George Town was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2008, together with Melaka, as a place full of Malaysian living heritage. To manage, monitor, and promote the George Town World Heritage Site, the state government of Penang established George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) in 2010.
As a steppingstone to their mission to safeguard cultural heritage, GTWHI will co-host the 2017 Sub-Regional Meeting for Intangible Cultural Heritage Safeguarding in the Southeast Asia with ICHCAP from 18 to 21 September in George Town. To prepare for this meeting, six GTWHI staff members visited ICHCAP in Jeonju, Republic Korea, from 6 to 10 March. Dr.Ming Chee Ang, the General Manager of GTWHI, who is also one of our ICH correspondents, sat with us to tell us her story of working with living heritage in George Town.
What are the mission objectives for your visit to ICHCAP?
We are here to sign the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) concerning the 2017 Southeast Asian Collaborative Meeting and to have preparatory meeting. Specifically, we are here to confirm a few important issues including budget, programs, and division of human resources.
You have met ICHCAP staff and looked around our offices. In comparison, what is GTWHI like in George Town.
We have a similar working environment. We have twenty-four full-time staff members along with program consultants and certain projects related part-time staff members. We have four departments that run various programs.
How did you start working at GTWHI?
I was born and raised in George Town, so the heritage of the city has always been very special to me. I literally grew up and hung around with my friends there. I can say the heritage of George Town shaped me today. My passion for cultural heritage has grown naturally. For fourteen to fifteen years I have lived in overseas, and I have been able to see many splendid cultures. Every time I saw them, I used to think “We can do it also, or I can do it also!” So I am doing it now. Meanwhile, I found this special opportunity by the state government and was appointed for this position. I do appreciate the opportunity to serve for safeguarding the heritage of George Town.
What is the mission of GTWHI?
Our mission is to manage, monitor, and promote the George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site and to sustain and enhance the outstanding universal values of George Town. To accomplish those missions, we offer a platform and information to educate people. When it comes to defining who our stakeholders are, anyone can be. Anyone who uses the space or shares the memories of the space can be our stakeholders. For now, I may say our target audiences are mainly English and Chinese educators, but anyone can be our audience. We can to make it a collective action to conserve George Town heritage.
What are the main challenges you face?
First of all, most Malaysians speak four languages. To get a translator is not difficult. However, to translate a content into a form that reflects the audience’s educational background and economic situation is tricky. We can translate from English to Malay. But understanding isn’t only about language but also context. For instance, we are currently carrying out projects calculating how many people are living in George Town and how many of them still keep their heritage as a way of life. People who have lived in George Town for more than twenty years, at least two generations, have their own way of life inherited by their ancestors, and their traditions are not quite sustainable. Translating our ideas and reasons for inviting them to make their lifestyle more sustainable and to maintain their ownership is very challenging.
In addition, there is the matter of authenticity, which can affect understanding and interpretation of the town. When we talk about the cultural heritage, we also face the matter of which version to use to explain its history, which can raise questions of authenticity. When we say cultural heritage, a lot of people have difficulties understanding it. In other words, we need a lot of imagination. For this reason, ensuring authenticity and selecting necessary information would be difficult.
In practice, people can easily expect an authority to tell them what to do, rather than have ownership. In a larger framework, I believe that it why heritage should be a part of formal education. In George Town, we don’t have that education yet, so we are struggling to give it to as many people as possible. We are always against time but remain optimistic when questions of authenticity hold us up. One little question can stagnate our projects, so we have to be prepared for all possible questions.
As a general manager, what do you see as your role?
I think that we should develop more opportunities. Also, I always try staying positive. I like to consider myself an engineer and a gardener. I am an engineer who connects one person to another person. I spend time hearing their opinions, complaints, and opportunities. I bridge the opportunities. In addition, I am a gardener who puts the right seeds in the field. Employees can present their ability for putting forth the bud.
What is ICH for you?
ICH is something that defines oneself, one’s soul and attitude of living. People can have the same education and earn the same degree, but they are all different. I believe that is because they have different experiences. One of them is the ICH that they have been exposed to. People should view it from their family and themselves.