A street life called Desire

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Without its communities, George Town is a hollow shell, its street life gone, festivals diminished and anything remotely traditional repackaged into tourist-palatable events, trinkets and monuments to a bygone way of life, reflects Gwynn Jenkins.

One morning, as I was leaving my house, a new white-faced, silver-haired, open laptop-carrying humanoid called across the divide of premix. “Lovely dog,” he bellowed clearly as an introduction to a conversation.

“She is lovely” I replied, “just a street dog.”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” was the puzzling reply from the T-shirt and shorts-clad laptop-carrier.

I walked across – more to stop the bellowing than anything else, but I was curious as to what this species was.

“I’ve been watching you and your dog” he said referring to my early morning walk. “Sitting over there in the park you know…”- pointing both to the park and the laptop, “it’s marvellous watching the street life,” he oozed enthusiastically, a schoolboy excited glint in his eye.

“Ah yes,” I said, dead pan, and pointing to my former neighbours’ old homes and stores, now newly renovated for boutique holiday lets, “this side used to have a street life too.”

His twinkle clouded, you could see vague recognition of a possibility that he may be part of the street life’s demise, and then the denial shutter closed this uncomfortable thought deep into the subconscious.

I am fascinated by ‘travellers’ such as this chap and others: can they really believe that their good fortune to rent a beautifully renovated shop-house has not been at the expense of some local family or business, moved out of the way for their gain? Even though it is this very community street life that satisfied one of the three criteria for World Heritage Listing, perhaps it’s more comfortable to believe that an adorable little shop-house let was in fact a ruin brought back from the dead. After all, there are so many around them in that state, it is perfectly possible to believe it to be true, and for some, it is true.

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Sadly, and worryingly this isn’t always the case. True, there are many uninhabited ruins, and street-news rumours about their recent purchase and possible renovation (note, unfortunately not restoration) are welcome.

But worryingly, there are properties sold where either before or soon after the sale, the tenants – the last hangers-on after the devastating community upheaval following the repeal of the rent control – finally pack what scant possessions they have and move on.

‘Worryingly’ for two reasons: Three criteria are required for WH listing. If the community criteria is no longer attainable, then the site does not simply lose World Heritage listing, it becomes listed as Heritage in Danger, a far more embarrassing title and potentially damaging to the tourist industry, and one which is very hard to shake off.

Secondly, renovations are taking place at breakneck speed: who knows what procedures are being followed, if any, in many cases. On top of that, scant or confused knowledge regarding the traditional ways of buildings leaves renovations more likely to cause further damage to the historical built fabric than to cure problems caused by years of neglect.

Of equal concern is the protection of the intangible – the street and community life – as it is a hard nut to crack, particularly the protection of a principally tenant community. Even encouraging the purchase of derelict housing, instead of those with tenants, changes the value of all properties and the inevitable spiral escalates. It takes a philanthropic will to stem or divert the change, and it takes a group prepared to raise the shutters of denial and tackle the issue through dialogue and debate.

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Without the communities, George Town is a hollow shell, its street life gone, festivals diminished and anything remotely traditional repackaged into tourist-palatable events, trinkets and monuments to a bygone way of life. The fact that it has become ‘bygone’ is due to our own inability to value the ‘invaluable’: the neighbours’ smile, the rickety school bus clanking down the road, the swish of the road-sweeper’s broom and his cheery ‘hello’, the smell of joss, school shoes drying in the sun on my dustbin lid, and other numerous connections between neighbours in a living community.

Even Unesco has only just begun to recognise the value of the intangible. Recognition is a great step forward, but how do we take the next step? How can we welcome laptop-carrying-white-haired-tee-shirt-clad travellers and let them enjoy street life on both sides of the street? It’s an issue that has to be tackled come the writing of the Special Area Plan and the Conservation Guidelines, for these documents provide the framework to keep the essence of our urban landscape, our communities and our traditions, the essence that makes us special, unique and certainly worthy of being part of a Unesco World Heritage Site.

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