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Pleasures of Penang

Dressed for Chinese New Year celebrations on Harmony Street in Georgetown.

Photo: Mikkel Vang

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.

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