Clan Jetties: Floating Identities or Waterfront Heritage?

The south eastern coastline of George Town, Malaysia, is dotted with rows of wooden houses on stilts built above the sea and connected by planked walkways. These are the Clan Jetties of George Town, each characterised by a particular surname.

The bustling sea trade in the late 19th Century brought swarms of Chinese immigrants from Fujian province, China, in search of work. From short landing stages to dual purpose sheds for work and living, communities soon formed as fellow clansmen arrived, forming extensions along the jetty.

Waves of uncertainty

StraitsJourneys delved deeper into the story to get more out of the experiences we craft. Despite its UNESCO identity, we stopped to wonder if the 6 remaining jetties are really the waterfront heritage they are said to be or simply floating sheds subject to the uncertain waves of what tomorrow holds?

For a long time, the authorities constantly threatened to demolish the Clan Jetties, viewing their living quarters as slums. Their houses were only given Temporary Occupation Licences (TOLs), subject to annual renewal and compensation was not assured if the houses were acquired for development.

Protection or invasion?

Although protected by their UNESCO status for now, the new found fame of the Clan Jetties brought tourists by the boatloads, each time invading their privacy and disrupting their livelihood. Commercialization has turned fishermen, oyster harvesters and seafarers into souvenir vendors and historic homes into convenience shops.

Some tourists have come blindly to see these “novelties” on stilts, but StraitsJourneys want our travelers to experience the spirit of camaraderie, of vanishing trades and the skills behind the bustling waterfront.

Resident Lee Kah Lei once said in an interview with The Guardian: “I would like to remind people that we are not monkeys, and this is not a zoo”. Comments like these reflect the sentiments of the residents who are torn between preserving their unique heritage and coping with the overwhelming attention. The jetties has become displaced by tourists who’d soon be unable to get an authentic experience once the residents move.

Preserving experiences

Little known to others, the Clan Jetties are a tight-knit community, binded not just by neighbourly ties but more importantly, their ancestral heritage. Their strong ties have banded them together for mutual help and protection – this is the “kampung spirit” (community spirit) that money cannot buy. After all, it was this resilience that fought off the threats of encroaching urbanization, one day at a time.

Through our local experts and guides, StraitsJourneys can provide new insights into places of historical significance such as these jetties, traveling as respectful observers, not demanding tourists. We believe this is our own way of helping to preserve the places we visit, to be as authentic as possible – one experience at a time.

Chew Jetty


StraitsJourneys is a place for travelers to find and book deep travel experiences tailored to specific interests. The experiences are presented by carefully selected local experts. We expect to launch in early 2018. In the meantime, register your interest in StraitsJourneys and be the first to receive our stories, updates and offers.

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