Regret moving to Southeast Asia

120 Armenian Street, Penang

On heritage, decay and profit: Notes from the struggle to preserve an old town


Here it smells of Asia, of the sinking ancient Asia. Thin-legged Chinese in shorts sizzle at their rolling cookshops; Incense sticks of all sizes are smoking in front of the temples. The old town of Penang breathes this tropical melange, mold, rot, the evaporation of old walls. Well-fed rats scurry through the open sewers. Cigarette advertisements made from tin from the 1930s hang on the walls of dim coffee shops.

In the evenings I barricade the house with a rumble. The rumble is inevitable, the door is nearly ten feet high, it has the weight and seriousness of a drawbridge. This is a Chinese house, it is over a hundred years old and not made to be left alone: ​​like a fortress, it is locked from the inside. Two massive planks lock the door; she wears countless layers of wine-red lacquer, on which is written a Confucian equation in gold letters: If the family thrives, the land thrives. The Confucian equation now looks dismissively down the dark alley.

120 Armenian Street, Penang. The facade in washed-out indigo blue; The Blue House, I live here for four months, a bystander, a foreign body, temporarily tolerated. Foreigners only stroll through the old town as tourists, they don't live here, nobody lives here who has money. Locals from the middle class are hardly familiar with the alleys any more, the area is considered poor, dirty, criminal.

In front of the front door is an Indian junkie, a skinny dark boy, he will spend the night again on the tiled floor under the arcades; his empty eyes look right through me. Beware of the junkies! Is an iron rule of the old town, they steal, they burn down the house - whatever happens, it was the junkies. They allegedly even steal the green plastic garbage cans, which is why the valuable can is empty in the house and the garbage is piled up in bags on the roadside.

Penang is an island off Malaysia's west coast, multi-ethnic and now mostly inhabited by Chinese. The British established a trading post here in 1786, before Singapore. The street names in the old town are reminiscent of the streams of immigrants at a time when globalization was still on foot, when immigrants and migrants left the signature of their cultures and religions. The Armenians who gave the name to Armenian Street came from Persia as Christian traders. Around the corner, Indian and Arab Muslims built their own mosques, within sight of the buxom, bare-breasted fertility goddesses on the roof of a Hindu temple.

Cultural heritage and boomtown - Penang embodies an exemplary interface of times and mentalities. For a decade and a half, until 1997, this was one of the most rapidly developed regions in Asia. Foreign investments, especially in semiconductor production, helped achieve double-digit growth rates; Skyscrapers shot up, apartment blocks, shopping malls. 600,000 people live on the island today.

The heritage is encircled, endangered, and in part already destroyed: a collection of architecture from the 19th and early 20th centuries that is one of the most important in Southeast Asia in terms of quantity and diversity. Elegant Victorian villas in palm-lined gardens still give Penang a flair of grandeur today. But many a mansion watched their own decay with hollow eyes, while night clubs with booming disco moved into others; Painting the facade purple does not prohibit monument protection. Only in individual cases were rich patrons found for a stylish restoration; Penang's Chinese millionaires prefer to invest in penthouses or in their second Mercedes.

But Penang's colonial everyday architecture is unique: complete streets with two-story so-called Shophouses. In the floor plan like an extremely narrow towel, below mostly a shop or workshop, in front of it shady arcades. A tropical mix of Anglo-Indian, Chinese and Portuguese elements.

The Blue House is such a shophouse. Whoever enters it, leaves the glaring heat of the street behind, is greeted by a cool twilight that stretches to a surprising 40 meters in length. At night, a resident bat crosses the route, past filigree carved partition walls and inlaid wooden armchairs that require a Confucian sitting posture. During the day, light falls into the house through two open courtyards; the Chinese call these courtyards "air wells" or "sky wells", they follow the rules of Feng Shui. In fact, it sounds like the sky is falling into the house when a heavy downpour hits the stone floor on the first floor.

Long before dawn, whimpering calls to prayer wake me up: the two mosques in the neighborhood. To mistake the house for a fortress turns out to be acoustically mistaken. There are no panes in the windows, just slats, and the walls in the house are made of thin wood with large openings: natural ventilation instead of air conditioning. Those who live like this enjoy little privacy. When the neighbor clears his slimy throat in the morning according to the Chinese custom, many have a share. And no sooner has a little sleep set in after the call for early prayer than the Indians two doors down start chopping cocoa cans. They work with the tirelessness of low-paid workers for a recycling company, and for some inexplicable reason they start the cocoa cans early in the morning, while in the afternoon they count discarded rice sacks with silent movements of their mouths.

The old must have a quantifiable value; a cocoa can may get a second life, a mansion the death sentence. The land price has proven to be the worst enemy of cultural heritage in recent years. Growth euphoria screwed him higher and higher, some homeowners confessed with tears in their eyes that now, unfortunately, they had to sacrifice the family villa, the land was simply worth too much.

“Our society is very profit-oriented; that's typical for a developing country, "says the merchant Tan Chong Kheng. He belongs to a small group of monument protection enthusiasts; his hobby: saving old wood. When a building is torn down, Mr. Tan comes and creates carvings and doors , Frames and shutters aside, even mighty support beams. The finds fill a warehouse, a secret cemetery of the destroyed. "We don't value the old," regrets Mr. Tan, "only new things have value".

The disdain for traditional materials, styles and colors is evident in most Malaysian living rooms: synthetic leather sofas and lacquer cabinets, plus the smoked glass table with a Kleenex pack on top. Teak, rattan furniture, hand-woven fabrics, that's for foreigners. And it is only through their appreciation that some old, cold eyes are rehabilitated - as valuable to tourists.

Because the morbid charm of Penang's old town fascinates western visitors, the city council decided to do it HeritageTourism, she also tries to get Penang recognized as a world cultural heritage by the United Nations. The UN expect a monument protection law and a Heritage managementConcept; City leaders have been dodging on both of these for several years. They simply lack a love for the subject: the wealthy descendants of the once destitute immigrants only see the relics of that poor past in the shophouses, which they have escaped through luck and hard work.

There is a ghostly silence over Prangin Alley. On every second house there is a sign: "to let". Doors and windows are nailed up with slats, the rolling grilles are additionally secured with heavy chains: So that the homeless and junkies do not fill up the vacant space.

A few years ago 60,000 people lived in the old town, now there are only 25,000. In many cases the exodus was not voluntary, but rather an escape from a sudden rent increase. For decades, Malaysian law had frozen rents for the 12,000 old buildings in Penang at the lowest possible level, with ambiguous consequences: the owners let the houses deteriorate; on the other hand, a lot of small businesses survived only thanks to the cheap rents, all those barbers, wicker chair makers, tea room operators who give an old town its charm. When the rental agreement fell, some rents soared up by a thousand percent. No cushioning urban planning moderated pure capitalism.

The twittering of birds from the tape comes from an abandoned house. It attracts swallows, they should nest in orphaned walls: Swallow nests are an expensive Chinese delicacy. It is more profitable to rent a house to birds than it is to people.

The "SOS" office is dark and barely furnished. The emergency signal here means "Save Ourselves!", A self-help initiative. Several thousand tenants are members; the initiative negotiates with the homeowners on their behalf. Many old town residents barely knew their minimal rights; some paid a lawyer with the last of their money who also represented their opponent, the landlord.

Ong Boon Keong is currently painting a banner; the SOS activist looks like an ancient Chinese scholar with a goatee, long mustache tips and a thin ponytail. In fact, he is a well-known jack-of-all-trades, studied architecture in Australia and later ran an eco-farm. A grassroots intellectual; he speaks the language of the common people, patiently and gently explaining to them in the local Hokkien dialect how to defend themselves.

Often fighting is useless, as in the case of Daisy Chuah, who has lived in the same house since the Japanese occupation, that is, since the Second World War; now the rent eats up her entire pension. The 65-year-old Chinese opens in a frivolous, short, floral housedress. In the middle of the room, her senile mother is lying in a kind of rattan nursing chair, facing the television, with the chamber pot strapped under. The 93-year-old is being fed, her toes peek out from under a batik cloth like bird's claws.

Asian Monopoly: More than half of the old town houses are in the hands of just 20 owners. 200 shophouses alone belong to the Khoo clan; in the early 19th century it was a lobby group for immigrants from southern China, all with the surname Khoo. Soon the clan was running a powerful secret society; the underworld fought distribution battles in Penang's alleys. Alerte young asset managers are now at the helm of the former gang; they had the Klantempel, Penang's most famous tourist attraction, extensively renovated and drove the tenants out of the surrounding houses. They are all called Khoo, that was of no use to them; a boutique hotel promises more returns than the clan's solidarity. The Klan would like to pulverize a particularly beautiful shophouse alley nearby: parking space for tourist buses. Khoos live here too; some are ashamed of the clan.

Cultural heritage, say the guidelines of the United Nations, is called Living Heritage, an old town with grown communities, be they ethnic, religious or commercial. The "Penang Heritage Trust" works according to this concept: a citizens' initiative of architects, historians, artists, publicists, united in an effort to protect dying houses and dying professions from the cold wind of the market. A well-meaning elite, knowledgeable, internationally networked - but far removed from the social microcosm of the old town residents themselves.

There is a certain irony in this: those who Heritage live, understand least of it. The old town is now poorly preserved by the sheer conservatism of a Chinese lower class, in which Malaysia's modernization has not yet taken hold. People don't have much in mind when it comes to monument protection. Your life should stay the way it is - or get back to the way it was, and if something needs to be repaired, it should be cheap. The Heritage- Consultant with his range of roof tile samples is not welcome. And the academics from far and wide who live in Penang oral history want to collect, often encounter suspicious defenses.

Evening stroll through the alleys: all doors are open because of the lazy breeze. In each house in front the red house altar with flashing lights, further back a screeching television set, somewhere among the utensils a moped, too valuable to be left in the dark of the street. Some live in their warehouse, illustrating the Chinese attitude towards work; a coffin maker sleeps next to the coffins, protecting them. And high up on the wall in every house, just below the ceiling, hangs the ancestor, the male ancestor; yellowed black and white photographs from a time when the camera still gave people dignity.

On a sultry night, the old town suddenly awakens to feverish life, driving away all the ghostly silence. A religious procession winds its way through the streets with a deafening clang. The facades are fogged with thousands of incense sticks, white-clad people march through the clouds of smoke, they accompany a vehicle with a large copper urn, the Taoist symbol of the Most High. Strong men fall into a trance, drenched in sweat, they dance on bare feet, in the wide-legged swaying hopping step of the raptured, shaking their heads restlessly, hour after hour, they dance tirelessly through dirt and fire. At the port, the urn is placed on a small boat, the boat drifts unmanned into the sea, out there the elements will unite.