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George Town residents struggle to redefine Malaysian heritage

Strategically placed between Asia and Europe, Penang Island was once dubbed the 'Pearl of the Orient'.

Its main port, George Town, became a magnet for traders and settlers from east and west.

Chinese, Indians and Europeans joined local Malays to create a powerful mix of cultures hailed by the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, as without parallel in Southeast Asia.

Unesco granted the historic heart of George Town World Heritage status three years ago, giving a boost to efforts to preserve the area's rich diversity.

Beautiful colonial buildings have been restored, their white frontages gleaming in the tropical heat.

The collection of streets known as Little India throb with noise from shops blasting out Bollywood classics and the shouts of fresh orders being relayed to the ubiquitous streetfood stalls.

The aptly-named Harmony Street is home to a Chinese Taoist temple, an Indian Hindu temple, a Buddhist shrine, two mosques and a Protestant church.

There are still rows of dilapidated traditional Chinese shophouses waiting for their heritage facelift.

But increasingly buildings are being bought up and developed, prompting a debate about what is and isn't appropriate in terms of design and use.

Image caption Many derelict shophouses in George Town are yet to be renovated

Deliberate dissonance

Chee Sek Thim spent years abroad in work and study. Now he's returned home to George Town to use his artistic skills to design a space he hopes will reflect the best of the old and the new.

Sek Thim is at the very early stages of his project. The shophouse he bought has been gutted.

The walls remain, though the brickwork is crumbling in places. There is a lonely-looking wooden staircase leading out of the red earth floor to an upper level at the front of the building.

The back half of the house is open to the elements. Facing out onto the street, a strip of blue tarpaulin, pulled across an otherwise gaping hole, acts as the front door.

The plan is to renovate the front half of the building to look and feel as much in keeping with the original building as possible.

The back half will be a structure of steel, concrete and glass, three storeys high. It is a very deliberate dissonance.

"There will be no crossover of elements and styles," Sek Thim says.

Image caption Chee Sek Thim is turning a dilapidated shophouse into a performance space for local artists

"It questions the whole notion of what it means to live in a heritage zone. The aim is not to disrespect history, but rather to embrace it in a new way.

"I would like to keep some echoes of what has come before me, but I am a contemporary being.

"So I want to have a space that has a kind of movement from the present to the past and hopefully, through the activities that go on, says something about the future as well."

Once finished, Sek Thim plans to rent out a few rooms to visitors and have a studio and performance space for local artists.

Hidden treasure

Back on Harmony Street, there is another discordant undertone.

Next to the oldest Chinese temple in George Town is a row of colourful shop houses all with apparently thriving businesses on the ground floor.

There is a hairdresser, a tea shop, a travel agent and a gold broker. But above the rooftops, there are clues to another hidden, and very lucrative, trade.

At dusk, as the Muslim call to prayer rings out, flocks of swiftlets gather, preparing to roost.

Openings have been left for them in the upper walls of some of the shop houses. Inside, rooms have been specially prepared for the birds' arrival.

Image caption Swiftlets' nests, built entirely from their gummy saliva, are used to make traditional Birds' Nest Soup

Few people get to see the treasure hidden within, but we were given rare access.

Behind two metal doors, secured with four locks, there is a concrete wall with a vertical metal ladder.

On the floor above, a damp, dark room buzzes with avian activity. Swiftlets fly sorties between the outside world and the rows of small white nests clinging to the rafters.

Birds' nests are highly prized for their medicinal quality and in their raw state, can fetch as much as two thousand US dollars per kilogram. Little surprise then that swiftlets' nests are known as "white gold".

Defining heritage

Some in George Town object to the presence of these businesses, arguing they are a potential health hazard and not in keeping with the heritage image.

Carol Loh, president of the Association for Swiftlet Nests Industry, dismisses such concerns, citing government research about cleanliness.

Ms Loh would like to see more regulation to get rid of those she refers to as "the bad apples". But she says the majority of her members are responsible practioners of a traditional trade.

"The swiftlets are part of the living heritage of George Town," Ms Loh says.

"The earliest records date back to 1771. Isn't that heritage? How do you define heritage?"

Image caption After undergoing 10 years of restoration, George Town's Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a boutique hotel

What of fears that because the bird's nest business is so profitable, more and more of George Town's old buildings might be turned over to the swiftlets?

"We are talking about the heritage of George Town. The multicultural heritage of Asian origin," Ms Loh argues.

"Unfortunately in George Town many buildings are being bought up and turned into boutique hotels.

"When that happens, who are the people staying there? Not Penangites. They are either foreigners or people from outside Penang.

"How did these boutique hotels come into being? By moving the locals out of George Town.

"And when they move out and you have tourists coming in, isn't our heritage being compromised?"

There is clearly a balance to be struck between preserving history and ensuring that George Town remains a place where local people can still make a living.

No one wants to see such a vibrant place become a living museum or tourist theme park.

The answer may lie in staying true to George Town's less visible heritage, as a dynamic place of opportunity for all peoples of all faiths and cultures.

Malaysia Direct is a series of reports and articles, online and on TV on BBC World News, which runs until September 4, 2011.