes we made for example are in mixing the lime plaster.”
His first conservation project was the Penang Goldsmith Association building in 2009. Originally built in 1909, the restoration was finished in two months.
“I think the most challenging part in this field is not enough skilled workers,” Kew said.
Now, there are less than ten heritage contractors in George Town.
If we were to preserve our heritage buildings, one thing for sure there is a lot of work need to be done.
George Town’s story of Urban Regeneration is still a continuous learning process of accepting modern changes and development on one side and holding on to its culture and heritage on the other.
As we reflect upon our own heritage buildings here in Kuching such as Main Bazaar which were built as early as 1884, we should ask ourselves is it important to preserve our buildings and its interiors under the UNESCO label like George Town?
Or is it we should make it our own? Preserving all the tangible and intangible on our own effort and resources?
If we were to conserve our heritage buildings, what is the price we are willing to pay in order to do so?
For those who are born and bred Kuchingites, when are you going to tell the story of Kuching without outsiders telling your story first?
Any monuments or buildings older than 100 years old will be protected under Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance, 1993.
Any buildings younger than that are open for demolition and rebuilding; its original residents likely to be evicted.
Does a building less than 100 years old deserve demolition? Remember the old warehouse on Gambier Street? It was built in 1929 and demolished 80 years later in 2009. Meanwhile, in George Town, some buildings built as recently as 1970 are eligible for conservation since they best express the architectural style of that era or are simply places of great historic value to the state.
221 and 223 Beach Street makes the perfect example. Designed in an early modern style, they are an ensemble of two double-storey buildings which were built in 1960s but well-kept and restored to its former glory.
Perhaps the first and most important lesson in George Town’s urban regeneration Kuching can learn is simply not to swing the wrecking ball.
RAISING AWARENESS: One of the efforts done by GTWHI is to educate people of their heritage through pamphlet like this.