As one of the most complete surviving historic city centers with a multicultural living heritage on the Straits of Malacca, George Town was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2008, together with Melaka. To manage, monitor, and promote the George Town World Heritage Site, George Town World Heritage Incorporated (gtwhi.com.my) was established in 2010 by the state government of Penang.
GTWHI works closely with the council and community to overcome day-to-day challenges with regard to promoting sustainable tourism, revitalizing traditional trades, remodeling local market ecology, redefining the use of space, and driving residents back to the city center. We also accumulate baseline data through systematic and scientific research to develop mid- and long-term heritage conservation programs and policies. Our approaches are highly organic and community based, and we take serious commitments to sustain the coexistence of diversity, which is divided according to geographical area, linguistic groups, religious identity, and social status.
One significant program born and bred by GTWHI is the annual George Town Heritage Celebrations. A theme is adopted to depict a specific aspect of our multifaceted heritage every year. We started off with the theme of ‘Colour, Culture, Tradition’ in 2013 to showcase the diverse arts, crafts, and culture in George Town. In 2014, the celebration took on the premise of traditional crafts in George Town under the theme “Living Legacies”, and in 2015, Heritage Celebrations chose the subject of traditional and ritual foods—undeniably the forte of Penang and arguably the best in the region—with the theme of “Eat Rite”. For 2016, the eighth anniversary of George Town’s inscription, we highlighted the theme of “Traditional Sports and Games” and reintroduced twenty-three types of sports and games to the visitors from 7 to 9 July. We commenced the preparation of this year’s celebration in March and have engaged twenty community organizations in the planning and execution of the celebration.
This year, a team of forty-three project staff was engaged to take up the various roles of project manager, event coordinator, logistic facilitator, volunteer coordinator, and researcher. These individuals worked closely with the participating community and engineered the success of the celebration. The team communicated with the community in shared perspectives and languages. It was through such interactive process that we identified the “master” from the communities—individuals who are skillful in their respective cultural heritage. Once we identified the masters, we spent a lot of time persuading these masters to transmit their skills to a group of content facilitators. These facilitators, many of them young volunteers from Penang, were trained and played a role in disseminating the learned knowledge to celebration visitors.
Heritage conservation is a continuous process that is built up through engagement, interaction, and education. George Town Heritage Celebration is one of the platforms we use to engage inner-city residents and visitors in efforts to preserve George Town’s local culture and heritage assets. These programs have established important milestones and empowered the masses to participate in their city’s history interpretation process. Our methodology demonstrated that such a bottom-up approach contributes to a deeper layer of cultural and political significance. It also creates a collective identity that belongs to inner-city George Town and the people who care about this place. It unearths the embedded facts and stories of the diversity and uniqueness of George Town’s architectural, cultural, and historical characters. It also empowers the masses by giving them a voice and allowing them to define their own past, present, and future. Meanwhile, financial aid from the state government and its agencies has helped to boost advocates and field workers’ confidence in the heritage conservation mission.
I ask you to pay close attention to George Town’s organic, dynamic, and authentic cultural heritage on your next visit to this city. It is not something that we can afford to take for granted, anymore.