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Pleasures of Penang

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

Photo: Mikkel Vang

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.

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