The gambling-ridden clan jetties of Malaysia’s George Town were saved from ruin by the award of Unesco world heritage status, but their new fame left locals overwhelmed by a tide of invasive tourism. Can we ever get the balance right?

The clan jetties have been overwhelmed by tourists since receiving Unesco world heritage status
The clan jetties have been overwhelmed by tourists since receiving Unesco world heritage status © Grace Thang/Getty Images

Chew Jetty in Malaysia’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. 


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 plied their trade, souvenir vendors and snack bars have taken root. The locals say they were caught unawares by a tide of tourism that has washed over their stilt village. It’s a similar complaint that has resounded across Europe this summer, as cities from Barcelona to Venice try to balance the positive effects of tourism with the inevitable downsides. 

“We would be gone today if not for the Unesco listing,” admits Chew Siew Pheng, a resident of the Chew Jetty. She recalled a constant spectre of evictions during her childhood, as the jetties fell into disrepair. 

Unesco may have spared the last seven jetties from the wrecking ball, but Siew Pheng says it has also “affected our privacy. Our jetty has become commercialised. People are moving. During the December holidays like Chinese New Year and Malay Raya, it’s not even a place to live.”