Photos and Text by Liza Linklater
“They came to Penang from all over the world, “says the banner at the Penang State Museum & Art Gallery. And it’s true: Penang’s blend of cultures is immediately evident in its people and its architecture – a fusion that is unique in most of Southeast Asia.
Foreigners still come to Penang from everywhere. Tourists from the Philippines can now fly to Sandakan, Malaysia on an Asian Spirit flight. From there they can take Malaysia Airlines to Kota Kinabalu and on to Kuala Lumpur and then drive, fly or take the train to Penang.
The trip will definitely be worth it. George Town, Penang’s capital, is without doubt one of the most charismatic cities in Southeast Asia. What entices visitors is the diversity of the people, the ochre-coloured colonial buildings, the remarkable 12,000 pre-World War II, Straits Chinese shop-houses and the diverse ethnic communities they shelter. These buildings, with their pastel-coloured shutters and doors, bright red Chinese characters embellishing the supporting columns, ornate tiled walls, and red-tiled roofs, are not only a photographer’s dream.
George Town, Malaysia’s second largest city, lies on large Penang (Betel Nut) Island. The name Penang is often used simultaneously for the city, the island and the state. A channel separates the island and mainland, but the third-longest bridge in the world and a continuous ferry service from Butterworth link the two.
In 1786, Captain Francis Light established Penang for the East India Company as the first British settlement and port on the Malay Peninsula. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Penang operated as a British trading post.
The port was open to settlers from all nations, and soon traders and merchants, sailors and artisans began to arrive and settle down in George Town’s streets. This microcosm of the world’s cultures included immigrants from Europe, China, India, Indonesia, Burma and Thailand.
Each community was assigned a different street. However, a lack of formal segregation, common in other colonial ports, made Penang the first truly multicultural society in Asia, comparable to today’s multi-racial New York City. Seeing descendants of these many ethnic groups still living and working side by side on George Town’s streets is a pure delight.
Wandering around, it’s easy to see the effect that these interactions has had on the mixed style of their buildings – giving birth to a so-called hybrid Straits Eclectic style. Its architecture sets Penang apart from all others in Southeast Asia – the richness of its “Anglo-Indian”, “Straits Settlement”, “Sino-Portuguese”, “Straits Chinese”, “neoclassical British colonial”, “Indo-Malay” architectures, with its Chinese shop houses, Anglo-Indian bungalows and mansions and Malay houses. No matter what name exemplifies the official styles, the charm this mix exudes is overwhelming. George Town is still the only city remaining in Southeast Asia with much of its traditional 19th century architecture left intact.
Years ago Singapore took over as the biggest port in the region, and perhaps this also helped to save George Town’s architecture. But a crucial stage has been reached in George Town’s development: while several of its heritage buildings have been lost already, the fight is on to preserve those remaining structures for future generations.
Colonial Era Legislation Saved Penang’s Architecture
Colonialism left Asia dotted with many cities that combine European and Asian architecture. The main threat to this architectural heritage is economic progress.
Why do so many of these buildings continue to exist in Penang? The British had passed legislation banning the eviction of original tenants and controlling rents. Under the rent controls, rents were kept artificially low. Hence landlords made little or no effort to maintain the buildings and many fell into crumbling disrepair and ruin, but people continued to live in them. Landlords had not been able to make any money from these properties for more than a century.
Over the years many tenants actually put their own money into maintaining them and now several have been evicted since the rent controls were lifted on January 1, 2000. Since then, small shopkeepers and trades people are disappearing; some occupants have been forced to move outside of the city core from the homes and shops they occupied for generations.
Conservation is not easy
The Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) believes that George Town’s inner city “would be a shell of its inner self if it lost its trades and communities.”
PHT is a highly organized, active, and vocal non-governmental organization working to promote conservation and aiming to encourage greater public awareness of the cultural heritage of Penang. PHT is also fighting to have Penang included in the elite listing of UNESCO World Heritage sites. A decision will be made in July 2008.
Penang’s heritage advocates would prefer a living, heritage city to a theme park full of high-end shops catering to tourists. And what’s unique about the city now is that people are still living in most of these wonderful buildings.
Lots to offer
Despite Penang’s other status as one of the world’s high tech cities ( Southeast Asia’s “Silicon Valley”), life in many parts of Penang continues as it has for centuries – with its family-run shops, its roadside eating stalls, its rituals of worship (at its many mosques, temples, and churches), and its markets. With a population of just over a million it is not a frenzied place. Long known as the “Pearl of the Orient”, Penang Island also has lush, jungle-covered hills, beach resorts, modern shopping centers and a hill station – in fact, it has almost everything.
Finding a place to stay is easy. Hotel accommodation caters both to the upscale clientele staying at the Eastern and Oriental (E&O) Hotel, as it does to business people and tourists at the middle range hotels, in town or at the beach. And backpackers can still pay less than US$10 night.
Downtown there are two establishments that have tried in very different ways to retain the atmosphere of former times.
Located in the inner city by the sea, the E&O was originally built by the Sarkie Brothers who also constructed Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Yangon (Rangoon, capital of Myanmar [Burma]). Established in 1885, the hotel gradually dilapidated and closed, until it underwent a five-year, nearly US$20 million refurbishment, and re-opened for business in April 2001.
Not a single local over the age of 35 can be met who doesn’t have an opinion about the E&O. While most lamented the fact that it doesn’t bare much resemblance to their memories of the original, they are still gratified that it wasn’t torn down and rebuilt as just another high-rise hotel.
In its heyday, the hotel was patronized by plantation owners, colonial administrators, the wealthy local elite, writers such as Hermann Hesse, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, and Noel Coward, and film stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
About five minutes’ walk from the E&O is perhaps the best example of real Grade-One restoration in Southeast Asia: the indigo-blue Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, part of which recently became an exclusive bed & breakfast – making 17 of its 38 rooms available for lodgers.
Southeast Asia still has a few other destinations that have retained their historical buildings and their charm, for example, Hoi An in Vietnam, Luang Prabang in Laos, and Vigan in the Philippines which have all been granted UNESCO World Heritage status; this will help them to retain their distinctiveness.
A relatively untouched remnant of Asia’s past, Penang is still one of Asia’s finest destinations. And while it’s an enormous challenge, if George Town achieves UNESCO World Heritage status in July 2008, hopefully it will serve as a positive example for other Asian cities to preserve their remaining architectural heritage.
(Postscript: Malaysia’s George Town, along with Malacca (Melaka), were both designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites in July 2008. This new status was the result of an 11-year struggle.)
How To Get There & Around
Trains run between KL and Butterworth and then you can take a 20-minute ferry to George Town. It’s a four-hour drive from KL to Penang. The best way to get around the city is to walk or hire a trishaw – still a common sight on Penang’s streets; the drivers all speak some English and are excellent tour guides.
Where To Stay
» Eastern and Oriental Hotel, 10 Lebuh Farquhar (tel. 604-261-8333, fax 604-261-6333, e-mail email@example.com, www.e-o-hotel.com)
» Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, 14 Lebuh Leith (tel. 604-262-0006, fax 604-262-5289, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, www.cheongfatttzemansion.com)
» 1926 Heritage Hotel, 227 Jalan Burma (tel. 604-228-1926, fax 604-227-7926, e-mail email@example.com. www.1926heritagehotel.com)
Where To Eat
» Hawker food stalls on streets throughout the town.
» Thirty Two (Straits Cuisine) 32 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah
» Slippery Senoritas(Tapas Bar & Salsa) The Garage, 2 Jalan Penang
» Opera (Asian Fusion) 3-E Jalan Penang
» Kashmir (North Indian) 105 Jalan Penang
» Penang Heritage Trust (26 Church St., 604-264-2631, www.pht.org.my) has walking tour brochures on the Penang Heritage Trail.
» Penang Heritage Museum & Art Gallery (Located on Lebuh Farquhar) a most comprehensive and aesthetically pleasing small museum – exhibits are organized according to the various ethnic communities.