GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia (Reuters) - The sweet smell of incense from a centuries-old Chinese temple, the perfume of a Hindu shrine decked in flowers and the call to Muslim prayer.
The old Malaysian trading port of George Town makes a powerful assault on the senses, through the peaceful co-existence of Asian races and religions, all crammed together in a streetscape stuck in time.
While the world resounds with religious discord, multi-racial Malaysia is pushing for George Town on the island of Penang to be recognized internationally as a historical oasis of religious and social harmony, worthy of becoming a World Heritage site.
“Penang is so unique -- a multicultural trading town, a melting pot of all the great religions, townscapes of unique architecture,” Laurence Loh, a conservation architect working on the World Heritage submission.
“There’s nowhere else in the world like it. There is only one Penang in the world. It’s all that we really are, that’s the whole selling point of Penang.”
The government-backed submission also calls for Malaysia’s other multi-cultural gem, the old Portuguese and Dutch port town of Malacca to the south, to be inscribed on the World Heritage register, but George Town is the much larger historical precinct.
The island of Penang, off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, was a stop for traders as long ago as the 16th century, when Europeans sailed east in search of the spices that grew on islands just beyond the peninsular, in what is now Indonesia.
Penang, named after the Malay word for betel nut, lies at the northern entrance of the Malacca strait, then as now the main sea channel linking east and west Asia. The British took possession of it in 1786 and established George Town as a trading centre.
The British erected some fine colonial buildings, including a Georgian fort and elegant Victorian church, but the real attractions are the jam of gilded Chinese temples, bleached minarets and the epic, sculpted facades of Indian shrines.
“THE REAL THING”
“Penang is authentic, the real thing,” said Ahmad Chik, a council member of the Penang Heritage Trust, whose offices are located in a restored Chinese shophouse from the 1860s.
“You can’t very well just create a 16th century town steeped in history. While Penang can’t compete with Bali or Phuket on beaches, on a heritage basis we are clearly ahead of the rest, a class of our own.”
If successful, World Heritage status would put Penang and Malacca in the same category as the Great Wall of China and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which are also World Heritage sites.
But there are concerns that Malaysia is not taking enough care of these two treasures to warrant their inclusion.
“Heritage conservation is still a marginal activity that is not seen as central to Malaysia’s core values,” said architect Loh, also the deputy president of the Heritage of Malaysia Trust.
“It should change because this is what we really are.”
In the old quarter of George Town and also in Malacca, the old shophouses are literally crumbling, their brickwork riddled with damp. Without the meager maintenance that comes with human occupation, many of them might have collapsed long ago.
One award-winning restoration, carried out by Loh on a magnificent old Chinese mansion, gives a vivid glimpse of the wealth and color of George Town in the late 19th century -- and is also an example of how it can regain some of its former glory.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, restored in 1999 with its facade painted in its original color of dazzling indigo-blue, is now a boutique hotel but it remains a rare example of restoration.
UNESCO, the U.N. organization that supervises the World Heritage list of culturally important sites, told Reuters that few such historic properties could be considered “intact” but it was important that governments be committed to preserving them.
“This is why the committee wants nomination requests to feature a detailed management plan for the properties that are up for inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage list,” Kishore Rao, deputy director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, explained in an email.
Malaysia’s government has been criticized generally for failing to preserve its heritage, particularly old buildings relating to its colonial era or to its minority ethnic Chinese community which has played a large part in commercial life.
But the government, dominated by the party of the majority ethnic Malays, is backing the World Heritage submission for George Town and Malacca, and conservationists hope that it marks a turning point for the country’s two main heritage attractions.
“Other sites show that tourism increases by between 10 and 30 percent within a year of being inscribed as a World Heritage site,” Loh said. “All stakeholders will benefit and the government should see heritage as equally valuable to its other efforts.”