Heritage and the Politics of Culture
British colonial heritage has been deliberately neglected in the narrative of Malaysia’s national heritage since independence in an attempt to strengthen an ‘authentic’ national identity. For port cities like Penang – founded in 1786 as an outcome of colonial encounters – unique problems arose as they suddenly had to fit into a nation state with which they shared little history and heritage. For over two centuries Penang had been a place where new cultures emerged and in which influences of Western cultures played a prominent role and thus became part of a local and unique port city heritage.
This paper focuses on the Jawi Peranakan of Penang and the habit of having afternoon tea as an example for allegedly British colonial heritage. It shows how Penang’s heritages encompass elements of different cultures, which are actively transformed and made into their own through mimetic practices. Mimetic practices are understood as strategic negotiations and incorporations of different influences that came to the island. Therefore, heritages and practices that resulted out of these encounters are more than the imitation of the Other, nor signs of passive assimilation processes: Mimetic practices are rather the outcome of an engagement with the Other. Through this (re)composition they are made into something new, enduring and their very own. Therefore, in contrast to what is nowadays often considered as colonial leftover or vestige, this paper argues that these specific cultural heritage elements are not foreign, but rather part of a specific local, remarkably enduring and alive, cultural heritage.