Penang heritage: Alien invasion under DAP watch

 |Feb 6, 2017
George Town heritage enclave is fast falling into foreign hands.
George Town heritage enclave is fast falling into foreign hands.

Pre-war properties within the inner city here are selling like hot cakes among foreigners.

Hundreds have been snapped up in recent years, with more in the process of being sold.

This has forced tenants of multiple generations out of their homes to the city’s outskirts.

The demolition of many pre-war houses and the mushrooming of high-rise buildings have sparked concern over the continued existence of heritage buildings and Penang’s collection of pre-war houses.

According to the state government’s outdated statistics, at least 61 properties have been bought by foreigners.

The number does not reveal what happened in 2015 and last year as the data on foreign ownership in the inner city has not been made available.

Heritage groups claimed the figures were much higher, with at least 250 units bought by foreigners and foreign companies.

The few remaining heritage property owners said strict restoration laws have not helped their situation, forcing many to sell to the highest bidder.

The DAP state government policies seem not favourable to preserve and conserve the living cultural heritage of George Town.
The DAP state government policies seem not favourable to preserve and conserve the living cultural heritage of George Town.

Owner of Perniagaan Zhang in Lebuh Armenian, George Town, who only wanted to be known as Chong, said properties within the city heritage enclave were now going for millions of ringgit.

“Locals can ill afford properties here now because they are so expensive.

“For example, one of the pre-war shophouses nearby was sold for about RM6 million. With a price tag like that, only foreigners from countries with strong currencies can afford to buy them,” he said.

The 65-year-old lamented that the owners were also forced to sell as it was getting expensive to maintain their properties.

“These buildings are old and require repairs.

“However, the strict guidelines set by the state Heritage Department to carry out repairs or renovations, and the high cost of materials make it difficult for us to maintain the properties.

“Eventually, many owners will end up selling their pre-war houses because it is too expensive to maintain, and the place has become too dilapidated to live in,” he said.

Chong said some owners also ended up renting out their properties or turning them into stores selling souvenirs and other knick-knacks.

Sadly, the income was meagre and the businesses never last.

“The cafe across my shop opened last year, but had to close down a month ago due to poor business.

“Many businesses open, but close down soon after,” he said, adding that even he made barely enough with his bicycle rental business to make ends meet.

The frustrated trader said the pressure to sell their properties did not come from outside, but from forces within.

Heritage buildings at the heart of George Town City.
Heritage buildings at the heart of George Town City.

During the last state assembly sitting in November, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, in answering a question posed by state opposition leader Jahara Hamid on the number of heritage properties owned by foreigners, said based on records, 42 properties within the world heritage site had been sold from 2008 to date.

The figures on the location and year of purchase provided by Lim, however, only dated up to May 2014.

In a clarification later, state Local Government Executive Councillor Chow Kon Yeow said 61 properties were sold to foreigners since 2008.

But George Town Heritage Action Group claimed that at least 236 properties had been bought by foreigners and foreign companies.

Its member, Mark Lay, had said that this was merely the number available to them and that there were many more heritage properties snapped up by foreigners, which went unrecorded.

Liew See Sim, 71, who lives in a shophouse on the same street as Chong, said many neighbours that he grew up with had left years ago.

“We keep getting offers from property agents, offering millions of ringgit. Some also call the owners and family members every day, persuading them to sell,” he said.

He said some families ended up fighting due to disagreements over selling their properties.

Most of them, Liew said, eventually capitulated and sold their properties.

“Many felt that it was better to take the millions of ringgit and move to an apartment, rather than stay on and struggle to maintain the place and peace.” – NST