STRAITS FROM THE
by Jennifer Gampell
George Town, on Penang Island in Malaysia, faces the future with its heart
and history intact - and thankfully the local powers-that-be are determined
to keep it that way.
When I flew in to George
Town I couldn't believe 10 years had passed since my last visit to the
heart of Malaysia's Penang Island. In the ensuing decade, countless Asian
cities have morphed into globalised parodies of their former selves. Yet
like Rip van Winkle, George Town seems to have slept through all the changes.
The British founded
George Town in 1786, transforming a mosquito-infested swamp into a bustling
free port where British, Eurasians, Armenians, Chinese, Peranakan (Straits-born
Chinese), Indians, Malays, Thais and Burmese traded and lived in relative
harmony. "There were many cultural streams here but no single one
dominated," says the eminent academic and social activist Dato (Dr)
Anwar Fazal. "The essence of George Town was, and is, its openness."
Local culture advocate Joe Rosli Sidek agrees: "No-one feels like
a foreigner here. We've been cosmopolitan for centuries."
George Town's trading
heyday finished well before WWII (when the RAF and later the RAAF arrived
at Butterworth air base). After the war, stringent rent control laws imposed
by the departing British in 1947-and only lifted in 2000-locked much of
the city into a time warp. Today the biggest tasks facing the proactive
20 year-old Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) are safeguarding George Town's
rich architectural heritage and ensuring it doesn't get Disney-fied like
so much of historic Singapore.
Already many of the
opulent colonial mansions along the peaceful waterfront Esplanade have
been replaced by tall nondescript hotels. Elsewhere on Penang, unaesthetic
highrise condos and shopping/office developments keep sprouting up. But
within George Town's large historic core-roughly delimited by the port/ferry
terminal, clan jetties (historic waterside villages), Komtar office/shopping
complex and Penang Road-the pace of life seems as leisurely as ever. "Buildings
here are not museums but active and functioning institutions," Anwar
Except for new paving
stones and palm trees, the many restaurants, clothiers and grocery stores
within the four square blocks of Little India exude the same authentic
sights and smells as I remember. Likewise, little has changed around the
200 year-old Masjid (mosque) Kapitan Kelling-apart from some strange lingum-like
bollards erected by city planners along the newly widened sidewalks. On
Lebuh Campbell, devoted overseas customers still shopped for rare preserved
sea cucumbers and exotic dried fruits at the Chinese merchants. A few
doors down, placid rifletoting security guards continue to protect the
many open-fronted gold emporia.
Comfortably stuck somewhere
in the last century, George Town lacks many regulation tourist amenities
like glamorous shopping, pulsating nightlife, ultra-hip hotels or pristine
beaches. Its once renowned public transportation system has vanished,
the formerly ubiquitous bicycle trishaws are disappearing, and hard-to-find
taxis are best hired by the day through your hotel.
Instead, historic George
Town boasts 7000-plus historic buildings, an astonishing diversity of
food for every palate and wallet, and a community spirit long-gone from
other regional cities. Two PHT pamphlets (on historic and trades/food
trails) can guide you to its principal religious and historic buildings.
Curiosity-and comfortable shoes-will carry you down its myriad fascinating
streets and lanes.
CHEONG FATT TZE MANSION
14 Leith Street
(04) 262 0006
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (aka. Blue Mansion) was its wealthy owner's favorite
residence, a quirky example of Chinese courtyard-style architecture with
art nouveau elements. When the Rockefeller of the East died in 1916, perfect
feng shui didn't save the extravagant 38 rooms and five inner courtyards
from neglect. In 1989, local architect Lawrence Loh and his wife Lin Lee
Loh-Lim began a six-year renovation project that spearheaded the local
restoration movement and garnered a UNESCO conservation award. While still
a work in progress, the interior was featured in the film Indochine. Except
for during the twice-daily public tours, only registered guests are permitted
inside. Frequent returnees rave about the 15 individually decorated rooms
and homey ambiance. From MYR250 ($92).
10 Lebuh Farquhar
(040 222 2000
Famed for Raffles in Singapore, the Armenian-born Sarkies brothers actually
opened their first hotel in George Town in 1884. Recently restored to
its former colonial glory, the gracious E&O (Eastern & Oriental)
is a typical five-star international property. From MYR480 ($277).
97 Batu Ferringhi
(04) 881 1511
In the resort town of Batu Ferringhi, 17 km from George Town, is the quirky
E&O-run Lone Pine. Set back on a large and private grassy lawn covered
with wispy casuarina trees, this 1948 beachfront property oozes character.
Rooms on the older, western side of Lone Pine inherited a lot of deco
furniture after renovation of the E&O. From MYR180 ($66).
Dispensed from hawker stands, open-fronted shophouse restaurants and trendily
restored mansions, food is the sine qua non of George Town. With scores
of vendors offering local favorites like roti canai, teh tarek,
Penang laksa, satay, Hokkien mee, and rojak, choosing a
particular street or streetside eatery often boils down to personal preference.
The best motto is: always eat where the locals do.
Lebuh Keng Kwee
The crowds of people and cars queuing at 60 year-old Teochew Chendul (located
just off Penang Road near Komtar) attest to the quality of its refreshing
chendul (green pandan noodles, red beans, palm sugar and coconut
milk over shaved ice) - 50 cents.
NEW KRISHNA VILLAS
At 25 year-old New Krishna Villas (located on Market Street between King
and Queen despite the sign saying 45 Queen), a sumptuous all-you-can-eat
(with your hands) banana leaf curry is just $1.25.
38 Armenian Street
(04) 261 8935
Only the name and a few menu items are Swiss at this peaceful Malaysian-
eatery on up-and-coming Armenian Street. Owner and heritage tour guide
Teresa Pereira Capol decorated her lovingly renovated Chinese shophouse
with items from her own extensive antique collection and created a small
museum on the second floor. Ask to see the kebayas (traditional
Peranakan women's blouses) or just relax in the garden area with a bowl
of soto ayam (Indonesian chicken soup) and a cooling tamarind drink
32 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah
(04) 262 2232
An elegant bar/lounge located in a renovated 19th century mansion with
a spacious dining area set under a modern glass-enclosed tent. Try the
romantic and underused terrace next to the gently lapping waters of the
Straits of Malacca. Continental items predominate on the large and well-constructed
menu. Crispy soft shell crab in beer is a firm favorite.
18 Jalan Bagan Jermal
(04) 226 4977
You can spend the whole evening here. Bagan is a bar, jazz/latin/retro
music lounge and restaurant set in a smallish converted bungalow. While
beef carpaccio and tomato soup with gin are definite dinner options, locals
come mainly for the spicy Peranakan specialties.
SPICE 'N RICE
1 Green Hall
(04) 261 8585
The narrow rectangular home of the North Malaya Chinese Textile &
General Merchants Association in the late 19th-century is now an elegant
Indian restaurant with an extremely diverse menu. Chefs from various parts
of India prepare authentic specialties from Chettinad, Goa and other regions.
29 Church Street
(04) 264 2929
Though the many artifacts displayed in the lavishly restored 1895 mansion
relate to the opulent Straits Chinese culture, the East-meets-west mansion
was built by a Triad leader who wanted to flaunt his wealth. Not user-friendly
(unless you call ahead for a conducted tour), but riveting nonetheless.
(04) 261 3144
"They came to Penang from all over the world", says the poster
at the entrance. Despite the museum's relatively small size, the carefully
assembled and well-annotated exhibits highlight Penang's incredibly diverse
88 Lebuh Armenian
(04) 262 9079
Probably the only international-quality gallery in town, Fuan Wong showcases
its eponymous owner's gorgeous fused glass sculptures and more
utilitarian - but equally beautiful -items such as lamps and bowls.
© 2007 Jennifer Gampell