Essay: Penang island, the last 20 years

Penang born and bred Sehra Yeap Zimbulis keenly observes how the island has evolved in terms of infrastructure, architecture and leadership

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Lebuh Armenian

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KOMTAR peeks over the tops of these old shophouses on Carnarvon Road

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Good as new, these two are after restoration work and their old world charm is preserved too

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Hot property! Luxury condominiums with breathtaking views of the sea at Gurney Drive

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From ruins to glory, Seven Terraces is a perfect example of terrific restoration

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This coffeeshop may be old but its popularity remains

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The traffic never stops flowing at Green Lane even after it was widened

In the mid-1980s, when Green Lane (now Jalan Masjid Negeri) was only a moderately busy single-lane road, I used to walk to and from school under the tall angsana and flame-of-the-forest trees which lined both sides of the road. During my 20-minute walk, those trees provided welcome shade from the day’s heat; 30 years on my fingers remember the feel of their rough, scaly bark.

In the early 1990s, this road was widened into a dual lane carriageway and is now one of the busiest roads in Penang. Being one of the two main arteries connecting George Town with the Penang Bridge and the international airport in Bayan Lepas and its surrounding industrial areas along with the suburbs in between, the flow of traffic here is often relentless and comes to a standstill during rush hour.

To make way for the widening of the road, the old trees that used to shade my walk to school were slated for felling. Vociferous petitions from the residents of the area led to the sparing of these trees and the road was widened around them. Two decades on, they still stand on the central reservation, these days providing their welcome shade to the motorists caught in traffic jams along the tree-lined route.

The change continues
In the years leading up to George Town’s 2008 inscription to the UNESCO list of World Heritage cities, the evolution and development of Penang island had already gathered momentum to the point where somebody returning to the island today after an absence of, say, 20 years, would have reason to pause and marvel – or be taken aback – at the obvious changes.

Thankfully, many of the outlying areas of the island have remained as they have been for generations. Balik Pulau, (literally ‘back of the island’), for example, remains largely a sleepy town, famous for its durian plantations and the few indications that the 21st century has arrived are the occasional Astro satellite receiver dishes perched on the roof of a kampung (village) house in the middle of a verdant rice field.

It was inevitable, of course, as it is in the case of so many rapidly developing cities in Asia that as economic progress made it imperative for the old to make way for the new, Penang’s urban landscape would be transfigured, to some extent or other, in the last two decades. Nevertheless – even allowing for some measure of bias from a Penangite (which is what we island natives call ourselves) – Penang is no ordinary place, and the vestiges of its early origins and history are what gives this place its very soul and character, and it would be a great pity if too much of it were lost to progress.

Legacy architecture of George Town
Take the buildings in the inner city of George Town, for example, many of them built in that ornately beautiful architectural style called straits eclectic, so unique that it exists nowhere else in the world. This style is found mainly in the former British Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore, distinguished by its exquisite fusion of Eastern and Western influences. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these buildings housed the early migrant communities who came to this island from all over the world to trade, seek their fortunes, or begin a new life.

Likewise, take the streets of living history in the inner city – centuries-old temples and mosques that have welcomed generations of worshippers or the social and cultural fabric of the island which can be traced directly to Penang’s origins as one of eighteenth-century Asia’s most important trading ports – take any of these away, and you would take away the Penang that so many Penangites grew up with, (and in recent decades, newly-arrived expatriates as well as Malaysians from other cities) know and love.

Not for Penang the sweeping, obliterating changes of modernisation. The island’s topography has, in its own way, prevented this. Penang is a compact island, just under 300 kilometers square, with a smallish main city crammed onto a triangular spit of land. A modest hilly range rises steeply up in the middle of the island; again, effectively precluding too much urban development. Penang just doesn’t have the land area to expand anywhere. And that has turned out to be a good thing.

The original grid of streets laid out by George Town’s founder Captain Francis Light soon after his arrival on the island in 1786 is still here, defined by the rectangle formed by Lebuh Pantai, Lebuh Light, Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. In this area, many of the buildings that were constructed around Light’s time still stand.

The grander, more historically significant buildings such as City Hall have had conservation status for years. But many of the smaller, old pre-war, straits eclectic ‘shophouses’ in the inner city – literally, from the Hokkien term ‘tiam chu’ (shop house) because the buildings traditionally served as business premises at street level and family residences on the upper floors – began to crumble and decay due to generations of neglect.

Repeal of rent control
Given the exigencies of modern town planning and the quick returns that usually come for all concerned if those old properties were redeveloped into higher-density, higher-yield real estate, these narrow streets and ramshackle old buildings would have normally begged to have been widened, upgraded or altogether demolished. Even with other on-going urban conservation efforts by NGOs such as the Penang Heritage Trust, the demolitions and redevelopment would have very likely come to pass, especially after the repeal of the 1948 Rent Control Act.

The legislation governing rent control in George Town was repealed in 1997. Rent control was originally implemented soon after World War II by the British colonial government of the day to protect tenants in the inner city from eviction. Prior to the repeal, rental for a two-storey pre-war terrace in the inner city was between RM50 and RM100 a month. The minimal rentals had helped, in their own way, to protect these old buildings – with such meager returns, there just wasn’t any incentive for landlords to do anything with their properties.

The George Town of the early 1990s was a busy, crowded, somewhat squalid place, and the narrow old terraces were homes to generations of families. Social activist and commentator Dr Khoo Boo Teik, who grew up in one of these terraces in George Town observed, in 2000, ‘There was nothing charming about the overcrowded, underprovided, dilapidated, unimproved premises that made up much of rentcontrolled housing in the oldest and poorest parts of George Town. Yet from these unenviable quarters George Town’s common people – merchants, retailers, tradesmen, money changers, craftsmen, coffeeshop proprietors, clerks, schoolteachers, roadside petty traders, itinerant hawkers, temple and association caretakers, (gambling) club ‘managers’, manual labourers, trishaw pedlars and even gangsters – created a vibrant urban culture’. A vibrant urban culture that was to survive for more than two centuries.

End of an era
Within a few years of the repeal of the Rent Control Act, George Town acquired the air of an abandoned city, especially after dark. Rentals had increased by as much as tenfold for many of the 12,000 buildings in the city which had been registered as rent-controlled properties.

The relatively higher rentals forced many family businesses to close down, and an estimated 60,000 people were displaced in an exodus from the inner city to the outlying areas of the island – Balik Pulau, Bayan Baru and Paya Terubong.

Nevertheless, some families chose to remain, whether for sentimental or economic reasons and, like so many embers in a dying fire, provided a hopeful spark of life – these remaining residents were truly the last living links to the very origins of Penang.

Those links, too, might well have been quickly broken. In the name of modernisation, many properties in George Town were marked for demolition and redevelopment, had it not been two later, propitious milestones in Penang’s history which have now come to be considered watershed events and which will likely set the course for the very future of this island.

A change of government
On March 8 2008, a general election was held in Malaysia, and for the first time since the independence of the country, an opposition party coalition won the majority of seats in the Penang state government from the governing Barisan Nasional party. Penangites had always been individualistic, vocal, even truculent citizens of the country at large, and decades of perceived mismanagement of the state’s many resources by the previous government led to its ouster, by a landslide vote, during this elections.

The present state government, led by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, is generally well-regarded by the people. Its progressive policies have brought about many relative improvements in the state, including a free island-wide wifi service, more efficient public services (the public can email the Chief Minister directly at limguaneng@penang.gov.my, an unheard-of innovation to a populace accustomed to much bureaucratic red tape in their dealings with the authorities), and a newly vibrant investment climate. All this has led to a palpable new confidence in the future of Penang.

UNESCO inscription as a World Heritage City

The second milestone in Penang’s recent history took place a few months after the 2008 general election. On July 7 that year, George Town was inscribed to the UNESCO list of world heritage cities, for its ‘unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.

This coveted award couldn’t have come at a better time, because it made Penangites re-look their own, largely forgotten, history. Just when many of the mouldering prewar shophouses of the inner city, largely considered ugly, unprepossessing and ‘nothing special’ by the locals, were about to be demolished to make way for newer buildings, they – to the bemusement of those locals – became part of a greater worldwide inventory of priceless historical buildings.

Recall that this was soon after the momentous general elections following which a new state government brought with it the heady promise of new beginnings, progress and change. A buoyant mood prevailed, and it seemed that the irreplaceable legacy of George Town’s crumbling historic buildings, cloaked by rot and neglect, was being brushed aside. Many had been already demolished to make way for new shopping malls, hotels and other high-rise buildings.

Conservation and economic viability
To be fair, awareness of the importance of George Town’s architectural legacy had been there for years. In 1986 an International Conference on Urban Conservation and Planning was held here, organised by the Penang Island City Council (MPPP) and the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM).

Penang wasn’t a bad place to live in 20 or 30 years ago. It was a charming, laid-back island, and had always been one of the most popular tourist destinations in Malaysia. However, around the mid-1990s it seemed like the island was beginning to lose its appeal. There was a proliferation of unattractive concrete high-rises and worsening traffic. Tourist attractions were getting stale and beginning to lose their relevance to modern visitors who had seen it all and who were looking for experiences more authentic than ticketturnstile tourist sites and lookalike malls.

Despite the conference and its objectives being duly reported in the local newspapers, life went on as normal for the people of Penang, and many property owners and developers remained largely sceptical about the economic viability of historic conservation.

The first major restoration of a historic building in Penang was carried out in 1993, on the Syed Al-Attas Mansion in Lebuh Armenian, which had been built in the 1860s. But it was not until the 2008 UNESCO inscription of George Town as a World Heritage City that the buzzwords of ‘conservation’ and ‘heritage’ really caught on.

In line with the stipulations of the UNESCO listing, a ‘heritage core zone’ now exists in the oldest quarters of George Town. It covers an area of about 109 hectares in the heart of the old city, with a larger, 150 hectare ‘buffer zone’ surrounding it, within which the buildings are protected by local regulations. Council guidelines now govern the conservation of the historical shophouses, which, in the short space of five years, have now become some of the hottest real estate in Penang.

Burgeoning population
An unmistakable zeitgeist pervades the place. It seems that in recent years George Town has become a cool place to visit, work and live in. In 2012, the price for an unrenovated pre-war shophouse in George Town had skyrocketed to RM2,000 per square foot, quadruple its pre- 2008 price and equivalent to that of a luxury condo unit in the glittering Kuala Lumpur city center. Penang is again beginning to welcome, like it did those centuries ago, newcomers to its shores.

The population of Penang has grown from just over a million people in 1990, to about 1.8 million in 2010. According to the Department of Statistics, there were about 16,000 foreign nationals in Penang, today there are about 100,000 foreigners living here. The ‘Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H)’ ten-year multipleentry visa program has been instrumental in facilitating the arrival of this new migrant community, and these new arrivals only add to the wonderful multicultural feel of Penang.

Pulsing with life
It’s in the heart of George Town that you can perceive the most obvious changes that have taken place in Penang over the last two decades. These days, almost every other street here boasts a newly-restored pre-war shophouse, now pristine with new layers of paint, looking much like it would have when it was built a hundred or more years ago.

It is heartening to see these lovely old buildings pulse with new life, as they too undergo their own metamorphoses and serve, no longer as utilitarian shophouses, but as chic cafés, restaurants, boutique hotels and art galleries, all of which make George Town attractive and interesting again as a visitor destination.

Some complain that this ‘gentrification’ of the inner city is driving away the original residents, the humble traders and craftsmen of George Town. But most see it as a positive situation for all. Walk along any street and you’ll see that – along with the stylish new establishments in beautifully-restored premises interspersed between ubiquitous kopi tiam of old – the quotidian life of the Penang I grew up with is still here, in newlycosmopolitan George Town.

A new familiarity
Some older Penangites may be forgiven for thinking that, except for more high-rise apartment buildings, some new roads, the rising costs of everything and worsening traffic jams, not much has changed in Penang in the last twenty years. However, an intangible metamorphosis has taken placed in George Town itself.

Progress is inevitable, they say, but in the case of this city, progress has been tempered by the presence of an important social, cultural and architectural history within its boundaries and thankfully, this history was preserved for future generations of Penangites before it was too late.

The Penang in the collective memory of all those who consider themselves ‘Penangites’ is both familiar yet new, like a venerable old lady who has decided it was time to try some new clothes and perhaps change her hairstyle. ‘But not too much change,’ she says. The island I still call home is evolving before me, but happily it still looks much the same

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