Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: George Town, Panang, Malaysia
Visited: September 2016
You don't have to be familiar with local history to guess that a Malaysian city with a name like George Town holds ties to past British colonization. It is, in fact, the capital, Penang. It was the first British outpost in the Malay archipelago and Southeast Asia in 1786. Located at the opening of the Strait of Malacca, it has played a major role in world trade for hundreds of years. About one-quarter of the goods sold in the world today still pass through this straight every year.
Penang Port, George Town.
This quirky city's history differs a bit between sources, but the gist of it is as follows. In the late 1700s, Captain Francis Light, who happened to have had his eye on Penang for a while, hornswoggled it away from the Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah with false, and unauthorized promises of British military backing against Siamese and Burmese armies who were threatening Kedah.
Traditional shophouses have been maintained or restored and modernized. Residents still reside in and work from many of the houses, while others have been renovated into hotels to accommodate the city’s thriving tourism industry.
Captain Light quickly became known as the founder of Penang, but without delivering on his promise to protect Kedah, which, consequently, was soon invaded. Naturally, the Sultan was pissed. It was not until his unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the land in 1790, that Kedah began to receive annual compensation for the land to remedy Light’s deceptive deeds.
George Town, named after King George III, became the capital of Penang. A colony and naval base were constructed around the harbor. Fort Cornwallis, now one of the city’s least interesting points of attraction, was erected for protection and defense, and Captain Light declared the island a free port. Ships have passed in and out carrying everything from spices to opium ever since.
Lebuh Cannon or Cannon Street in English
All of this coming and going has led to the cultural and religious diversity that has helped to shape this area for over 200 years now. In 2008 George Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Protecting its numerous historical attractions as a modern city greatly dependent on tourism has built up around them.
Kapitan Keling Mosque, built in the 1800s, was the first permanent Muslim institution to have been established in the area. Cauder Mohuddeen Merican is known as the founder of the mosque and leader of the Chulias, Tamil Muslims from the Coromandel Coast of Southern India.
George Town is a friendly place, and it's easy to find yourself engaged in intelligent conversation with locals and transplants alike. All seem to embrace the multifarious vibe of their society. Welcoming visitors with impromptu lessons on what has been, what is and what they hope may be to come.
Choo Chay Keong Temple, located on Lebuh Armenian at Lebuh Cannon, is the Yap Ancestral Temple dedicated to Caishen, the Chinese god of wealth and prosperity.
Art and festivals create a significant draw for the city. The George Town Festival is perhaps the most well-known festival but there is plenty of art culture to hold your attention all year round.
Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi, established in 1810, is one of the oldest Hokkien clan associations in Penang.
The "Cats & Humans Happily Living Together" mural can be seen on the wall just outside of the entrance to Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi temple. Created by Artists for Stray Animals (ASA) as part of the "101 Lost Kittens Project" to encourage care and protection for stray animals.
“Cats & Humans Happily Living Together” mural located at Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi temple.
Many consider Penang, particularly George Town, to be Malaysia’s #1 hot spot for dining out. Foodies love this place, but it can easily those who just like their meals to taste good appreciate it too. Countless different ethnicities sizzle, steam, fry and bake away all day every day.
Even those less established in the territory deliver at a surprisingly high level. For example, there is no booming Italian population here, yet Il Bacaro at Campbell House is serving some of the best and most authentic meals outside of Italy.
CF Food Park Hawker Centre.
Of course, variations and fusion of dishes more familiar to southeast Asia still make up the most popular comfort foods. Some differ significantly from cook-to-cook but still make “must-try” lists.
A few are Pasembur or Rojak (Indian-Malaysian fruit and vegetable salad with shrimp paste and chopped peanuts sometimes served with cuttlefish or seafood fritters), Mie Goreng (Fried noodles popular in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) and Oh Chien (Chinese fried oyster omelet). Char Koay Teow (Rice cake strips stir-fried with seafood and chili) may be the dish Penang is most honored for, but Laksa seems to hold the top spot for many as a favorite.
The bustling Chulia Street Night Hawker near the corner of Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Carnarvon.
Most credit the Peranakan Chinese with the creation of Laksa and several other delicious dishes. Sometimes called "Straight-born Chinese," these descendants of the early Hokkien Chinese who settled across Penang, Malacca, and Singapore remain one of the most prominent cultural conflations in the region.
Lang Hoose mural located at 269 Lebuh Pantai.
Also, known as Baba Nyonya, which translates loosely as "Male-Female." Their influence can be found in the food, language, architecture and a slew of local crafts dedicated to honoring their heritage.
“Little Children on a Bicycle” mural by Ernest Zacharevic – located at the corner of Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Pantai.
If you're sightseeing for a day or two one of the best ways to explore this multifaceted city is on foot. Wandering aimlessly works quite well here and will lead you to something intriguing or appetizing every time
“Boy on Bike” mural by Ernest Zacharevic – located on Lebuh Ah Quee.
The Art Walk is a simple, self-guided walking tour that takes you through popular adjacent neighborhoods to check out murals, points of interest, and wacky iron caricatures displaying bits of local history.
There are different maps posted online, but I found moseying through some of the 100 stops on the Google Map of the Art Walk worked best for me. I did not try to see everything on this map but happened across a lot of it just wandering around the general area. When I looked down a street that looked promising, that is where I went. With an open mind, happy heart and willingness to backtrack when necessary for a cold beer and tasty treats.
“The Real Bruce Would Never Do This” – Part of the “101 Lost Kitten Project”. This mural is hidden down an alley at the opposite end of Ah Quee Street from “Motorcycle Boy” near the corner of Beach Street.
As I mentioned before, food is a big deal here. The bar has been set pretty high for these cooks and artisans, and few fall short. Eating is considered to be the main activity and attraction by some travelers.
Uncle’s Dim Sum is hitting the streets!
Hawkers, bakeries, eating houses, upscale restaurants, cafes, food trucks, bars and street vendors are just waiting to fatten you up. Walking around looking at stuff is a great way to burn off some calories and make room for whatever's next.
Ming Xiang Tai – “must try” Hong Kong egg tarts.
Yellow bean is not my thing (above), but these wedding biscuits are popular among those who are. For my taste, it's Hong Kong egg tarts every time.
Along with these eateries, trendy shops and bars are scattered throughout the city offering you a break from the soaring heat typically found in these parts. The distance is on par with walking the French Quarter in New Orleans twice, so a good but reasonable amount of walking. If you find yourself too full, look for crafts and souvenirs as you cool down inside one of the local shops.
Should you get too hot, too tired, or simply too lazy for walking, the roads are teaming with trishaw drivers who are all too happy to peddle you around for a small fee.
Be sure to visit the Clan Jetties on your walk. The entrance is on Pengkalan Weld at Gat Lebuh Armenian. Well, at least that’s where I entered. Some jetties are purely residential and others are more accommodating to tourists. Believe me, it will be clear which are which.
All are open to visitors, and I encourage you to give them a quick stroll but remember these are neighborhoods that should be respected. You will see that some of the residents have "NO FOTO" signs posted. So even if the door is open you're not invited to walk up and take a picture of the family inside having their breakfast. That being said, if you would like to spend the night in a clan jetty home, you can book it here through Airbnb - "Family Home on Stilts."
When the clans first settled on the jetties in 1882, they just moved in and worked unloading goods from ships and serving as middlemen between any parties looking to buy or trade.
They have continued living on the jetties tax-free ever since, as they do not live on land. Despite some bickering between them, and no electricity until 1957, they have stayed and prospered as best as they can. Temples have been constructed at the very end of the jetties overlooking the water. They run the gamut from humble to grand, but all represent the commitment to community shared amongst the clans.
From the jetties, it’s difficult not to pass through Little India on your way to Love Lane. Both are fun to checkout, even if you’re just passing through. Located near Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and Lebuh Pasar, Little India is a lively area filled with more food, colorful textile shops and music stores blasting the latest in modern Indian tunes. Often from speakers that sound like they’re going to blow any second from the excessive volume blasting through them.
From the jetties, it's difficult not to pass through Little India on your way to Love Lane. Both are fun to check out, even if you're just passing through. Located near Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and Lebuh Pasar, Little India is a lively area filled with more food, colorful textile shops and music stores blasting the latest in modern Indian tunes. Often from speakers that sound like they're going to blow any second from the excessive volume blasting through them.
“Broken Heart” mural by Ernest Zachrevic, located on Love Lane, or Ai Cheng Hang as the Hokkiens called it.
Some say Love Lane was where sailors used to meet their George Town lovers. Others say wealthy Chinese men once kept their mistresses nearby. Either way, the artwork here is an entertaining portrayal of the hot and heavy history of what went on here.
Those who prefer to take a guided tour can contact the Penang Heritage Trust
26 Lebuh Gereja, George Town, Penang Island, 10200, Malaysia
Phone: +60 4-264 2631
Tipping in Malaysia