After taking an overnight flight from Sydney and transiting at Kuala Lumpur for four hours, I arrived in Penang at 8:00 am yesterday.
I told the bus driver that I wanted to go to Penang. He obviously gets it regularly from tourists, but laughed and was intent on correcting me. I was already in Penang – the name of the island - and headed for George Town, the island’s city that is Malaysia’s second largest and one of Southeast Asia’s most famous cultural and gastronomic hubs.
Within George Town, I am staying in a historic no frills bungalow hotel on the edge of the 108 hectare World Heritage zone, which was inscribed in 2008. UNESCO recognised the city for its 'unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia'. George Town contains one of the largest collections of pre-World War II buildings in Southeast Asia and is considered an architectural treasure.
That description leads me to expect the kind of picture perfect vistas that we associate with many urban precincts in Europe. But my first impression was that George Town is just as dilapidated and functional as Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City and many of the other Asian cities I’ve visited, complete with the odours of an inadequate sewerage system.
I enjoyed my day long ‘discovery walk’ along the broken and uneven and obstructed footpaths. There’s a lot to see, but what stood out for me was an attraction much less grand than most. It is the historic photographic display and memory collection point on the ground floor of the Star newspaper building.
In particular I liked the ‘What’s your Penang story?’ corner where visitors were invited to type a letter to share their experience of Penang. I don’t know how many people have actually typed their story, but I appreciate the symbolism of publicly holding up the value of listening to and recording people’s stories. Until they see a display like this, many people think that nobody wants to know about their past.
I’ve long been interested in ways of preserving the past, since I did my Applied History postgraduate degree at the UTS Sydney in the 1990s. Coincidentally, on Sunday I was talking to a member of an oral history collection group that had a stand at a fair in Newtown in Sydney. He is currently doing a postgrad degree in history at UTS.
Understandably Penang will want to capitalise on its World Heritage site status. I noticed many of the hundreds of restaurants in the city use heritage as a selling point. My photo depicts promotion of ‘Penang Tradisional Famouse Food’ and ‘Dessert Old Time Delight Shop’.
I like this. But I suspect that commercial reality will probably see the transformation of the heritage zone into a sanitised theme park so that tourists will visit in large numbers and generate renewed wealth for the city.
That will probably mean the creation of even footpaths and the elimination of sewerage odours. These enhancements will make for a more comfortable visitor experience, but I think it will also be a less authentic representation of Penang’s past.