The old traveller mantra, ‘Go and see it before it gets spoiled!’ has been used so many times that it’s almost become a cliche. Unfortunately, like all the best (or worst) cliches, it is also enduringly true and for some places it is already too late. Happily, though, Southeast Asia remains home to some places that have not, as yet, been affected too badly by the relentless march of the package tourist, and although things are changing in Penang’s Georgetown, there is still time to come and experience it before it is preened beyond recognition.
Georgetown is celebrated as one of the best preserved Chinese towns in the world, crammed full of traditional 19th-century shophouses, spectacular temple architecture and an extraordinarily large number of beautiful clan houses.
As well as its renowned architecture and myriad restaurants, one of the town’s biggest draws is the chance to wander its atmospheric backstreets and experience snapshots of daily life as it has existed for generations: an incense maker sitting in front of his 200-year-old shophouse, moulding traditional joss sticks from a paste of sandalwood; a group of retirees sitting around a mah jong table in the cool shade of the front verandah — known as the ‘five-foot way’; glimpses through open doorways of beaten-up sofas juxtaposed with gilded screens and antique furniture; the strains of traditional Chinese music coming out of an archaic cassette player; motorbikes, clothes left out to dry, mops and brooms, pots and pans, the clutter of everyday life.
Part of the charm of Georgetown is that it isn’t glossy. The pavements are cracked, the walls uneven and blemished, the louvred windows are weathered and there is a shabby appeal to the whole place. In other parts of Asia, such streetscapes have fallen foul to the bulldozers and been replaced by modern high-rise, but Georgetown’s saving grace was the Rent Control Act of 1966, which froze the area’s property prices for decades and made redevelopment unprofitable. Thanks to this, many of the town’s streets have been preserved in much the same state as they have always existed.
It was for this reason that, in 2008, Georgetown was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites because of its ‘unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia’. This was a huge boon for the town and has safeguarded its conservation for generations to come, but at the same time, it has already started to change the dynamics of the community and the aesthetics of the streets.
With the confirmation of the town’s newfound heritage status, and the repealing of the Rent Control Act, the weathered shophouses of central Georgetown have now become hot property. In some of the most popular streets, prices have risen 10-fold in the few years since the investors and developers first descended. This has started to erode the traditional way of life, as soaring rents have forced families out into the suburbs, and smart hotels, guesthouses, boutiques, cafes and restaurants have moved in.
The buildings themselves are also changing. In many ways this is a good thing, and once-dilapidated shophouses are being returned to their former glory, as 1960s aluminium window frames and grilles are removed, traditional louvres restored, crumbling facades patched up and painted, and gilded doors and screens reinstated. With the support of the Penang Heritage Trust, private investors are helping to restore and conserve this important architecture, thereby protecting the culture and legacy of the Peranakan Chinese.
However, there are also plenty of very unsympathetic renovations taking place, as well as new constructions which are completely out of kilter with the surrounding buildings. Unfortunately, it seems that some people are still able to build whatever they like, and this means that Georgetown’s streets are never completely safe from insensitive development. Even well-meaning, considerate, faithful renovations can end up feeling a little bland compared to the ragged variety that existed in the town before.
It is perhaps inevitable that, with the continuing investment and interest in renovation, the personality of the town will gradually change. This has already been the case with other heritage sites such as Galle Fort in Sri Lanka and Stone Town in Zanzibar, where rough edges have been smoothed to a uniform sheen at the expense of some of the original character and the traditional way of life.
There are some years to go before this happens to Georgetown at large, and there is currently a good balance of tasteful renovation versus traditional grunge, but if you want to experience something of old Penang, you’d better not wait too long.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 28th November, 2014.