George Town is the best smelling place I HAVE ever visited, the smell of incense is everywhere, from the temple in Little India to the Buddhist shrines, the clan houses, and home shrines outside the front door. Wafts of it in the air – makes a change from the usual waft of foetid water, human excrement and bad sewerage that I tend to encounter in many parts of Asia. Of course, it could just be me – maybe I smell of human excrement and bad sewerage – would explain why I’ve not come close to a proper conversation with anyone for a while!
The Goddess of Mercy Temple on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling was practically lost within the swirling mists of the burning stuff. Of course with it being Chinese New Year places were even busier and the candles and incense sticks seemed be larger than ever.
Old George Town was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008, in order to preserve the heritage buildings, providing ‘a showcase for the exceptional range of shophouses and townhouses from differing eras, providing snapshots of building styles and types’. Along with Malacca it is seen as ‘a living testimony to the multi-cultural heritage and tradition of Asia, and of the European colonial influences.’
Trades are in decline in George Town, and many people have been forced out due to high rents. A number of building are in need of some restoration, whilst some buildings are readily being converted into hotels, cafes or restaurants. Many houses are shop houses – narrow width, mostly two stories, some three, running long inside, they would have a covered walkway out the front. The front ground floor would be where the store would have been (or still is), with the back being the kitchen area. There would be an open courtyard to cool the building and the top floor windows were long and vertical to help wiith extra ventilation too.
Being in George Town was a great excuse to take lots of photos of my favourite thing – doors.
George Town is easily navigable by foot, although plenty were out on bicycles, in trishaws, or 4 wheel cycles or tandem. You were in danger from getting hit by families of 6 in these cycle tank contraptions trying to reverse their way out of a narrow lane as you were by a scooter coming at you the wrong way down a pavement. Drivers in George Town, and really anywhere in Asia also don’t have the concept of pedestrian right of way and you are therefore a legitimate target if you choose to cross the road.
I spent the first day exploring the town, joining the dots of what was where, or not. My sense of direction being what it is at the best of times, wasn’t helped by George Town having lebuhs (streets), jalans (roads), lorongs (lanes) all with the same name. It only really started to click on about day 5, but things (well, me) weren’t helped by roads being shut off for the Chinese New Year celebrations and then being totally transformed with stalls and stages all over the place and road names hidden. However the town is small enough to not have to worry too much about getting too lost and I made it home each night – so that was a win, even if I was down to the bloody stumps of my ankles as I’d walked away my feet.
There were temples and clan houses (kongsi) wherever you looked (some below), and most were free to look around in. The kongsi were built in order to honour the ancestral spirits, and on the altars within the buildings you could see carved wooden tablets that bear the names of generations of deceased family members. All the kongsi and temples were open for Chinese New Year, lit up and full of people coming to remember and honour the dead and give offerings, or say a prayer. I didn’t get to see them all – I was focused on street art, a post to follow, but was lucky enough to spend time in a few, pottering around, inhaling more incense.
Sri Mariamman Temple (2nd down and left above) dates back to at least 1833, although there was likely to be worship there prior. It is a Hindu temple in the style of South Indian Dravidian. Inside it is full of deities, and shrines to deities, including Ganesha and was calm and quiet versus the noise of the Bollywood music blaring from two of the shops nearby – they appeared to be having a Bolly-off, each competing to see who could make the most noise and drown out the other.
Wandering around I came across a lion dance happening outside a store, the sound of firecrackers going off alerted everyone to it – the musicians were hidden behind their instruments due to the full on noise of the explosions, only come up when the cost was clear. It was fantastic to watch, they come out at the Lunar New Year to ward off bad luck bringing ching – a symbol of luck – in this case an orange to the host. It was over as quickly as it started, the lions departed into the small bakery and all the audience outside when their separate ways, ears ringing from the explosions, drums and cymbals.
I went to The Blue Mansion, once owned by Cheong Fatt Tze, a famous Chinese man – the Rockerfeller of the East. Starting with nothing, he headed to Indonesia aged 16 and over time built an empire of wealth, became a politician and a diplomat. He chose Penang as the place where he built this mansion, the most elaborate of homes where he raised his sons. It has 38 rooms and 5 courtyards, however some of it is now a hotel and a restaurant and so parts of it were closed off to the screaming hordes wanting to have a nosey around.
It was all built around feng shui principles blended with Western features. The floor plan therefore is Chinese and includes an open courtyard for ventilation, a higher raised level at the back to the front, to represent promotion, 8 pillars (8 being a lucky number) in the courtyard. Even the drainhole cover in the courtyard is in the design of an old Chinese coin so as the rain is collected so it symbolises prosperity growing. The Western features included floor tiling from Stoke-on-Trent, looking as fresh as if newly laid, Scottish ironworks for the pillars, and Art Nouveau stained glass, with representations of pineapples (for good luck) and grapes (which represented the wine Cheong Fatt Tze enjoyed, and also the vineyard he set up in China).
His will stated that the property couldn’t be sold until his last son died. What he couldn’t have foreseen was WWII and the Japanese invasion of Penang. His family lost everything and ended up renting out rooms in the mansion as a way to survive. By 1989 by which time the last son had died it was falling apart and extremely dilapidated. However, despite the fact that it was rented out to a number of families and was being used by squatters, not all of it was destroyed and in fact there were a number of additional finds in the house, including clothing, mah jong games, and all manner of ephemera.
The aim of the purchase was to restore the Mansion to its former glory, using the traditional techniques that were used in its construction in the 1890s, including Chien Nien porcelain work which involves cutting small pieces of porcelain from bowls and using it to create 3d decorative pieces on the exterior of a building. Specialists in the technique had to be brought from China to complete the restoration.
The number of visitors on the tour tapered off to a point that when we got to gift shop, there was about 4 of us left, the rest having done a runner. Outside, it was cooling down so it was possible to sit in the garden and enjoy the view for a bit, before wandering back to my new accommodation.
Having decided that being in a room with no windows felt too much like I was in a reality show of the book Room, by Emma Donohue, I decided to treat myself to some light and upgraded to Campbell House, a restored colonial house which is now a hotel.
The hotel was a short walk from my cell hostel room, so I went up after some breakfast as the room was already available so I could check in early – whoop whoop. My bag was hoisted up to the second floor by a rope and pulley system, however it was Shank’s pony for me.
My room was at the end of the corridor, and probably bigger than my flat (not difficult really).
As well as the stunning four-poster bed, that would have slept me and a family of 5 without any of us knowing we were all in there, there was a with a wall’s length of windows facing out onto the side street. I got light, and even better, they had a double glazing as well, so they were sound-proof!
I unpacked, creating an explosion across the bed, the floor and anywhere really before I skipped out for the day. Coming back about 5pm, looking like a refugee, covered in sweat and looking ever more like a Miriam Margoyles hair stunt double I went back to my room and was mortified to see that someone had been in to turn down the bed, and had brought me cake (very nice cake too). Oh the shame! Despite being an oik who clearly can’t be trusted anywhere near 400+thread count bedding the staff were super friendly and helpful. It was really 5 star service, and I felt well looked after, so much so I was ready to move in full time.
The Chinese New Year celebrations on the Saturday took over parts of the Old Town, with stalls, stages, bad karaoke, sword fighting, old people tai chi, dragons and lions dancing and all of the temples and kongsi open. It was heaving. I was knackered (again), so after my masala dosa and a visit to a kongsi, it was home, bed and Netflix.
As if the celebration for Chinese New Year hadn’t been going for long enough, the last night was Tet – Vietnamese New Year, and there was fireworks down at the harbour after midnight. Hanging out (luckily not completely – my night vest just about kept it all under wraps) of the window I was able to see the celebrations. It really was a great way to finish up my time in George Town. Suffice to say a late night and early start was not a conducive way to set me up for my journey to Langkawi but it was a great way to end my stay in Penang.