Celebrate our cultural heritage

THE Penang state government has declared July 7 as George Town World Heritage Day in conjunction with the official inscription of Malacca and George Town as Unesco World Heritage Sites on July 7, 2008.

This year, on the 10th anniversary of its status as a World Heritage Site, George Town World Heritage Incorporated chose the theme "Potential - Of the Past, in the Present and for the Future". The celebrations included a community-centred street festival from 6pm to 11pm showcasing historical and cultural events, traditional food, and arts and crafts.

There were also site excursions touring the 200-year-old St George's Church on Farquhar Street, the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, and other religious buildings like the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Acheen Street Mosque, the Church of the Assumption, and the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple.

According to Unesco, "Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations". A World Heritage Site is classified as a natural or man-made area of international importance that needs protection.

Malacca and George Town were awarded their status as World Heritage Sites based on the following criteria. They were trading ports linking the East and the West. They are living testimony to the multicultural heritage and traditions of Asia, mixed with European colonial influences. There are religious buildings of different faiths, many interesting and unique festivals, dances, costumes, art, music and food.

Heritage buildings and sites are worth conserving because they add historical character and provide a sense of pride and belonging to towns. They are part of the ensemble that gives towns their souls. At the very least, they make towns unique, iconic and notable.

For example, Bath, Lyon, Heidelberg and Lijiang in Britain, France, Germany and China respectively, are famous and attractive not because they have the tallest skyscrapers or biggest buildings, but they have character and history because of heritage conservation.

Unfortunately, in the past, some heritage buildings in Malaysia have been destroyed. The notable ones were the Eastern Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, and the Metropole Hotel and the old JKR buildings in George Town.

The Town and Country Planning Act was passed in 1976 to enable local authorities to regulate urban development. Yet some 40 years later, there are still very few gazetted local plans to provide a sense of certainty and transparency in development control.

There is a need for local plans that incorporate heritage conservation and public education on its benefits. This requires training qualified urban conservationists who have the expertise in not only identifying heritage buildings and sites, but also ensuring that they are economically viable and sustainable.

The approval and rejection of development projects still largely depends on the 24 councillors and the president or mayor of the local authority.

There is also the problem of non-compliance. Many planned housing areas have become haphazard and unpleasant as a result of illegal building extensions and change of use. Even with conservation laws, heritage buildings and sites could still be destroyed owing to acts of non-compliance.

Since the inception of the Unesco Heritage Award, there have been positive signs. Some property owners have begun to restore buildings and have contributed to the attractiveness and charm of George Town. Besides, the restoration projects added economic value to their buildings.

Some good examples of restored areas and buildings include the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, 8-Row, Little Shanghai, the Khoo Kongsi and the 1926 Heritage Hotel. Restoration projects continue to be carried out. For example, the Penang state government has collaborated with the private sector on a soon-to-be-completed project to restore six units of pre-war shophouses on Kimberley Street as co-living spaces. This project is part of a broader goal to provide affordable living and commercial space in inner George Town.

Penang is an attractive city, both for residents as well as visitors. It has natural attractions such as its beautiful beaches and hillsides. It is also well-known for its unique and delicious food like assam laksa, char koay teow, nyonya food, Malay food with sambal belacan and Indian nasi kandar.

However, as Nelson Mandela observed in a 1996 speech, "Our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation". The historical and cultural heritage of Penang is an equally important aspect of its attraction and significance, and one that is rightly celebrated every July 7.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com