Urban Heritage in Georgetown, Penang and Yangon: A Comparative Study

PhD student: Hafsa Idrees

Tutor: Prof. H. Ruediger Korff

University of Passau


A basic dilemma of city planning is that planners can make plans but that the development of the city depends on the practices of the citizen. Here we find a basic discrepancy between usually technocratic planning ideas and communicative practices of those living in the city. (Korff 2018)

City planning is strongly influenced by national decisions as well as world models (Meyer, Rowan), maintained by international organisations. In the sixties and seventies, the dominant model used to be modernization and thus, the creation of modern cities. The old city centres were either already in decline or fell into decline through sub-urbanization. In addition, their structures resembled the past and tradition, exactly what had to be transformed! Heritage was identified with religious etc. buildings.

Perhaps as a consequence of post-colonial discourses and globalization, identity policies became relevant as well as the idea to maintain cultural identity and heritage. This led, however, to a dilemma: What is the cultural heritage of a colonial city? On the one hand, the old buildings of the colonial administration as well as the colonial banks, offices, department stores and hotels refer to a past in which the local culture was subjugated to colonialism. On the other hand, most of the cities were centres of in-migration and minorities, and thereby featured styles not in line with the disseminated nationalism.

While planning the modern city, new centres were established. For the planners, the old parts of the city posed several problems like insufficient infrastructure with their often narrow streets, overcrowded houses etc. In short, the architecture fell short of modern demands and functions. These old centres turned into marginal areas in terms of space as well as economic activities and cultures.

Since the last decade, a new world model has emerged in part as a result of the world heritage projects of UNESCO. Instead of tearing down the old city, heritage should be maintained, so that the history of the city becomes visible. Several old parts have now become world heritage sites like the old quarters of Georgetown.

For the study we selected two cities: Georgetown on Penang island in Malaysia, and Yangon in Myanmar. Both have been under British colonial rule and urban planning. One important feature used to be that the cities were mainly inhabited by migrant communities with their own administration that led to the rise of the so-called “plural society”. In both cities we have a large south Asian community.

In the old quarters of Georgetown the vernacular architecture is characterized by Chinese and Indian styles. Yangon was the centre of British colonial rule in Burma. The policy to not develop Yangon during the military rule (1962 to 2011) led to a form of “conservation”.