Things have been a tad quiet of late. After a hectic work schedule, I took a few days off to spend Christmas with my family back in Singapore. I hope you had a restful and festive holiday season and a belated Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it!
Prior to Singapore, I was in Penang for a friend’s wedding which was held at the stately Blue Mansion or Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Basking in the warm glow of red Chinese lanterns and sipping coconut juice, the cool weather and fresh air of the island could not have come sooner as a respite from the horrendous pollution and bitter cold in Shanghai.
As a Singaporean, Penang, or at least the capital George Town, was a step back into a past that has visually disappeared from Singapore’s rapid modernization. Awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Penang has committed great efforts to preserve much of its local history and architecture, and serves as a veritable showcase of Malaysia’s diverse and localized cultures – the various Chinese dialect groups of Hokkien and Teochew, Indian Muslims, Tamils and Malays.
We share the similar Straits history as a melting pot of races and ethnicities marred by initial conflict that eventually found peace along the way. And this rich cultural tapestry can be traced around Penang’s picturesque George Town in the form of Chinese clan associations and requisite temples for offerings to ancestors, the massive Kapitan Keling Mosque for Penang’s substantial Indian Muslim community, jetty houses which used to house Chinese clans and the deep influence of Malay food and language woven into the fabric of society.
My favorite aspect of Georgetown has to be the striking Straits Chinese or Peranakan shop houses adapted to local influences and weather. The Peranakans, also known as the Straits Chinese or Baba-Nyonya, are the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants to Penang, Malacca and Singapore. They adopted Malay customs, blended their dialects – a variation of Penang Hokkien which I was very comfortable listening and speaking a little.
“The shop house is an urban terrace house characteristic of Asian towns from the 18th – 20th century. The shop house commonly incorporates a shop or business premise on the ground floor while the family resides on the top floor, providing both convenience and security. The shop house may also be used totally as dwelling quarters.
Shop houses are built in rows and each row is arranged in blocks contained within a grid of main roads, backlanes and side roads. A shop house is usually two or three storeys high and is long and narrow, sharing a ‘party’ wall with neighbours on either side. Each row of shophouses is fronted by a continuous sheltered five-foot way and a decorative façade which reveals a historical style.”
– from Heritage George Town
For me, the architectural style of the shop house is typically Southern Chinese, similar to what I observe in Shantou (where the Teochews are from) and Fujian province (where many Fujianese or Hokkien people live). The Chinese families have also adopted bold and vibrant patterns in their floor tiles and walls, as well as elaborate carvings in wooden door panels, beam brackets and stairwells.
I picked up the beautiful book “The Pinang Peranakan Mansion” which documents in painstaking detail of the refurbishment of the former home of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee now converted into a museum celebrating Peranakan culture. The mansion is a perfect example of Eastern sensibilities – the feng shui of the layout, auspicious animals carved into furniture and panels – and Western influences such as the Scottish cast-iron columns and Victorian bay windows
Walking through Penang’s Georgetown, I thought long and hard about my disappointed hopes for Shanghai’s disappearing Old Town, housed within the former city walls before the city opened up to foreign concessions. Beyond the French Concession where European styled villas and Art Deco apartments have some semblance of conservation, Shanghai has sacrificed much of its unique blend of shikumen housing and Chinese family villas that boasted incredible architectural and cultural detail.
If Shanghai’s Old Town had been conferred with a UNESCO World Heritage Site within the old city walls, perhaps it would have had a better shot of preserving the maritime-influences and old family style history that had once been the foundation of the city’s wealth. The site would have been home to refurbished homes that would serve as boutique residences or hotels, museums and a well-curated shopping and arts district – aspects of a sophistication and culture that Shanghainese seem to enamoured by. The building materials required to restore the shikumen or family homes would be acquired from other demolished houses around the city and would fulfill the green culture the government now aspires to. The value of such an endeavor would far outstrip the cultural and commercial value the location now holds, overrun by one luxury estate after another.
I’ve always considered myself a practical person, more forgiving of Shanghai’s no holds barred urbanisation because I recognize the resource limitations to accommodate a megacity bursting at its seams. Penang, as a sleepy and laid-back island, is not easily replicable, but it definitively shows that with enough political will, committed resources and trust to caring individuals, parts of Shanghai could still retain its history with dignity and care.
Enjoying Penang (and Malaysia)
As a welcome break from Shanghai’s overwhelming bustle, I highly recommend a trip to Penang, less than 45 minutes flight from Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur or a little over 1 hour flight from Singapore (Tiger Airways, Air Asia, Silk Air). The sophisticated yet organic tourism culture that the government and local community have helped to develop is both family friendly and suitable for all budgets. Penang’s official tourism website is very comprehensive.
I stayed at Muntri Mews, a “flashpacker” hotel which offered distinguished comfort and impeccable service, right in the heart of Georgetown. The wedding party resided at Seven Terraces which is a luxurious restoration of a family-styled mansion. The couple held their ceremony at the Blue Mansion or Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion which was a photographer’s dream, and we gathered the next day for a lovely brunch at the trendy but well-restored China House. I recommend hiring a trishaw (my proprietor was a Tamil Indian who spoke fluent Hokkien) to guide you to Penang’s wonderful street art. And as for food, ask for any food brochure guide that details the best street food Penang has to offer. An open mind and a bottomless stomach will serve you well.