Wednesday, 1 August 2012

A heritage square for George Town

I just heard that are plans, real plans, to develop the Sia Boey area in George Town as a cultural heritage square. Don't let it be hot air; make it come to fruition fast.

To many of us in Penang, the most recognisable landmark in Sia Boey was the famous market along Prangin Road. Unfortunately, the building now stands abandoned after the Penang Island Municipal Council forced the wet market to close and the traders to relocate elsewhere several years ago.

Then there were also the wholesale shops that used to line Prangin Road and McNair Road. Not forgetting too the small traders and the 24-hour foodstalls in Maxwell Road that catered more to the businessmen and traders but which found a ready clientele from other people that dropped into Sia Boey. I used to remember people gulping down on their food as they squatted on long benches.

Today if anyone were to pass by Sia Boey - Prangin Road is now a busy throughfare that connects Penang Road and Carnarvon Street to the Dr Lim Chong Eu Highway - all that are left are the old wholesale shops along the left side of the road and the abandoned market directly opposite. Incredibly, the Penang Development Corporation then turned the abandoned building into a temporary car park after that. Beside this building is the old Prangin canal. It used to be an important waterway that connected Sia Boey to the sea. Today, it is more like a ditch that needs real rehabilitation.

Beyond the Prangin canal is Maxwell Road. The imposing row of pre-war houses that face the canal used to be a hive of activities too but not today. Until about three years ago, there were still wholesale traders operating from a few of these houses. Sadly, they stand empty now.

To gauge what the Penang state government is planning for Sia Boey, here is the speech by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng at a press conference yesterday:

The Penang State Government and Penang Development Corporation (PDC) are planning to develop Komtar Phase 5, comprising 4.5 acres, into Penang’s new heritage enclave, named Heritage Square. This is in line with George Town’s World Heritage Listing as well as to complement PDC’s revitalisation efforts for Komtar as the socio-civic centre and business hub of the State. This prime 4.5 acres of land in the heart of George Town will predominantly be public space, as part of giving back to city dwellers.

Heritage Square will comprise five major elements:
i. restoration and expansion of “Sia Boey” (Prangin Market);
ii. creation of urban spaces;
iii. creation of a Heritage Celebration Square and an iconic George Town Heritage Centre (GHC);
iv. reinstatement and adaptive reuse of heritage and old shophouses; and
v. restoration of Prangin Canal.

The Heritage Square and Centre will dedicate, consecrate and restore the cultural vibrancy of George Town by promoting the living heritage and street life in the inner city, as well as greening the city, thus ensuring a balanced development for the area.

The project which is at the planning stage, is also aimed at revitalising the Komtar Phase 5 area, and to enhance the heritage value and significance of the site by creating urban spaces and landscapes for healthy urban living.

The components of Penang’s Heritage Square comprise the following:

i) To restore and refurbish the existing “Sia Boey” (Prangin Market) structure. This will revitalise the “Sia Boey” into a retail and tourist site, comprising among others a visitors’ centre, crafts and souvenir retail areas, flowers and food hubs. To expand the “Sia Boey”, market, PDC will build an additional adjacent market to complement the existing one for the same intended use. The restoration and revitalisation of the “Sia Boey” is significant to George Town, as it marked the core zone boundary of the George Town UNESCO Heritage Site;

ii) As George Town requires more public space for recreation, public congregation, celebrations and cultural performances, the urban public space which include same green areas will be to promote the first of its kind in Penang healthy living. The heritage celebration square will also provide a venue for the establishment of culture, arts and traditions in George Town, thus promoting cultural vibrancy and the concept of melting pot of cultures in the inner city;

iii) To refurbish and reinstate the urban setting of the area whereby existing traditional shophouses along Maxwell Road will undergo adaptive reuse into cafes, kopitiams, tea houses, crafts and handicraft centres, mini-museums, boutiques and B&B hotels which are in line with the heritage ambience and theme of the area. To also reinstate urban setting of the area whereby Maxwell Road will now be for limited vehicles usage with emphasis on pedestrianisation;

iv) A five-storey GHC will be created which will further add to the vibrancy of the Heritage Square. This iconic building will serve as a venue for arts, cultural, heritage, community, youth and performing activities. The GHC will be raised above street level to provide street plazas for the public; and

v) To restore the Prangin Canal with plans for hawkers street food zone and street furniture amidst well-landscaped areas.

The Heritage Square Project will complement the adjacent Komtar building which is presently undergoing a revitalisation process initiated by the Penang State Government and PDC which is aimed at bringing back the glory of Komtar, as the nerve centre of Penang.

The Heritage Square is a project not just for the urban community of Penang, but for Penangites and visitors to experience the old-world charm of George Town and its cultural melting pot, is all poised for success. The Penang State Government and PDC which has been the prime mover of urban redevelopment will undertake to work closely with stakeholders and heritage organisations like George Town World Heritage and other NGOs.

In achieving maximum public participation, I have requested that an exhibition be set up in Komtar next week to allow the public to give their views on the proposed Heritage Square so that we can have public input.

The project will also enhance George Town’s position as Malaysia’s most livable city and eighth most livable city in Asia, as well as to reinforce Penang’s position as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a tourism hub of the East. 

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