I arrived in Penang (Pulau Pinang to locals) via plane.
I had debated making it a road trip, but it was only a weekend trip. So I did not want to waste time on the road. Besides, everything I wanted to see on that long weekend was mostly in Georgetown anyway, in the UNESCO Heritage Area. Georgetown itself has notoriously hard to navigate streets – for someone not local to it – and the Penang bridge traffic is infamous. It is far more convenient to visit Penang car-less.
This was the year when I had vowed to travel every single long weekend in the year. They would by default be solo travel. I had established by this time that if I did not go alone, I would not be going at all.
Since it was the time for doing something different (even if only a tiny bit different, in hindsight) I opted for unconventional digs. Not quite backpacking – more like glampacking. It feels not quite so radical a departure from what I was used to. Baby steps, right?
This time I chose to stay at Muntri Mews, a charming boutique hotel that was once a carriage house, right in the middle of the Heritage Area.
It is very cool. A very effective and tasteful lifting of Penang nostalgia and Peranakan culture, into present-day comfort.
British Penang Origin Story: An Irreverent Summary
Pulau Pinang – together with Melaka some ways away to the south – is a UNESCO Heritage City due to the Straits settlement culture that sprang up from when Francis Light swindled the Sultan of Kedah out of the island. Thus Penang became the first of the Malay lands in the archipelago to fall under the British crown. (Just giving it straight folks).
It’s actually a pretty common colonisation theme across the peninsula when it comes to the British. The Portuguese captured Melaka with much blood spilled, in several waves of assault, and uncounted lives lost, suffering afterwards numerous re-capture attempts by the exiled royalty (unsuccessful).
But the British did not gain any of the territory they controlled during Malaysia’s colonial period by military conquest. It was more along the lines of some kind of dishonesty, backed with the threat of military conquest.
I am always torn between feeling irked over the unglamorous way we were colonised, and a grudging acknowledgement that – if colonisation was an inevitable fate – at least this way minimised casualties.
Water under the bridge now.
Something different and unique sprang from it, when the dust settled. That’s the thing with human history – it is rare that something is ever wholly a blessing or wholly a calamity, given enough time.
Unlike Melaka, where the melting pot Straits culture had flourished from when the city was a world trade centre under sultanate rule, Penang’s mostly came to bloom after British administration. Aside from this though, together with port #3 of Singapore, the combined Straits settlement culture is recognisably distinct from others. And unique to Malaysia.
P.S: A short while after, Light also extorted from the Sultan a matching piece of agricultral land across the strait, called Seberang Prai. You know, so that they would also have a secure grain supply in case Kedah tries to starve them out. Together they form the present day Malaysian state of Pulau Pinang.
P.P.S: Oh, why did the Sultan let him keep both bits of land you ask? Sorry, forgot that bit. British gunships. Basically, whenever tourism brochures refer to ‘persuasion’ it is safe to substitute ‘gunships’. You’re welcome.
The Famous Penang Street Art
But I didn’t go to Penang for the Peranakan culture and history. (However, the past is easy to review through a series of wire sculptures scattered across the Heritage Area, depicting cartoons of historical snippets).
I went for the charmingly interactive street art that was – through what I must assume were a near-miraculous series of events – created in 2012 by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharavic for the Heritage Area. [Map for both the wire and Zacharavic Penang street art can be found at the Penang Tourism website].
Thereafter Penang exploded in popularity – and creativity.
To appreciate this I must tell you something important that millennials do not remember and boomers do not speak of.
We Malaysians do not typically play – at least after childhood. And certainly not in public (except for sports – sports are ok). This is a strain on someone like me, who stubbornly kept to her computer games and Dragonlances well into young adulthood.
True, we are rich in artisanal crafts. They decorate our heritage buildings, and sometimes private homes and buildings.
But painting on publicly visible surfaces? This is either done for maintenance, or by hooligans (aka graffiti) and totally frowned upon. Occasionally it may be allowed for arty purposes, but it would typically be an officially sanctioned mural to be looked at and admired.
The turning point
But the 2012 Penang street art – this was when public whimsical play became socially acceptable.
I don’t quite know why. Was it due to how faithfully they resonate with Penang nostalgia, or its sheer accessibility, or just that the timing coincided with public readiness – who can tell?
People posed by them in wonderfully inventive ways. Malaysians travelled from near and far – to play with the semi-graffiti, semi-sculptures.
Gradually, in the coming years, homegrown artists and/or local small business began to imitate it, creating art of their own, with their own meanings. They are worth looking for in themselves, now.
Anonymous people paint around random things in the public space like bollards and Chinese prayer altars and a dismantled pipe, and make art.
A coconut ice cream man painted a semi-3D piece of art by his stall. (Yes his ice cream is delicious and very welcome in the heat, too). And of course there’s the 101 Lost Kittens series.
Art is now something the public participates in.
Penang street art and ephemerality
However, I limited myself to only the Ernest Zacharavic and wire sculpture types of Penang street art. That way I was only managing one map (the one on the Penang Tourism website). I found all of them bar one. (I thought about picking up the 101 Lost Kittens as well, but decided to allow myself the spontaneity of encountering them by chance.)
One of the Zacaharavic murals – the one within the Clan Jetties – was already basically gone, worn away by the blistering Malaysian sun. I noticed that many of the other works were also beginning to fade and show signs of wear compared to photos I had seen on the internet.
It’s an inherent consequence of this kind of art. Play and interaction, and being out there exposed to the city air and punishing equatorial rays. Use. Use wears things out. I wondered whether they would be touched up. It would kind of be a shame to lose them.
Still, use is life.
The alternative is preservation. Immortality by petrification. We are good at that – we Malaysians. Taking art out of reach of the playing public, away from the bustle and commerce of the city that inspired it. Away from its own heart. Clinging to the form, freezing our arts in its heyday past.
Perhaps it is better to let them ebb eventually away. Other spinoff street art that they have birthed grow now all around them, alive, and living in the minds of future artists yet to paint and build in Penang’s streets.
Immortality by letting go and evolving.
Something, in this age of global change, we desperately need to learn. Or risk losing the core of our cultural heart to the sweep of the times. Left holding only sacred empty shells.
Rambling Through the Streets for Other Sights
The Penang Heritage Area is quite rewarding if you were to just ramble through the streets. This is so even if you’re there on a Malaysian long weekend, which means that the old city heaves with tourists.
What else did I see?
Straits settlement clan houses
You should visit one if you’ve not been. I’m Melaka-born, and so obviously partial to the lavish Peranakan homes there. But I include a link to someone else’s article on a famous Penang one (mainly because it showed the excellent taste of being blue).
Indian Muslim culture
Then of course there are the non-Peranakan parts of Penang culture (*gasp* what??). Hey, you don’t get called ‘melting pot’ for having fused like, just 2 cultures… For instance there is the Kapitan Keling Mosque, built by Indian Muslims – another Malaysian community with a distinct culture (though not as distinct as the Peranakan).
Kopi tiam and cafes
Curio shops abound, and of course there is the iconic kopi tiam*. Penangites insist that their food is the best in the country. I’m not a foodie, and moreover a southerner, so I excuse myself from this debate for diplomatic reasons.
Aside from the traditional, hipster cafes have popped up as well. Sometimes with oddly inspiring signage – and sometimes with devastatingly cheeky ones.
Chew clan jetty
Then there’s the Chew Clan Jetty, which you would easily come across while looking for Penang street art around Lebuh Armenian. Long and shaded, the wooden walkway stretches on high stilts, flanked on either side by homes similarly propped over the water.
Far to the end, the walkway emerges into sun. From here you can see the iconic Penang suspension bridge in the distance, one of the milestone infrastructure projects of the Malaysian ’80s. Before this bridge was built, mainland crossings were by ferry only.
There are shops on either side selling local snack foods and general confectionary. I bought a set of local northern white coffee packaged for individual servings in a box made to look like a shophouse. This was before I went to the Blue Temple, and before I took the No Plastics April challenge. Today I would likely make a different purchasing decision.
Stay in Georgetown, or wander further afield?
In theory, if you start out early, and are reaaaallly dedicated, you could do all the above in a day. If you prefer to soak it in, it’s an easy couple of days.
But there are other things in Penang than the old city. Depending on what you gravitate to, there’s
- wartime history,
- Balik Pulau countryside,
- beaches (yes I said beaches – although I suppose I should also mention that the Malacca Strait remains one of the straits with the highest ship traffic in the world),
Me – I opted for a bit of the last one. The story of why, and what I found, is told here.
For a lovely take on the rest of Penang island, check out this article: Highlights of Penang.
Glossary & tips
*Kopi tiam – coffee shop, implicitly localised Chinese style, typically with such touches as marble round tables and stools (sometimes marble-topped), and mosaic tile floor. Tip: Order toast with butter and/or kaya spread.
**Penang street art tip: If you’re intending to take those whimsical Instagram-worthy photo ops, I strongly advise not doing Penang as solo travel unless you’re the kind who will, say, immediately bond with random like-minded travellers at a hostel.
***Also, try to avoid Malaysian long weekends. You’ll have to wait for every photo op, and it’s hard to get in a really fun mood when there’s a line of people waiting for you to wrap up. There is an alternative – and the story for that is here.