Celebrating George Town’s History of Diversity


For the George Town Heritage Celebrations, community is the key word.

The George Town Heritage Celebrations (GTHC) is an annual celebration done to commemorate George Town’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site on July 7, 2008. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the inscription – with 10 times the excitement for the celebrations expected!

The theme for this year is “POTENTIAL – Of the Past, in the Present, for the Future”, which presents heritage as a dynamic subject not only restricted to observations of the past. It encompasses four main objectives, focusing on the passing of cultural knowledge and social values to the next generation as well as sharing them with one another.

“POTENTIAL” also aims to rediscover the many hidden possibilities and qualities of George Town – its potentials – in moving forward with future plans.

That said, the celebration is all about appreciating similarities and celebrating the diversity of George Town, as well as safeguarding heritage. According to Ang Ming Chee, the general manager of George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), which is an organisation dedicated to protecting, promoting and preserving George Town as a sustainable city, “There is another aspect of heritage that is called intangible cultural heritage. Tangible heritage such as buildings are easier to recognise. However, intangible cultural heritage such as traditional sports and games as well as oral traditions are not.

Bunga rampai by the Badan Warisan Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh.

“For the past few years, we have been promoting themes under the direction of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The documentation of intangible heritage is necessary to cultural safeguarding because culture as a process is always changing,” she says.

On the celebrations itself, of which Ang is also the executive producer, there will be several programmes such as the ongoing exhibition, “George Town: Beautiful and Irregular”, which will last till July 27; the Tang Mei Yun Taiwan Opera Performance; and site excursions to eight places of worship. The main event is the street festival happening on the evening of July 7.

Education through Participation

This year’s street festival is the biggest so far, with 22 participating communities. “The expectations are higher this year because it is the 10th anniversary of the celebration. We have reached out to other minority communities and invited them to participate in the celebrations, hence the large number,” says producer of the celebrations, Tieh Kok Yang.

Almost half of the participating communities are first-time participants, such as Warisan Balik Pulau, Penang Hokkien Association, Penang Hakka Association, Penang Eurasian Association, Malaysian-Japanese Society and others.

The programme team this year consists of several first-time volunteer-coordinators, and is led by Tieh and programme manager Kuah Li Feng. Tasks include coordinating and liaising with the respective communities, conducting interviews, documenting their cultural heritage, as well as assisting with the preparations for their programmes during the event.

Roti-making by Sikh Naujawan Sabha.

True to the theme, each community has the freedom to propose their specialty – one that they deem significant and should be shared with a larger audience. As with past celebrations, GTHC maintains itself as a platform that allows communities to showcase their cultural heritage as one of the means of preservation, at the same time providing a sharing-and-learning experience.

The celebrations also spark a reflective process for each community. According to Kuah, some communities were not aware of their own cultural heritage when first engaged. “The celebration enables communities to be cognisant of their own  cultural heritage and encourages them to discover more. It is also a creative platform where we engage with the communities. Most of those who have participated acquired knowledge on intangible cultural heritage; they became more sophisticated in their cultural expressions and gained the capacity to organise their own programmes.”

For the volunteers, having the chance to work closely with all these communities provides a great learning opportunity; interviews, conversations and working together on the programmes transfer in-depth knowledge of their cultural heritage. It also reconnects the volunteers with their own heritage: “I am currently handling four communities, and one of them is the Penang Teochew Association. I myself am a Teochew, yet there are so many things about my own heritage that I am not aware of. This is a great opportunity for me to learn more about my culture,” says volunteer Kang Ruo Qi.

Kang also finds that these communities, despite their differences, “are actually similar in the way that they dedicate themselves to preserving their cultural heritage. Each of them regularly organises activities for their own communities as well as for the wider public.” A common sentiment among the volunteers is that they have become more appreciative of the diverse cultural heritage scattered all over George Town.

What to Look Out For

With so many communities and the freedom to choose their own presentation of cultural heritage, you can expect a variety of activities, including craft making, food, games, performing arts and oral traditions. There are three main attractions: interactive workshops, cultural performances and interactive activities – these are all conducted by the communities themselves.

There is a variety of workshops that you can choose to participate in and learn from. If you are a crafts person, come and learn how to make pottery from the Hindu community, Japanese Sashiko embroidery or attap nipah by the Malays from Balik Pulau. Cooking demonstrations include idiyappam-making, Eurasian salad dressing and traditional Indian-Muslim dessert, paal choru. For games, you must definitely try the traditional tag-game, Kho Kho, by the Gujarati community and the board game, pachikala ata, by the Telugus.

Cultural performances will be held on the main stage. Among the performances are silat gayong by Pertubuhan Belia Liga Muslim, Hakka choir by the Penang Hakka Association and sitar music by the Temple of Fine Arts Penang.

Don’t forget your dancing shoes! Participate in various traditional dances such as ras garba by the Gujaratis, Loy Krathong by RamThai Dance and chingay by the Penang Chingay Association.

So come along on July 7 and celebrate together with the people of George Town!

Razan Rose' writes to put food on his table. He can be reached at razanrose92@gmail.com.

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