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"Growing Pains"

KimGooi Photojournalist

Growing Pains
Published on April 10, 2000. News Analysis: Penang 2000: Year Of Living Dangerously
First published in Malaysiankini Apr 20, 2001

Old time visitors to George Town, the capital of Penang, have always come away impressed. Established by the British in 1786 as its stronghold and trading post in the region, it is everything a thriving city should be: a historic environment of residences, shops, religious buildings and civic spaces; varied ethnic groups occupying distinctive neighbourhoods; and overlapping streetscapes with vibrant street life.

While such sentiments might be true some years back, the city today is fast losing its charm as its residents are being moved out and whole neighbourhood of old houses in danger of the developers’ hammer. Accelerating this process is the repeal of the rent control early this year.

“It is a rotten apple still shining outside but if you look inside, the old buildings are abused and awaiting destruction. At night it is a dead city as even the poor are being evicted,” said Alex Koenig, German town-planner, who had spent 20 years in Penang. It is now visible that George Town is turned into a hotchpotch of high-rise, old and new office buildings, haphazardly thrown together, he said.

According to Koenig, any attempt to shift existing urban population into new housing estates away from the urban centre, with the intention to demolish wholesale existing urban fabric for commercial redevelopment has regularly resulted in disastrous urban plight and popular unrest all over the world.

Penang’s famed Campbell Street was once the cultural and commercial hub of the city, said Kee Phaik Cheen, State Tourism, Culture, Arts and Women Development Committee chairman. Despite a major facelift, the street once crowded with late night shoppers is now deserted by 7pm. In a recent festival to revive the street, the state minister pleaded to the shops to open late and close late so that it could be a street of culture and late night shoppers again.

“This is futile, how could it be ever revived when the inner core city is empty, with its residents being driven out?” remarked Ong Seng Huat, deputy director of the Malaysian Chinese History and Relic Survey.

Ong added that Penang was also the cultural and commercial center for North Sumatra and South Thailand for over a hundred years. In recent years the government has destroyed it.

“It is an irony that the authorities are attempting to revive that, calling it the Northern Growth Triangle. When you empty the inner city of its inhabitants, you destroy not only the culture but all the net-working as well,” Ooi Kean Huat, 46, from Noordin Street laments the passing community life of old George Town:

“I grew up here and remember the street is full of passing hawkers, from the ‘mamak mee goreng’ push carts, ‘hokkien mee’, ‘tok tok mee’ (Indian, Fujian and Cantonese noodles) to fish ball soup. From morning till night, we hear the shouts of the hawkers from the bamboo claking of the tok tok mee to the cliking porcelain chimps of the fish-ball sellers.

Ooi says though Noordin Street has a bad reputation as a tough neighborhood, it is so safe that residents do not have to lock their door at night. It is common for four to five families to live harmoniously in one house. Today the street like many in old George Town is not only dead, everything is under lock and key, as nothing is safe.

There was a gradual movement of people leaving the old town as the middle class grows and moves to the suburb leaving a hard core of poor residents taking advantage of the cheap accommodation under rent control since the pre-war days.

On Dec 29 last year Ooi and the street residents got a rude shock when 10 families from four pre-war houses were evicted. Their belongings thrown into the streets and the houses demolished, two days before the repeal of rent control came into force.

“We lost RM200,000 worth of property as 300 officers came and threw everything out into the streets – documents, furniture, everything from TV sets, cooking utensils to the children’s school books,” said Choo Kok Leong.

The episode has thrown the issue of rent control and urban conservation of heritage/historical buildings into sharp relief: An old historical urban centre faces severe development pressure, new unsympathetic intrusions, conversions of residences into offices, overwhelming traffic, developers eager to demolish vernacular treasures.

Choo said his late mother rented the house 70 years ago, paying RM46.50 per month. He shared the house with two brothers and a sister who like him is self employed. The house is work place, office and residence for the extended family. One brother is a tailor, the other a curtain maker, and the sister runs a school transport service while Choo runs a house renovation business.

Trouble began when developers bought up the whole row of pre-war houses in 1983 at RM15,000 per house. In 1995 they were served notices to quit. The case went to court and the case drags on without a settlement. The developer offered RM15,000 as compensation. Choo said it is inadequate.

All office equipment and records were thrown into the street and looted, he said sadly. “We not only lost our roof but our business and livelihood were destroyed.”

Choo who is single now squats with friends who took pity on him. For his brothers and sister who have children, it was nightmarish – to find accommodation with friends and new schools for the children, he said sadly.

“We will do a Noordin-Street on you” has become the war cry of the developers to threaten recalcitrant tenants, said Choo.

Undaunted, the residents have mobilised and formed an association called “Save Ourselves” (SOS) to fight for their rights and seek justice. Their main complaint is while there is a glut in middle and luxury condos, alternative cheap housing could not be found for the poor evicted. Penang’s NGOs and urban conservation and heritage groups have rallied to the support of SOS.

Rents have gone up from an average of RM60 to RM1,200 per month. Other commercial premises have gone up as high as RM4,000 while pay up or eviction notices are served. So far peaceful protests were staged, asking Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon to intervene. Fearing resumption of the “Noordin Street eviction” after expiry of the three-month quit notices, a homeless night vigil was staged on March 31.

The all-night vigil turned into a political rally when all opposition parties descended on Noordin Street to lambaste the government for ignoring the poor and homeless. The crowd broke out in loud applause when KeADILan conveyed a message of support from jailed former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim. “Be resolute, your fight for justice will prevail,” it says.

Koh finally relented and agreed to meet SOS on April 1 to find a solution. In a subsequent meeting last week, he agreed to look into the wider issues of the poor tenants, their livelihood and aspects connected to the inner city.

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