Malaysia’s George Town saved from ruin but locals face threat of invasive tourism

Published on : Friday, September 1, 2017

Malaysia’s George TownChew Jetty in Malaysia’s George Town attracts tourists by the boatload. Historic homes are now commercial stalls with neon signs; one-time fishermen sell T-shirts, magnets and postcards. Tour buses bring vacationers from early in the morning till sunset.

However, this daily pouring of tourists has started irking locals here.

“I would like to remind people that we are not monkeys, and this is not a zoo,” says Lee Kah Lei, who runs a souvenir stall outside her home on the Chew Jetty.

Many residents here wish that the camera-wielding tourists are respectful of their privacy and not invade into their homes uninvited.

The seven remaining jetties here survived two world wars and Japanese occupation, but as the decades wore on, the piers deteriorated. And when the formidable threat of encroaching developers raised its head, the owners of the jetties had only one place to turn: they made an 11th-hour bid to UNESCO for protection. In 2008, the clan jetties were awarded UNESCO world heritage status – though not before two of the clan enclaves were demolished to make way for a housing complex.

The locals say that they are caught by a tide of tourism that has washed over their stilt village. These are similar to many cities in Europe this summer, as cities from Barcelona to Venice grappling to balance the positive effects of tourism with the inevitable downsides.

“We would be gone today if not for the UNESCO listing,” admits Chew Siew Pheng, a resident of the Chew Jetty. She recalled a constant spectre of evictions during her childhood, as the jetties fell into disrepair.

UNESCO might have spared the last seven jetties from wrecking, but Siew Pheng says it has also “affected our privacy. Our jetty has become commercialised. People are moving. During the December holidays like Chinese New Year and Malay Raya, it’s not even a place to live.”


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