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Cultural exchange event shows conservation in Hong Kong and Penang has gone in different directions

Conservation in Hong Kong and Penang has gone in different directions even though the islands share many similarities, writes Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 11:52am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 11:52am

This year's "Spotlight Hong Kong in Penang", a cultural exchange programme organised by the Fringe Club Hong Kong and held at venues on Penang Island and in George Town, offered some surprises.

For a start, celebrity shoe designer and Penang native Jimmy Choo Yeang Keat showed up at a one-day symposium on heritage conservation and restoration during last weekend's event. "It seems like it would be informative," he says.

Even more of a shock is that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor became the hit of the talks, impressing the Malaysian gathering with her keynote presentation. During the coffee break, more people wanted to take a selfie with the senior Hong Kong government official than the high-fashion heels couturier.

We wish we had a champion like [Chief Secretary Carrie Lam] in Penang
Joe Sidek Director, George Town Festival 

Adulation aside, Lam's opening address was interesting; she hasn't been responsible for heritage and conservation in Hong Kong since taking up her current position two years ago, but it's a subject she has taken to heart. As the secretary of development during Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration, she initiated the Office of the Commissioner for Heritage in 2008 to spearhead action to preserve Hong Kong historic sites of value and interest. "I am a pragmatist," Lam says. "I do not subscribe to the view that heritage conservation and development are at odds."

Much of her presentation was a bureaucratic checklist reciting the government's conservation efforts in statistics - including a HK$2 billion commitment for major renovations and revitalising of government historical buildings, plus one-off HK$100 million grants for conservation projects such as the old magistrate building for the SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) campus, the Tai O Heritage Hotel, and the Mei Ho House youth hostel. But Lam admits her awareness of the issue was only raised when facing hostile protesters before Queen's Pier's demolition in 2007. "That was a milestone to setting up the Office of the Commissioner for Heritage," she recalls. "These young people were really passionate so I wondered, why aren't we more passionate?"

After declaring she had seen the light, Lam evangelised about her new political resolve to preserve Hong Kong's historic buildings. The commitment clearly appealed and made an impression on Penang's conservationists who have done much of their work with little government support.

"We wish we had a champion like [her] in Penang," says Joe Sidek, director of the George Town Festival, a partner of the "Spotlight Hong Kong" programme.

Penang and Hong Kong have much in common. Both islands are of a roughly similar size with extra territory on the mainland to facilitate growth. They're also former British colonies with a large Chinese population. These characteristics have dictated their unique architecture and cultural history.

But in other ways they're nothing alike. Penang has a quarter of Hong Kong's population. One port is a major international commercial and financial centre while the other most famously exports durian and nutmeg. And, of course, the Malaysian state doesn't have the same pressure to find land for office space and housing.

According to Lam, the major challenge of preserving history in Hong Kong comes from individual private owners. In Penang, it was the community that led the drive to turn George Town, its urban centre, into an Unesco World Heritage Site, an accolade that eludes Hong Kong's historical spots.

Another speaker, Laurence Loh Kwong Yu, an adjunct professor at the University of Hong Kong, president of Heritage of Malaysia Trust and conservator of Penang's impressively restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, compared the efforts in both cities.

"Most of Hong Kong's efforts are government-led, but you can't infringe on property rights," the Penang native says. "In Penang, it's primarily from the bottom up, with little government involvement. If we can have a balance of both private and public participation, Hong Kong and Penang would both benefit."

Attendees of other Spotlight Hong Kong events saw firsthand an example of inspired re-usage of a historic building in the multifunctional China House in Penang. Owner Narelle McMurtrie converted and connected four separate shop houses together for an accessible cafe and arts hub, playing a community role not unlike the Fringe Club.

But not all of Penang's heritage buildings have had faithful restorations. A wrap-up lunch was held at Macalister Mansion, a 19th-century colonial home now dressed up as a trendy boutique hotel and restaurant. The makeover has masked all its historic essence with designer chic, artsy decor and suites with glass-door bathrooms.

As a cultural festival, the Fringe's "Spotlight Hong Kong" managed to preserve tradition and history without resorting to clichéd programming that perpetuates Hong Kong's image in terms of Chinese opera or Bruce Lee memorabilia. As a modern cosmopolitan city, why not big band jazz and hip hop?

So in addition to the talks, Fringe founder Benny Chia Chun-heng and cohorts organised a full three-day programme that included a display of Hong Kong publications and books at the new wing of the famed colonial Eastern & Oriental Hotel, an exhibition of city sketches and drawings by Hong Kong's Wong Sau-ching and Malaysian artist Ch'ng Kiah Kiean, as well as a screening of local short films at the restaurant-cum-gallery China House, in the Unesco World Heritage Site part of George Town.

To appeal to a younger demographic, last year's indie hit movie The Way We Dance by director Adam Wong Sau-ping, was also shown to a full house of hip-hop kids at a theatre in the popular Gurney area, followed by a DJ and dance party in a mall's al fresco plaza featuring dancers and rappers from the film.

Other music highlights included Fringe favourites, the Saturday Night Jazz Orchestra featuring vocalist Elaine Liu, performing at the opening-night ballroom dance party. Although open to the public, the concert was more like an exclusive soiree for Penang socialites to show off their ballroom skills.

Sponsored by the Economic and Trade Office, previous "Spotlight Hong Kong" events have been presented in Singapore, Seoul and Ho Chi Minh City. More than just a showcase for our disparate array of arts, they also serve as an opportunity for cultural exchange and networking for both sides' cultural communities - not to mention a chance to soft-sell Hong Kong's qualities beyond business and financial services.

A real opportunity was missed by not incorporating a culinary component, especially in a foodie city such as Penang, and serving authentic Hong Kong dai-pai-dong food in a Penang hawker centre would have added another element to the event.

Jimmy Choo knew better. The Penang Tourism ambassador took his role seriously and invited the Fringe organisers and other Hong Kong delegates to dinner on the final night. But instead of fine dining, he took everyone to a local dive for fish head hotpot. It was the most enjoyable meal of the weekend.



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