George Town losing cultural heritage to irresponsible tourism, guide warns

Tenants from this row of shophouses have been evicted to make way for a hotel. — Pictures by K.E. Ooi
Tenants from this row of shophouses have been evicted to make way for a hotel. — Pictures by K.E. Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Jan 23 — George Town risks losing its shine as a heritage city if it continues to be exploited as merely a tourist town, cultural heritage specialist Joann Khaw warned.

When expressing concern today over the eviction of five tenants along Chulia Street here, Khaw, who is also a tour guide, and expatriate Mark Lay said that these old tenants and their traditional trades in George Town are key factors that have helped give the city its heart and soul.

“If the state continues at this rate, the Unesco world heritage site will risk losing its cultural heritage, which is part of the city’s outstanding universal value (OUV),” Lay told reporters today at an antique store run by one of the five.

Khaw said most tourists who visit George Town do not only come for its built heritage but also its cultural heritage.

Cultural specialist guide Joann Khaw said tourists come to George Town for its traditional trade and cultural heritage, not only for its built heritage.
Cultural specialist guide Joann Khaw said tourists come to George Town for its traditional trade and cultural heritage, not only for its built heritage.

The duo warned that irresponsible tourism could turn George Town into Singapore’s Chinatown, which they described as a “tourist town without any intangible heritage”.

They said they believe that the eviction of the five tenants, who are not the first ones forced to give way to the construction of new boutique hotels, cafes and restaurants in the city, represent the start of an erosion of George Town’s OUVs.

They reminded the Penang state government and house owners that George Town’s intangible cultural heritage had been one of the OUVs that led to the city being awarded the Unesco heritage site status in 2008.

The five tenants — a recycling shop, an antique shop, a chemical shop, a mechanic and a budget hotel with a coffee shop downstairs — have been conducting their business there for decades, some more than 50 years.

Chemical shop Liangtraco's 91-year-old owner Ong Liang Ching in his cluttered shop which he says will take months to slowly clear up as it involved dangerous chemicals.
Chemical shop Liangtraco's 91-year-old owner Ong Liang Ching in his cluttered shop which he says will take months to slowly clear up as it involved dangerous chemicals.

“We appeal to the owner to demonstrate effective tourism responsibility by meeting with the tenants, listen to their concerns and discuss possible options to retain them as part of the proposed hotel project,” Lay said.

The tenants received eviction notices in August last year and have until March this year to move out but after their appeal, their deadlines were extended to April.

One tenant, antique shop owner Soo Yeow Hoay, said he has yet to find a place to relocate as rental within George Town has skyrocketed.

Owners of Pentique Gallery Soo Yeow Hoay and Lee Beng Guat (right) still could not find a place to relocate.
Owners of Pentique Gallery Soo Yeow Hoay and Lee Beng Guat (right) still could not find a place to relocate.