Pondering Penang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am


Many of Malaysia's most famous sons and daughters - among them film star P. Ramlee, shoe designer Jimmy Choo, women's current world squash champion Nicol David and Boon Siew Honda founder Loh Boon Siew - hail from Penang.

Home to Southeast Asia's oldest Anglican church of St George's and the ornate, elaborate Khoo Kongsi clan house, this small state off Malaysia's northwest coast is a veritable living archive. Indeed, its capital, George Town, is recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

'What I love most about Penang is its palpable sense of history. The place is in a state of constant renewal, yet it substantially retains the fabric of an age-old village,' says Joe Sidek, 53, George Town Festival director, and one of the island's most devoted sons. 'There is still a story to uncover around every corner.'

Penang's 500-year history is as much a tale of cosmopolitanism as it is a trading centre. When in Bangkok six years ago, Sidek watched a Czech film, The Fifth Horseman is Fear, set in Prague during the Nazi occupation. 'The camera panned across the doctor's room and I spotted a W. Daniell print of Penang Hill.'

When he got back home, Sidek visited the Penang Museum and found on its wall a similar print. 'I discovered that the Czechs had a business community here and they sold ornate wooden chairs and glass chandeliers to Chinese merchants.'

It's discoveries such as these that makes Sidek relish his role as head of the festival - the third instalment of which runs from June 15 until July 15. The sub-theme this year is 'Don't Lose It', which was introduced to help appreciate, preserve and re-discover the island's heritage.

To experience the true Penang, Sidek recommends visitors take a George Town walk. He suggests Armenian Street for its artisan atmosphere. Alongside 88 Armenian Street art galleries, Yap Kongsi Temple, Penang Islamic Museum and Dr Sun Yat Sen's Penang Base, street life along this narrow thoroughfare goes on unabated.

Look out for still-thriving traditional trades, such as the joss stick maker on Stewart Lane, the Nyonya beaded shoemaker on Armenian Street and flower garland weaver on Kapitan Keling Street.

On Chulia Street, curious backpackers and street stalls compete for space. Stop for old-style coffee and piping bowls of Penang assam laksa, while watching the city's elders enjoying breakfast with their friends in traditional Chinese coffee shops. 'It's as if I'm watching a film - every shot is filled with the real Penang when I stroll through these streets,' says Sidek.

Little India, located at the crossroads of Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh China, Lebuh Pasar and Lebuh Queen, offers yet another prospect. 'You could almost be in Mumbai,' says Sidek, of the vibrant sensory experience of the enclave. Mounds of spices and enticing curries nip at your nostrils, and glittery saris catch the eye, while the subcontinent's blaring pop music assaults the ears.

'I once met a bunch of women from all over Asia who claimed to be goddesses,' says the gentle-mannered Sidek, adding that they said they met annually in Penang to do their pooja (prayer). One of them took him to a devotional paraphernalia shop where he was astonished by the beauty of the items on sale.

He also talks of the Jewish Cemetery along Jalan Zainal Abidin, off Burmah Road. 'I seem to be on a Jewish journey,' says Sidek, a Muslim. 'This site hosts 44 graves of Armenian Jews and no one knows anything about them.'

When he first chanced upon these graves with a Jewish friend, he was shocked by the disrespect accorded to those who had lived and contributed to Penang for so many years. He hopes to produce a booklet to offer insight into this forgotten community.

Sidek says that Fort Cornwallis is undervalued as a historic site. One of the earliest structures in Penang, it was completed in 1786.

Sidek's interest in the edifice was renewed when bids were called for its refurbishment. 'I visited the site, and spent three days and nights there. As a historical reference point, it was just mind-blowing.'

Though no history buff, Sidek has since begun collecting old marine maps of the island. 'Did you know that every one of them, the Dutch, Portuguese, English and Chinese, viewed Penang differently?'

He thinks we know a little, but that is never enough. 'Can you imagine if, at a genealogy room here, you suddenly found out how many of your predecessors had taught, fought and are buried here?'

Tracing lineage is also one way to enjoy the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Built at the end of the 19th century, this typical rich Baba home showcases the opulent lifestyle of acculturated Chinese, showing off their numerous customs and traditions. The stately mansion incorporates Chinese carved wood panels, English floor tiles and Scottish ironwork.

'It is a picture of Victorian campness: to-the-hilt glass jewellery, embroidery and even skirting. A perfect example of ostentatiousness,' says Sidek.

The era of seafaring glory may be over, but within ageing crevices lie tombs of untold tales. 'I feel the brilliant energy of the earth here,' says Sidek. 'Every time I come back to Penang - whether by plane, ferry or across the bridge - I feel the island call.'

Straits talk: the how, where, what and when

How to get there

Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) and Air Asia (airasia.com) fly direct daily from Hong Kong to Penang.

Where to stay

Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Built in 1885 and with a striking sea view, this hotel has played host to Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, among others.


Clove Hall

A privately owned Anglo-Malay bungalow home in pared-back Peranakan style. clovehall.com

Muntri Mews

Restored Straits Chinese architecture with large verandahs, a tropical garden and deluxe suites.


Where to eat

From roadside cast-iron-wok-fired char kway teow to the myriad permutations of nasi kandar.

China House, Beach St

This newly restored compound of three Chinese shop houses, linked by an open-air courtyard, serves delicious Australian bistro meals. straitscollection.com.my Seng Thor Kopitiam, Carnarvon St Penang-style hokkien mee - noodles served in a spicy-prawn and pork-based soup with lots of chillis.

Ping Hooi Coffee Shop, junction of Carnarvon and Malay Street.

Among the city's best char kway teow - flat rice noodles fried with prawns, bean curd and egg.

Nostalgie Cafe, Stewart Lane

Newly opened restaurant and rooms in a restored pre-war shophouse in George Town, with memorable home-cooked Italian dishes with a twist - expect pizzas with chillis and comforting cakes.

What to see

Penang Museum

A good starting point for those who are new to Penang.

Tropical Spice Garden Find out where cinnamon, aniseed and nutmeg come from while exploring a lush spice sanctuary with more than 500 varieties of flora from Malaysia and other regions.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

This 38-room blue mansion, now a hotel, believed to have been constructed in accordance with fung shui specifications. Elaborate pillars, granite-paved courtyards and rare sculptures. cheongfatttzemansion.com

The Goddess of Mercy Temple

A testament to 200 years of pious dedication, this is where devotees from all over the region converge to mark the goddess' special occasions and seek her blessing.

The Esplanade

The seafront promenade is a historic enclave in its own right: roam through Fort Cornwallis and check out the Queen Victoria Memorial Clocktower, City Hall, Town Hall, state legislative assembly building, Cenotaph and Logan Memorial.

Penang Hill

The panoramic view makes this the perfect spot for a sundowner.

George Town Festival

Celebrates Penang's art, culture and heritage. From June 15 to July 15 this year. georgetownfestival.comFor more information about Penang, go to tourismpenang.net.my