I do not know where to begin telling you in how many ways I fell in love with Georgetown, the old-town of Penang. The small tip of an island off the northern entrance in Malacca Strait, at the other end of the world I call home… But this is why one travels. To be seduced! To dive in colors, sounds and smells of the beautiful cacophony our little world becomes when one looks at it with benevolent eyes.
I’m not the first to have discovered Penang and fall in love with it. The British have put it on the map and ‘fell in love with’ back in 1786, but for different reasons. When Francis Light, captain and trader with British East India Company landed, the island belonged to the Sultan of Kedah. The British East India Company was in dire competition with the Dutch East India Company for the control of spice trade and navigation control across Far East. British have promised the Sultan military protection and help against the Siamese and Burmese invasions. The history of this island in peppered with deceit… Even though he married the sultan’s daughter, Light did not have a mandate to offer military support and the Sultan wanted to rescind the agreement. The British took the Island anyway. Marking the first settlement of the British Empire in the Far East, they founded Georgetown, named after King George III, and started to build Fort Cornwallis, the fortification preserved perfectly to this day – perhaps because it was never engaged in any battle. At the time the fort was being built the island was inhabited by about 1000 Malay fishermen. Historians debate if Chinese have already reached the island at that time.
In their pursuit to open up trade business, the British declared Georgetown free port, invited Chinese traders to settle and brought Tamils from southern India for labor. European rubber and tea plantation owners with properties across Malay Peninsula started setting up home bases on the island. The banks followed suit and an economic boom ensued. During those years, Penang was for a while neck in neck in trading competition with Singapore – another member of the British Straits Settlement. It lost the competition and luckily retained that old world charm untouched. That is one major way I fell in love with it. I love strolling through the past!
For me, the surest way to fall in love with it was to revel in its diversities: diversity of cultures, of skin color and language spoken, of cuisine, diversity of eye-shape, hairdo and music sounds… Of architecture and way of living, of how one drinks its coffee and what tea is preferred… Diversity of religion and modes of worship…. Oh Mother of Diversity and Tolerance, this is your Home! And this is why an observant heart would not forget this place!
You park the car by Fort Cornwallis, pass by the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Tower, and start your stroll through history on Beach Street, the British colonial banking and trading quarters. Some Wall Street of the time…. You are conflicted with the thought of British having deceived Penang by not offering support to fight against Siam in the late 1700’s, but graver and morally unconscionable, during the WWII, they decided to evacuate all European residents in secret and leave the rest – Malay, Chinese, Tamils, Thai, Burmese and all others that came to find their fortunes on a bustling little island – at the cruel will of the Japanese occupation. And that’s yet another way to fall in love with it – so much history, so much pain and misery, so much boom and bust concentrated in one little place… It makes it alive with joy and heartbreak and gives it a presence like no other. Penang, Georgetown, Pinang, call it what you like, the place has a soul. History is cherished and preserved. Here, old is hip. Old is new. Old is beautiful.
The famous five-foot-ways are still intact, dating back to the time of colonial rule – the five foot indentation in the ground floor of a building so that the upper floor provides shelter from sun and rain to the pedestrians. Across the Strait Settlements the five foot ways were part of the town plans but colonial ruler and local ruled never saw eye to eye as to their use, with merchants wanting to use the verandas for their daily life and commerce while the administration wanted the public space cleared and maintained. The conflict culminated in the Verandah Riots in Singapore with no concrete win and both sides pretending the matter solved.
At the other end of Beach Street and out of sight from the British money temples there is a small sign pointing to Little India. And it all starts to beat faster, for a secret longing of my heart is to meet India at home… So I plunge blindly with eyes wide open… And ears are buzzing with Bollywood music and nostrils are inundated with smells of spices and sweet fragrances of unknown lands…. Oh… the colors of the saris and silks in the shop-windows, the flower garlands hanging bright and long and waiting to be offered at the feet of gods… The skin color on the sidewalks and the language changes, the dress is different… The white or vermillion marks on forehands speak of a different worship style and smiles are wide and heads a shaking sideways… I get lost into little shops, I am expected to buy saris, but instead I am attracted by a place that blares a mantra on the sidewalk and I get out with two CD’s. Anything of India you want you can find, bangles of all colors covering the windows from top to bottom, all-gold coverings, saris, jewelry, music, Bollywood movies, biryani clay-pots, spices, sweets-carts and vegetable stalls. All resonating with the din of life and raw energy.
Looking out from the clay pots a different looking place picks our interest. Turns out it’s a Chinese bistro part of a historic inn. After all that Indian color and excitement the quiet moment for coffee makes its call. But curiosity it great and while I love the A/C, the ambient music and cleanliness of Bistro Tang – an oasis in the midst of Little India, my eyes are restless and across the street a battered looking old house captures my attention. We ask for coffees at Tang but I add ‘can you make it old style’ and showed the motions of pouring through a sifter… Something I saw in another Chinese coffee house in KL. The young barista said we don’t make that kind here, but they can make it for you across the street. And she motioned for the shabby house I eyed. That’s all I needed. While my husband gets comfy with his Tang coffee I cross the street into this open kitchen/restaurant that serves sidewalk-cooked char kway teow – the national favorite Malaysian fried rice noodles. There is only a mix of locals in the joint and the air is completely different than at Tang’s. I ask the Chinese lady busy frying noodles in a searing wok, about ‘old style coffee’. She nods and sends me to the back where a young man takes the loud order from her. While he prepares my coffee I am considering if this is such a good idea… the hygiene is questionable, this is an open air ramshackle… but I can’t help it, I really feel welcome. He pours the coffee through a cloth strainer, then adds condensed milk and pours from one cup to another several times, then adds ice and a straw. When I turn around an old man gestures me to take a sit at his table. He asks me where I am from. He has no front teeth but good English. I can’t really figure out his ethnicity. I take a seat and we strike a conversation. When he hears I’m from Romania he tells me he knows of only one lady from Romania, the gymnast, the perfect 10. I tell him, yes, Nadia – I meet her once in an airport lounge. He thinks she must very-very rich. We laugh. I ask him where is he from, turns out he is Thai, several generations in Penang. He suggests I try the fried noodles but… emmm… no-no, I am not hungry at all. The coffee is good. Then he says ‘the tall man you are travelling with is looking for you’. I said, yes, my husband is having his coffee at Tangs, and indeed B is up and looking through the window across the street. We joke and laugh some more, the old man is so easy to talk to, I wish I could spend hours to learn about his old stories…. When he senses I’m about to get up, he asks if I don’t mind taking off my glasses so he can see my eyes. I give him a wide smile and take off my sunglasses. I leave him with a big smile on his face and rush for the cool a-world-apart place that Bistro Tang seems now.
We’re off to explore more and discover the ‘Street of Harmony’, what used to be known as Pitt Street where in a short walk one can visit the centers of the four main religions of the Island: St. George’s Church, the first Anglican Church in South East Asia. Then on to the Hokkien Chinese temple dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Kuan Yin and to Mah Chor Por the seafarers’ patron, with worship practices blending Buddhism and Taoism. Then on to the Hindu Temple Sri Maha Mariamman [the Universal Mother] worshipped by the migrant Tamils who looked upon the goddess as their protector in times of trials and tribulations. Finally, the minaret and domes of the imposing Kapitan Keling Mosque appearing above the rooftops. Built by the Chulia Indian Muslim community, it is named after one man, Kapitan Keling – literally, Captain of the South Indians. One cannot help taking note of the true harmony of the place, what they call this street may sound like a tourism marketing gimmick, but you do see Chinese and Indian locals praying side by side in front of each other’s temples, selling their worship fare side by side and truly getting along. This is reminiscent of Kathmandu’s famous temples where Buddhists and Hindus pray side by side in perfect amity.
Continuing on Penang’s heritage trail we find ourselves on the rickety walkways of the Clan Jetties. Like the rest of Georgetown, this is a walk in time… on lanes of wood beams, built on stilts over the open shores. In the old days the location was a wood yard, littered with planks and firewood where poor Chinese families worked loading and unloading sampans. Eventually seven jetties sprung up and were dominated by different clans. Each clan started to build houses and to this day they live on water with little convenience. Each house has a little shrine suspended by the entrance with shoes and flip-flops lying at the door. Like elsewhere in Georgetown, bicycles are everywhere… The jetties are another face of a fascinating past confronting an incredibly tolerant present. I do not know if this continuity would be possible in the West. The clans are catching up with times tough; they’ve opened up the jetties to visitors and have transformed the font of their houses in little shops selling art and souvenirs. Yet, when you take a turn on a quiet wooden lane you could very well be walking one hundred years ago.
One cannot visit Georgetown without a walk on the Armenian Street. The now-gone Armenian community in Penang was never numerous, but it was notable. Few wealthy Armenian businessmen made fortunes on the island, the famous hoteliers Sarkies Brothers among them. The Sarkies founded luxury hotels throughout South East Asia; Eastern and Oriental in Penang, Raffles in Singapore, Strand in Rangoon, and others. A stroll on the Armenian Street takes you to the heart and vibrant buzz of this old place. Charming shops, Chinese clan houses, cafes, museums, art galleries… When you find out that the Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat Sen shaped history out of a humble shop-house on the Armenian Street you no longer think it is too much… you are already seduced and simply know there’s more… Today a museum, this was the Penang base where Sun Yat Sen lived for a while and strategized the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. And one can dive into yet another layer of history if one is so inclined.
What else can this little place offer you in one day? If all this wasn’t enough, here is the topping: a trishaw ride to savor the famous street art of Georgetown. The legs are getting weary but the sponge-like curiosity and thirst for more are running high. We have seen the trishaws and their drivers all day long. Time comes we befriend one and we make him happy. And we start chasing the frames of composite wall art that made Georgetown famous with young crowds and artist-adventurers that love to put their stamps on walls across the world. What’s special about the street art here is that it incorporates wall-painting, real bicycles, motorcycles, swings and basketball hoops, tree roots or the entire façades they are adorning. Such ingenuity, such fun and such finesse… I’ve seen the street art of many cities, from Valparaiso or Santiago de Chile to Philadelphia, so bright, so many colors, so striking, one strong statement after another. The street-art of Penang is quite the opposite; it is subtle yet so alive, so integrated in its surroundings that it won’t stand out. And the effect is marvelous! You get caught in a play with Ernest Zacharevic’s children riding bicycles or scooters, reaching out for buns in real steamers, hanging on little wooden swings or playing a basketball hoop. You stop counting the cats of the 101 Lost Kittens project by Malaysian and Thai artists that aim to raise awareness about stay cats. Is this Asia?
The artists have a beautiful and witty dialog on the walls of Georgetown and everyone loves it. In fact, the municipality participates too with the humorous wrought-iron art work representing historic facts about the street or the building it hangs upon.
Penang is a gem of many facets; it is confounding: business savvy, historical and hip, devout and artsy… oh, it holds so many promises! An island hosting many ethnic groups going about life in peace; not trying to impose their own religion or their way on the rest. Well, yes, this is Asia! Penang teaches the world that is all right to be different while together; that the Buddhist chant will not offend the Muslim call to prayer and the Hindu festivals in December are not a threat for Christmas. Tolerance for street artists, for cats and foreigners… tolerance for life as chosen.
“The lamps are different but the light is the same: it comes from beyond…” Rumi