Is it George Town heritage at crossroads?

Over 800 heritage buildings have been sold since George Town was inscribed on Unesco's World Heritage List. But are they being properly restored? AFTER living and working abroad for 15 years, Wei Fen returned to Penang two years ago to spend more time with her parents. While her contemporaries invested in modern condominiums in the suburbs with spectacular sea or hill views, the heritage lover decided to put her money in a century-old building in inner George Town.

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World Heritage George Town

Heritage George Town"I've always liked the idea of owning an old shop house for its unique architecture. It also makes more financial sense to buy one as it costs almost the same as a house in the suburbs," says the 43-year-old writer who has resided in the United States, England and Singapore. Since George Town received World Heritage Site (WHS) status in 2008, interest in pre-war houses has spiked, not just among locals but also the Malaysian diaspora and foreigners. In just four years, more than 800 old buildings in the World Heritage Site (WHS) of George Town have exchanged hands.

Citing statistics from the Valuation Department, state Local Government and Traffic Management Committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow says that between 2008 and May this year, 882 transactions were recorded in the George Town WHS, which has 3,643 heritage buildings. During this period, the Penang Municipal Council approved applications to restore 428 such buildings.

Wei Fen admits it has not been easy getting a heritage property that suits her budget and desired location. "It's not like old houses are a dime a dozen. Most are owned by the kongsi which do not sell their properties anyway. It took me nine months before I found an old three-storey shophouse in Dato Koyah Road with a willing seller. At RM600,000, it was still cheaper than a terrace house in Island Glades or Tanjung Bungah, at that time," she shares.

George Town Harbour
George Town Harbour

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With the sale and purchase agreement inked, Wei Fen was all set to restore the building based on the council's heritage guidelines. But she soon realised that it can be a long, tedious process. This, she believes, is one reason why many building owners carry out renovations without getting clearance from the authorities.

Therein lays the problem, one that conservationists fear may jeopardise George Town's Unesco listing. According to Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) president Khoo Salma Nasution, the main threat within the WHS today is illegal and unsympathetic renovations. "We do not have statistics, but a lot of illegal renovations are taking place," she says. A walking tour around the George Town WHS reveals a different picture from four years ago – a large number of crumbling pre-war buildings have been restored or are under renovation. Several architectural gems have emerged but there are also dozens of buildings that stand out like sore thumbs, the result of bad makeovers.

The PHT is concerned that many owners renovate their properties without seeking advice from George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), whose main role is to manage, monitor and promote the city's heritage. GTWHI works with the Penang Municipal Council (MPPP), which sends its enforcement officers out to check when there are complaints. Salma feels there is a need to expand the capacity for enforcement, adding that monitoring should be done around the clock.

Malaysia George Town

"When contractors want to do things illegally, they will work after (office) hours and on weekends and public holidays," Salma laments. "We at PHT are helping to monitor. Members of the public report to us whenever they see any renovations without the proper signage, and we will alert the GTWHI. In the last few cases, response has been quick and the illegal work stopped."

Chow stresses that action to monitor non-compliance is ongoing, adding that stop-work orders have been issued to errant building owners. Under the Town and Country Planning Act and Street, Building and Drainage Act, the local council is empowered to enforce control over building and rebuilding works. GTWHI, he adds, is instrumental in ensuring stakeholders are aware of the heritage guidelines and has conducted several workshops to educate building contractors.

"The education programme has been useful. We feel it is better for owners to work on the compliance issue with the respective government agencies before going ahead with restoration work. They stand to lose out on time if a stop-work order is issued," he adds.

GTWI consultative panel member Tan Yeow Wooi says there have been many cases of non-complying renovation works such as owners altering the roof height of old buildings, laying inappropriate roofs or floor tiles, installing windows with fixed shutters and illegal extension of buildings. The conservation architect is particularly irked by the garish colours painted over some old shop fronts. Admitting that there is a lack conservation architects in Penang, Tan says that in numerous cases, building owners just engage contractors to renovate their properties without submitting plans.

"Some contractors try to modernise old buildings and in the process, damage their historical features," he points out. Non-compliance, Tan believes, could be due to ignorance and red tape. "In the WHS, applications for renovations or restorations can take between four and six months to be approved," he observes. Tan himself has been involved in restoring several historical buildings such as the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple in Armenian Street, the gateway of Yeng Kheng Boutique Hotel in Chulia Street and the famous Carpenters' Guild in Muntri Street.

George Town

Salma advises owners to seek advice from GTWHI before submitting their plans.In Wei Fen's case, renovation has been ongoing for seven months. "It should be completed in another month, fingers crossed," she says, somewhat optimistically.

While Tan thinks the council guidelines are not strict enough, Wei Fen believes otherwise. "I wrote to the council to complain about the lack of choice in their flooring specifications and I'm convinced that cost me another three months of waiting for approval," she gripes. "After that, I didn't write back in protest any more. In all, I had to wait nine months for approval!"

Part of the challenge in renovating an old house, she says, is getting the right contractor. "I found two contractors who wanted to charge over RM200,000, and one who quoted me RM100,000. I chose the latter as I intended to do only the basics and make the building liveable." Despite the obstacles and long restoration process, Wei Fen has no regrets buying an inner city home.

"All George Town shophouses have appreciated in prices, some tremendously. In Muntri Street, for instance, prices have doubled. A dilapidated house there used to be priced at RM1mil, now it's over RM2mil. And one newly restored house has just been put up in the market for RM3.8mil!"

It is interesting to note that many old kopi tiam and budget hotels in the inner city are slowly being replaced by fashionable cafes and boutique hotels. One reason is soaring rentals. A retired town planner notes that except for a few, locals may not enjoy the new heritage site. "Penangites are basically stingy," he remarks wryly. But he believes the new upmarket businesses may be sustainable due to the influx of visitors to the George Town WHS.

Chow acknowledges that George Town is changing but says that heritage tourism has rejuvenated the area, with many buildings being restored and put into new usage. New boutique hotels and cafes have opened to cater to the demand of a new breed of tourists. There are also new art galleries, bicycle rental outlets and tourism-related business opportunities. Now, you can see longer queues at the Penang Road cendol stall and the Line Clear nasi kandar. This is the dynamics of change," he adds.

The PHT, meanwhile, is concerned over dwindling population in the WHS.Since the repeal of the Rent Control Act in 2000, more than 10,000 inner city dwellers, mostly poor tenants of pre-war buildings, have had to move out to low and low-medium cost flats in the outskirts.Salma says more properties should be used for affordable housing and there should be some policy research and recommendations on this matter. "We need more people to live in the city."

As for the mushrooming of upmarket cafes and hotels, Salma points out that if it keeps expanding at this rate, it may not be sustainable. "If we are going to have more eating places, we need to upgrade the drainage and infrastructure, but without damaging the historic elements of the public infrastructure." The Trust, she says, advocates sustainable and responsible tourism. "What is our carrying capacity (for WHS) and how is tourism benefiting the local community? Are there any negative impacts to community, heritage and environment?

"Improved public transport is essential if we want more tourism but not more cars and tourist buses, as this will impact negatively on the WHS environment." Outside the WHS, there is also another serious problem as many old buildings are being demolished, says Salma.

"Many Malaysians will be surprised to hear this, but 35 years after the Town and Country Planning Act (1976) was approved, we still do not have a Local Plan for the Penang island municipality. Many original Malay settlements like Tanjong Tokong, Batu Uban and Balik Pulau are threatened with redevelopment. "We need to understand the fragile ecology of the island, work out the carrying capacity and impose constraints."

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