Mention George Town and the first thing that comes to mind are the murals, boutique hotels and trendy cafes that have become ubiquitous since George Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.
The recently concluded George Town Festival had over the years witnessed this former sleepy backwater island being transformed into a vibrant global stage, showcasing world-class performances, installations, and collaborations from international and local artists alike.
This year’s festival, for instance, featured Malaysia’s jazz queen Sheila Majid, among others, drawing thousands of visitors each year to Penang.
According to official figures, tourist arrivals have increased steadily in August over the last few years. In 2015 alone, Penang saw a 12.7% rise in arrival figures compared to 2014.
The spillover impact from the tourism and food & beverage industries have led to a demand for properties, particularly among astute foreign investors for pre-war shophouses in George Town.
In September, George Town Heritage Action revealed at a press conference that Singapore developer World Class Land (WCL) had acquired 236 pre-war houses in and around the heritage zone totalling about 250, 000 sq ft which is equivalent to around 26 football fields.
This has led to calls among local conservationist and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to limit foreign buying as many Penangites businesses are being forced out of as ownership changes hands.
CONSERVATION AMID GROWING CONSUMERISM, FOREIGN INVESTMENTS AND TOURISM ARRIVALS
The issue of conservation is something that locally born town planner Cheng Hui Ling and her husband, architect Mike Ong are passionate about.
Prior to the arrival of Singaporean investors, the Penangite couple saw an opportunity when they bought into four derelict shophouses in Lumut Lane, located just next to one of Penang’s oldest mosque, Acheen Street Mosque.
Passionate about heritage and the arts, the couple embarked on a major conservation effort with a facelift and painstaking restoration works to reinstate the prewar shophouses’ structures, roof and façade in March 2012 under strict heritage guidelines.
It took almost a year to source for some of the doors and windows to match the original designs that were identified through research of the shophouse typology around the same era.
In 2013, Spices Boutique Residence Hotel finally opened its door with eight individually designed guest rooms but with a twist.
“We wanted to create homes instead of hotels for travellers, offering true Malaysian hospitality,” said Mike Ong.
The couple’s conservation effort had not gone unnoticed. In 2014, the hotel was presented with the “Adaptive Reuse” Award by the Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (PAM).
Since then, the couple has expanded their business to include the slightly modern and trendy Sweet Cili Hotel under the Spices Collection umbrella.
SMALL BUT MIGHTY
While Penang is slightly smaller than Singapore measuring some 293 sq km, the island has attracted significant foreign investments over the years.
In 2015, for instance, it scored a major coup when Penang Development Corporation (PDC), signed a RM1.3 billion joint venture agreement with Singapore via its investment arm companies, Temasek and Economic Development Innovation Singapore (EDIS) for the development of a BPO Prime Project in Bayan Baru.
To be developed in the next five to ten years, the project is expected to create some 25,000 to 30,000 jobs.
In addition, according to InvestPenang Director, Datuk Lee Kah Choon, Penang remains among the top investment destinations in Malaysia, ranking third after Johor and Sarawak.
In 2015 alone, the state attracted close to RM6 billion of investments in the manufacturing sector, of which over 55% were foreign direct investments (FDI).
Data from Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida) data also showed that Penang contributed nearly 20% to Malaysia’s overall FDI inflows in 2015 – the highest among the rest of the Malaysian states.
This is some 7% increase from the previous year.
HISTORICAL FIGURES WHO HAD SHAPED GEORGE TOWN
While George Town, and by extension, Penang has now been transformed into an arts, culture and tourism hub attracting sophisticated tourists from far and wide, not many are aware of the historical figures who had helped shaped the island.
According to Julie Chen from Spices Boutique Residence Hotel, the pre-war shophouses along Lumut Lane used to serve as lodging houses for writers and haj pilgrimage travellers during the flourishing spice trade in the 18th century.
The street, once the centre of Islamic studies and one of the earliest Malay settlement in George Town, was frequented by traders from the Malay Archipelago, Arab and India.
One particularly respected figure, Sheik Omar Basheer, used to stay at 69 Acheen Street.
He was also the imam for the Acheen Street Mosque.
Sheikh Omar Basheer was particularly instrumental in helping to prevent the Malay community from joining the Penang Riots in 1867.
This had earned him respect among the British authorities who would often consult him on matters pertaining to the Malay/Muslim community, which indirectly had helped George Town thriving as a hub for the spice trade.
In honour of his contribution, a mausoleum was erected in his honour located in Jalan Kampung Melayu in Ayer Itam, Penang. However, it has over the years fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair.
As Penang forges ahead, the younger generation also need to know key historical figures who had helped shape Penang to where it is today.
For those who are interested, you can visit Sheikh Omar Basheer mausoleum tucked away in a quiet corner just next to Sekolah Kebangsaan Ayer Itam, as you turn into Jalan Kampung Melayu.
This article was first published in the iProperty.com Malaysia October 2016 Magazine. Get your copy from selected news stands or view the magazine online for free at www.iproperty.com.my/magazine. Better yet, order a discounted subscription by putting in your details in the form below!