A multi-cultural tour of Penang, Malaysia

The rickshaw turned smoothly on to the Esplanade and the crumbling colonial administrative buildings along the waterfront breeze past. In the multi-cultural country of Malaysia perhaps nowhere is quite so vibrantly diverse as Penang, the state and island off the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula. The capital of Penang – Georgetown – was once a foothold in Malaya for the British jockeying for position in Southeast Asia with other European powers during the latter part of the 18thcentury. Once the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and a crucial entrepot stopover on the sea trading routes; now it is a thriving modern city, industrialised and economically significant. The clock tower built for Queen Victoria’s jubilee, Fort Cornwallis and a handful of other colonial buildings are perhaps the only reminder of British power.

Fort Cornwallis is one of the few remnants of the British colonial past in Penang. Pic: Jim Cheney.

I love to think of Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham’s shock at Penang’s spectacular skyline were they to see the place today. The rickshaw stops at the edge of the Chew Clan village. I walk across the narrow bridges and duckboards leading out to this settlement on piles over the water, like a sort of non-splendid Venice with palm-thatched roofs. This is somewhere 19thcentury travellers may have been familiar with. Some of the Straits Chinese clans have lived here in Penang for over 130 years. Although they retain fond ties with their home villages or provinces, they have developed their own unique culture here in Malaysia’s cultural melting pot. Wooden shacks line the long pier streets, which come to an end in the water where the fishing boats tie up. Fishermen trade here from up the coast in Thailand and as far as Myanmar.

A village set on water in Penang. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

Inside each small dark doorway is a carved the gilded shrine, daubed with coloured powder. On the land at the edge of the Chew Clan village is the clan temple, built around the multiple trunks and root system of a Banyan tree. Pedalling on through quiet back streets, the rickshaw turns into a courtyard to find an elaborate, gilded and gorgeously carved house. The various Straits Chinese clans also each have their own clan houses. These are not for daily use or prayers like the temples but rather for special days such as Chinese New Year. Dragon pillars made from granite and lions guard the entrance. Inside a clan house such as the Khong Si is kept the record of the people, with a glittering card inscribed for each ancestor.

Khong Si Clan house in Penang. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

Clan members who have brought honour to the family by achieving high rank or a university degree may also rate a plaque. However, there seem to be so many university graduates these days that a small card with a photo is as much as you can expect. The value placed on filial piety and learning is emphasised everywhere. Georgetown’s “unique architectural and cultural townscape” was recognised on UNESCO’s World Heritage register in 2008, which offers some protection to the heritage buildings in the rush to cram in yet more high rises. The cultural mix on Penang island is around 45 per cent Chinese, 44 per cent Malay and 10 per cent Indian. There are also tens of thousands of migrant workers from around Southeast Asia. On the streets you can hear Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, English and Penang Hokkien – a Chinese-Malay creole. The practise of spirituality is equally diverse with Mosques and Hindu temples adding to the Chinese ancestor worship and religion. All this diversity pays big dividends when it comes to eating out in Penang. There are the delicate tastes of the Chinese Nyonya cuisine and extravagantly flavoured Indian delights. Slurping fresh seafood, spicy noodles and char siew rice while perched by a plastic table beside the hawker stalls in New Lane, there is no arguing with Penang’s reputation as the best street food city in the world. The next day, nibbling on a tau sar pneah biscuit I catch a bus across the 13.5 kilometre bridge and into the hills around Air Itam to visit yet another example of Malaysia’s multi-culturalism. Kek Lok Si, the temple of supreme bliss, is the largest Buddhist temple in the whole of Southeast Asia and its massive towers manage to blend Mahayana Buddhism with traditional Chinese culture and rituals. Built in 1890 this remains a sacred place of worship, although you have to get past the lines of souvenir stalls and sellers to reach any sort of serenity. Ancient ties and commercial acumen are comfortable bedfellows in Penang.

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