Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang
Penang was settled from the sea, and the fort was built to defend against naval and pirate attacks. As George Town grew into a port, its waterfront became its actual face. Any serious rejuvenation of the city must therefore involve the restoration of its waterfront.
Playing a significant role in defining a city’s economic, social and cultural facets, waterfronts inevitably mould the character of the settlement it represents. The waterfront in George Town has a backdrop that consists of key elements of the town itself – the Esplanade, Pengkalan Weld, Swettenham Pier and the Clan Jetties.
Rise and Ebb of the Tide
As the East India Company’s first settlement east of the Bay of Bengal, Penang played a hugely important role in the rise of the British Empire during and after the Napoleonic Wars that so fully engaged the European powers. The Company’s vessels often plied the coasts of India for months on end gathering cargo to trade in China. These were extremely costly voyages that lasted up to three years or longer. Apart from making logistic and economic sense, having Penang as an outpost also allowed the Company to exert more direct control over the Straits of Malacca. The Port of Penang thus very quickly became a major meeting point between East and West.
“The waterfront is a highlight of George Town, reflecting both its history and its current development,” says Dr Ang Ming Chee, general manager of George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI). “Ever since the arrival of the British in 1786, Penang has always been a melting pot of cultures,” she says.
The almost natural division of labour and specialisations along ethnic lines was largely impressively peaceful and very much part and parcel of the port’s economy, contributing greatly to the island’s enviably swift development. Swettenham Pier, Penang's first deep wharf, was completed in 1904. It boosted the state’s status as a modern transhipment centre, and the pulse of the port became ever more the heartbeat of George Town.
Penang retained its prime status until 1826, when the Straits Settlements was established consisting of Penang, Dinding, Malacca and Singapore. Singapore, recently settled by the British, was found to be better located for China trade and quickly became the major port in the region for British imperial expansion.
Penang’s promising start continued to disappoint as global dynamics altered the economic landscape. Khoo Salma Nasution, a heritage advocate of Penang, said that failure to reach agreement between various groups on the modernisation of port services and meeting new demands was what held Penang back. “Much of the businesses were deviated to Port Klang (then known as Port Swettenham) after it was constructed in 1901. Then came the Japanese occupation, and the labour strikes (mostly due to workers being unhappy about their low pay) that went on into the 1960s. Penang Port could not keep up with other ports that had invested in advanced machinery and containerisation,” Salma adds.
Inevitably, Penang declined after the free port status was revoked in 1967. This led to massive unemployment, forcing many of Penang’s young to make a living in the Klang Valley, in Singapore and beyond. Luckily for the state, second chief minister Lim Chong Eu (1969-1990) managed to push Penang onto a new path of economic growth. By getting the federal government of the day to agree to the establishment of the Bayan Lepas free trade zone, the state went into manufacturing and could connect in effective ways to the global economy again. Penang’s rapid economic transformation in the 1970s came about mainly through the state’s ability to convince American manufacturers to move labour-intensive parts of production processes to Bayan Lepas.
But this also meant that while Penang emerged as a world-class electronics production and distribution hub, George Town’s waterfront was left to decay.
But today, with tourism progressing in leaps and bounds in the wake of George Town’s listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site (WHS) in 2008, and with the inner city being upgraded in all directions, the waterfront is on the brink of a facelift of amazing proportions.
Renewing the Waterfront
The George Town Draft Special Area Plan (SAP), responsible for ensuring that the guidelines and recommendations of the Conservation Management Plan (a requirement by the World Heritage Committee) are implemented under Malaysian law, has divided the waterfront for developmental purposes into the North and East waterfront zones; both are to be transformed in keeping with the new vibrancy of the city.
“It’s about giving green public spaces to the people,” says Aufa Abd Rahman, programme executive at Think City, a community-based urban regeneration body set up by Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Think City’s George Town Grants Programme (GTGP) was focused on conservation, cultural mapping, capacity building and shared spaces.
“The GTGP has just ended; Think City is looking at a public realms upgrade and development in four key areas,” says Aufa. These are the North Waterfront, the East Waterfront/Port Area, the Clan Jetties, and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.
The upgrade tries to capitalise on community assets, inspiration and potential, and create public spaces that promote public health, happiness and welfare. This is the aspiration behind the Planning and Design Guide for Public Realm – an outcome of the Strategic Master Plan and the Draft SAP of George Town. The Guide was produced with technical assistance from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, while the George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC) – consisting of Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI) and Think City – was set up to implement projects based on the Guide.
Landscape architect Inch Lim has been appointed to design the master plan for the waterfront around Dewan Sri Pinang and Fort Cornwallis. “The aim is to provide highquality public space. Income generation will be secondary, aimed at sustaining and maintaining that space,” says Aufa. “The plan will be reviewed by Think City and then presented to MBPP. Public feedback will be sought as well.” Since most of the land at the North Waterfront belongs to the council, Think City is currently working on cost estimation of the master plan for submission to MBPP. The plan will be physically implemented by 2017 by a local contractor.
All new developments will adhere to the Draft SAP zoning limitations, such as the 18-metre building height ceiling for the World Heritage zone and the buffer zone. As waterfronts are public realm, all projects there are subject to the approval of the State Planning Committee, upon presentation of detailed plans based on the Planning Briefs outlined in Annexure B of the Draft SAP (Planning and Design Guide for Public Realms).
On top of that, GTWHI is there to ensure that the planning for these areas happens through close collaboration with the relevant agencies. An example is the conservation and restoration collaboration between GTWHI and Think City for the Fort Cornwallis and Padang Outline Heritage Management Plan, which contains archaeological studies, publications, research and public consultations.
Connecting the Two Halves of Penang
Penang’s ferry services started with little steam ferries in the 19th century. These were run by a Chinese company owned by Quah Beng Kee and his brothers. In 1907, Quah formed the Guan Lee Hin Steamship Company, which was merged that same year to form the Eastern Shipping Company. This was later taken over by the Straits Steamship Company. In 1922 the Penang Harbour Board took over the ferry service and leased it to the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR, which later became Malayan Railways). When Malayan Railways scaled down, the Penang Port Commission (PPC) was formed and the bigger jetties that we have today came into use.
As for the ferry terminal, in 2015 the state government had prepared a proposal to take over operations of the service; however, the plan is on hold until a discussion with the Transport Minister is held to decide on several pertinent issues, the most important being the state’s request for 30 water taxi or ferry licences from the federal government upon taking over operations of the ferry service. In the meantime, Penang Port has reduced the number of ferries between the island and mainland from four to three – coupled with shorter operating hours starting January this year due to the decline in the number of vehicles using the ferries; Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai has said that the ferry service will continue to be strengthened for the sake of passengers.
Nevertheless, rejuvenation plans for the adjacent Church Street Pier and Tanjung City Marina is underway. Just recently in June, Think City programme director Murali Ram announced that they are collaborating with the state government on a project to link Esplanade to the Clan Jetties in Weld Quay. Think City will be working closely with the Aga Khan Trust on this project, which would most likely be a promenade.
Life on the Water’s Edge
The heritage of George Town and its waterfront is as much about its people, their daily lives and their livelihoods as it is about architecture and landscape. Needless to say, the exodus of families that have lived in the old city for generations is a major concern. “Residential zoning in SAP ought to be pushed harder,” says Salma. “One of the ways to approach this is to rehabilitate the upstairs portion of the houses as residential, perhaps with a separate entrance. Some processes of gentrification are encouraged, but only at the right places. Godowns, for example, can be converted to shops and restaurants – they would otherwise be too expensive to maintain if used as storage or if just left to dilapidate.”
says Chew Siew Pheng. She and her siblings spent their childhood days on the floating village known as the Clan Jetties, which were identified as a living heritage community by the Penang State Tourism Development, Culture, Arts & Heritage.
The Clan Jetties are by far one of the most unique features of George Town. They consist of rows of wooden houses on stilts above water, connected to each other by planked walkways, and are quite a sight to behold. They were initially landing jetties that were later dominated by particular clan members for the loading and unloading of goods and the mooring of their sampans. Simple sheds were converted into communal houses for residents; groups of close-knit families – clans – started to move into parts of these jetties, and the houses at the jetties expanded further in the
early 20th century as immigration peaked.
“As children, we would jump off the wooden deck and into the water for an afternoon swim,” says Siew Pheng’s sister, Ling. “The seawater was very clean back then, even during high tide,” Siew Pheng adds. “Now it is littered with garbage – especially obvious during low tide. This waste is not generated solely by the clan jetties; it comes from all over the place, even from the drains at Pengkalan Weld – and it’s getting worse over time.”
Like all other houses on the jetties, Siew Pheng’s family home is made largely of wood. Everything degrades with time. “The jetties have always been in a sorry state. The houses are dilapidated and the precarious wooden stilts are in dire need of replacement. It doesn’t help when structural repairs are so expensive. Many of the people here are old and poor – they simply cannot afford to maintain their homes,” she says.
Chew Jetty, the largest of the Clan Jetties along the Pengkalan Weld stretch, became a popular tourist destination after the Unesco listing. While this has enabled the community to generate income by selling souvenirs and food and beverages, the flipside is that things have changed: houses have been renovated using cement, and gates installed to prevent tourists from entering their homes.
The desire to enhance tourism needs to be balanced with increasing liveability for the locals – therein lies the issue of how effective the Clan Jetties regeneration schemes based on the SAP have been, given that they are often perceived as top-down government programmes with little involvement from the residents.
“What the community needs today is the upgrading of basic amenities – such as the rewiring of lamp posts, installing fire hazard safety measures, improving the waste collection system and educating people against throwing garbage into the sea. All these years, there was no sewage system installed for the jetties aside from the pilot projects that took place only recently,” Siew Pheng says.
A Resilient Waterfront
As an essential structure in the urban landscape, the waterfront needs to be designed to last, with resilient and adaptive measures taken in the face of future uncertainties in climate, land use, water management and socio-economic activities – all of which hold great economic significance for the city.
Waterfronts, like all coastal areas in general, are greatly exposed to the forces of nature – be it storm surges, coastal flooding or erosion. While over a decade has passed since the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami took place, tsunami warning systems should be complemented with a second line of defence through increased coastal community resilience, carefully considered land use and structurally strong designs to protect the coastline.
In addition, waterfronts can have a blue-green infrastructure that incorporates a network of components for solving key urban challenges through storm water management, climate adaptation, sustainable energy production and clean water, just to name a few. Take for example the riverfront in Nashville, the US – equipped with underground water harvesting systems and geothermal energy integrated into its public parks. Its rainwater-harvesting cistern collects up to 1,000,000 gallons of storm water annually, which is then used for park irrigation. Having a similar integration would be a tremendous help to Penang in its continuous effort to conserve water supply.
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-  The first phase of the collaboration between Penang, Think City and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is aimed at the development of a Strategic Master Plan and at the identification of significant conservation and development projects within and around the designated heritage area.
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-  George Town World Heritage Inc. 2014. The Clan Jetties of George Town.