Category Archives: Penang

On Penang Island… a writer in residence, a canvas of storied heritage

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I write this from the island of Penang as a writer in residence. To use that cliche, if I may,  over the moon begins to describe it. I’m ensconced in a studio apartment on Lebuh China, the street of George Town’s earliest traders. In fact, the Chinese have called it Tua Kay, Main Street, since it was laid out in 1786 by Captain Francis Light. That same year, Light with the audacity of those colonial times, ‘claimed’ this island for the British East India Company.

The narrow street that I call home for the month of May, reminds me of so many places; of our travels through China and Thailand, of our two-year stay in Japan, and most recently of our home in Bangalore, India. Lebuh China fringes Little India, and for me, George Town encompasses all of those treasured places… melded into one storied milieu.

Not long after arriving, I set my workspace, found my friendly flower wallah, sourced my go-to corner shops and just a few steps away, found my favourite local cafe. The setting of Ren i Tang – an old Chinese medical hall now a Heritage Inn and Bistro – is simple yet evocative. Its tall ceilings, aged ceramic tiles and reminders of its days as the neighbourhood dispensary, are characteristic of George Town’s iconic shop houses. Many have a unique story to tell and at Ren i Tang, my favourite low table often seems to be waiting just for me at the bistro’s edge. With its open view to the street beyond, I can watch life pass by in a contented and unhurried flow. I might savour a bowl of spicy Laksa, then fresh watermelon juice to help combat the heat and humidity. I admit, I revel in this climate!

Shop houses like Ren i Tang, help give George Town its rich and eclectic character. Many have been refurbished, some are in need of saving, but they all very much contributed to the city being accorded a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008… as did the heritage buildings, narrow roads, colonial-era mansions, Chinese clan houses, ornate temples and Little India. And of course, we must mention the iconic street art, the fantastic street food and the traditional artisans – rattan weavers, garland makers, wooden sign-board carvers, lantern and joss stick makers. Even generations of tart makers are deemed part of George Town’s cultural heritage.

As I pass through the streets whether to research, to an event at Hikayat ‘my’ excellent local book shop, or to meet friends for dinner, all of my senses are invited to engage. The strains of Hindi love songs drift through the balmy, sandalwood-infused air. The tok-tok-tok of an enthusiastically wielded spatula against a wok, large as an upturned umbrella, pre-empts the aromas of Penang’s beloved street food. And as always, commerce abounds – gold jewellers and saree shops, refined displays of colourful Malay batiks,  profusions of collectable Chinese and Nonya porcelain.

Yet, the intrinsic backdrop of George Town is the layer upon layer of founding cultures – Malay, Indian, Chinese, Siamese, Armenian, British, German, and more – all of which appear to exist in respectful harmony. Languages, religions and cultures brush Penang’s canvas with rich and intricate tones, creating a hopeful picture of balance and acceptance.

How did the young Malay taxi driver put it on my arrival?

“Welcome, welcome. First time to Penang, Miss?”

I smiled just a little that, in Malaysia and Thailand, they still endearingly call me ‘miss.’

“No, I’ve been here quite a few times I admitted,” explaining that I have visited often since first working on a book project a number of years ago.

“So you know then. Here, we all live in harmony, many religions, many cultures. How the world should be.”

He could not have said it more poignantly and in truth, I believe this is one of the reasons why I so embrace this small island in the Malay Archipelago. As I discovered through researching its history for the book previously to this one, there are many facets to uncover, yet the building-blocks of this unique and multi-cultural island are steadfast and represented just a short walk from my apartment … the cornerstones of four religions on one harmonious street.

A few evenings ago, I strolled to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling just before dusk. I wanted to embrace the uniqueness of this treasured street. Initially named Pitt Street after the once British Prime Minster, still today, it is proof that religions can live side by side.

At the Goddess of Mercy Temple, over-sized joss sticks burned in quiet reverence at the edge of the temple. A few last visitors cupped their much smaller pieces of sandalwood, circling them in devoted hands… a quiet Taoist prayer.

A few doors away, the gleaming white spires of St. George’s Church reached skyward, mirrored by the tips of tall palms and framed by the sprawling branches of a grand mahogany tree. It is the oldest Anglican Church in South east Asia. “Two hundred years old today,” a proud parishioner told me. “Please, you are very welcome.”

As sunset swept the sky with wisps of golds and luminous pinks, the melodic call to prayer drifted languidly from a little way down the street. As it has done since 1801, the Mosque seemed to entice rather than summon its believers for evening prayer. As Muslim Malays and Indians made their way, many took the time to nod a hello or bid a ‘good evening.’ In an instant, I drifted back to our seven years in Qatar and Oman where I recall going to Christmas church services. Perhaps, where I first experienced this diverse blend of coexistence. And here? It has been crafted from the outset, as Francis Light encouraged a multi-cultural settlement.

In my glow of bonhomie, a rainbow of pastel colours soon caught my eye from the opposite side of the street. It was the Indian gopuram of Sri Mahamariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in George Town. Since 1833 it has welcomed followers. Many were the original stevedores who loaded and unloaded ships dockside. The temple must have been a refuge and a comfort to some of these first hard working migrants.Then, as now, one enters into a cool, incense-clouded interior. Intricate garlands of roses, jasmine and marigolds also permeate the air. Once a year the devotees place their statue, the goddess Mariamman, on a wooden chariot and an evening procession parades her through the streets of Little India.

That evening however, things were much more serene. Tourists paused to marvel at the dance of colours in the sky and trishaw peddlers waited sanguinely for one last fare. As I continued my evening stroll, I pondered if there was any city in the world where four prominent religions occupy the same street in harmony?

I meditated a ‘gratitude’ for the friends and many acquaintances I have here… all of them representing one of these religions, others, or perhaps none at all. As the young Malay driver commented, “This harmony, is how the world should be…”

 

Penang’s shades of green and hues of blue…a mansion and Jimmy Choo

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There are a few unsent ‘postcards’ from Penang this past year. Having co-authored a book about its pioneers, both past and present, there is much to write. I could relate the fascinating history of Francis Light, who claimed the island for the East India Company in 1786, or the myriad settlers from near and far, especially the resourceful Chinese and the stalwart Southern Indians. There are Penang’s iconic shophouses, godowns and clan temples. Its diverse culture and heritage trades, the legendary food and the engaging street art. That and more will be revealed when the book is published. But for now, a few snippets from the Penang I’ve come to know and love…

 

The Blue Mansion…img_5098-1

A photo of her hangs in the mansion’s dining room, her dress and hairstyle unusually simple for a person of her status. Tan Tay Po was 20 when she married the 70 year-old Cheong Fatt Tze. She would become his favourite wife – there were eight of them – and the Blue Mansion was Tan Tay’s splendid home.

Known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, Cheong Fatt Tze had homes (and wives) scattered throughout S.E. Asia, but the indigo-blue mansion in Penang was his preferred. Where he’d find his beloved wife number 7.

boutique-hotel-penang-island-blue-mansion-architecture-02-1-600x600-1I had been to the mansion earlier in the year, gathering information for the book project. Along with writers from the region, I had the good fortune to be invited to a candle-lit dinner in Indigo, the mansion’s elegant restaurant. Serendipity saw my place-card positioned across from Laurence Loh, the man who brought the mansion back to life; rescuing it from its dilapidated state and likely from demolition.

Laurence Loh is one of Malaysia’s esteemed architects and I followed many who have spoken to him over the years, BBC, CNN, Architectural publications and others. Laurence is understated yet passionate about his role as a conservation architect.

“Why take on such a daunting project?” I asked. “What motivated you to dedicate years to the restoration of a mansion? ” In fact a home now considered to be one of the finest restored mansions in the world.

Laurence admitted that he had not given the property much thought as he passed it daily as a youth on his way to school. Years later having returned home to Penang after time abroad, Laurence felt a strong pull towards the temple-like building. Along with partners, he and his wife Lin Lee would buy the property on Leith Street and transform the Chinese court-yard home to the enchanting splendour of its past – it would take 11 years of meticulous restoration.

That evening as we had dined, Laurence explained that developers had hovered in anticipation for the prized site when it came on the market. Conservation in 1989 was almost non-existent with no guidelines and little vision. The mansion lay in a state of decay and disregard with more than thirty tenant families inhabiting it. Motorbikes zoomed through the house and washing lines hung from gilded panels. Animal bones, droppings, feathers and rubbish littered the rooms.

Laurence told me modestly, “It just needed to be cleaned up and restored. There was an epiphany that this would take hold of our lives.” And he hinted that it was meant to be…that perhaps Cheong Fatt Tze had already chosen him as the rescuer.

I was curious if it was the love story of wife number 7, ‘the one he loved above all others,’ as Laurence had put it. Or perhaps it was the unique sense of scale, proportion and space with which the mansion had been designed. I sensed that it is a little of both. Laurence admitted that a keen sense of preserving the legacies of Penang’s forefathers, especially those of the Chinese settlers, had motivated him. “I’m very proud of my Chinese roots,” he explained, “it’s essential they’re preserved.”

The residence was originally completed in 1904 by Cheong Fatt Tze. Having arrived from China to Batavia in 1856 as a penniless 16 year-old, Cheong would come to epitomize South East Asia’s determined Chinese entrepreneurs – of which there were many. Cheong transcended from a carrier of river water to a one-man multinational conglomerate. Initially there was help from his merchant father-in-law, that of wife number 1, yet Cheong would go on to successfully deal in the commodities of the day: pepper, tin, rubber, tea and coffee, rice and opium. He would invest in banks, glassworks, textiles, cattle and a vineyard. He would start his own shipping line when refused first-class service on another. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur.

On a recent visit to Penang, I decide to spend an evening at the Mansion in one of its 18 restored guest rooms. I’d be untruthful if I didn’t confess that its history and spirt is felt within its storied walls. It’s not an uneasiness, but more of a tacit acknowledgement that you are just passing through…the home will always be Cheong Fatt Tze’s.

The next day, I’m invited to join a tour. The private rooms are roped off to the public and there’s a secret delight in having been in the inner sanctum of the mansion. Along with tourists from different countries, I learn that nothing was left to chance when the grand home was built. With its 5 inner courtyards, the centre wing was where business was conducted and were family was housed, perhaps one or all of the 3 wives and various concubines. This was often the norm for a man of Cheong’s social standing.

“Wives 3, 6 and 7 lived here. But if you were out of favour you could easily find yourself in the side wings or across the street in the servants quarters”, our guide reveals motioning to separate buildings across the street. Yet we’re told of Cheong’s great philanthropist tendencies, of his ease with both Asian traditions and of the Western World. We hear of his discerning sense of fashion from Mandarin outfits of fine silk, to top hats and tails.

Indeed the photos and other manifestations capture the essence of time, place and wealth. We see intricate Scottish ironworks (a must-have to affirm one’s wealth in the British empire), gilded decoration, priceless porcelain and Art Nouveau stained glass windows. But its the chien nien that intrigues me most.

Chien nien translates to cut-and-paste shard works, a laborious process whereby specially produced rice bowls are cut with pliers to provide shards of coloured porcelain. Lime putty is then used to form the shards into intricate patterns of men, women, animals and scenes depicting Chinese mythology and various Gods. Some 10,000 bowls, imported from China, were needed to restore the mansion’s chien nien – believed the most prolific on any private building outside of China.img_5060-1

As we gather in the central courtyard, we’re asked a question that I had heard previously from Laurence. “Do you feel the chi, the spirt?”

It is reference to the elaborate feng shui that Cheong Fatt Tze implemented in his home .

“This is the heart, here in the middle, where the greatest chi energy radiates,” our guide says motioning to a spot between two stone columns. “This precise point would have been selected by a feng shui master, the house grew from there.”

It seems very little was left to chance. Granite steps were added as ideally one must always step up when entering a Chinese home…it denotes promotion. The granite implies strength and stability. Golden coins were buried in auspicious corners to ensure continued wealth. The side wings of the home contain six rooms on each floor. The number six as it rhymes with ‘lok lok tai soon‘…smoothness for every dealing.

The Chinese believe that rain water brings wealth (farming, crops) and that nature’s wealth should be drawn inwards. Hence the mansion’s elaborate pipes and gutters to collect rainwater, emptying into the courtyards, backing up in loops, cooling both the floors and ceiling spaces. “The water can come in quickly but should flow out slowly, just like the Chinese ethos towards money.” This is conveyed to us with a chuckle, yet it is clearly to be taken seriously.

When we encounter a photo of the beloved wife number 7, we learn that Tan Tay was the daughter of a Penang goldsmith and the only wife mentioned in the tycoon’s will. When Cheong died in 1916, flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Asia by both British and Dutch authorities. His coffin was toured to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong for farewells, before burial in his native China.

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And of the mansion? Cheong’s will stated that it was not to be sold until the death of he and Tan Tay’s son, only 2 at the time of his father’s death. When he died in 1989, the last daughter-in-law would fall short of money and resort to leasing the mansion’s once grand rooms, contributing to the dilapidated state Laurence Loh would find the mansion.

As the tour finishes, I recall something Laurence had shared that with me. “Cheong Fatt Tze had wanted nine generations to live in this home. He wanted it to be enjoyed by many.”

Thanks to the vision of a passionate architect, that is happily the case…

*The Blue Mansion is properly known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

 

A connection with Jimmy Choo…

img_3173I find myself on ‘hallowed’ ground…that is, if one is both a lover of shoes and familiar with Jimmy Choo. His story began in Penang, a local boy who shared his roots with the very man I’m speaking with, Mr. Wong Heng Mun.

I’m at Hong Kong Shoes on Kimberley Street and have decided to have a pair of shoes made by Mr. Wong and his team of cobblers.

There are three skilled artisans busy today in the long, narrow shophouse. One shoemaker is stitching and another cutting strips of leather with scissors as large as a size- 13 shoe. Mr. Wong minds the front of the shop. He not only knows a thing or two about shoes, he apprenticed alongside Penang’s runaway success story…Jimmy Choo. Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Choo also came from a family of shoemakers.

“Jimmy was about 15 or so, a little older than me when we apprenticed. It was my father that taught us.” Mr. Wong’s father, Wong Sam Chai, was Penang’s esteemed master cobbler for some 60 years.

This is not the original location of the shop but still, it’s become a bit of a mecca for shoe lovers visiting Penang. The shop is certainly not as salubrious as a Jimmy Choo. This is more of an ‘organized chaos’ with shoe mouldings, scraps of leather and shoe samples crammed onto shelves and arrayed on the floor. Proudly displayed magazine and newspaper clippings of the Choo connection decorate the walls. The workshop is stuffed with tools of the trade: threads on bobbins, glue for soles of leather, hammers and heels, and a ‘museum piece’ Singer – timeless and trusty.

Mr. Wong is kind enough to lead me up the worn treads of narrow stairs to the second floor. Shoe moulds as far as the eye can see. Wooden and plastic – shades of greens, hues of blues and wood polished smooth by expert hands, sizes and shapes for all.

Mr. Wong tells me that more than 200 pairs of shoes are handcrafted every month for clients. “Some locals but many foreigners.”

img_5285Back in the workshop, I notice the nonya shoe that is in the works. Its delicate glass beads have been painstakingly stitched into a pattern onto fabric, and is now being crafted into a sandal or perhaps a slipper.

Traditionally this was a pastime expertised by Malay ladies. Beaded slippers complimented their colourful sarongs and lavish kebayas, their tight fitting embroidered blouses.

I’m told that the craft of stitching the coloured glass beads was even a skill coveted for marriage. It seems that presenting a pair of hand-stitched men’s slippers was effective for impressing a future husband. Wonderful examples of nonya slippers and all else pertaining to their refined and opulent culture can be enjoyed at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Today, pieces of the beaded designs are still created and sold to Hong Kong Shoes, both for personal orders or otherwise. “Many foreigners also like these,” Mr. Wong assures me as we admire the intricate samples. In somewhat of a paradox he shows off a massive shoe mould, though I don’t catch the name of who it was a match for – surely it was an extremely tall basketball player.

I’m just a normal size 6.5 and I tell Mr. Wong that I’d like my sandals copied please, “though just a little more tight fitting.” I dig my worn footwear from my bag. They’ve traipsed over the cobblestones of Rome, through the narrow lanes of Cintra and the back streets of Miri…and many others in between. I surprise myself by choosing roughly the same colours of leather…actually I think I’m just a little overwhelmed with the vast array of samples.

Mr. Wong opens a notebook, asks me to take off my shoes and instructs me to stand on the blank paper. He traces my feet, jots down some notes and confirms my order on a small notebook…order 8565. I pay, then he bundles up the note paper, my beloved sandals and plunks them in a plastic bag. Gosh, I hope I see those again, I can’t help but fret.

“How long Sir, until they’re ready?

“About two, three months,” he tells me with a confident smile.

“Lovely, my friend will pick them up for me,” I say, giving a knowing glance to a good friend who spends much of her time here. I already envision my next visit, my shiny pair of sandals awaiting me.

“No worry,” Mr Wong assures me,” we make many, many shoes.”

I can’t resist asking, “Who is the most famous client you’ve had?”

“Oh, Hollywood famous,”he says matter-of-factly. He’s most definitely not revealing any secrets.

 

And may I share a few of my ‘preferred’ in Penang…

Hotel…Campbell House on Lebuh Campbell

Restaurants…Seven Terraces, Il Bacaro, China House

Museums…Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house of Sun Yat Sen (father of modern    China), Penang State Museum, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Things to do…Enjoy street food, especially Char Kuey Teow. Trishaw to discover the many Street Art installations. Take in the view at the peak of Penang Hill and visit The Habitat, Penang Hill. Wander along Beach Street, Armenian Street, Love Street and all in between. Venture out to the Spice Gardens. Have tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Take in live music at China House. Visit the many temples and mosques. Stroll the clan jetties. Don’t miss Occupy Beach Street early Sunday mornings. Arrange your visit to coincide with the brilliant George Town Festival…

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Street Art in Penang…tri-shaws and Chinese lanterns

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IMG_0855If you’ve ever doubted the positive influence of art, you might wish to reconsider. I’m in Penang, Malaysia, where street art has helped revitalize and create a cool vibe for travellers and locals alike.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t immediately taken with Penang; the street art was bridging a gap until I started peeling away the layers of history that make this island so fascinating. It’s a living testament to its multi-cultural heritage and unique architecture.

Wanting first impressions of Georgetown, the inner city of Penang, I sought out a tri-shaw. Considering the vast number of these well-traveled, three-wheeled contraptions, it felt like the natural way to orientate myself.

“See street art?” the tri-shaw peddler asked as I sunk into his passenger seat, a welcome respite from the long day of travel.

“Sure, one hour please,” uncertain as to how long it would take to see IMG_0724the murals. The vast array of them was a complete surprise. And I couldn’t have known how delightful and engaging they’d be.

The images depict scenes of everyday Malaysian life, with local people and heritage as the inspiration. They’re honest and often fun, a combination of paint and installation; a strategically planted bike, swing, or motorbike, completing the painted scene. Wonderfully, the pieces encourage participation as people pose with the images, creating their own interpretation.

My tri-shaw chauffeur, Mr. Goh, often encouraged me to hop off his ‘chariot’ to take photos and pose. He expertly manoeuvered his three-wheeler through the hectic narrow streets and threaded it in and out of alleyways to find some of the more hidden away murals. Unfortunately, his limited English prevented conversation, but he pointed out each mural with a smile in eager anticipation for my reaction.

IMG_0723We stopped at a popular mural where people waited patiently to pose on the bike while a young couple created their own ‘masterpiece’. They became the star attraction as we all took their photo and chatted amongst ourselves. It’s clear that street art encourages interaction.

Mural after mural was revealed as we made our way IMG_0715through this Unesco World Heritage Site. Named after George III, Penang was ceded to the British East India Company in 1786 by the Sultan of Kedah, in exchange for military protection from Siamese and Burmese armies. The golden age of Penang was soon ushered in with tin, rubber and shipping industries. Other Europeans followed the British, as well as Arabs, Armenians, Burmese, Thai, Japanese and Indians to name a few. The most prominent group were the Chinese and still today, Georgetown reflects the rich layers of culture that they and the other settling pioneers brought with them.

As Mr. Goh navigated through the narrow streets, I soaked in the street scenes of Chinese mansions and shophouses, many having been restored since the Unesco World Site designation. Chinese lanterns decorate most entrances, often intricate, always colourful and steeped in meaning. I peeked inside long, IMG_0714narrow go-downs (warehouses), marvelled at colourful Chinese temples and admired statuesque Colonial-style buildings. Diverse peoples have given Georgetown its fascinating mix of culture and architecture. The street art is a modern extension.

I learned that a young painter, Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania is credited for many of the installations, but I find out a little more when I have lunch with some new friends today.

Of course some of the conversation touches on Penang and I mention the street art.

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“Yes,” says Geokling, “it’s a good story. And it’s done so much to bring life back to Georgetown, but it wasn’t entirely planned.”

I had been told that Geokling has the inside story of just about everything one needs to know here. Her enthusiasm is evident as she relates the tale.

“This young backpacker comes to IMG_0860 (1)Penang and decides to stay awhile. He does some busking and asks if he can paint something on one of the walls.”

I could understand his mindset as many of the buildings are a little ‘worn’ with faded layers of plaster and paint hinting at years gone by. That first mural drew attention but has since faded. Ernest returned the following year which happened to coincide with the
upcoming Georgetown Festival in 2012 and was commissioned to create more installations. They triggered an overwhelmingly positive response from the locals. The artist said he “was thrilled to unleash the creativity tucked away in the streets.”

IMG_0758“Ernest is a celebrated muralist these days,” Geokling tells me as she scrolls on her phone to show me his latest installation in a Singaporean hotel.

We both agree it’s wonderful to hear a story where a simple passion creates IMG_0871opportunity, when a little luck changes a life. And for the local people and those who visit Penang, the street art is an endearing, welcome addition to the rich culture of Georgetown.

After lunch, I’m given a ride along the waterfront by one of the young fellows who had been in the lunch group. As we pass back along Beach Street, I happen to see my favourite tri-shaw peddler on the corner, just where I had found him.

“Gosh there’s Mr. Goh,” I say out loud, “I’d love to take another tour.”

“Should I let you out here?” Frank asks.

“No, I really shouldn’t, I have a blog to write. Would you mind dropping me off at China House please IMG_0846.”

IMG_0699And so I find myself in the trendy, impossibly long China House that I had been told I must visit. It comprises three heritage buildings linked by an open courtyard that houses a cafe, restaurant, wine bar, galleries and a stage. The atmosphere is indicative of a new direction in this centuries old trading settlement that cherishes the past, but knows it must also embrace change.

“Young people are coming back to Georgetown to hang out,” Geokling had told me. That’s evident this late afternoon as candles are lit and animated chatter floats my way.

This is the kind of place in which I love to write; embraced in the whispers of the past but alive in the exuberance of today.

I look forward to returning next year and peeling back more layers of this treasure that is Penang.

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