What We Talk About When We Talk About Heritage

Many speak of making it hip, more inclusive, less high-brow. In other words, more relatable to all, since we live in it.

It’s the word du jour, “heritage”. International organisations vote to acknowledge and list it (for protection purposes, among other reasons); government departments are established to manage it; festivals held to celebrate it. In Penang, it is a proud badge we wear – we talk about our legacy, our historical multiculturalism, our colonial-era manses, our food, our arts.

Yet, what does heritage mean to you, or to me? Many speak of making it hip, more inclusive, less high-brow. In other words, more relatable to all, since we live in it. But does the hawker know that the plate of char koay teow he is frying constitutes part of the food heritage of Penang? Or the Bangladeshi waiter serving you part of the coming and going and amalgamation of cultures Penang has historically witnessed? Or the nondescript building you pass by every day part of the Penang story in some way of its own? Did the Filipinos playing in the hotel lounges in Penang in the 1970s and 1980s know that one day, they’d constitute part of the fabric that makes up Penang’s musical heritage?

Matter of fact, are you aware of that?

Heritage has different meanings to different people, especially in what they consider “of heritage value”. Paul Augustin of the Penang House of Music shows me a Penang Free School (PFS) commemorative tray on display celebrating the school’s sesqui-centenary – or 150th year – in 1966. As a Saint Xavier’s alumni, I wrinkle my nose. Augustin, a Saints boy himself, shares my mock disdain. (PFS and Saint Xavier’s have a friendly rivalry which goes back a long way.)

To me, it’s a pretty tray – solid, useful for when you have guests. Augustin laughs in agreement. To the Old Frees, it would probably be an object that they’d display behind a glass shelf, polished and cherished. A tray to one is treasure to others.

But its design does call to mind a sepia-tinted emotion – the old-school font, the muted colours. It throws one back to an era that has since passed. In that sense, it does constitute as “heritage”, even if one might not have been an Old Free. Again, back to this vague concept in guise as a word – “heritage”.

It’s much easier to identify in terms of “tangible heritage” – bricks and built landscapes. You can categorise it, put in measures to protect it, prescribe ways to properly restore it. “Generally, there’s a certain criterion in determining whether it’s heritage or not,” says architect Tan Yeow Wooi of Tan Yeow Wooi Culture and Heritage Research Studio. “You have to go through certain processes. It has to be done by the experts, although it may sometimes depend on if the laymen consider it heritage or not. For example, shophouses weren’t considered heritage 20 years ago – there was no market value. Now it’s become heritage,” he says.

What’s inside though – the people living up the stairs of the shophouse, the traders operating on the ground floor – what they call “the intangibles”, now that bit’s a little trickier to set in stone, and in that, to protect.

“Culture is made by human beings. As much as we change, the nature of heritage changes. It’s never clearly defined; it will have to evolve; but generally speaking, we try to save it for the future generations,” says conservation architect Prof. Ar. Laurence Loh. He also serves as a director at urban regeneration outfit Think City.

So how does one even go about protecting something that inevitably changes? Bring it into schools, or teach it in universities, perhaps? It’s contentious – there’s a risk of what’s naturally evolving becoming static, locked in rigid syllabi.

“Some things are eternal, some things are not. Those that are eternal will stay eternal because the intellectual content is so strong it stands the test of time – religion, for example.

“Even if you teach it, it’s only to keep that skill alive for now. When world experts sit down and talk about the intangible, it comes round in a circle: the past is the past, you can only buy time. This generation has the privilege of knowing it; the next generation will study it in university instead. That’s a big gap,” says Loh. The question about authenticity also comes into play.

“Heritage is often emphasised on memory – the collective memories of a place. It’s what we have inherited from the past that carries all these values,” says Tan. While we remember things differently, there is usually a common denominator, and that might be enough to constitute whatever it is as “heritage”.

“People without memories are like people without souls,” says Lim Gaik Siang, president of the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT). “There’s a reason why we have to study history – so that we can learn from the past and prevent mistakes in the future.

“Heritage doesn’t belong to me alone; it belongs to many people. Our (PHT’s) job is to highlight to the public that the value is there, and once the public is aware of the values, they would think, ‘Yes, it’s true – I should preserve it.’”

Perhaps Augustin has the more fun job of preserving the heritage he is so passionate about: music. It is so ubiquitous, so alive, that we more often than not hardly think of it as “heritage” in the sense that we’re used to.

“The importance of music – watch a horror movie without music and see how scary it is. During the 1998 Commonwealth Games, when Malaysia won a gold medal and they played the national anthem, I nearly cried. Music motivates and inspires you. People come to me and tell me they don’t like music. I tell them they’re crazy,” says Augustin.

Heritage is often emphasised on memory – the collective memories of a place. It’s what we have inherited from the past that carries all these values.

And Penang has such rich musical heritage, from the legendary P. Ramlee, whose songs are still played today; to Jimmy Boyle, who wrote our state anthem; to The Alleycats, whose popularity knows no ethnic boundary. Their songs capture their times – the moment you listen to a jingle, it puts you in a certain place.

(For example, the Sesame Street theme song brings me back to mornings spent at my grandma’s house, watching an episode on the TV set – the type with the turn knob and sliding shutter.)

“When we opened the Penang House of Music, people thought that it was just about music,” says Augustin. “It’s much more than that. Take the 1960s as an example: like anywhere else in the world, we were bombarded by The Shadows, Cliff Richards, Elvis Presley, The Beatles; and everybody throughout the world changed in terms of dressing, hairstyle, the way we thought, the way we spoke. You can’t have just music – we (at the Penang House of Music) also show visitors the photos, the posters, advertisements. It’s a whole experience.”

Heritage is a dynamic ongoing process of the stories of people, places and passions; and also of the larger context of the ambiance of the natural environment: the beaches, the forests, the hills, living things. It’s about the link between the past, present and future.

On my visit, Datuk Anwar Fazal, a man who wears many caps and is perhaps most famously known as a leading international civil society person – on top of being a trustee of the PHT – gives me a little tour of his office. It’s a nondescript terrace house in Pulau Tikus (note: nondescript), but within, it is a little time capsule: posters with typeface that shout 1980 hang from the walls; a push-button telephone lies in one corner; Anwar flashes a cigarette holder – and laughs in irony at the artefact, considering his work on consumer issues. All this among rows upon rows upon rows of books.

I ask him what heritage means to him. Without even pausing, he says, “It’s more than architecture or history – it’s about the vibrant unique elements of our civilisation where the legacies of the past are treasured and celebrated in the present, and creatively continue to make special things for the future.

“Heritage is a dynamic ongoing process of the stories of people, places and passions; and also of the larger context of the ambiance of the natural environment: the beaches, the forests, the hills, living things. It’s about the link between the past, present and future.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Family forms a big part of my heritage. Old photos might form part of yours.

Julia "Bubba" Tan's notion of heritage is the sunny 1980s and 1990s, a childhood spent in bliss and carefreeness. She might have forgotten the in-between, but she remembers the golden times.

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