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Labelling multicultural heritage in George Town, Malaysia

George Town on the Island of Penang in Malaysia was recognized as a World Heritage site in 2008 for its “multicultural heritage."
Hello, everybody. Today we will look into an interesting case for UNESCO World Heritage. Georgetown is located on the island of Penang in Malaysia– a country that is home to a number of ethnic and religious communities. Georgetown strives to portray itself as a successful multicultural model where these communities can coexist and retain their cultural specificities. The city was recognised as a World Heritage site in 2008 along with the city of Malacca, located on the mainland. Georgetown was founded in 1786 as part of the British Colonial Empire.
Because of its role as a trading port, it attracted numerous traders and labour workers from Asia and the Middle East, including Malays, Armenians, Arabs, Javanese, Chinese, Indians, but also from Europe, such as Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Although the different ethnic communities usually settled in distinct neighbourhoods, the city retained a highly diverse heritage. From the 1970s, the rapid urbanisation started representing a threat to the city heritage. Conservation efforts emerged during the 1990s and early 2000s. This is when the Penang Heritage Trust and other heritage activists lobbied the Penang state government to apply for the UNESCO World Heritage label. What drove UNESCO to recognise Georgetown as a World Heritage site was the city’s multicultural heritage.
UNESCO stressed that along five centuries trade and exchanges between regional cultures, as well as colonial powers, had marked the city’s cultural landscape. The label celebrates the historic coexistence of numerous ethnicities and faiths attested by the presence of a wide variety of religious buildings, as well as the living heritage that different ethnic groups bring to this city– such as local festivals, music styles, costumes, or food. The UNESCO label acknowledged the originality of Georgetown’s cultural landscape. Not only did it bring cultures from elsewhere, but it also nurtured a local style. Countless examples illustrate this intermixing of culture in the urban landscape.
Beach street, which was the financial hub during the colonial era, contains hybrid styles of architectures inspired by the art deco movement. The Kampung Kling Mosque, built by the Indian traders in 1872, displays a mix of Sumatran, Chinese, Hindu, and Malay influences. Its minaret looks like a pagoda. Inside the mosque one can find English and Portuguese glazed tiles, as well as Hindu and Chinese style woodcarving. Intangible heritage is also part of the city’s multicultural heritage, like the Malay opera which combines influences from India, China, and Indonesia. For Georgetown, the UNESCO the World Heritage label was only a starting point for heritage conservation.
One year after the attribution by UNESCO, UNESCO, local actors launched a festival that started as a three-day event and evolved into a one month-long celebration. This festival has the support of the Penang state government. As a multidisciplinary event, it features dance, film, and exhibitions. It promotes local talents and brings foreign artists to this city, representing a key cultural moment for citizens and visitors. Georgetown not only constitutes an example of multicultural heritage, it also shows how local actors can take advantage of the World Heritage label to foster contemporary creativity.

Watch this video to understand how George Town, Malaysia became a World Heritage site.

UNESCO recognized the value of the city’s multicultural heritage.

The following criteria justify the listing of George Town along with Melaka:

  • Melaka and George Town represent exceptional examples of multi-cultural trading towns in East and Southeast Asia, forged from the mercantile and exchanges of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures and three successive European colonial powers for almost 500 years, each with its imprints on the architecture and urban form, technology and monumental art. Both towns show different stages of development and successive changes over a long period of time and are thus complementary.
  • Melaka and George Town are living testimony to the multi-cultural heritage and tradition of Asia and European colonial influences. This multi-cultural tangible and intangible heritage is expressed in the great variety of religious buildings of different faiths, ethnic quarters, the many languages, worship and religious festivals, dances, costumes, art and music, food, and daily life.
  • Melaka and George Town reflect a mixture of influences, which have created a unique architecture, culture, and townscape without parallel anywhere in East and South Asia. In particular, they demonstrate an exceptional range of shophouses and townhouses. These buildings show many different types and stages of development of the building type, some originating in the Dutch or Portuguese periods.

What do you think?

In George Town, public authorities have used the World Heritage label to portray an image of inter-ethnic harmony. But this discourse may not reflect the reality that populations face in their daily life.

Are labels supposed to portray an idealised vision of cultural diversity? Do you think they can also raise awareness of the difficulties that some minorities are facing?

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Cultural Diversity and the City

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