Hipsters vs heritage – Bangkok Post

bangkokpost

http://www.bangkokpost.com/business/tourism-and-transport/621028/hipsters-vs-heritage

Worshipping inside of one of Georgetown's many Chinese temples (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Worshipping inside of one of Georgetown’s many Chinese temples (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

In Penang, gentrification and commercialization threaten heritage

GEORGE TOWN – Haja Mohideen is the last of his kind, the sole fashioner of the traditional Malaysian hat called songkok melayu who is still working on Penang island, off Malaysia’s northwest coast.

With that impending finality on his mind, the 69 year old milliner sits at his streetside desk for 11, sometimes 12 hours a day, cutting and stitching the 5 or 6 hats that make up his daily output.

“Most of the orders come when there are ceremonies, holidays,” Haja said. “Though tourists also like to buy as a souvenir.”

Haja Mohideen at work (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Haja Mohideen at work (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Penang has seen the good and the bad of a raised profile and more visitors since 2008, when George Town, the region’s watercolour-esque heart, was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Arrivals at Penang International Airport have almost doubled from 3.3 million in 2009 to just over 6 million in 2014. More visitors means more business for Haja Mohideen, but the influx puts some of George Town’s landmark buildings at risk of destruction or degradation – be they Chinese shopfronts, British built administrative centres, or the poly-confessional array of vivid temples and whitewashed churches found along George Town’s spice- and cuisine-scented alleys.

The diverse building styles reflect both Penang’s mixed population – around 40% Malay, 40% Chinese-Malaysian, 10% Indian-Malaysian, 7% foreigner – as well as a history as a British-run port drawing traders from Arabic-speaking countries and from neighbors such as Thailand and Indonesia.

George Town’s old buildings are protected under heritage preservation codes, and there are also commercial imperatives to keeping the edfices intact, as they attract visitors. But more tourists means more hotels, more shops, and more restaurants – meaning that there are countervailing pressures on building use which could undermine protection efforts.

Moreover Penang is one of Malaysia’s wealthiest regions: a thriving commercial centre nicknamed ‘Silicon Island’ and a base for companies such as Sandisk and Seagate. While much of that investment is directed to industrial parks, 15 or 30 minutes drive from George Town, local officials say economic growth has highlighted a tension between commercial exigency and aesthetic appeal.

“Penang is cultural hub, an artistic and cultural centre,” said Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, during an interview at his office in Penang.

“If we stick to the building codes, we should be alright. Some of the refurbishment done has been done very tastefully,” added Lim, who is also the leader of the Democratic Action Party, the biggest party in Malaysia’s national parliamentary opposition.

But conservationists demur, saying that preservation policies need strengthening. Of particular concern to Clement Liang, Honorary Secretary of the Penang Heritage Trust, is “the arbitrary exclusion of many buildings of significant heritage values outside the UNESCO world heritage site.”

Liang said that such loopholes allow for “monstrous new development[s] to surround the heritage buildings” – trends made worse by “light fines on violators who wantonly destroy heritage sites,” according to Liang, who has noticed with dismay George Town’s rapid gentrification, with traditional residences and shophouses being converted into hotels and cafés.

27 year old Tommy Yap opened his coffeeshop – The Alley – in 2013. Since then more than 70 competitors have launched across Penang, where backpackers and local hipsters while away the hours thumbing smartphones and playing boardgames.

Most of the new cafés have opened in George Town, said Yap, who keeps a close eye on the competition.

While much of this flourishing is driven by tourism, there is a steady local market for places to hang out. A new café always draws a crowd, at first, anyway.

“For most of the [local] people it’s about the trend, what is new, not about how people appreciate the coffee,” said Yap, who says his trade is split 50-50 between tourists and locals.

“People who like good coffee come here,” he said, pointing around to a connoisseur’s array of drip machines, grinders, weighing scales and more.

But preservationists seem dismayed by the proliferation of cafés – as well as galleries and hotels – in old George Town. “Sad to say that such unhealthy trend is aggravating the gentrification of the inner town population, displacing the traditional trades and jeopardising the liveability of the town for the residents where they are facing noisy neighbourhood and rising rental pressures,” said Clement Liang.

Do the legions of new coffeeshop owners agree? “Well, maybe, yeah,” said Yap, tailing off as he spoke – perhaps a hint that he might not really concur with Clement Liang’s take.

Other Penangites seem to be of two minds. Haja Mohideen might be Penang’s last hat man, but appreciates that change brings new commercial opportunities. But like Tommy Yap, Haja’s customers seem more of a “well, maybe, yeah” disposition.

“They {the local government] are trying to promote tourism, but it [Penang] might be saturated already, no more authentic,” shouted Zulfikar Mohamed, running to his car from Haja’s shop, 3 newly-crafted songkok in hand, his jeremiads half-lost in the downpour battering the soft-lit street outside.

Penang is a melting pot of ethnic groups and religions: Buddhist, Chinese folk religion, Christian, Muslim, Taoist

Penang is a melting pot of ethnic groups and religions: Buddhist, Chinese folk religion, Christian, Muslim, Taoist (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Busking in Georgetown (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Busking in Georgetown (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

George Town at night (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

George Town at night (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

One of Georgetown's many new cafes and coffeeshops (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

One of Georgetown’s many new cafes and coffeeshops (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Even the KFC is housed in an old colonial building (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Even Penang’s KFC is housed in an old colonial building (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Inside Penang's Burmese Buddhist temple (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Inside Penang’s Burmese Buddhist temple (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Visitors take 5 inside the Sun Yat Sen museum, in the house where the Chinese revolutionary lived while in Penang (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Visitors inside the Sun Yat Sen museum, in the house where the Chinese revolutionary lived while in Penang (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Many of Penang's old Chinese stores and houses have been covnerted into cafes and galleries

Many of Penang’s old Chinese stores and houses have been converted into cafes and galleries (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

View from Penang Hill

View from Penang Hill (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Melting silver at Thana's Goldsmith, listed as the last traditional jewelry maker in Penang (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Melting silver at Thana’s Goldsmith, listed as the last traditional jewelry maker in Penang (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Murli RBM Krishna, a craftsman at Thana's Goldsmith,  listed as the last traditional jewellry maker in Penang. Here he's stretching freshly melted silver into shape, prior to crafting into a ring.

Murli RBM Krishna, a craftsman at Thana’s Goldsmith, listed as the last traditional jewellry maker in Penang. Here he’s stretching freshly melted silver into shape, prior to crafting into a ring (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Inside the Street Art Cafe, one of more than 70 coffeeshops to open in Penang in the last 2 years

Inside the Street Art Cafe, one of more than 70 coffeeshops to open in Penang in the last 2 years (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Inside the Daily Dose cafe, one of more than 70 coffeeshops to open in Penang in the last 2 years (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Inside the Daily Dose cafe, one of more than 70 coffeeshops to open in Penang in the last 2 years (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

One of Georgetown's army of rickshaw drivers takes a rest from the searing heat

One of Georgetown’s army of rickshaw drivers takes a rest from the searing heat (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Follow us on Twitter
, , , ,