There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 4 March 2017

George Town, Penang: Part 6 of the Malaysian Peninsula

The hotel’s restaurant was in an adjacent shophouse. While waiting for our roti, scrambled egg and spicy lentils I stepped through the open door into Love Lane. I have commented before how much I love the warm embrace of a fresh tropical morning but this one was particularly special; in the middle of a great city, the quiet street felt like a waking village.

Love Lane, George Town, at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning
E, the guide for our walking tour arrived with a car and driver – it would not all be foot-slogging. He was a small energetic, slightly fussy Chinese Malaysian, a retired lecturer and a man on a mission; he had a programme, and we would fulfil it.

George Town's centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site is a dot on the island of Penang,
but the metropolitan area takes up a third of the island. The car was necessary

The short drive to Fort Cornwallis was lengthened by the one-way system which took us past the Protestant Cemetery. It was not on our programme, apparently, but we decided to return later.

Fort Cornwallis, George Town
Penang was part of Kedah until 1786, when the Sultan asked British adventurer Francis Light for assistance dealing with some bothersome Thais. Light made a deal with the East India Company and the Sultan soon discovered he had ceded Penang Island to them and it was now called Prince of Wales Island. In this noble way a great empire was built.

The island was undeveloped (‘we’re all immigrants here,’ as E said) so Light fired off a couple of cannons loaded with coins and the locals (ALL immigrants, E?) obligingly cleared the ground for his fort while searching for the loot. This story recurs in several different places, so is probably apocryphal.
From 1826 (by which time the Prince of Wales had become George IV, so the main town became George Town) Penang, Malacca, Singapore and the more obscure Dinding became The Strait Settlements, run at first by the East India Company but as British Crown Colonies from 1867. Occupied by the Japanese in World War II, Penang, Malacca and Dinding were merged with British Malaya in 1946 and achieved independence as part of Malaya in 1957. 
In 1936 a statue of Francis Light was erected to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his landing. There was no contemporary likeness so the sculptor worked from a portrait of his son William who, following in his father’s footsteps, had founded a city in Australia and named it after the queen (Adelaide was the Queen Consort of William IV).

Francis Light, Fort Cornwallis, George Town
There is little else to see in the fort, a small, bare chapel, …

Chapel, Fort Cornwallis, Penang
.. and a large, bare powder magazine did not detain us long.

Powder Magazine, Fort Cornwallis, Penang
The most interesting exhibit is the Sri Rambai cannon, the origin of several tall tales and superstitions. The cannon was cast in 1603 in the Netherlands for the Dutch East India Company by Jan Burgerhius - that information is helpfully cast into the bronze itself.

The logo of the Dutch East India Company on the Sri Rambai Cannon, Fort Cornwallis, Penang

Given to the Sultan of Johor for services rendered, it was nicked during a raid in 1613 by the Sultan of Aceh and carried off to Sumatra. In 1795 it re-crossed the strait to the Malay Peninsula as a gift to the Sultan of Selangor. In 1875, after Selangor pirates attacked a Penang junk and murdered its crew, the British burned Selangor and brought the cannon back to George Town. That much is generally agreed.

Also…it sank in George Town harbour and auto-surfaced at the command of a Holy Man, was used by the Japanese during the war and helps women become pregnant - flowers should be laid on the gun and prayers said. You may believe whatever you wish.
Sri Rambai Cannon
Now how could anybody imagine this could have any connection with fertility?

From the fort we drove round the clock tower (not on the programme, so we noted it for later) to the Penang Peranakan Mansion. Peranakans (called Baba-Nonyas in Malacca) are the descendants of the earliest Chinese settlers who semi-assimilated with Malay culture. The mansion was the town house of Chung Keng Quee (spellings vary) a man of humble origins who came to Malaya in 1841 aged 20. He became wealthy tin mining in Perak and at his death in 1901 he was Malaya’s richest man. His part in the Larut Wars (a decade long turf war between Chinese secret societies over mining rights) cost him dearly but in 1874 he was appointed as one of the two Chinese members of the Larut Pacification Committee (the other four were British). Thereafter he worked closely with the colonial power and in 1877 was made Kapitan China, the officially recognised leader of the Chinese community.

Penang Peranakan Mansion

A noted philanthropist, he donated money for Chinese education, temple building, the advancement of European engineering in Malaya and (wisely!) charitable causes close to the hearts of the British (Widows and Orphans of the Transvaal War, among others).
Penang Peranakan Mansion

As the pictures show he lived in some style.
Penang Peranakan Mansion

His ceramic collection was Chinese designed and made, but the colours are much brighter in accordance with Malayan taste – a typical Peranakan compromise.
Kapitan China's collection of China, Penang Peranakan Mansion

As a Staffordshire resident I, of course, regret he sourced his china elsewhere, but at least his floor tiles were imported from Stoke-on-Trent.
Floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent, Penang Peranakan Mansion

Next door is his ancestral temple. The life-size bronze statue of Chung Keng Quee half hidden by the altar was sculpted by Benjamin Creswick, cast in Birmingham and presented by the Engineers Institute.

Ancestral Temple, Penang Peranakan Mansion

From the mansion we made our way to Little India, though this being Penang it looked considerably more scrubbed than ‘big’ India ever does.
Little India, Penang

E bought us a samosa each (elegantly spiced sweet potato) because it was on the programme while ignoring my suggestion of a cup of tea, because it wasn’t.
E buys samosas, Little India, Penang

Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling used to be called Pitt Street, indeed it still often is, not out of nostalgia for the empire, but because of its admirable brevity.
Everybody knows it is Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, but Pitt Street is easier
Penang’s citizens of Indian descent (10% of the population) are mostly Hindus, but the Sri Mahariamman Hindu Temple is situated in the heart of the Muslim Indian quarter, just along Pitt Street from the Kuan Yin Taoist Temple. But this is Penang, so who cares?
Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Little India, Penang
Sri Mahamariamman is small, but the interior is unbelievably clean and shiny…
Inside the Sri Mahamariamman temple, Little India, Penang

…and the gods wonderfully garish.

Assorted gods, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Penan
Further along the jalan (Street) is the masjid (mosque) of Kapitan Keling (the Indian equivalent of Kapitan China). Although of Chinese descent, E lived near here as a child. ‘The advantage of living near a mosque,’ he said, ‘is the dawn call to prayer means you are never late for school’. The disadvantage, he did not add, is that the call can also be heard at weekends and throughout the school holidays.

Masjid Kapitan Keling, Penang
From their earliest days, the Chinese community (now over 50% of Penang’s population) banded together in clan groups for mutual support and protection. Clan houses are easy to spot on the streets of Penang - and elsewhere, in 2012 we visited Chinese clan houses at Hoi An in Vietnam.

Small Chinese Clan House, Penang

The Khoo Kongsi clan house, at the end of Jalan Masjid etc, is the largest and wealthiest.
The Khoo Kongsi Clan House, Penang

The Khoos, who originated in the Xiangcheng district of southern Fujian province, built their first clan house in 1851. That burned down 50 years later and the present structure, dating from 1906, contains a temple, meeting rooms, a traditional theatre…
Inside the Khoo Kongsi Clan House, Penang

…and a space for reverence to ancestors.
Ancestors commemorated, Khoo Kongsi Clan House, Penang

Although the importance of clans has declined, they remain active and lists of committee members past and present, are prominently displayed along with their credentials. Most Khoo leaders seem to have attended English universities (many of the current crop are alumni of Bristol University) and meetings are held in English rather than Hokkien, the language of southern Fujian and the most spoken language among the Chinese diaspora of south east Asia.

Penang’s famous street food definitely was on our programme, so we went to a laksa shop.  Laksa is a Peranakan fish based noodle soup popular throughout south east Asia. It has two main varieties - with coconut milk or with tamarind - and dozens of regional variations. Traditional Penang Laksa consists of flaked mackerel in a tamarind flavoured fish stock with lemongrass, galangal and chilli, plus various additions (pineapple, onion, prawn paste) depending on the maker.
Laksa shop, Penang

As we bagged the last table in the crowded little shop E asked if we wanted a dumbed down laksa for Europeans and whether we could ‘hold chopsticks’.  He seemed surprised that we wanted (and enjoyed) full-on laksa and proved familiar with the chopsticks-in-right-hand-spoon-in-left technique used for all noodle soups from Vietnamese pho south. I am not entirely sure what was in it, but a vivid procession of fiery flavours marched across the palate, freshened by tamarind sourness. Absolutely wonderful!
Lynne eats laksa, Penang

After our starter we crossed the alley for dessert. We had encountered cendol before and enjoyed the shaved ice with coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, red beans and green rice flour jelly.
Lynne eats cendol, Penang
The driver reappeared and he and E discussed whether we should go for the main course, or visit the reclining Buddha first. We would have told them we needed a break from eating had they not come to that conclusion themselves.
Very much in the Thai style, the Therevada Buddhist Temple was a short drive away.
Therevada Buddhist Temple, Penang
E called the 33m reclining Buddha the biggest and most beautiful in the world. We did not tell him the 100m Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Yangon is far bigger, and the Wat Pho Buddha in Bangkok is bigger and more beautiful.
Reclining Buddha, Therevada Buddhist Temple, Penang
The statues of leading monks in front of the Buddha have been covered in gold leaf by devotees, a particularly common practice in Myanmar…
Gold leafed monk, Therevada Buddhist Monastery, Penang
…while behind are what look, at first glance, like rows of lockers. These actually contain the ashes of the deceased, along with photographs and a brief genealogy. A few remain empty, but what happens when they are all filled?
Ashes in glass fronted lockers, Therevada Buddhist Temple, Penang
Leaving the Buddhists, we resumed our lunch with the Muslims. Hussein’s Nasi Kandar stall provided us with a plate of rice with vegetables and curry sauce, all very pleasant without reaching the heights of laksa. Nasi means ‘rice’ and kandar is a ‘carry-pole’, so it was originally rice from a hawker carrying it through the streets; now, any rice with curry sauce poured directly onto it, with or without side dishes, is called Nasi Kandar.
Hussein's Nasi Kandar stall, Penang
Most of Penang’s Buddhists are Chinese, and most Chinese Buddhists belong to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, but Kek Lok Si Temple, not only Penang’s but Malaysia’s largest Buddhist Temple, blends both traditions.
The temple was built in 1890 on a hill outside George Town and the drive to the top gave us a view of the surrounding hills. Channel 4's ‘Indian Summer’, E told us, was filmed in Penang, to avoid Indian red tape. One of the hillside villas became the Simla club and Armenian Street in George Town was heavily disguised as Simla’s Indian quarter.
The Hills Around George Town 
We started at the top of Kek Lok Si with the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Both being tigers, E photographed us with that less than fearsome beast.
Not the most frightening tiger, Kek Lok Si, Penang
Nearby is a massive statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.
Guanyin, Kek Lok Si, Penang
We passed more gods …
Many amred deity, Kek Lok Si, Penang
… and took the funicular….
Funicular Railway, Kek Lok Si, Penang
...down to the main temple building.
Kek Lok Si, Penang
From here we had a good view of the 10,000 Buddha Pagoda, also called the Rama VI Pagoda as the foundation stone was laid in 1930 by the King of Thailand. With Penang’s typical inclusiveness the bottom third is Chinese in style, the middle Thai and the top Burmese - though it looks less of a dog’s breakfast than that might suggest.
Rama VI Pagoda, Kek Lok Si, Penang
That was the end of E’s tour and we were driven back to our hotel in the heart of the UNSECO World Heritage Site of Old George Town.
After a refreshing cup of tea, we decided to check out the sights omitted from E’s programme.
The Jubilee Clock Tower, a few minute’s stroll away, is a Moorish style tower built in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. It has not quite been vertical since Japanese bombing in 1941 – and that is probably the most interesting thing about it, not that the Leaning Tower of Pisa should feel threatened.
Jubilee Clock Ttower, George Town
Heading for the protestant cemetery we crossed the end of (inevitably) Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling past the Church of St George. Completed in 1818 and modelled on St George’s Cathedral, Madras (now Chennai) it is the oldest Anglican Church in SE Asia and is busy preparing for its 200th anniversary celebrations. The rotunda in front is a memorial to Francis Light.
St George's Anglican Church, George Town
Light’s grave in the protestant cemetery is well marked. He stayed on in Penang as superintendent of the settlement, dying of Malaria in 1794 aged 53.
The grave of Francis Light, George Town protestant  cemetery
Reading the gravestones is sobering. So many men and women died young from tropical diseases not then understood, and the infant mortality rate among the British community was appalling.
We rather stumbled upon the grave of Thomas Leonowens. After a short but a chequered career that took him from India to Penang via Australia he died aged 31 of ‘apoplexy’ (probably a brain haemorrhage) in 1859 leaving a young widow. Anna Leonowens set about supporting herself by opening a school in Singapore and her resulting reputation persuaded the Thai consul to recommend her when King Mongkut came looking for a governess, thus spawning an unreliable memoir, a best-selling novel, an Oscar winning musical (the King and I is still banned in Thailand), two films and a television series. The 1999 film ‘Anna and the King’ starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat also featured our guide E (as an extra).
The grave of Thomas Leonowens, George Town protestant cemetery
Reaching the cemetery had been a long hot walk but we had identified a beer stop on the way out and paused there for refreshment on the way back. At this latitude it is unusual to sit outside at 5.30 without being enveloped by the fast-falling tropical night. Countries to the north, and as far east as Vietnam, are 7 hours ahead of GMT (or UCT, if you prefer) while the Malay peninsula chooses to be 8 hours ahead, so daylight lingers until after 7pm.
Despite our sizeable lunch the evening found us back at the Red Garden Food Court – portions are small, little more than tapas size (well, that is my excuse), and we snacked happily on fried mantis prawn, chicken and Chinese dumplings (jiaozi).
The Red Garden Food Court, George Town, Penang

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