There are not many places in the world which can compete with Penang on the street food scene. Regularly popping up in the top three of Best Street Food lists, Penang is already well known as a culinary capital of the world.
This is why I’m not interested in Penang’s street food — I’m easily put off by hype, and generally find myself wanting to explore alternatives.
Thankfully, Penang is more than just a few hawker centres selling hygienically questionable paper plates of noodles and satay. To borrow a cliché, it’s one of the great cultural melting pots, and the evidence for this extends far beyond dinner options.
Focusing on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town, I spent a few days ambling around the characterful streets, casting my amateur eye over the eclectic mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay and British Raj-era style architecture.
More recently, colourful murals and informative sculptures can be found adorning the walls of many of George Town’s dilapidated houses and shops. My visit therefore doubled as a treasure hunt, creeping around corners with my camera to find the next trove of artistic expression.
Once Upon a Time
Prince of Wales Island, as Penang was temporarily named, was claimed by Captain Francis Light in 1786, upon which he founded the settlement of George Town in honour of his British king. However, prior to this British imperial adventure, centuries of cross-cultural assimilation had already helped mould Penang into one of the most diverse societies of its age.
Centuries of intermingling by Malay, Chinese and Arab settlers, traders and immigrants led UNESCO to declare George Town as having “a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.”
There are Taoist temples in Little India, Hindu shrines in Chinatown, and towering skyscrapers looming over old British halls and fortifications. The centre of historic George Town is home to rows of Chinese shophouses, each one different from the next, but still somehow appearing uniform.
Like Toy Houses
The first thing that strikes many visitors to George Town is the colour. The Chinese shophouses, for example, look like layers of mismatched Lego bricks stacked side by side.
This style of building was introduced throughout Southeast Asia by Chinese migrants in the 19th century. A single house might have features in white, pink, green and yellow. The most customising seems to be the shutters on the windows, which can vary from neighbour to neighbour.
Aside from the colour, there is also a great variety in the air vents which sit just above the downstairs windows. Some of them are no more elaborate than a simple rectangle, while others curve into shapes resembling bats or leaves. The most uniform feature shared by nearly all of these famed shophouses is the presence of a terracotta roof.
The cross-cultural impact on architecture can best be seen in the heritage buildings built by Westerners, but blended with styles from Islamic, Malay, Chinese and Indian structural traditions. In their book, Architecture and Heritage Buildings in George Town Penang, Ahmad Sanusi Hassan and Shaiful Rizal Che Yahaya give examples of this blending of architectural styles.
“Adjustments from Western, European architecture to local architecture such as the Malay traditional house are manifested with overhanging roof structures, maximum window openings, cantilever veranda and big roof construction,” they wrote.
According to Hassan and Yahaya, the Chinese shophouse became dominant in George Town due to its practicality and suitability for small-scale family enterprise. The aesthetically pleasing friezes, columns and cornices which adorn the exteriors are a beautiful by-product which provoke dozens of photos from visitors to the town centre.
Better Than Banksy
After getting my fill of architecture, and armed with a map and a decent pair of walking shoes, I went on a hunt for the paintings and sculptures littered around the city. While not as ancient as the shophouses nor as culturally significant as the mosques or temples, they are an attraction in their own right.
In 2010, the inaugural George Town Festival was launched in honour of the town’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two years after the inaugural event, festival organisers invited Ernest Zacharevic, a young Lithuanian artist, to create a collection of murals depicting local culture.
Some of his most famous murals are 3D installations, such as the Children on a Bicycle and Boy on Motorcycle which include tangible props. My personal favourite was actually the first one I found, featuring 10 giant cigarettes sticking out of the wall, with a child in a gas mask; a strong anti-pollution message.
Zacharevic’s murals became popular so quickly that Penang’s street art scene exploded into life, with more contributors adding their work all the time. In 2013, various artists from the group Artists for Stray Animals created the 101 Lost Kittens project, painting multiple cat-themed murals around George Town, to heighten awareness of stray animals around the city.
Local artists have jumped on the creative bandwagon, taking advantage of an audience of tourists delivered to their door in annually increasing numbers. One of the most impressive murals, The Awaiting Trishaw Paddler, was created by Desmond Yeo, and spans an enormous wall overlooking the Red Garden Food Paradise Car Park.
The Marking George Town project, commissioned by the State Government of Penang, saw the addition of 52 wrought-iron caricatures peppered around the town. Each one features a scene with a caption, providing a bit of humour or trivia about the street or building it’s located at.
Penang is one of those places that literally has everything. It’s a haven for foodies to fill their stomachs and Instagram accounts. It’s a paradise for culture vultures to stand with their heads cocked to one side, saying ‘hmm…’ a lot. I’ve even heard from couples who chose Penang as their honeymoon destination, spending days on the beach and nights in the bars. Penang can be all things to all people, so why don’t you stop reading and book yourself a few days off to visit this fantastic little island in Malaysia; I promise you won’t regret it.
Getting to George Town
From Hanoi there are no direct flights to George Town in Penang. Transfers are available via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. The airlines with the most flights and quickest transfers are Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia, and the quickest journey time is just over six hours.
From Ho Chi Minh City, AirAsia have a direct flight four times a week with a total flight time of just under two hours.
Penang Quick Guide
Penang is a state on the northwest coast Malaysia, comprising Penang Island and Seberang Perai on the mainland. George Town is the capital of Penang state, and is situated on the northeast coast of Penang Island.
Famous for its street food, Penang has long been a destination popular with foodies, although is equally appealing to couples, families and backpackers, with a variety of boutique, budget or resort hotels.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old centre of George Town enjoys a protected status, ensuring its richly diverse mix of cultural heritage survives untarnished by modern development.
Photos by Julie Vola & Edward Dalton / August 2016