Thursday, May 09, 2002

Legacy for sale

Amidst calls at the recent Penang Story International Conference for conserving historical living communities, some long-time residents of inner Georgetown have to pack up and leave what has been home to their families for the past hundred years, writes ONG JU LIN.

KHOO Chye Huat, 96, and her two sons watched from the patio of their clan home as the long line of dignitaries, accompanied by musicians clanging gongs and beating drums, streamed into the courtyard at the Khoo Kongsi, Cannon Square, Penang.

It did not quite matter that she and her family were not invited for the closing dinner of the Penang Story International Conference, even though they lived right where the dinner was held. They felt privileged that the Chief Minister, who was the guest of honour, had walked up Khoo’s home of 90 years to greet them before proceeding towards the VIP table.

Her son, Goh Chye Chin, 61, proudly showed me a photograph of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad shaking hands with his mother. They even caught a glimpse of China’s vice-president Hu Jintao who was whisked into the courtyard in a tinted Mercedes Benz.

Khoo was getting used to seeing tourists and VIPs “invading” the empty square to view the magnificent clan temple. Until about a year ago, the courtyard still had the semblance of a clan village, filled with the bustle of family, religious and clan activities.

Since the repeal of the Rent Control Act two years ago, the residents of the 24 clan-houses in the square, most of whom were Khoo clansmen, have been systematically evicted by the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi trustees to make way for a multi-million ringgit tourism development project.
The project will see the pre-war double storey-terrace houses surrounding the central square consisting of the temple and the stage being converted into souvenir shops and bed and breakfast motels.

Touted as the finest Chinese temple in the nation, the trustees forked out a whopping RM4mil for the restoration of what would be the Penang Hokkien heritage contribution to the world.

At the dinner address, even as Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) chairman Dr Choong Sim Poey spoke about the conference as perhaps “a turning point” that would make Penang recognised as a World Heritage Site, the remaining eight tenants, including Khoo, had received eviction notices to vacate by July 3, failing which they would be charged double rental.

“As Khoo clansmen, my family members have lived here for 102 years, and it has been my home since I was five. I am not used to living anywhere else,” said Chye Huat, displaying the eviction notice.

However, the irony of it all was lost to most of the congregation of academics and activists who had, for four days during the conference, talked about conserving Penang’s heritage, including the historical living communities of George Town, which constituted the cultural heritage.

Their passionate cries for conservation (people, not just buildings!) seemed as hollow as the surrounding clan houses in the square, now emptied of their inhabitants.

I asked Goh what he thought about the government’s effort to get Penang listed as a World Heritage Site. “I hope the government is not successful in getting Penang into the list so that we don’t have to move out. We were told by the Khoo Kongsi trustees that it is a government initiative and how can we go against the government?”

His view reveals what the so-called conservation effort meant to the “little people” of George Town’s inner city.

Goh was also worried that the old house would collapse on his family and if that happened “it would be hard for both parties (the trustees and his family as tenants).”

“To be fair, the trustees are also helping us look for a new home and have compensated my mother with RM5,000,” he said, not realising that the clan ethics stipulate the trustees must bear the responsibility of looking after their clansmen.

For the people, it is about having a roof over their heads. Goh does not mind staying elsewhere but, for Khoo, who has lived there all her life, no place is better than home. She has an emotional attachment to the community and the lifestyle she has always known.

But what is happening to the Khoo Kongsi, and in many places in historical George Town, is actually contrary to what heritage conservation is about.

On the same day, Unesco regional advisor for culture in Asia and the Pacific Richard Englehardt, said: “Heritage conservation has nothing to do with tourism. If you preserve it only to sell it, you will be better advised to develop an amusement park from scratch out of concrete. “The worst thing you can do is to take the people out and let them tinker with handicrafts for the entertainment of tourists.”

These are the basic dos and don’ts of heritage conservation, and if Penang is serious about its joint application with Malacca to the much-vaunted Unesco World Heritage inscription, it should heed that advice.

Sadly, it appears that Penang has moved in the wrong direction with the repeal of the Rent Control Act two years ago. At the rate tenants are either being evicted or forced to move out due to skyrocketing rentals, George Town might become, in the words of Save Ourselves secretary Ong Boon Keong, a “ghost town.”

According to Ong, a survey done by SOS last year showed that about 10% of the 8,000 pre-war houses were found to be vacant – only a year after the repeal.

Landlords are converting them to what they hoped would have more lucrative returns. Rows of pre-war houses have been converted into pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels – for instance, the renovated houses at Leith Street, Eight Row off Jalan MacAlister, and Chow Thye Road off Jalan Burmah. Others remain empty.

Some of the urban poor have been relocated to government housing for the poor out of the town centre like the River Road and Rifle Range flats. The less fortunate walk the streets while homeless trishaw riders sleep in their trishaws.

As the inner city is being emptied gradually, traditional traders such as goldsmiths, signboard carvers, joss-stick makers and carpenters are seeing their twilight years with their sons and daughters reluctant to pick up their skills and continue the trades.

Kampung Kolam assemblyman Lim Gim Soon, whose constituency has thousands of pre-war homes, said he fears that when the economy starts to pick up, there would be another mass displacement as landlords race to develop their properties.

It is little wonder that George Town has been listed as site number 50 of the world’s 100 most endangered sites by the World Monument Watch Fund.

The state government is fully aware of the threat of urban blight, but viewed it as a normal phenomenon affecting old towns prior to its rejuvenation – a theory that is subject to debate.

At the panel on World Heritage Nominations, Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, who handled with poise and composure the gruelling questions posed to him, admitted that the RM100mil renovation fund for pre-war buildings had not been disbursed to a single landlord as the conditions attached were too stringent.

The purpose of the fund was to help landlords finance renovation works of their decontrolled buildings with a 4% interest loan, and then rent them out to tenants.

“We are studying it now. We realise that landlords don’t want to spend money to repair their properties only to rent it out to tenants. And the 4% interest on the loans is no longer competitive as it is even higher than what is offered by some banks,” he said.

The state government is also hampered by the fact that it does not own those buildings and areas it is trying to demarcate as world heritage sites, and must work with the federal government which has broad policies and which more often than not appears to be less in touch with local realities and pressing issues in states.

“The state government only owns 11% of land on the island, and 9% is hilly land and water catchment areas. The 2% on flat land is predominantly occupied by government offices,” said Dr Koh, adding that the state government does not have the legal right to tell owners what to do with their properties as private property rights is entombed in the constitution.

But more than what the government could or could not do is the fact that the heritage conservation ethos has not reached the targets that matter most.

At the panel, when asked whether developers are aware of the value of heritage, Housing Developers Association chairman Datuk Ong Gim Huat said: “It is not that developers are not supportive of heritage conservation. Most of the developers and Chinese businesses in town are either illiterate or they speak Chinese. But the language of heritage conservation is English.

“There is a lack of information. Many don’t even know where the actual area is. The information we get is from the grapevine. There is also a lack of trust as we feel that things are being planned quietly and then suddenly they are revealed and we’re supposed to live with it.”

And many still see heritage conservation as freezing development. Recently, the Tanjung Umno division called on the government to exclude all wakaf buildings and government land in the constituency from being included in the World Heritage Site alignment. It is feared that the inclusion of wakaf land would hamper development in the constituency.

This fear, however, is unfounded. The examples of many world heritage sites have shown that property values both within world heritage protection sites and in adjacent areas experienced a jump immediately after inscription, said Englehardt.

“For towns pursuing tourism promotion as part of their development strategy, statistics have shown that within two years after world heritage inscription, the number of visitor arrivals increased by 40% and grew steadily at a rate double that experienced by sites not on the world heritage list.

“A world heritage city attracts invaluable intellectual capital, as in the case of Barcelona, and prevents brain drain to other less desirable locations. It is the surest reason to pursue heritage conservation as a long-term development strategy,” he said.

It may take a while for the understanding of heritage conservation to change – that conservation is not freezing time but managing change. That when conservationists talk about preserving traditional trades and skills, it is about creating a vibrant economy and a culture that thrives and appreciates these trades, and not putting them away in tourist complexes as exotica to be gawked at. That when they talk about preserving the physical integrity of buildings and structures, it is about rejuvenating and reutilising these spaces, and not preserving them as monuments or museum artefacts.

Published in The Star Malaysia Thursday, May 9, 2002 (www.thestar.com)

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UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is a specialized agency of the United Nations established in 1945. Its stated purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, sportsbook science, and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter. It is the heir of the League of Nations' International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation.
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