past present july 2011
(article originally published in PEM July’s 2011 issue)
The Past Is The Present (Armenian Street) by Gabija Grušaitė
Somehow heritage became an unquestionable value in itself in the everyday life of George Town ever since its Unesco World Heritage listing, and often there is no further attempt to conceptualize what exactly is “inherited”. By global standards, the city is young compared to places like Varanasi, Rome or Istanbul, but its 200 years of history which have united the narratives of colonialism, global migration, capitalism and cultural transformation is certainly an attractive one. George Town is very much a living city and there are so many paths that it can choose. Singapore reinvented itself as a financial hub, a city of clean pavements and high rises; legalized prostitution and now, has a highly successful casino. Malacca is rediscovering its charm as a heritage city, unfolding its numerous layers of history. This is, however, a dangerous path, and the most famous historical towns in the world including Venice and Florence are nothing more than enormous museums. So far Penang is balancing its heritage and full economic potential; but once fused together those two elements could result in an explosive revival as has happened with Barcelona and Seattle. Streets age differently than people, they constantly undergo a transformation and even though the houses remain the same, the inhabitants change, businesses come and go, children grow up and leave their nests. Busy lanes become deserted and as time passes they burst into life again. Looking at Armenian Street now, it’s hard to imagine that it was the scene of major battles during the 19th century. Sun Yat Sen’s headquarters is now a museum; a number of art galleries and artsy cafes have opened, creating a hip and bohemian atmosphere.
No 20 Armenian Street
No 20 Armenian Street is a magnifi cent white and blue three-storey building bought by Dr Askandar Unglehrt 15 years ago, when Armenian Street was still an ordinary residential street with scrap dealer shops everywhere. While he talked about his 40-year-long love aff air with Penang and his Malaysian wife, Dr Unglehrt showed the inner yard of the house, which was bombarded by the Japanese and had never been rebuilt. He is a passionate antique and art collector with an impressive collection, mostly of local artists and antique furniture. He does not live in the house and in order not to leave it empty he invited his close friend, Mexican artist Ricardo Tovez, to stay and work there. Tovez came to Penang 12 years ago for an exhibition and never left . He explained that while he preferred to exhibit in Kuala Lumpur and abroad (his next show will take place in China), Penang’s provincial art scene makes it a good place to work and create. The pace of life is slow and mesmerizing and he loves to live alone in an enormous house. Dr Unglehrt joked that artists need to work alone, “It’s no good putt ing many of them in one place, they just fight and compete with each other!” Talking with both men over a glass of wine on a balcony overlooking Khoo Kongsi, one can see that it is a beautiful marriage between an artist, an art collector and an old house. All three of them seem to be melancholic and immune to the rush and stresses of the outside world. When the sun goes down, it almost looks like a beautiful haunted house, inhabited only by macabre Mexican art and the artist himself who seems to be a magical figure, a mortal practitioner of art.
The trishaw man
There is a trend in contemporary academia to talk about the decline of community; to mourn the loss of the personalized interactions between people and to claim that alienation is constantly growing and taking over all spheres of life. However, while walking down Armenian Street one can see that there is link between the residential houses, art galleries and businesses – it is a trishaw man called Mr Hock. He is the heart of the street, he knows everyone by name, and he collects all their stories. More than this, he is the keeper of the street who waters everyone’s flowers, washes the pavements, fi xes what needs to be fi xed, feeds and walks the dogs and keeps secrets. At night he sleeps in his trishaw as if it were a throne, and even while asleep, he keeps an eye on the street. Without him the pavements wouldn’t be as cool, the plants wouldn’t be as green and the street wouldn’t be as cosy, because he binds all the houses in his warm net. By no means is Hock homeless; he is a trishaw man who was born and lived on Armenian Street all his life. He makes his living taking tourists for rides, but there is more to it; and listening to him speak about the past, it feels as if he is a living book. He told me about the gang fights that used to take place in the neighborhood a few decades ago. Not anymore, he said and smiled. Hock likes the way Armenian Street has rediscovered itself. Temples are beautiful now, the buildings are not decaying anymore, he said. Th e keeper spirit is happy. He needed to rush away, the Bonton dogs needed to be fed and the door needed to be fixed.
Leong Bicycle Shop
All his life, for 47 years, Leong has lived on Armenian street and the bicycle shop he owns was inherited from his father. Although it is a bicycle shop, a lot of people come to take pictures of his antique collection that he started out of a personal obsession. It began with antique bicycles and spread; his collection is displayed in the shop, but is not for sale. Old pictures, an antique motorcycle, radios, bicycles, fans and calendars – a rare glimpse into the past. These are not the polished and readymade fake antiques for tourists, his are all collected from the neighborhood when people moved out. Recollecting his memories about Armenian Street, Leong reminisces how it was once lively and a litt le bit shabby, full of youths hanging out till late. Now the street has acquired a more polished, even posh look and most of the old generation inhabitants have moved out, making space for galleries, art studios and cafes. However, Leong likes the street as it is now and intends to stay here for as long as he can. Business is good, he said, smiling. He is happy that Penang is changing, becoming more environmentally aware, and that cycling is coming back into fashion. All of his sales are to locals and the only problem he has at the moment is that he cannot meet the overwhelming demand.
No 53 Armenian Street
Heritage houses are not only for rich foreigners or old people; they are desirable and chic places to live for young professionals including Cheeleong Tan, an interior designer, and Aping Lim, a graphic designer. Even though they moved in to No 53 only eight months ago, the interior design is breathtakingly cosy and contemporary, yet almost all the furniture and things in the house are antiques. Both Cheeleong and Aping are passionate antique collectors, but because of the soaring market prices, they decided to recycle all the unwanted and abandoned furniture they found. Even though the No 53 house project could be the possible future of Armenian Street, the atmosphere of the house harmonises with George Town’s past cosmopolitanism and cultural creativity. Both UK-educated and well travelled, Cheeleong and Aping are highly aware of the environment they live in and are active about changing it. Th ey are currently participating in a community-focused renovation project, where they are the uniting link between the foreign and government funds and an older generation of Armenian Street dwellers.
Every evening, a few hours before dusk, a chaos begins at the crossroads between Armenian Street and Aceh Street where people gather for the infamous fl ea market. There are no stalls, no order; things are displayed on the ground, sometimes on a sheet. It is always very lively with sellers actively promoting their products and buyers eagerly going through the stacks of clothes, discussing features of a dinosaurera computer or bargaining over a pile of wire hangers. Most of the stuff sold here is of no use to an ordinary person – old DVDs, second-hand mobile phones, old clothes, odd and weird household items, but it is a good place to hunt for bargain antiques. Sometimes it is hard to understand who is a customer and who is a merchant. Oft en, it does not matter at all as both people and things exist here on the margin of society, otherwise invisible and unrecognizable. Th e people here are full of character and sometimes remind me of a Penang version of a Dostoyevsky novel. Th e market does not have a neat and polished appearance that all tourist markets have and therefore it represents a living tradition, part of contemporary George Town that is being erased out of the official narrative. In fact the market is illegal and one can observe a subtle pirouette between the sellers and the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP); every time MPPP officials arrive everyone packs up their wares and disappears behind the corner, moving the whole flea market there. Aft er they leave, everyone comes back. Endless cycle. On Sundays the MPPP offi cials don’t show up so this is the biggest day for the market.
by Gabija Grušaitė