Realities of Living on the Clan Jetties

loading Julia Tan

The Clan Jetties community has been living with the sea as backdrop for generations. This inseparable connection with their environment has formed an essential part of their identity, alongside the constant struggles in their daily lives – struggles which have caused many of the younger generation to move away.

Standing inches above the sea, the maintenance of the jetties’ wooden structure poses a huge challenge – they are easily damaged from constant exposure to water and moisture. For each household, the preservation of their stilted wooden house requires strenuous efforts and frequent costs. In normal cases, an average jetty house needs replacements every 10 to 15 years. The wooden flooring and wooden pillars have to be in tiptop shape to support the structure.

Pillars covered with cement to support the wooden houses.

The estimated cost of a single renovation goes into thousands of ringgit. While this difficulty has been remedied to a certain extent in recent years through switching from wood to cement, the pressure of preserving an entire jetty house remains.

On the other hand, there are sanitation woes, especially concerning pollution discharged into the sea. For example, the pillars of the jetties closer to land suffer huge garbage accumulation.

The installation of a sewage system is another cause of contention: although the concept is still in the funding stage, it has already met with opposition with regards to the additional cost that would be incurred by the residents.

Better Living Environment

While the maintenance of each jetty house lies solely with the resident, some improvements are provided by the government, such as the regular replacements of walkways.

It was not until 2008, following the inscription of George Town as a Unesco World Heritage Site, that the future of the Clan Jetties received proper attention. Rapid change came to the jetties. There have been more commercial activities – especially at Chew Jetty – accompanied by noise pollution, intrusion of privacy and even disputes among the community. Balancing traditional lifestyles with commercial improvement is a new challenge for the residents.

With the aim of combining development with the preservation of public spaces, the Planning and Design Guide for Public Realm was launched in 2015 as an addendum to the then Draft Special Area Plan.1 Public spaces at the Clan Jetties were to be revitalised through improving existing facilities for residents and tourists, such as installing a pavilion at the end of jetties. However, given the lack of community participation in the process and the worries of the jetty residents about excessive tourism, the recommendations failed to materialise.2

Wooden walkways at the jetties need to be replaced regularly to ensure safety.

The garbage problem at the jetties.

Research conducted in 20153 showed that while these communities generally welcomed the presence of tourists, they felt that commercial activities should be carried out in a manner that did not interfere with the existing living environment.

The uniqueness of each jetty entails varying types of concerns, considerations and anticipation, however, and more communication with each jetty is required to secure the bigger picture for planning the Clan Jetties’ entire development.

Participatory Planning

Standing right next to Chew Jetty, Lim Jetty’s residents are well aware of the positive and negative impacts of commercial activities on a jetty.

While these commercial activities are enticing to Lim Jetty’s residents, they recognise that it is a double-edged sword that might jeopardise social relations. They have collectively agreed for commercial activities to be carried out in a gentler manner in order to safeguard the lifestyle of the community; this has become the baseline for Lim Jetty in relation to any commercial activities.

A design exercise was conducted at Lim Jetty last year.

Last July, a design exercise initiated by the community was conducted at Lim Jetty, with participation from local architect Ooi Bok Kim together with a team of 40 local and international members – including those from Equator College’s School of Engineering & Built Environment, Taiwan’s National Yunlin University of Science & Technology’s Department of Architecture and Interior, and Fujian University of Technology’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

During this six-day workshop, the idea of “participatory design” was practiced, where the planning needs of the community and its board were raised alongside participation from the residents – inclusive of site surveys, conceptual schemes and a final presentation.

The residents’ needs and expectations regarding their living environment were included in the design exercise through various interactive processes, such as interviews and communication with the government. For example, instead of having shops within the house compound, it was considered preferable for commercial activities to be concentrated at a designated public area.

According to Patrick Lim, chairman of the Lim Jetty Association, community needs have always been a priority, taking into account the safety of the residents, beautification of the temple area and repair of walkways. He adds that the ultimate goal of all this development is to conserve living traditions.

While it was only an exercise, the process provided an important platform for residents to express their feelings, opinions and hopes for the jetty’s future, and served as a reminder that delicate footing and local knowledge are crucial in addressing the residents’ needs.

This is especially true concerning the framework of the Special Area Plan, a major operational guideline for George Town’s World Heritage management. Within it, the value of the Clan Jetties is addressed in a larger context, including their important seaview vistas and walkways being a part of the future Waterfront Promenades.4

Discussion with residents of Lim Jetty.

However, certain parts of the plan have to be further examined in line with the jetties’ rapidly changing state. For instance, the jetties’ residential status in the plan is at odds with sprouting commercial activities. More essentially, further measures are needed to improve living conditions so that residents are willing to stay on and the younger generation is lured back.

Realising that this task requires more collaboration with various stakeholders, a Clan Jetties Management Committee was proposed by Daniel Gooi, the state assemblyman of Pengkalan Kota, to properly examine the problems and future of the Clan Jetties.

The committee will have three main functions: technical support, recruitment and funding, and forming an effective platform to communicate with jetty residents. More research will be conducted especially with regards to financial assistance to disadvantaged jetty residents to upkeep their houses. Gooi hopes that the concept of participatory development can be nurtured within the new committee.

1 area-plan/briefing-of-the-planning-and-design-guide-for-publicrealm- of-the-gtwhs.html
2 “姓氏桥民反对声浪大红树林观景台计划取消”, Kwong Wah Yit Poh, 23 January 2016,
3 The research conducted in 2015 was a collaboration between Penang Institute and George Town World Heritage Incorporated to understand the living conditions of the communities of the Clan Jetties.
4 George Town Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca Special Area Plan, C4-24, 25 & C 5-19. Prepared by AJM Planning and Urban Design Group Sdn. Bhd. and Arkitek Jururancang (M) Sdn. Bhd. for the State Government of Penang, 2016.


Yen-Ming Huang is an Associate Professor of the Department of Architecture and Interior Design, and the Director of the Center of Hakka Studies in National Yunlin University, Taiwan. His research mostly focuses on building typology, design theory and methods, and Hakka studies.

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