GEORGE TOWN, Penang: As a boy, Mark Ng knew exactly where to find his shoes if they were stolen.
“The shoes would most likely have ended up here - this used to be the Thieves Market,” said the 36-year-old, pointing at what is now a manicured park surrounded by Chinese traditional shophouses in the heart of George Town, the capital of Penang state in Malaysia.
“Basically it’s people peddling stolen stuff. And I did find my shoes here!”
These days, the only shady business happening in the area is people taking refuge from the tropical sun on benches under the trees.
Shoes may be safer from theft now, but bigger things are said to have been taken away – the identity and heritage of George Town. Or so it appears in some reports.
It is a tale as old as time: Tourism ruined everything. Since its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, George Town has greeted an influx of tourists.
Property values soared, taking rental rates along with it. Local residents and businesses unable to afford the pricey rent had to move out from their homes and shops, taking with them the multicultural heritage and tradition that earned George Town its heritage site status.
Moving into the vacant lots were new tourist-pandering businesses – lookalike hotels, cafes and souvenir shops. Official data showed that tourist accommodation in the city grew 60 per cent from 2009 to 2013.
However, a stroll down the heritage city on a weekend told a slightly different story. While selfie sticks and souvenir stalls did dominate a few streets, many others were devoid of tourists.
And the tourist influx may not be the only factor driving changes to the landscape of the old town.
Parts of George Town are evolving, with young people moving into the gentrified spaces and bringing with them new cultural activities.
Meanwhile, business are also adapting and tweaking their product offerings.
‘IT’S A TREND TO MOVE OUT’
Those interviewed by Channel NewsAsia said the hollowing out of George Town’s local population actually happened way before the heritage site listing.
One of the major triggers hit in 2000, when the Control of Rent Act was abolished. The city’s rental rates shot up between 50 per cent and 300 per cent overnight, according to a report by the Khazanah Research Institute in 2017.
George Town’s inner-city core had 16,116 households prior to the abolishment of rent control. Ten years after that, in 2009, the number plunged to only 2,533 households.
Some resented being evicted from their homes of many generations. But others were not forced out. They simply traded up.
Mr Ng, who now runs Simply Enak food tours, moved out of George Town as a child with his family in the 1980s to the shiny new suburb of Fettes Park.
He recalled his excitement to leave the rented shophouse, where his great grandfather once ran an opium den during World War II.
“Last time, for most of us growing up here, we wanted to get out (of George Town). The buildings here were old."
"These days, they have septic tanks and indoor toilets. But back then, we didn’t have proper sewage in the house. I remember so clearly that the toilet was a big bucket,” said the 36-year-old, chuckling at the memory.
Over their bowls of curry noodles at a stall on Campbell Street, photographers Sean Thow and Karen Sim said that they do not blame the heritage site listing and the tourism boom for squeezing out traditional trades.
Mr Thow, 68, grew up in George Town, while Ms Sim, 40, photographs traditional shophouses in the city for her work.
They noted that old shops usually stop operating because the younger generation are often not interested in taking over their ageing parents’ businesses, preferring instead to climb corporate ladders or open trendier cafés and restaurants.
While old time residents have moved out, young Penangnites have stepped up to rejuvenate the area and give it new meaning.
Young people are now seeing opportunities in the ageing city, according to Ms Chen Yoke Pin, who produces and manages arts and cultural education programmes for a non-profit organisation in George Town.
She sees new blood trickling into the space to start heritage conservation and research efforts, arts and cultural projects, or entrepreneurship.
This, she notes, is thanks to the new investments, grants and media attention riding on the “glamour” of the heritage site recognition.
According to Ms Chen, governmental and non-governmental organisations set up following the heritage site listing are also facilitating cooperation between the newcomers and older residents to put together community events or find solutions for shared problems.
“I believe the culture of a place should evolve with young people coming in. A location only becomes a place if there are people in it, communicating with each other, and changing with the times according to what everyone needs or no longer need,” said Ms Chen.
Mr Tan Shih Thoe, an investor who owns and rents out properties in George Town, agrees that young people are creatively reactivating spaces that have long stood lifeless.
He gave the example of Hin Bus Depot, which was a 60,000 square feet of derelict space when he had acquired it.
Since transforming it to a creative hub for young artists to showcase their work, Hin Bus Depot is now a hip place to visit. It is ranked 12th out of the 118 things to do in George Town on TripAdvisor.
Mr Tan notes that his properties around the area are also benefiting from the new flow of foot traffic.
The heritage site status drew young entrepreneurs to fill his long-vacant lots. “At the end of the day, we want George Town to be a place where locals can build a thriving business, be it a kopitiam (traditional Chinese coffee shop) or a café,” he said.
Efforts to renovate historical temples and shophouses since the heritage site listing have improved the aesthetics and safety of the properties.
Any restoration or renovation work on these pre-war properties are under strict government guidelines to preserve historicity, which can jack up the cost significantly. This in turn, drives up rents.
Dr Ang Ming Chee, general manager of the state heritage agency George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), pointed out that although property owners are often up in arms about the costly restrictions, most of them still comply.
A survey by the agency in 2017 showed that only one per cent of the heritage buildings in George Town remained dilapidated.
EVOLVING BUSINESS MODELS
Within these spruced up premises, is George Town constructing anything that lasts?
Mr Lee Teik Chye, a craftsman who carves signage on Lebuh Acheh (Acheen Street), has his reservations.
Working on a piece of wooden plaque outside his cramped shop, Mr Lee said – in a slightly raised voice over the din of renovation across the street – that he sees plenty of new businesses around him crop up, only to close down soon after.
Paying a rental rate that has spiked 200 per cent since the heritage site listing, the 63-year-old pointed out that most of his peers in the craft trade had left George Town as business was too slow to pay for the high rent.
“Out of every 1,000 tourists we get, there are probably less than 10 purchasing traditional crafts like mine. Last year, I went through four months with zero income. I’d say that the UNESCO recognition did not help me much,” he said.
The craftsman switched from carving big signage to focus on smaller ones that tourists can easily take home in their luggage. “This is business. The ones who can adapt to change, prevails.”
Mr Perumal Yalumalai, the owner of Kalaivanis Book Centre in George Town’s Little India, also saw his rental rates rising.
According to the 69-year-old, the rate has increased from RM400 (US$98) per month in 1993, when his shop first opened, to RM5,000 today. Unfortunately, book sales are dwindling.
Like Mr Lee, Mr Perumal adapted. He began selling a plethora of goods from religious items to musical instruments to souvenirs, which drew the tourists.
Yet profits from tourist traffic are often cancelled out by the steep rent. The George Town dream is slowly losing its sheen.
“I don’t see a gold rush to George Town these days. Vacant lots are being taken up, but not that quickly. We see new businesses pop up, but we also see quite a few closed for good,” said Mr Joachim Leong, who had opened the café Ome by Spacebar Coffee in the city a little over a year ago.
Mr Leong and his partner, Ms Shean Tan had thought that tourists will be their core customers. But it turned out sightseers often just popped by for an Instagram shot.
The café now depends on local customers – many of whom are increasingly avoiding George Town due to the prevalent impression that it is too congested with tourist-targeted festivals.
Dr Ang of GTWHI said that the authorities want to ensure that more locals can reap the benefits of the heritage site listing.
Her organisation has initiated the George Town Heritage Habitat Seed Fund, which provides financial aid to heritage building owners to cover the cost of repairing their heritage buildings.
In return, the owners have to sign long-term leases with locals at a cheaper rental rate.
Many, however, are still trying to find their footing in the complicated dance between cultural preservation and economic development.
Mr Tan, the property investor, is frustrated by the lack of clarity on what is allowed and disallowed when renovating his heritage buildings. “You want to follow the regulations, but the goal post keeps shifting,” he said.
Mr Ng’s query to state officials on concrete plans to manage tourist flow, which would help him to plan his food tours without disrupting local lives, went unanswered.
But there is common ground on at least one particular point: George Town is a living economic hub that is not done changing yet.
“We have to remember that George Town has always been an economic centre of Penang,” said Mr Tan, who grew up on Beach Street, the city’s financial district.
“It is a place where people do business. And businesses have to change and improve with the times.”