Voicing George Town’s Many Mores

loading A street festival during the previous George Town Heritage Celebrations.

Living traditions risk being lost. Making them heard and documenting them is how GTWHI intends to save them.

We often take our traditions for granted. Whether it’s the food we cook during the festive seasons, the traditional games we play on the streets with neighbouring kids or the stories we tell each other, we tend to assume they will always be there long after we’re gone.

As general manager of George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), Dr Ang Ming Chee cannot take anything for granted. Every year, GTWHI celebrates the city’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site with the George Town Heritage Celebrations, a thematic celebration of the traditions that make George Town unique. Three years ago, the revelries were about traditional crafts. Two years ago, they were centred on festive foods – the delicacies we cook only on special occasions. Last year it was about traditional games.

The emphasis on traditions should come as no surprise. One of George Town’s Outstanding Universal Values (OUV) when it was inscribed as a UNESCO heritage site was its living heritage – its people and their traditions residing in a small but dense city of colonial architecture. “We are not Ayutthaya,” says Ang. “ This is our OUV, against the backdrop of our unique townscape.”

When Ang first took over as general manager, she found that the team was already doing something unique with the celebrations. “They engage with local communities, and that engagement is transiting something that is practiced or orally transmitted into something designed, written, fun and interactive. That process itself, if you look at it in a systematic, operational way, is a case that we can look at as a best practice of how we celebrate a Unesco World Heritage Site together with the locals.”

This year takes that engagement a little further with the theme “Walk the Talk: Oral Traditions and Expressions”, aimed at celebrating the oral traditions and stories of 14 communities in George Town.

The celebrations feature a heritage trail, which will take participants on a tour of the “golden triangle” of George Town’s business activities through Chowrasta Market, Lebuh Campbell and Penang Bazaar. There will also be an excursion to the Kapitan Keling Mosque, Gurdwara Temple, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Kuan Yin Temple, St Georges’ Church and Acheen Street Mosque to learn more about their traditions and festive celebrations. And then there is a street festival at Armenian Park and Kampung Kolam featuring Teochew opera singing, dikir barat and boria. Participating organisations include Badan Warisan Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh, Masjid Kapitan Keling, Liga Muslim Pulau Pinang, Nattukotai Nagarathar Heritage Society, the Penang Chinese Clan Council and the Telegu Association of Penang.

Learning Organically

To Ang and curators Lim Chung Wei and Kuah Li Feng, the celebrations provide an opportunity to understand in greater detail George Town’s living heritage. “We are not a city with a lot of books on oral traditions,” says Ang. “How do you play kali toi, cook curry chicken or pray to Tua Pek Kong? It’s not very systematic or even written down. In order to know about the city, we use the heritage celebration as our platform to go in, understand and interact with the community.”

We are not a city with a lot of books on oral traditions. How do you play kali toi, cook curry chicken or pray to Tua Pek Kong? It’s not very systematic or even written down. In order to know about the city, we use the heritage celebration as our platform to go in, understand and interact with the community.

Ang points to the festive food celebrations as an example. “People don’t record (recipes), they are meant for family members. But if you just pass them down to a limited audience, you might just lose them.” So the theme of festive foods was used to (re)introduce people to these delicacies, while allowing GTWHI to keep a record.”

Oral traditions can make up nursery rhymes, songs or poetry. “For me, it’s my grandmother teaching me how to cook our home version of curry. The recipe itself is transmitted from my grandmother to me verbally. That’s a form of oral expression.”

Ang points to funerals as another example. “The Taoist priest will say something and people just hear it as a rhythm because they don’t understand the content. But there’s a reason why they did this when they started. Nowadays it’s actually written down; it's been documented and they just read from the script. But in the past, I believe the practice was (to recite) from memory.”

Making Heritage Fun

GTWHI isn’t afraid to play around with the format. “Before last year, the heritage celebrations were thematic,” says Kuah. “We designed the programme with the community. We see this as two-way communication. With food, they will think of very cultural festive food. It goes back to their origins in China or India. There is authenticity.”

The George Town Heritage Celebrations mobilises over 200 volunteers every year.

Last year, though, GTWHI changed it quite a bit. “The direction that Dr Ang gave was, ‘just come (and) play’. We didn’t go for authenticity. We didn’t tell you what the origin of kali toi was and all that – there’s no point. You just come and play. Starting last year, we became more vernacular, because we were looking at local street memory.”

Local memory is important to Ang. Some of the memories she has of her childhood in George Town involve playing kali toi or hide and seek barefooted in the streets, or getting into fights with other kids. “That was how we interacted, so we wanted to attract more people to play in the backdrop of George Town.”

This year’s theme of oral traditions and expressions is a little trickier than last year’s, Ang and her team acknowledges. Traditions are especially important to George Town as they form part of the OUVs that won the city its inscription in the first place. “This year we want to highlight community spirit through oral traditions and expressions,” says Kuah. “It’s a bit more serious and inevitably you will have to go back to nenek moyang, and stories from China and India. We interviewed the elderly from these communities who talk about early migration memories. We built our own kind of oral traditions, our Penang stories to complement the dongeng and all that. This year is a mixture of old and local memories.”

Curators of the George Town Heritage Celebrations visiting a community leader.

The point of the celebrations is to understand the culture, explains Ang, instead of simply trying to achieve some level of authenticity. “The definition of culture itself is organic,” she says, “and authenticity is something that is rather exclusive. Culture evolves over time. I want to talk about the community, the people who practice these traditions, their culture and their heritage. The people are our main focus because we need to build interest and to help them document their heritage for future generations.

“I have 23 proper documentations to teach you how to play kali toi,” she adds. “I can teach you the George Town way, the Ayer Itam version and the Tanjung Bungah version. The rules are different, even in congkak! Whatever we practiced, the local stories we tell, they created our identity. All these interactions subconsciously build your identity. So now we are trying to scientifically identify what that is. Maybe I can’t give you all the answers, but slowly we are picking up the pieces of the puzzle, every year, through these heritage celebrations.”

Who We Are

It's a two-way street. GTWHI uses these celebrations as a way of digging through history to figure out what makes Penang, Penang. The communities get to do some soul-searching as well.

“When we ask them, ‘What is the community keyword for you?’, a lot of them don’t have a ready answer,” says Kuah. “They will start to think about what makes a Teochew, Teochew. When we ask them if they have any songs or oral traditions that support their community keyword, they will have to go and search again. They would discover something that they really cherish and really want to share with us.”

The heritage celebrations will also allow visitors to immerse themselves in local oral traditions, like nursery rhymes, myths, folk songs, poetry and dramatic performances. “You go down the path, and you might hear someone speak or sing in a certain dialect,” says Lim. The activities will be centred around four key areas of oral communication: speaking, reading, writing and singing.

The highlight of the celebrations, Lim says, is the street festival that will be held along Lebuh Acheh, Lebuh Armenian, Lebuh Cannon, Lebuh Ah Quee and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, which he describes as an experiential and interactive activity. There will be storytelling, where a member of a local community will share folk stories, along with traditional songs and writing workshops, promising visitors an intimate experience with unfamiliar peoples and traditions.

In a change from previous years, GTWHI is also bringing in groups from Thailand and Japan. Dancers from Chiang Mai University will be performing the traditional Lan Na Fon, while Japanese performers will showcase the Yasugi Bushi folk song and dance. While this might seem like an odd choice at first for a celebration about George Town’s traditions, Ang says that foreign influence has always been a part of the city’s identity. “Don’t forget, we started as a multicultural trading port. People from Thailand, Burma, Japan and India traded here 150-200 years ago. Europeans traded here. That’s why we have Eurasians and Baba Peranakan. When you have very different groups coming in, with a culture that you are not so familiar with, then you will see diversity and similarities.”

With such a big undertaking, what does the team hope to achieve with this year’s celebrations? “We don’t normally appreciate what we have right now,” says Lim. “But when you do (these traditions) in this kind of format you can give people a perspective. ‘Oh, this is also my story, my memories, my heritage.’ And by coming to this kind of festival, they will start to become aware of their own personal history.”

Ang has her sights set on something else as well: she hopes that, over the next several years, she would have accumulated enough documentation from these heritage celebrations to nominate George Town as a best practice example for the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. “I want to empower the community to continue our process of interviewing, researching and programming. We should continue doing so while we still can.”

George Town World Heritage Day celebrations take place on July 7-9 at various places across the city. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/ GeorgeTownCelebrations.

Jeffrey Hardy Quah is a freelance writer and editor.

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