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…”