George Town’s heritage status may be in jeopardy

By WINNIE YEOH

Inner city dwelling: The building (center) on Muntri Street in George Town has been turned into a birdhouse where swiftlets are lured to make their nests there.

TAKE a walk around certain parts of George Town’s inner city such as Kimberly Street and Che Em Street, and one will be greeted by the unmistakable twittering of swiftlets in the air.

Artificial breeding: A swiftlet house on Lebuh Che Em in George Town.

These calls are not from the actual birds but recordings installed by owners of swiftlet houses to attract more of the avian to roost and breed in these heritage premises.

The small birds are a subject of contention with the state government as George Town’s joint Unesco World Heritage Site status with Malacca may be in jeopardy due to the conversion of heritage buildings here into swiftlet breeding premises.

On Jan 14, Unesco issued a letter through Permanent Delegation of Malaysia to Unesco Ali Ab Ghani regarding the swiftlet issue in the inner city.

Avian occupants: Breeding of swiftlets for their nests is a lucrative business and a house on Muntri Street (above) and another on Chulia Street (below) have been converted into birdhouses.

Association for Swiftlet Nests Industry (ASNI) president Carole Loh said the association had not been informed of the letter issued by Unesco.

“We hope the state government will furnish us with a copy of the letter so that we can better understand the concern of Unesco and respond to them accordingly.

“Unesco has heard only one side of the story and it is only fair that we be given the opportunity to tell our side,” she said when contacted yesterday.

Loh said that many of the birdhouses were already in existence even before Unesco came in to audit the city in 2007, adding that some are 20 and even 30 years old.

“Shouldn’t that be considered part of inner city’s living heritage? The houses were here then. It wasn’t an issue then, why is it an issue now?” she asked.

Penang Heritage Trust council member Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson said the birds are all inside the houses which are disguised as nice heritage units.

“The owners make them look nice outside and people will not realise it is a birdhouse unless they go to the back of the building.

“The birds usually fly in and out of the buildings in the early morning and late evening,” she said.

She said Unesco’s “warning” letter was timely “to push things along”, adding that Unesco was concerned about this because many people had brought the issue up with them.

Duckett-Wilkinson said she hoped the state government would do something about this.

“They need to start showing the people that they are serious about the swiftlet issue,” she added.

Bird’s nest is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Swiftlets are responsible for building the saliva nests.

The edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive animal products in the world. The nests have been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years, most often as bird’s nest soup.

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Category: News @ George Town