Words by Susan Kelly
George Town’s architecture is like a special family occasion where everyone brings a plate and you cross your fingers for a fine feast.
Scotland arrives with the lacy cast iron, England turns up with Victorian floor tiles, China contributes the gold leaf and the blackwood furniture inset with mother-of-pearl, and India brings the masonry. Both Islamic and Confucian elders debate about building design over a plate of Char Kway Teow.
George Town’s history is all about fusion. Today, Malays and Chinese top the citizen list, followed by Indians. Eurasians, Sri Lankans, Thais and Burmese are in residence, too, along with myriad colonial expatriates.
George Town is the capital of Penang, which is the smallest of Malaysia’s 13 states. It was given city status by the Queen in 1957 and the historic central area listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008. This ramped up the restoration of temples, mosques, churches, shophouses, terraces, mansions, kongsis and government buildings – which together are the town’s warp and weft.
At 2.5 square kilometres, George Town can be explored on foot, by bicycle, or in a trishaw if heat and ambition cause defeat. There’s a free bus, too. The city’s heritage listed area (called the Core Zone) covers 109.38 hectares, with more than 1700 historic buildings.
It’s the heritage shophouses that most shout out “George Town” – business on the ground floor, living above. From the 1790s to the 1970s, styles are identified as Early Penang, Southern Chinese, Early and Late Straits, Art Deco and Early Modernism. They incorporated a mix of terracotta roof tiles, louvred shutters, patterned floor and wall tiles, columns and arches, and glass fanlights. Time and technology brought Shanghai plaster, reinforced concrete, metal and glass – and electricity.
Ignore the history of clan warfare, secret societies, opium trading and underground activity for a second and marvel at the Street of Harmony (Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling). This colourful stretch nods to the Chinese, Islamic, Indian and Christian religions represented by the Goddess of Mercy Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Sri Mahamariamman Temple and the St George’s Church.
A signature of George Town architecture is the unique Chinese cut-and-paste porcelain work called jian nian, an assemblage of shards from colourful ceramic bowls (picture the aftermath of a Greek plate-smashing party).
Streets that deliver a speed-date overview of George Town are Stewart, Muntri and Love Lane grid. Make sure to stroll through Leith, Beach and Armenian Streets, and Little Street for the imposing government buildings.
Early settlers took pride in their professions, and guild halls blossomed, embracing trades from builders to butchers and domestic workers. The guilds helped train, place and advance members. The Goldsmiths’ Guild (Ta Kam Hong, 41 Muntri Street), is one to check out, not least for the Kung Fu Girl mural by Ernest Zacharevic that abuts it, which is part of the city’s street art projects.
Clan halls, or kongsi, were founded by Chinese communities to welcome individuals with the same surname. There are some 30 clan temples in Penang and several complexes in George Town.
Then there are the clan jetties – old, floating wharf communities near the ferry terminal. Today there are six, from north to south: Lim, Chew, Tan, Lee, Yeoh and the Mixed clan jetties. The lively Chew Jetty is the more commercial with its many stalls. Stroll the Lee Jetty and glimpse day-to-day life in neat houses over the water, with tiny well-tended verandahs.
Peranakan, Straits Chinese and Baba-Nyonya are terms used for descendants of the 15th and 16th century immigrants to
the Indonesian archipelago. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is a tribute to Baba-Nyonya affluence, one of the many mansions in George Town that are a reminder of fortunes made.
Revel in the opulence of the bridal chambers, glass table centerpieces, porcelain, mother-of-pearl furniture, gilded screens and practical accoutrements such as the nyonya biscuit and cake moulds. There’s a Straits Chinese jewellery museum, too, showcasing gold filigree embellished minaudières, brooches and bangles. Feast on the dazzling beading applied to the wedding gowns, slippers and headdresses.
This brings us to dessert. Tuck into a bowl of cendol – a curious mix of jelly-like noodles made of pandan and rice flour, sweetened with palm sugar syrup and coconut milk, and served with shaved ice and red kidney beans. Something for everyone.
Average flight time:
SYD-PEN: 11 hrs 10 mins
MEL-PEN: 11 hrs 55 mins
BNE-PEN: 10 hrs 45 mins
AEST-2 (2 hrs behind Australia)
Penang's currency is the Malaysian ringgit (MYR). Money changers usually have better exchange rate than airports, banks and hotels.
Malaysia's official religion is Islam. But Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religions are also practised.
Best time to visit:
November to January as the weather is pleasant and makes for better sightseeing. January is the driest month and September is the coolest.
Temperatures are always high, with February being the warmest. The rainy season is April through to November, the wettest month being October.
Don’t miss the George Town Festival, which showcases art throughout the month of August.
Kuan Yin Temple:
The Goddess of Mercy Temple is one of the oldest Chinese temples in the area. People pray to its namesake, the goddess Kuan Yin, in times of distress – lighting incense and bringing food, flowers and oil.
The Blue Mansion:
This restored masterpiece has 38 rooms, five courtyards and seven staircases. Built in the late 19th century, it has Gothic windows, Stoke-on-Trent tiles, Scottish cast iron works and Art Nouveau stained glass.
The Khoo Kongsi: In the glorious Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, there is the clan house, opera stage, courtyard, a pond with carp, and 60 terraced houses. It also features an abundance of jian nian tile work, numerous murals, wood and stone carvings and gilding.
This row of Anglo Chinese shophouses was built in the 1900s for Straits-born Chinese. By 2009 it was derelict. After it’s UNESCO listing, businessman Christopher Ong transformed it into a hotel
The Carpenters’ Guild:
One of the most significant guild halls was the Carpenters’ Guild, or Loo Pun Hong, which moved to 70 Love Lane in 1886. It’s now used by the Lion Dance Association, but you can still pop in to see its exquisite decorations and artisanry.