Previously, we discussed the idea of architecture conservation and its importance in protecting our heritage. And now, we are going to look into a UNESCO World Heritage site in Penang, Malaysia, called the Clan Jetties. The Clan Jetties, also known as “Chinese water villages”, received their UNESCO recognition in the year 2008. A little bit of history, in the 19th century, Chinese immigrants arrived in Penang to seek a better life. It all started from jetties that stretched along the island’s Weld Quay, which they used for loading and unloading goods and to dock the sampan (boat). As the name implies, gradually over the years, these Chinese clans formed their own communities and named each jetty after a certain clan.
Experiencing The Clan Jetties In Person
I didn’t know what the Clan Jetties were until we studied about it for our architectural project. It was April 2017 and I was in my second year of studying architecture at Taylor’s University. And at the time, we were learning about poetic spaces. So relating to that, we had to design a Visitor Interpretive Centre that would provide an exhibition showcasing the history and story of the Clan Jetties.
After checking into our hotel, we walked out to explore the Clan Jetties as it was only a short five-minute walk away. We noticed people entering and exiting the entrance of the jetty from across the street. The first jetty upon entry that we explored is the Chew Jetty.
1. My First Impression Of The Jetties
Entering the Chew Jetty, a pavilion of Chinese lanterns over our head welcomed us. Then we walked into this narrow boardwalk with wooden houses on each side. As we walked further in, we came across business outlets that were originally residential homes. They sold souvenirs, hats, snacks and drinks. I noticed how lively the vibes between the community and the visitors were, as they exchanged greetings. But I think the reason visitors come here is for the breathtaking view at the end of the jetty.
As we exited the narrow path, we were greeted with a breath of cool, fresh air from the sea. We were mesmerised with the view of the end of the jetty: the clear blue sky above and deep blue water below. It evoked a sense of tranquility and peace as we sat down at the edge of the dock. It was a wholesome experience for me as I continued exploring the other jetties.
2. Tourists Vs. The Clans Community
Being the tourist that I was, I took so many pictures without realising how it could affect the locals. It’s like having strangers making noises and taking pictures at the front porch of your house. So I can’t imagine how the clans community feel about that. I remember walking through the jetties and feeling like I was trespassing into someone’s house. No one was outside the porch, as if they knew that we were coming. It made me feel like we were intruding upon their daily lives.
My Architecture Project With The Clan Jetties
We had to pick one jetty to house our project’s Visitor Interpretive Centre and I chose Yeoh Jetty. Why? Because I remember having a hard time finding this jetty. I had to go through people’s houses and even came across a few stray dogs. But once I found the entrance, I stood in awe at how cosy and peaceful it was. It made me think that maybe it just wanted to be hidden from the world.
With the concept of “framing”, my intention was to design spaces that frame the different perspective of the jetty. Framing the view of the entrance, the other jetties, the horizon, the sky and the Yeoh Jetty itself. I had hoped that my Visitor Interpretive Centre would complement the wooden houses on stilts instead of standing out against it. But if I were to be honest about it, having a huge two-storey building does appear to overpower the original heritage.
Did I Consider The Values Of The Clan Jetties?
A year after our Clan Jetties project, a local architect, by the name of Kevin Mark Low, gave a talk at our university. He told us something that opened my mind further in this world of architecture. “Think of the community and the people. Your lecturers might have told you to design a learning centre, but ask yourself, do you really think that this local community need one?” So looking back at the Visitor Interpretive Centre project, I started to question myself. I designed the building for the visitors and tourists to come and understand the history of the Jetties, but did I ever consider how the community would feel about it? The answer was no. I thought, what if the community didn’t need it after all?
How Can We Manage Future Conservation Projects?
UNESCO had definitely saved the Clan Jetties from demolition. But was the originality and authenticity of the jetties kept intact? The front porch of the clans’ houses had become a tourist landmark. They get their pictures taken and daily lives disrupted without permission. Yet, they do their best to cope with the scrutiny from the general public as well as resist the call to modernisation that is happening around them. Some of the clan communities were able to take advantage of the tourists and open up businesses with their houses. But not everyone was able or willing to do that, so how did we fail to consider that?
I think that for future conservation or architecture projects, everyone should bear in mind to be sensitive to their surroundings. It’s important to first consider the community and the people that you might affect with your new development – before you plan to make it an iconic landmark. Otherwise, the heritage site might start to lose its authenticity and lustre, and that’s the last thing you want to do to those who value it. After all, would you want your front door to be turned into a tourist attraction?
What Can We Do For The Future Generations?
We, the present generation can do our part in conserving the values of the past by creating awareness and sharing knowledge of the past with the future generations. Badan Warisan Malaysia, a national heritage NGO, has done exactly that for the past 30 years by promoting the conservation and preservation of our historic buildings and sites. So please visit their website for more information on how you can play your part to support their initiatives. And if you happen to be in Penang, why not drop by the Clan Jetties for a visit?