George Town first attracted me as a destination with the promise of a mix of history and culture. It hasn’t disappointed at all. In fact, if anything, it has surpassed my expectations. This fine dame is experiencing a revival of staggering proportions. Since this city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site locals and investors alike are passionately restoring the city to its former glory.
Despite the recent surge in investment and development it feels like village life continues in this town. George Town has all the modern conveniences available but also all the cultural traditions that reflect the unique mix that is this town. My favourite example of this is one of the major streets called Harmony Street or Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. This is in the core part of the UNESCO city limits and on one of the one streets you can see a Malay Mosque, Tamil Mosque, Chinese Temple, and an Anglican Church.
The houses of worship are examples of how closely everyone lives in this street. If you look closely you will also see the traditional trades supporting these temples working side by side. In a world where some cultures remain in fear of others this city could and should truly be used as a model for acceptance. It all began with Sir Francis Light offering a haven to Roman Catholic Eurasians who had been previously persecuted. His vision had always been to allow for the space for everyone to have their temple of worship. While recognising there are challenges for the most part it has been very successful.
Penang Island is situated on the northern part of the Malacca Straits. George Town’s natural safe harbour and proximity to both China and India has made it the ideal trading port, particularly when trading spices was such an important commodity. Like many of the neighbours the progression of interest from Europe followed the Portugese, Dutch and then English paths. The English arrived in 1786 with a lease being granted to Francis Light by the Sultan of Kedah with the intention of the British providing protection from Siam (Thailand).
It was the British who named the town George Town after their King (King George III). While Francis Light only lived for 8 years after his arrival in Penang his vision of George Town as a trading hub with a thriving port and warehouses along the shoreline did come to fruition.
Another example of the cultural diversity of this city is the development of its own style of food known in Malaysia as Nyonya food. In the houses of the elite there was often a Chinese seafaring man married to a local lady. That lady may not only have been Malay but sometimes Indonesian, Burmese of even Thai. They often had help in the kitchen and house by Indians. The head of the house was called Baba and the lady was called Nyonya. Hence a fusion food style developed that merged the cuisines from Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Thailand.
Nyonya restaurants and food stalls are now some of the most highly sought after in George Town and it would be criminal not to try some during a stay in Penang. The food is usually very fresh and spicy with amazing flavours.
Traditionally the spices and herbs would be purchased every day in the markets and ground for the meals. Now when you go to the local markets you can see spice stalls where experts grind the spices into a wet paste of ginger, lemongrass, garlic and amazing spices for the home and restaurant alike.
The markets continue to operate twice a day in George Town, harking back to the days where there was no refrigeration in the kitchens. The morning markets are bustling with housewives, house cooks and people on the way to work. Stalls are set up around the markets so that motorbikes can pull up quickly on their way to work. Every market has at least one cheap noodle stop and the one I saw sold morning noodles for 1 Ringt. All stall holders sit with a local coffee beside them. Each cup has an ingenious lid to keep out unwanted bugs.
The other obvious example of the mix of cultures is the amazing range of architecture which I am sure was one of the key contributors to the UNESCO status. There are grand buildings that obviously from colonial English times. The most obvious are the town and city halls on the edge of Padang Kota. The Town Hall was built in 1880 with the additional City Hall being built next door in 1902 when they apparently ran out of room. Between the two buildings used to be a Cricket Club which was bombed during WWll. As you walk past you can easily imagine the hey days where the wealthy traders sat on the terraces and watched the cricket in the park. You can see the original fort across the park called Fort Cornwallis which was the principle defence and still houses some navy quarters opposite the old fort.
The shop fronts are also very interesting to note around the centre or Core Zone. They are traditionally narrow and long as they were taxed on shop frontage. Mostly these shops have two storeys with the families living on the top storey. The front room downstairs is where business is conducted. A traditional Chinese screen partitions the remainder of the house providing privacy for the family.
The outside of the house seems always to have at least tiles on the floor. As time and money permitted more intricate tiling was added. There are great examples of the tiles to be seen today. Many houses were influenced by feng shui which seems in its simplest form to be making the most of the natural elements.
An example of this is the ventilation. Ventilation is very important to cooling the houses and to protect from damp in this humid climate. On the front of the houses you can see a variety of grills providing air vents. These are usually set high on the front wall on either side of the door and are works of art in their own right. If you look to the rooves you can also sometimes see vents on the top of the roof releasing the hot air from the house.
Another key aspect is water. Many of the houses contain inner courtyard which are open to the elements in order to let both light and rain into the house. In order to create good feng shui the water enters the house and runs two ways. Firstly through the courtyard where it drained in a circular motion and secondly in drains running through the building. A good way to see and hear about this is to take a tour of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is carefully restored former residence of Cheong Fatt Tze and serves as a hotel and museum today. Cheong Fatt Tze was a very successful Chinese trader and businessman. He came from China at the age of 16 without a penny to his name. By the time he built this he was already very successful and had built many houses but this was home to his 7th wife which many believe to have been his favourite wife.
Building started in 1890 but took a number of years. The main part of the house which is now the museum was built first in the courtyard house style with the wings being added later. These wings have now been converted into a hotel. Typically all business was conducted at the front of the house downstairs with living quarters upstairs and the household protected by large screens.
The servants were all housed across the road in a bank of five terrace houses across the road. These houses are no longer part of the estate but are beautiful in their own right.
Make sure you take the time to look carefully at the artwork on the outside of the building. Craftsmen have done an amazing job of putting together the mosaic style stories on the gables and around the windows. During restoration apparently many ceramics were purchased and shipped from China for the local craftsmen to rebuild some of the damaged work.
Unfortunately the contents of the house had been sold off over the years so none of the original furnishings are in the house. The exception is the lovely room divider downstairs. On his death the family were not allowed to sell the property until his last child died. Sadly the house had fallen into a state of disrepair before the family finally sold it in the 1980s. It has been purchased by a group of Malaysian businessmen and has been awarded for its sympathetic restoration.
This local mansion is also known as The Green House – for obvious reasons when you see the pale green glow as you come down the street. Perhaps competing with Cheong Fatt Tze which is also known as The Blue House. Chung made his fortune in tin and opium to become the richest man in Malaya building this grand home in 1895. He built a Cantonese style temple next door apparently for his grandchildren to ensure their religious education.
When you walk in the door you can see the courtyard in the centre of the room. This is a style typical to the houses of the time. On the left are striking dark wood room dividers gilded in gold. Immediately there is a feeling of opulence of a by gone era. Straight ahead is a sweeping staircase with amazing Scottish ironwork. This grand house is now owned by an antique dealer who uses the rooms to display many of his wares.
The rooms are a perfect showcase for the antiques. The red stained glass windows throw a lovely light into the rooms. Upstairs there is a lovely gilded namwood wedding bed and some traditional wedding costumes. Even if the contents are not exactly the same when you see the house it is well worth taking a look and the antiques add to the story of the building.
Clan Houses are the temples that the Chinese built when they first arrived in George Town. Some are linked back to original Clans or families while others are connected to an area. The purpose was to provide support as well as a place of worship for their followers. When disputes arose they were settled clan to clan through the Clan House. They often provided the role of a modern day embassy providing representation and haven. Schools were also often attached to the temples to ensure the education of the next generation.
Arguably the most extravagant Clan House in George Town is Khoo Kongsi. The clan temple was built in 1906 after the first attempt burnt down. The temple represents the Khoo clan who were very wealthy and powerful at the turn of the 20th Century. The temple has undergone enormous restoration in 2000. It’s tucked away down some narrow back streets but well worth the find and a must do. Getting there, and seeing the lanes around the temple is a key part of the experience. There are great examples of architecture, paintings, traditional lanterns and furniture.
This is a great small temple to visit. It’s also known as the Temple of the Heavenly Queen and is dedicated to the patron saint of seafarers. This is a clan temple based on a dialect as the people from this area were late settlers and many worked with the foreigners. This temple has also been recently restored and has a lovely atmosphere.
The dying trades
As many of the traditional customs remain as part of everyday life then so do the trades that make all of the celebrations possible. Some have died off over time but there is a definite revival and attempt to share the knowledge that exists with the new generation. Assisting in keeping the building trades all the renovation and restoration of local shopfront houses and mansions. Many of the others are related to the many festivals and celebrations enjoyed by the various religions.
An example of this is the lantern maker. Many of the homes and all of the Chinese temples have lanterns. These are all hand painted and many tell the traditional stories. Today Georgetown has only one lantern maker who is very busy.
Interesting to visit are trades such as the Songkok hat maker. This master makes all the Muslim hats that are worn everyday and during festive occasions. Visiting him the day before Hari Raya he is very busy. Hari Raya is the celebration that occurs at the end of Ramadan and is one of the most important festivals on the Muslim calendar. This day is similar to Christmas for Christians in that it is a time for the family to get together and often gifts are given. During the fasting month food can only be eaten when the sun has set and breaks when the new moon is sighted. Stalls are set up along the streets specifically for this period and contain many delicacies, which are taken home to be eaten after nightfall.
When you’ve pounded the pavement all day and you need to pull up for a cocktail the best spot I found in town was the legendary E&O hotel (Eastern and Oriental). The Sarkies brothers who later when on to open Raffles in Singapore founded the Eastern in 1884. Things went so well in 1885 they built the Oriental Hotel which soon became the merged hotel it is today. The hotel has really been the centre of glamour on the island since then. The list of famous artists, politicians and other famous people that have set foot here is longer than the cocktail list.
The hotel closed in 1996 in desperate need of an overhaul. It re-opened in 2001 and manages to keep its old world charm – if slightly old fashioned. Major additions are underway to add a wing which is rumoured to contain a casino. Hard to guess what impact that may have to the surrounding neighbourhood and the type of visitors it may attract. In the meantime grab a drink and sit along the seafront and watch the sun go down.
During my stay in Penang I went on a number of walking tours around George Town and found this to be an informative and really useful way of getting to know George Town. My guide was Joann Khaw (016) 440 6823 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You will be sure to be mesmerised by stories of the old city intermingled with understanding how many of the old rituals and ways live on today. The Penang Tourist Guide Association can always recommend knowledgeable local guides as well.
George Town – Clove Hall
This carefully restored house is a home away from home in George Town. A short cab ride or decent stroll finds you in the heart of the old town. The house contains six suites which have everything you need for a stay. Chris the owner has returned to George Town and can offer endless advice on how to discover this amazing city. They only serve breakfast here but it’s a perfect encouragement to go and explore the many options that are a truly short stroll away.
George Town – Eastern and Oriental
If local is your style but you need a restaurant and bar in house then try this grand old Dame. It is like entering a time warp but comforting none the less. Pictures of the rich and famous who have stayed here over the years remind you this hotel is part of the colonial history of this charming town. The location overlooking the water is amazing and who can pass sitting by the pool with a cocktail.
George Town – Cheong Fatt Tze Mansions
This is not only a living museum but you can stay here as well. It is probably the main competitor at the moment to Clove Hall. This won’t be the case for long though as this town comes alive.
I didn’t see a room but the hotel has some nice courtyards and shared space. If you don’t mind sharing your public space with tour groups it’s in a great location and a chance to share in some real history.
NS Nasi Kandar Restaurant – 142 Jalan Burma
Delicious Indian Muslim food which will make you wish you lived next door.
Mama’s Nyona Cuisine – 31-D Lorong Aby Siti
I loved this type of food and it’s a must for any visitor. This restaurant does as good an example as any that I tasted. You wouldn’t stumble on it as its down a commercial street. The atmosphere isn’t fine dining but the flavours are delicious. I loved their take on the simple spring roll and spicy curry chicken.
Nonya Baba Restaurant – 44 Jalan Nagor
Another good spot to try this great cuisine. Try the fish or the pork in sauce. A fabulous spot in the buffer zone.
Sri Ananda Bahwan – Little India 55 Penang Street
Right in the heart of Little India this is a delicious spot to try authentic curries. Served on banana leaves and very tasty.