Pleasures of Penang
Published: April 2011
By Guy Trebay
Penang, Malaysia has stylish hotels and some of Southeast Asia’s best street food.
I had money to burn, thick wads of it, funny money colored bright orange and flaked with gold leaf.
Angling myself upwind of a ritual furnace at the gateway to the Goddess of Mercy Temple, banked in incense as thick as Newfoundland fog, I joined the crowd feeding fake loot to the tongues of flame. The offerings were, in my case, all-purpose: something for the ancestors, for living family and friends, for luck and prosperity and health, the usual stuff. But to the customary human importuning I also sneaked a silent request to the travel gods: “How soon can you get me back here?”
I was in Penang, a small island off the northwestern coast of Malaysia, half a world away from my front door. Few people of my acquaintance have heard of this lovely flyspeck, and the omission seemed more confounding the more time I spent there. Not only is Penang—or, anyway, its capital, Georgetown—so lightly touched by 21st-century modernity that you occasionally feel as if you have wandered onto a period film set, but its dense mesh of streets and cultures, its polyglot population, its infrastructure and sophisticated fusion cooking also call to mind another more celebrated island, the one I call home.
In certain ways Penang is like a Toytown version of Manhattan. An outpost of trade in an earlier era of globalization, the island leased by the British from the Sultan of Kedah—in an agreement forged by Captain Francis Light on behalf of the East India Company in 1786—once lay at the eastern extent of Britain’s imperial expansion. Briefly the most important of the British Straits Settlements, it eventually ceded that distinction to Singapore, which went on to claim an important place on the regional and world stages while Penang lapsed into a prolonged subtropical slumber.
In recent years this tiny Malaysian state has powered back into view, its fortunes revived as it transformed itself into Malaysia’s Silicon Valley. Though tourism lagged behind the boom, it is increasingly possible to find chic boutique hotels, the first stirrings of a culinary movement, and enlightened restoration projects that signal the end of Penang’s status as a secret shared only by backpackers and Malaysians who make pilgrimages there for the justifiably famous street food. But you would not necessarily notice these shifts if you happened to arrive by night, as I did, taxiing past the shadowed industrial campuses to fetch up in Georgetown beneath the porte cochère of the great white slab cake that is the venerable and deeply anachronistic Eastern & Oriental Hotel.
In the days when Penang was still an important port along global shipping lanes—a status predicated on its deep-water harbors and position in the Strait of Malacca—banking thrived there. So did trade of all kinds, most importantly in spices. One version of the origins of Penang’s name holds that it is a Malay (or possibly Tamil) word for betel nut, and starting as early as the 15th century, traders dropped anchor here to buy and sell cloves, nutmeg, star anise, bird’s nest, tin, pepper, and rubber and also, very profitably and for quite a long time, opium.
Immigrants followed, naturally, in flight from peonage and in pursuit of fortune. By the early 19th century Penang was already a mercantile, shipping, and banking center—the London–based banking powerhouse HSBC opened its first branch there in 1884—and the island’s lieutenant governor, Sir George Leith, could observe that there was probably not “any part of the world where, in so small a space, so many different people are assembled together, or so great a variety of languages spoken.”
As I read this an image rose to mind of the New York City subway, specifically the No. 7 train entering Manhattan carrying 21st-century immigrants from China, Cambodia, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka—spiritual cousins of the industrious voyagers from those selfsame places who once arrived by boat in Georgetown and slowly grafted their customs, architecture, language, styles of worship and, equally important, of cooking onto the tidy little hive of a town.
People say that Georgetown possesses the greatest concentration of colonial structures in Southeast Asia, and this may be. It is certainly accurate to say that Unesco deemed the fabric of the place precious enough to inscribe Georgetown as a World Heritage site in 2008, and also true that I have yet to encounter another city quite like Georgetown in the region. A smallish place roughly shaped like an ax blade, Georgetown is, as are many faded port cities, oriented inland, away from the sea. Its streets are literally crammed with tile-roofed shop-houses, Neoclassical churches, Moorish mosques, Hindu temples, gilded Chinese temples, and opulent mansions built with the unfettered flashiness favored by the Peranakans, as the descendants of Chinese immigrants who intermarried with the local Malay population are called.
In Georgetown, you can walk out on an afternoon and simultaneously hear church bells tolling, chants emerging from a Buddhist temple, a muezzin sounding the call to afternoon prayer. Walking the length of the Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, also called Harmony Street, you pass from the austere portico and dome of St. George’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia, to the bustling, smoke-wreathed Goddess of Mercy Temple and then beyond it to the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, dedicated to Mariamman, a Hindu goddess linked to fertility and rain with a red complexion that makes her look slightly apoplectic. Follow the street to its end and you are in the walled precincts of the Kapitan Keling Mosque.
Still, it is the shop-houses in their jumbled thousands that unify Georgetown, creating a city filled with buildings whose overhanging private upper floors are situated atop public gathering places: cafés, printing presses, laundries, men’s clubs, guesthouses, restaurants. Nearly all of these structures are linked by arcaded pedestrian passages known generically by the term “five-foot way.” Designed to keep the streets clear and to provide shelter and shade from subtropical heat and torrents, the five-foot way is also a kind of continuous corridor, both convenience and proscenium. It is a stage on which the washing, eating, gossiping, idling, and other business of daily life is enacted constantly. Stop at a café for a short break of sweetened iced coffee and you can easily get so caught up in the theater of daily life that, glancing down at your watch, you find 10 minutes has stretched to an hour. The five-foot way is to Georgetown what the piazza is to Rome; and as in Rome you can allow yourself to get lost in a maze of lanes, slipping into the daily flow that W. Somerset Maugham called “the everlasting present.” You can allow yourself to become absorbed by a city that, despite its varied architectural anachronisms and treasures, is no museum and certainly no tomb.
That is what I did for one fine week, quickly adapting to local customs that restrict outdoor activities to early mornings and late afternoons and that place a serious emphasis on food. To consume anything but liquids in the gob-smacking heat of Penang might seem ill-advised, yet people there eat all the time. Not only that, they think about food and discuss it whenever they are not lifting morsel to mouth. You talk about lunch while having breakfast in Penang, dinner when at lunch, supper while polishing off the dinner that turns out to be a kind of late-afternoon snack.
You start your mornings in Georgetown with a street breakfast of putu mayam, vermicelli noodles made from rice flour and coconut milk, and then nose your way to the Chew Jetty, one of a collection of 19th-century wooden docks off Pengkalan Weld—Koay Jetty, Lee Jetty, Lim Jetty, Peng Aun Jetty, Tan Jetty, Yeoh Jetty, and Chap Seh Keo are the others—whose lengths are flanked by tin-roofed fishermen’s houses built over the water on pilings. You walk on from there, more or less at random, and because Georgetown is small and very manageable on foot and has many respectable kopi (coffee) shops that function as restaurants, you stop where and when you like.
Letting my feet lead me one morning, I paused for fresh fruit and cappuccino at Kopi Cine at the Straits Collection, a new hotel compound formed from five adjoining shop-houses built in the 1920’s in the so-called Straits Eclectic style and recently restored. The results of the renovation are stylishly minimalist lodgings along Lorong Stewart unified by a central bookshop and a café that stocks The World of Interiors and French Vogue and that serves a kind of fusion menu that would not be out of place in London or New York. Fortified, I walked on to find the fabled Khoo Kongsi, a clan temple erected in an outrageously opulent style in the mid 19th century and rebuilt in similarly delirious form 50 years later when lightning struck the first building and burned it to the ground: the curious Sikh soldier statues stand guard outside the sanctum, the pop-eyed stone foo dogs snarl at the gate; there are the gilded carvings of a bird feeding its chick in a scene depicting nobles on a pilgrimage, the dragon at the roofline toying with a colossal pearl, the grisaille murals of filial piety, the tutti-frutti mosaics made from fragments of Chinese porcelain. By no rational standard could the Khoo clan temple be called harmonious. And yet it felt like a calm and deeply contemplative place.
This was probably because I had it to myself. Despite recent shifts in both the numbers and the kinds of travelers visiting Penang, Georgetown remains a pretty drowsy spot. Seldom did I encounter anything resembling a mob. Even at Pasar Air Itam, a celebrated food stall midway across the island—a place literally at the roadside and whose nonexistent atmospherics are offset by the fact that it serves a tamarind-flavored noodle soup called assam laksa—the lunchtime scene was as relaxed and pleasant as the turnover was efficient and brisk.
It has to be. Between 11:30 and nightfall chef Ang Kak Peoh ladles up as many as 400 servings of his famous noodle soup, mostly to locals who carry the assam laksa away in clear plastic bags. I would take lunch at Pasar Air Itam every day were it not that the food stall is roughly 22 hours by air from home. As it was, though, I hopped a taxi and made the cross-island trek as often as possible to partake of a dish that, for balance of flavor and sheer sophistication, was about as good as anything I’ve ever eaten in my life.
I also made it my business again and again to visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, drawn there by a wild hodgepodge of stuff arranged in this vaguely ersatz monument to a blended Chinese-Malay culture, but also by the distinct way the Peranakans absorbed and transformed the prim Puritanical tastes of the English colonials, the ornate aesthetics of the Southern Chinese immigrants, and the sensuality of the indigenous Malay people. Zesty eclecticism might be a polite way to characterize the fusion aesthetics of the Peranakan babas and nyonyas (men and women) and a style they devised that favored rampant abundance, bright colors, opulence, shiny surfaces, sinisterly rendered naturalism and fun-house gaud. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a house museum set in what was once a Chinese clan hall, later a mercantile outpost poetically known as the Sea Remembrance Store, and most recently a bit of dubious historicism conjured by a wealthy local.
Certainly there are other more tastefully arranged mansions in Penang, most notably the 19th-century indigo Blue Mansion built by Cheong Fatt Tze, a merchant sometimes termed the Rockefeller of the East. This particular place, used as a backdrop for the film Indochine, is a hotel now and offers limited tours to nonguests, who gawp at a dreamlike setting overseen by a young Malaysian with an Oxford accent and a purring demeanor that seems to mimic that of the house cats draped across the mansion’s rattan planter’s chairs.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a favorite of high-end travelers and discerning globe-trotter types and yet, while its appeal is easy to understand, I was left wondering whether its burnished air of chic might not tarnish at night when a hawker center next door opened for business and local drunks sidled up to the karaoke mic.
I preferred the Eastern & Oriental, built by the Sarkies Brothers of Raffles fame, and my immense white room, which had views across the channel toward the mainland and which I filled with exotic orchids bought at a roadside nursery for $5 apiece. For several days running, I took a rickshaw taxi from there to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, intoxicated by the place’s atmospherics and also by the countless collections of carved wood panels, root tables, Minton tiles, European art glass, Scottish ironwork, jade doodads, portraits of ancestors, and opium beds of rare huanghuali wood. It was once estimated that 10 percent of the Chinese population of 19th-century Penang was addicted to opium, and there can be little question that the crone whose portrait dominates a broad hallway of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion was no stranger to a pipe. From the enveloping volume of her brocade robes, a head set with heavy-lidded avaricious eyes and hands like a pair of varnished claws emerge. To my eye, the woman appeared cruel, but a friend who accompanied me to the museum that day suggested that she was perhaps merely constipated. Opium is known to have that effect.
It was at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion’s tidy little gift shop that I found and purchased a set of antique dessert plates in a style known as Nyonyaware. Whether they were truly of the Guangxu period (1875–1908) or made last week in mainland China I can’t say. I was pleased all the same by the way the peony and bat motifs on the plates echoed the auspicious symbols one sees carved into fanlights above shop-house doorways and also by their curiously preppy pink-and-green colors.
From the museum I went in pursuit of a certain Mr. Lee, apparently the last man in Malaysia to make sandalwood joss sticks by hand. A heritage brochure I’d picked up had made special note of the sole surviving practitioners of various traditional crafts in Georgetown, and Mr. Lee was listed. I had already stocked up on paper money and wanted to add some incense offerings to hedge my bets with the gods.
On the way to Mr. Lee’s shop—“hole-in-the-wall” is a more literally precise description—I passed a two-story shop-house from which emanated an unholy racket that called to mind the sound track of The Birds. I assumed that the building, like many in Georgetown, had been abandoned and left to the wild things, and only later learned that the calls were recorded lures. The swallows that roost there build nests that are harvested for soup. I also learned that the palm-blind weaver had gone out of business, as had the man who made hand-beaded shoes. The traditional wooden signboard engraver was seldom to be found at a shop presided over by an ancient whose wry neck caused her head to pitch forward like that of a broken Jumeau doll.
It took days to find Mr. Lee at his shop, but I got lucky one morning; just as I rounded the corner on Lorong Muda, I ran into him returning from breakfast. His lunch of fish stew, in a clear plastic bag, was slung from the handlebar of the bike he was walking. Rolling up the corrugated shutters to his stall—a space little larger than the flatbed of a pickup truck—he waved toward a stack of crates packed with incense sticks in diameters ranging from billy club to matchstick.
Now in his eighties, Mr. Lee had been making joss sticks and incense cones by hand for six decades, he explained in a Hokkien dialect that a friend of mine helpfully translated. First mixing water with powdery batches of Indian sandalwood to form a paste, he then rolls up incense sausages of varying dimensions and slips them onto candy-striped sticks to dry. I bought several batches painted with characters written in Chinese and English and said good-bye.
At the Goddess of Mercy Temple, I fell in among my fellow supplicants, stuffing wads of orange joss paper into a furnace, and also leaving some real currency in a tea bowl on the temple altar. As I gazed at a blissed-out Buddha mounted on his gilded throne, I uttered a silent prayer that, like all prayers, was a kind of deal. And then, while lighting an incense stick with luck written on it, I threw in a silent word to the assorted gods of thanks.
Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.
When to Go
Aside from the rainy season, which runs from May to September, weather in Penang is consistently sunny, with daily temperatures often around 85 degrees.
Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific offer daily flights from New York and Los Angeles, with connections through Singapore and Hong Kong, respectively.
Great Value Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion 14 Lebuh Leith; 60-4/262-0006; cheongfatttzemansion.com; doubles from $125.
China Tiger A 19th-century merchant house and a Deco-style shop-house make up the four comfortable suites and apartments. 25 and 29 Lebuh China; 60-4/264-3580; chinatiger.info; suites from $313.
Great Value Clove Hall Edwardian bungalow with six suites that have vaulted ceilings and colonial antiques. 11 Jalan Clove Hall; 60-4/229-0818; clovehall.com; suites from $182.
Great Value Eastern & Oriental Hotel 10 Lebuh Farquhar; 60-4/222-2000; e-o-hotel.com; doubles from $217.
Great Value Shangri-La’s Rasa Syang Resort & Spa This oceanside retreat on Batu Feringghi beach, half an hour from Georgetown, is also near the Teluk Bahang Forest Reserve. Batu Feringghi; 60-4/888-8888; shangri-la.com; doubles from $248.
Great Value Straits Collection 47-55 Lorong Stewart; 60-4/263-7299; straitscollection.com.my; suites from $139.
Kopi Cine 55 Lorong Stewart; 60-4/263-7299; lunch for two $35.
Pasar Air Itam Jalan Pasar Hawker Center, Air Itam; lunch for two $5.
Perut Rumah Nyonya Cuisine Try traditional Peranakan dishes such as marinated fish in banana leaves and pork stew. 17 Jalan Kelawei; 60-4/227-9917; dinner for two $30.
See and Do
Goddess of Mercy Temple (Kuan Yin Teng) Lorong Stewart.
Khoo Kongsi 18 Medan Cannon; 60-4/261-4609; khookongsi.com.my; admission $1.60.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion 29 Lebuh Gereja; 60-4/264-2929; pinangperanakanmansion.com.my; admission $3.30.
St. George’s Church Lebuh Farquhar; 60-4/262-0202.