Chew Jetty in Malaylsia’s George Town attracts tourists by the boatload. Historic homes are now commercial stalls branded with neon signs; one-time fishermen peddle T-shirts, magnets and postcards. Tour buses deposit vacationers from early in the morning until well after sunset.
The daily intrusion has clearly taken a toll: windows are boarded, “no photo” signs are pervasive, and tenants quickly vanish at the sight of a foreign face.
“I would like to remind people that we are not monkeys, and this is not a zoo,” says Lee Kah Lei, who runs a souvenir stall outside her home on the Chew Jetty.
Although Kah Lei notes that “the more people who come here, the more the shopkeepers sell”, she wishes camera-wielding tourists were respectful of her privacy – and especially not duck into her home uninvited.
Once, the “clan jetties” on the outskirts of George Town on Penang island, were a bustling seafront hub. A ramshackle collection of stilt houses and sheds, stretching along a line of wooden piers each bearing the surname of its Chinese clan, they are one of the last intact bastions of Malaysia’s old Chinese settlements.
The seven remaining jetties survived two world wars and Japanese occupation, but as the decades wore on the piers deteriorated. And when the formidable threat of encroaching developers raised its head, the owners of the jetties had only one place to turn: they made an 11th-hour bid to Unesco for protection.
The effort succeeded. In 2008 the clan jetties were awarded Unesco world heritage status – though not before two of the clan enclaves were razed to make way for a housing complex.
Now, however, residents say the victory was not what they hoped for at all. Where fishermen, oyster harvesters and fortune tellers once…