History and progress face off in a Malaysian square

Penang embodies the nation’s heritage, but creeping development threatens the area’s historical structures and UNESCO status

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February 11, 2022
History and progress face off in a Malaysian square
The George Town enclave surrounding Burmah Square on Penang Island is the only remaining neighborhood in the historic area with Art Deco buildings still intact

When domestic travel resumed in Malaysia, Dragon Tan thought he had endured long enough to see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. As a restaurant owner in the tourist part of Penang Island, business was finally returning to normal.

Then he received an eviction notice, demanding his departure in a month along with 33 other tenants.

“They do not care about us at all, whether we die or we live. They also do not care about our heritage,” said Tan, whose restaurant sells local nyonya cuisine in George Town city.

The bustling port city of George Town, which once served British interests in Malaysia, represents a unique link with the past. Over the years, skyscrapers have mushroomed around the area filled with remnants of local heritage. The ongoing clash between modernity and history could mean the eventual loss of George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage status.

 Most of the houses in George Town, a historic enclave on Malaysia’s Penang Island, date to the 1920s and 1930s

As economic transformation remains a focus for corporations and the Penang state government, buildings with historical significance are at risk of being erased from the map.

An eviction notice from the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) delivered on 1 December urged occupants of Burmah Square to pack their belongings and leave by the one-month deadline on the first day of the new year.

The notice was sent to 34 tenants in the square, a small business zone on 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres) of state-owned land, which PDC originally promoted as a business hub. A planned demolition of the square and surrounding houses would make way for two towers comprising 558 office units, homes and ten floors of retail space.

After punctually paying rent despite earning minimal income during the previous two years when the pandemic shut down the tourism industry, Tan considered the unforeseen eviction to be exceptionally harsh.

“We are here because of their original plan of renting out [Burmah Square] to start businesses,” said Rahmat Ahmad, a tenant who has operated his clothing store in the same location for more than two decades. “They should come up with upgrades instead of high-rise buildings. Who is going to benefit from this?”

Angered by PDC’s decision to prioritise skyscrapers over the restoration and preservation of the cultural heritage for which George Town is widely recognised, long-time tenants like Rahmat and Tan are attempting to stand their ground.

“They have ambitious plans. But I want to tell the [state government] to not dream too big,” Tan said with frustration in his restaurant during the midday break before the dinner rush hour. “Keep it simple, life will be easier.”

Rahmat nodded in agreement, furrowing his brow and proclaiming the public’s right to oppose the planned towers.

“There’s enough development in George Town. Penang is known for its cultural heritage. They must upgrade or maintain, not tear down our history,” Rahmat added. “They are robbing us of our future. So we need to take a stand.”

After weeks of negotiation with the PDC, Tan, Rahmat and other tenants received a notice that the state government would withdraw the eviction. 

“It’s the best news so far for the New Year,” Tan said in a text message, relieved to hear the buildings and his business would be spared.

Burmah Square might have been the rare exception to the rule, but the threat of the proposed demolition highlights the continuing struggle between business development and historical preservation in urban heritage spaces.

Burmah Square tenants Rahmat Ahmad, left, and Dragon Tan meet at Tan’s restaurant, Ivy’s Nyonya Cuisine, to discuss the increase of development threatening their businesses, neighborhood and George Town’s UNESCO heritage status

Founded in 1786, George Town became a melting pot of mercantile and cultural exchanges between Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans. The result is an eclectic and charming urban formation, particularly in its architectural styles. The area’s cultural diversity and heritage was recognised with designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

The George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site is split into the Core Zone and Buffer Zone. Outside the designated heritage area, there are Category I and Category II buildings, with Burmah Square sitting less than three kilometres (1.86 miles) from the Core Zone.

“The [Core Zone] is forbidden, no development can be done there. You can only restore,” Tan said, adding that the inconsistency in heritage preservation does not sit well with him. “That side you restore. This side you demolish. They are [historical] buildings, but we are [historical] buildings too,” he said.

Many of the buildings surrounding Burmah Square are Art Deco, an art movement that originated in Europe prior to World War I and matured as a style in the 1920s and 1930s. Notable Art Deco structures include the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building in New York City.

The George Town enclave surrounding Burmah Square on Penang Island is the only remaining neighborhood in the historic area with Art Deco buildings still intact

Distinguished by clean, linear, geometrical forms, metal window grids, a flag pole, parapets and walls painted in stucco or Shanghai plaster, the enclave facing possible demolition is one of the last links to a chapter of George Town’s rich history.

“Art Deco is found all over the world and it represents us at a certain period of time,” said Lim Gaik Siang, president of the Penang Heritage Trust, a NGO dedicated to boost Penang’s cultural and built heritage. “This area of [Burmah Square] is the only enclave in the whole of Penang Island with complete Art Deco buildings intact.”

Driving around Burmah Square, she pointed at the structures and explained the demolition of Burmah Square’s buildings would likely result in residents leaving. 

“When people move out, it’ll be a ghost town,” Lim said. “Once you pull down one [neighborhood], the rest will follow. It’s a domino effect.”

Other recent developments have threatened the area. In 2017, four Category II buildings in Peel Avenue, located a kilometre from Burmah Square, were pulled down and the 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres) were sold to a private hospital to make way for its new hub, Island Medical City.

A pre-colonial, two-storey bungalow known as Pykett House was illegally demolished in 2010. Relentless advocacy by activists and residents resulted in the George Town magistrate court issuing a fine of $1,400 (RM6,000) and ordering a complete restoration to the building’s original scale and position.

While several monumental buildings, churches, mosques and shophouses remain in good condition, skyscraper construction could threaten the area’s UNESCO World Heritage status.

There is already a glut of properties worth at least $859 million (RM3.6 billion), leaving Penang residents to wonder about the urgency of any eviction notice. As the skyscrapers increase, many older buildings are already sandwiched between towers.

“The high rises are moving closer to the [Core Zone] of George Town,” Lim said. “It will affect our UNESCO heritage status because it will show that we are not serious in preserving our heritage.”

Lim Gaik Siang, president of the Penang Heritage Trust, predicted the demolition of Burmah Square would lead to neighboring residents moving out

Before tourism took centre stage, lights emitted from the interior of shophouses and families could be seen through small windows at night. Many residents have moved in recent years to quieter neighbourhoods where their personal lives would not be observed by passersby.

“It’s all empty,” Lim said, pointing at a row of well-maintained shophouses in the Core Zone. 

Lim grew up in Penang and has dedicated much of her life to promoting its cultural history and the idea that some heritage is intangible and found in traditions, while other aspects like architecture can be seen and touched.

“At least in this [Core Zone] area, we can protect the shell. We may have lost the soul, but the shell is still there,” she said. “That side [in Burmah Square], we can’t even protect the shell.”

In a 2017 TED Talk about green development, Lim opined: “New buildings can be built anytime, anywhere. Today you can build the tallest building, tomorrow someone else can build a building taller than yours. But once a heritage building is pulled down, it can’t be built back exactly the same. The raw material is no longer there, the artisans have passed away, the skill is no longer there.”

Seeing the positive outcome of the advocacy leading to the reconstruction of the Pykett House, the tenants of Burmah Square have pushed to save the area by using similar cases as legal precedents for preservation.

“We want to use it to say, ‘Look, your policies and actions are not consistent.’ They are duty bound to protect our heritage, our interests and our wellbeing,” Tan said.

“If you want to chop down a 100-year-old mango tree, you have to go through the red tape and it will take one or two years,” Tan said. “So how can they just demolish these buildings so suddenly? If we demolish, the [next] generations will miss out.”

Photos by Ashley Yeong for Southeast Asia Globe

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