The George Town World Heritage site (WHS) stretches over an area of 259.42ha, with the core and buffer zones consisting 42.2% (109.38 hectares) and 57.8% (150.04 hectares) respectively (Figure 1).
Table 1 shows the number of buildings located in the core and buffer zones. As of 2016, more than 5,000 buildings were recorded, with 51.2% found in the core zone and the remaining 48.8% in the buffer zone. These buildings can be divided into four categories: Category 1, Category 2, Infill and Replacement.1
Out of more than 3,700 heritage buildings, a total of 82 buildings contain exceptional heritage value – or outstanding universal value (OUV) – based on the Unesco WHS’s selection criteria; nearly half of them are Chinese temples, followed by administrative buildings (11.0%) and tombs/monuments/shrines/cemeteries (9.8%) (Figure 2).
More than three quarters of Category 1 buildings are located in the core zone, including nine buildings gazetted under the National Heritage Act 2005. These include Fort Cornwallis, Jubilee Clock Tower, Penang City Town Hall, Kapitan Keling Mosque and Khoo Kongsi.2
The most ubiquitous buildings in the WHS are shophouses, which fall under Category 2. These make up about 75% of the total WHS buildings in 2016 (Table 1). The architecture of the shophouses can be classified into six different styles (Figure 3). These buildings differ not only in their physical appearances, but also in the materials used to build them.
In 2016 the George Town Special Area Plan (SAP) was gazetted. It is used as the main guideline for heritage conservation, management and development of heritage buildings and tangible objects within the heritage site.
In addition, a RM3mil George Town Habitat Seed Fund for purposes of repair and restoration of heritage buildings was also made available by the Penang state government to Category 2 property owners with long-hosting tenants.3 Participating tenants can also secure a lower rental rate for a tenancy period of at least five years.
One of the major heritage events is the annual George Town Heritage Celebrations, which fall around July 7 every year. This celebration engages local residents to share their cultures and traditions.
In general, there are two main activities, namely the street festival – usually consisting of workshops, showcases, talks and performances – and site excursions. As can be seen from Figure 4, local communities have consistently been involved in the celebrations; the number has increased from 14 in 2012 to 24 in 2019.
To safeguard intangible cultural heritage, George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), a state heritage agency, conducted an inventory study4 on traditional trades and occupations within the WHS in 2012. The inventory listed 606 businesses operating in 63 different traditional sectors. Among these, 425 or 70% are businesses going back more than 50 years; as many as 26 businesses have been operating for over a century.5 Within the WHS, the top three trades are coffee shops and tea shops, traditional healing and medicine, and dried food, which constituted more than 20% of the total businesses (Table 2).
On the other hand, traditional florists, stone craft and stone suppliers, perfumeries, traditional pastimes and others had less than three shops in the area, consisting about one third of the total trades in the WHS.
Oral history documentation is also another form of preservation carried out by GTWHI. They recorded stories shared by local residents, communities and organisations from 2013 to 2018 with the theme “Cloth, Food, Shelter, Transportation” from 2013 to 2016; and “Community and Traditional Organisations” from 2017 to 2018. A total of 156 residents were interviewed for this project.
Beyond the George Town WHS, there are also heritage buildings located in other areas of Penang (Table 3).
1According to the George Town Special Area Plan, “Category 1” refers to buildings, monuments, objects and sites of exceptional interest, declared as ancient and gazetted formerly under the Antiquities Act 1976, now under the National Heritage Act (2005), or registered as National Heritage under the National Heritage Act (2005). Their uses are to be conserved as original. “Category 2” refers to buildings, sites and objects of special interest that warrant every effort to preserve them. They make up the majority of the heritage and cultural landscape of George Town. “Infill” refers to existing empty land or temporary structure where compatible redevelopment is permitted. “Replacement” refers to existing buildings without any significant value, where sensitive redevelopment is permitted. 2George Town Special Area Plan, Town and Country Planning Department of Penang. 3Launched on November 24, 2018; repair and restoration works are scheduled to begin this year. 4The inventory project was conducted by surveying 5,064 businesses and residences in the George Town WHS. 5The length of years is accurate as of 2012. The current actual number of businesses may differ from the inventory list if the companies had closed down or moved out from the WHS.