“Special Post” Penang Part Four

I am not a heritage preservation professional on Penang. But I can talk based on my own personal experience growing up in Penang. I was born in Penang – a third generation.

I went to America to study at the university in 1980 and returned to Penang in 1986. After working in Penang and Kuala Lumpur and a short-term project assignment in Jakarta and Bangkok, I immigrated to Sydney, Australia in 1993. Now I reside in Tasmania – for the last six years, with my partner of fifteen years and our lovely and at times stubborn Scottish terrier, “Bonnie” of twelve years.

I have lived in Fayetteville – Arkansas, and Denton and Dallas in Texas in US, Guildford – Surrey in UK, Seoul – South Korea, Bangkok – Thailand, and travelled to San Francisco, Chicago, Rome, London, Auckland, Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Krabi, Koh Samui, Siem Reap, Hanoi, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minch City and most recently Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

Why am I telling you all this? I really don’t know. I suppose I want you to know that I have been to a few places around the world. That I am getting older, reliving my childhood memory and discovering the meaning of the word “culture” and “heritage value” so long forgotten in me for the past many years.

Whether it is a western or eastern country – I believe we are all the same. We may come from different culture, but we dress the same western clothing. We may practice different religion; some go to church, others go to mosque, Chinese temple or Indian temple. And, others practice new age, yoga, spiritual stuffs, or simply a non-believer. So, what is really missing? I am not too sure. But I think it is the loss of one’s culture and value. To be progressive, it seems we have to be westernised – the perception of being modern and affluent – compromise with the loss of one’s identity. Individuality and culture are slowly becoming a past and history. The new and younger generation show no or little interest to understand their heritage value and origin of their ancestral. They live to conform to their peers and surroundings to be accepted in the society. I have to admit – I was there before. But not now. I am – as I said earlier – getting older if you still haven’t figure out. I consider myself modern, in loss of touch with my culture and heritage values which I so desperately seeking to renew and understand.

So, back to Penang. That is why I am here – the place where I was born. I wanted to go back to see the house where I was born and the wet market where I used to walked with my mum.

The house is located at Jalan Kajang – previously known as Kajang Road. All the street names have been changed to Malay word. “Jalan” is “Road”.  The house that I grew up was a good example of a Straits Chinese pre-war double storey link house with hand carved stonewall. The roof was a V-shaped terracotta tile.  It was a brick house with elaborate hand craved Chinese motifs on the wooden double front doors and front windows, and terrazzo designed floor tiles. All windows had a louver timber shutter. I asked my mum if she still have old photographs of our first house. I found this one of my sister when she was a little girl.

Unfortunately, the entire stretch of pre-war link houses is no longer the same. The stonewall was long gone, replaced by some horrible, mismatched materials and gates at the front of the link houses. Our old house has a horrible awning over the car pouch. The timber shutters were gone. It was too late. All damages were done before UNESCO entrusted Georgetown as worth preserving – the largest living collection of pre-war buildings in this part of the world.

However, I am glad to see that the “Kuantan Road Market” is still the same. This is the wet market that I used to shop with my mum. A short walk from the house. Even the market administration building is still intact. It desperately needs a new coat of paint!

Next I walked towards the heart of the city, where a designated zone area is gazetted as UNESCO world heritage site. Along the way on Datok Keramat Road, there is a huge complex – “Penang Time Square”, comprising a condominium tower and a retail shopping mall. There is future plan to add another block of condominium and a hotel. The entire complex has reshaped the skyline of Datok Keramat area. Again, sign of progressiveness versus preservation of heritage values. But, I think this area is outside the UNESCO gazetted area. The huge modern building is surrounded by pre-war shophouses.

The two Indian temples along Datok Keramat Road are still there. They have been there as long as I can remember. I hope they will be preserved and not demolished for some other major complexes.

I walked towards the Chinatown area. The area has not changed from what I can remember – Kimberley Street is still busy and bussing with old Chinese shops and tea houses. It is really easy to walk around the city. But do it early to avoid the heat and humidity in the afternoon. If tired, take a break at one of the many “kopitiam” for a light snack.

The protected zone area is a living and breathing culture of Georgetown. It is not only about buildings and architecture, but also about the people and the street life – grocery shopping at wet market, eating at Penang kopitiam and hawker stalls.

This was the first Yum-Cha I had since I came back to Penang. I am glad I found the place, which has been around since my grandfather’s time. It was one of his favourite. I got myself a table. Looked around – most tables were full with locals, ranging from middle aged to elderly men. That is a good sign! It means the food is still very good. And, I am right. I ordered a pot of Chrysanthenum tea, Siu Mai and Har Kow for $5.20 Malaysian Ringgit. The equivalent of AUD$1.70. I wished I can eat more.

I got to have the above Yum-Cha at the tea house. That was my second breakfast for the day. Earlier I had the most delicious Char Koay Kak at another kopitiam about an hour ago, which cost $2.20 Malaysian Ringgit or AUD$0.70 cents! By the way, all Penangites have their own favourite hawker stall and will drive there specially to eat at that stall only!

I mentioned in my previous post, Penang Part Three that visitors come to Penang for food. It is the number one reason. This is mostly true for interstate visitors. However, I believe most international visitor comes to Penang to experience more than just food. The main reason, in particular now, is the heritage culture of Penang, and the fine collection of historical buildings and brilliant architecture in the capital city – Georgetown. There are other interesting places outside of the city and yet within fifteen minutes to half an hour drive – the beach, the hill, gardens and parks just to name a few.

Along Weld Quay and its surrounding area, there are many fine colonial buildings in the financial district. Fronted by the sea is The Fort Cornwallis – where Captain Francis Light first landed in 1786. Since then, the waterfront has been redeveloped with a new look Swettenham Pier recently completed, and a nearby marina. Along the stretch of Weld Quay there are many historical buildings.

Fort Cornwallis

Fort Cornwallis was the first military and administrative base of the British East India Company . I was surprise to find the place quite unkept with litters on the ground. There is a fee to get in. It is an embarrassment that the administrative of the site does not maintain the place to a world class standard, when they have to charge visitors to get in.  There are missing words on some display boards. There is a museum in each of the old prison cells – but not all are dedicated to the history of Fort Cornwallis. There are history mentioned on other settlers in Penang prior to Francis LIght. In my opinion, they are not relevant to the history of Fort Cornwallis, and would have been more appropriate in the State Musuem or Penang Islamic Museum.

Nearby Fort Cornwallis, there is a sixty foot high clock tower presented by a local millionaire, Cheah Chen Eok, in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, a new Swettenham Pier and the Penang Ferry Terminal.

Behind Weld Quay – the waterfront – there are many fine colonial buildings still intact, many of them are banks and financial institutions; thus, known as Penang financial district.

Within ten to fifteen minutes walk from the financial district, I reached the most interesting part of Georgetown – the heritage enclave area. This area is a must for any visitor to Penang. The main street is a good example of the people of Penang living together harmoniously with different religions within five minutes walk from each other.

Kuan Yin Teng

This is one of the oldest Chinese temples in Penang. Built in 1801 by early immigrant settlers from China, the building is decorated with intricately crafted dragons and a pair of stone sculptured lions which are said to be its guardians.

Sri Mariamman Temple

Sri Mariamman Temple is the oldest Indian temple in Penang, built in 1833.

Kapitan Keling Mosque

Kapitan Keling Mosque was built in the early 19th century, it was named after the Indian Muslim merchant Caudeer Mohudeen, who was also the Kapitan Keling (headman). It is the most prominent historic mosque in Penang and features a dome-shaped minaret reflecting Moorish Islamic influence. The Kapitan Keling Mosque is the place of worship of the Indian Muslim community who have lived and worked around the mosque for over two hundred years.

St George’s Anglican Church

St George’s Anglican Church built in 1818 is the oldest Anglican church in South East Asia. A memorial structure dedicated to Francis Light is built at the front of the church.

The five main Chinese Clans also established their foot in this area – the largest and most famous are Khoo Kongsi and Cheah Kongsi. The other three are Yeoh, Lim and Tan. The Chinese immigrated to Penang in the eighteenth century. They form a strong bonded community by building clan houses and associations to provide lodging and assist in employment for newcomers and children education. Temple and centre courtyard with performance stage were also built for worshipping of ancestor, deities and entertainment.

As time went on, many clan associations became extremely prosperous. The buildings become more and more ornate. They compete among each other over the decadence of their temples. Thanks to this rivalry, Penang has one of the densest concentrations of clan architecture found outside China.

Khoo Kongsi – built in 1850s

Cheah Kongsi – built in 1870s

Back to my earlier point about culture and heritage value – how that is slowly disappearing due to one’s perception of being affluent is to be modern and westernised. If you follow me on Twitter, you would have read that I was invited to a “traditional” Malay wedding last Sunday. I was excited and look forward to the experience – reason, I have never been to a Malay wedding. I imagine the bride and bridgegroom will be in their traditional outfits, and there will be ceremonial events such as “Bersanding” where the bride and bridegroom feed each other sweetened rice, and noise and sounds of Malay traditional drum called “kompang”. But, it was a modern, westernised wedding. It was beautiful but nothing traditional. The bride and bridegroom are beautiful together. It was a very happy and joyous occasion with many guests. The entire family and relatives look very happy for the young married couple. I wish them well and a long and happy marriage.

So how do one preserve the culture without being overly modern and non-traditional? I don’t have an answer because this is happening in every developing and third world countries.

If you still haven’t figure out why Georgetown deserves to be listed as a world heritage site – here are some fine examples of the largest living collection of pre-war buildings in this part of the world. It is nothing like Singapore – but better. It is not clinical and it is not Disney-like. It is a living heritage showcase.

13 responses to ““Special Post” Penang Part Four

  1. Victor – Thanks for sharing another awesome story and pictures. I have to mark Penang on list of places to visit. One thing for sure, I’ll be eating well on that vacation and probably gain about 15 lbs. LOL

    • If I am around – we should meet up. I have been eating so much but I also walk a lot in the heat, so hopefully has burn off all those extra calories!
      You can do a Luang Prabang – Bangkok – Penang circuit. If you have not been to Bangkok yet, it is a great city.

  2. These photos reminded me why I love Penang so much, they are really beautiful – thank you Victor! It is one thing to preserve Georgetown as a World Heritage area, but am I being patronising if I say that I am disappointed that there seem to be more skyscrapers and shopping malls each time I go to Penang? If that is what people want, how can we stop “progress”? I am now looking forward even more eagerly to my visit in June next year, but I feel hungry already……

    • Hi Rita II – you are most welcome and thanks.
      We can’t stop the progress in Penang – there will be more high rises outside the heritage zoned area. It is unavoidable, like everywhere else in a developing country. It makes the place more prosperous, improve living condition and increase the population – thus, improve the economy. But, what we can do is preserve the area gazetted by UNESCO as worth preserving and there is a height restriction inside the zone area. That is a first step. I have seen some restoration being done to some of the pre-war buildings, and converted into a beautiful boutique B&B (mostly by westerners that have established Penang as their second home under the Malaysian’s MM2H program).
      As for the number of malls – Penang people (not the older generation) loves shopping, or at least window shopping at the icy cold air conditioned shopping malls. It gives them a chance to get away from the heat. There are new malls being build or in the pipeline.
      I believe in Penang – the old and new can coexist nicely, which I have seen in a few places, as long as the place is not turned into a Disney-like theme park!

  3. Yes, it is true that in Penang you can still see wonderful old heritage buildings alongside the newer developments. Whereas I feel in KL somehow the older parts are just being swallowed up, with so many roads and office blocks! Perhaps it is because there has always been so much ‘co-existence’ in Penang, with the different ethnic groups and cultures all getting along together. I must admit I do sometimes like to wander in the malls – but that is not why I go to Penang…. I’m just another tourist after all 🙂

  4. Hi Victor, I have been enjoying your reflections on Penang & your amazing travel stories, full of rich observations, cultural & historical facts. I think you should be the Penang correspondent for the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides!
    You make me want to jump on a plane & get there asap.
    Thanks for the travelogue

  5. Thank you for taking us down your memory lanes.

  6. Hi Victor, I’m also Penang Khia …….
    thank you for sharing with us ……
    Are you still in Penang ?

    • Hi Tommy – thanks. No, I am back in Tasmania.

      • Oh…i…see….! so, when u will come back penang again ?
        victor, do you still remember how to speak hokkien ?
        because i want share with you for this hokkien podcast.
        The very first podcast entirely in Penang style Hokkien. Funny and casual chats with no topic restrictions. We talk about things that you will only share with your closest friends.
        my email : gptommy@gmail.com

  7. I make it an annual affair to visit Penang in April,to pay respect to my grandmother.Why April,many should know
    Ayer Itam market is a must for me to visit, because I enjoy seeing the hardworking hawkers doing their business.Their simple life make me feel like joining them.
    I will intentionally forego my complementary hotel breakfast and go for the Hokkien mee,roti plata ….Ilove Penang.How wonderful if I can be like one of them one day…
    I enjoy your recommendation.

    • “Agongkia” – LOL. Great avatar’s name.
      April – is “Cheng Beng” time, right? Another great culture of the Chinese communities.
      Thanks for reminding me of the Ayer Itam wet market. I have not been there for so many years. Hopefully in my next trip I will have the opportunity to go there again and have the laksa as well. 🙂

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