The awardees and PHT’s council members gather for a group photo. Lee Beng Chuan (seated, second from left) beams a thank you after being honoured with the coveted title.
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THE LIVING HERITAGE Treasures Awards (LHTA), created four years prior to George Town’s inscription onto the Unesco World Heritage List in 2008, identifies persons who embody or who have, in the highest degree, the skills and techniques necessary for the maintaining of certain aspects of our culture, the lifestyle of our people and the maintenance of our cultural heritage.1
“These artisans have to exemplify the richness and wealth of skills that people have continued to enjoy in Penang – they personify the Penang culture itself,” says Loh-Lim Lin Lee of Penang Heritage Trust (PHT), the awards’ organiser.
Establishing the LHTA was very much a part of the overall effort to get George Town recognised as a World Heritage Site, she explains, “because the listing would mean the drafting of a gazetted management plan for George Town by Unesco to better preserve our heritage sites in spite of the ever uncertain political climate.”
LHTA has awarded 13 winners and received at least 100 nominations since its founding. Only eight winners are chosen at any one time. A point of consideration is how culturally pertinent the nominees’ skills and techniques are for Penang.
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This year, Lee Beng Chuan, Penang’s last traditional joss-stick-maker, was honoured with the coveted title. Though his products are humbly made, Lee’s skill holds great value to Chinese culture since joss-sticks are widely used as offerings in holy temples and homes, as well as for ancestral worship.
During the event, the eight awardees also received an annual stipend of RM2,000 and a one-time Covid-19 assistance fee of RM500 from the CARE Programme that was set up to provide them medical help.
Protecting and Promoting Artisanal Practices
These traditional cultural expressions are vulnerable to the onslaught of modern technologies and mass culture. By bulking up on research, PHT works to preserve the skills, techniques and processes of Penang’s heritage artisans, and the findings are then circulated as flyers to the community.
Likewise, apprenticeships have been organised via the Penang Apprenticeship Programme for Artisans under PHT. Loh-Lim finds that most youths are keen to learn, but are hesitant to make the craft their livelihood. “All the same, it is heartening to see the art forms actively passed down; this means that our intangible cultural assets are still being preserved.”
Another modern solution to sustain continued interest in our intangible cultural heritage is to work more closely on “product development”. “If an artisan’s traditional product appears impractical or unappealing to the consumer, then the skill itself ought to be applied to enhance its practicality and appearance.”
To illustrate her point, Loh-Lim takes the halal dumpling and less sweet kuih as examples. “We should encourage modifications to our traditional foods for religious and health reasons. And we can certainly make a traditional skill more economically viable by tweaking the end product. Jing Ooi of Maison de Poupée, a Penang-based premier luxury textile house, incorporates his own designs to the traditional cheongsam and is able to command extraordinary prices for his creations.”
That said, the LHTA has definitely extended the focus on heritage beyond just physical structures. “It is well worth the effort because as long as the LHTA exists, people who have never been recognised in their lives are finally able to feel good about themselves,” she says.