GEORGE TOWN, May 22 — The faded white walls and wooden door of Fong Lai Kheng’s hair salon in the heart of Malaysia’s George Town stand out on a street lined with souvenir shops, cafes and colourful murals.
But not for much longer. After a four-fold increase in her rent in just five years, Fong is planning to shut her business when the lease expires this year after five decades – joining an exodus of residents and traditional traders.
The Malaysian port city of George Town became a Unesco world heritage site in 2008, but since then an influx of tourists and rising rents have pushed out residents and the businesses that served them.
“What else can we do?” said Fong between washing and drying the hair of one of her regular customers. “There are many others who are eager to rent even if I don’t. I just have to pack my bags and retire.”
Once an important trading hub, George Town in the northern Malaysian state of Penang is a melting pot of Malaysia’s rich cultural diversity, where British colonial buildings sit alongside Chinese shophouses, mosques and Hindu shrines.
Since winning world heritage status, it has become one of Asia’s best-known tourist spots, attracting 3.8 million visitors in 2018 — more than double 2007 levels, official data show.
But as with other world heritage sites — from Venice to Vietnam’s Hoi An — there are fears the city could become a victim of its own success as the onslaught of tourists and exodus of residents threatens its unique character.
Eager to find ways of repopulating the city, the council is refurbishing six dilapidated pre-war shophouses, aiming to draw a new generation of residents — students and tech-savvy entrepreneurs — into the heart of the city.
The new scheme is inspired by co-living spaces in crowded, expensive cities from London to Hong Kong, with tenants sharing a kitchen and living room.
They will follow the traditional design, with shops on the ground floor and living quarters above.
George Town’s Mayor Yew Tung Seang, who is spearheading the pilot scheme, hopes it will boost affordability and help to attract young tenants who would not otherwise have been able to move to the city.
“Everything was converted into hotel, hotel, hotel — it became a tourist town,” Yew told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Eventually what we are hoping to see is a vibrant city where people stay in the city.”
The population of George Town has been falling since 2000 when rent control laws were repealed, causing some rents to triple, according to a report by the government-linked Khazanah Research Institute.
The number of permanent residents in the city almost halved between 2007 and 2009 to just 10,000 as owners of heritage properties sold or renovated them to fetch higher rents, the report said.
The number of hotels in the city meanwhile rose nearly 60 per cent between 2009 and 2013.
No figure for the current population is available.
“Co-living and co-working is not easy to succeed, I know that,” said Yew. “Our ultimate idea is that people will move back to George Town and stay here.”
The scheme to repopulate George Town will also be tested on another row of 10 privately-owned shophouses, where 17 rooms are up for rent as commercial spaces for technology-related events such as coding boot camps.
Owner Yeap Leong Huat, a businessman, said he hoped the project would be a “catalyst for change” and inspire other private owners to do the same.
“George Town is an old town. We have the romance of the past, but we want to show that there is the power of the future in this old city too,” said entrepreneur Howie Chang, who is managing the 10 shophouses.
But activists fighting to save George Town’s heritage were sceptical that such projects would draw people back into the city.
“It’s too little too late,” said Mark Lay, a New Zealander who has lived in the city since 2012 and co-founded the non-profit George Town Heritage Action Group.
He said the city was rapidly losing its intangible heritage — the traditional traders who have been forced out — while lax law enforcement meant heritage buildings were being demolished or renovated without adhering to conservation guidelines.
He said the government should prioritise existing residents struggling to live in the city due to high costs, including by improving public services and access to financial aid, as well as capping the number of hotels.
“If the government takes care of the locals, everything else will fit in. Tourists can see what the authorities are doing — this is just turning into a fake Disneyland.”
The transformation into a tourist town has also left visitors disappointed, according to Joann Khaw, a tour guide of over 25 years and a heritage conservation campaigner.
In recent years, Khaw has had to venture further away from the heritage area to cater to demand from tourists who ask to see the more authentic side of local life.
“How many residents are there left? These are all trinket shops, cafes, guest houses and bars. The tourists would tell me, ‘we have this at home, we don’t need to come all the way to see this’,” she said.
Asked about the concerns, Unesco said by email that it was “following up on conservation issues” with Malaysian authorities.
Even Penang’s Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said projects such as the refurbishment of old shophouses were “a drop in the ocean”.
“Even if (the project) is successful, that shophouse will no longer have the same trade (as) before it was refurbished,” said Chow in an interview.
The street where the leader himself grew up is now lined with trinket shops and cafes, including one inspired by the Harry Potter novels.
“It’s difficult, it’s very challenging — probably no solutions. The city will transform itself — slowly but surely — and lose the universal values that earned us the Unesco listing. That is a big challenge.
“The old George Town will be lost, bit by bit,” he said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation